Joni Mitchell: The Important of Being Joni

When Maire Brennan of the popular Irish folk/rock band Clannad released a solo album recently, the cut she was proudest of was her version of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi. “It’s such a brilliant song,” Brennan gushed to Billboard magazine. “It was written twenty-five years ago or something like that, and look at the words! It’s as if it was written today” (Rhulman).

Hearing this doesn’t really surprise Joni Mitchell.

People say to me, `Your music doesn’t date,’ kind of in amazement. Well, the reason it doesn’t date is because it’s pure music. If it was an album produced for a juvenile audience, of course it would date, because then I’d just be working in the flux of fad and fashion (Bardin).

If you listen to any amount of pop music these days, you’ll come to realize that, at fifty-three, Joni Mitchell is an enormously influential artist. Her style–using a confiding voice to mix autobiography with poetic imagery, deploying folk and orchestral arrangements in a pop setting where melodies expand beyond the standard verse-chorus-verse structure–can be heard in the work of many younger performers, from Tori Amos to Sheryl Crow. Sarah McLachlan’s latest album, Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, is a virtual homage to Mitchell in the latter’s Blue period. The Canadian-born Mitchell ought to receive royalties for the riffs and phrases that her countrywoman Jane Siberry has turned into a thriving cult career.

At the heart of the music of Joni Mitchell is a constant sense of surprise and discovery. The melodies and harmonies rarely unfold in ways that our ears, tamed by pop-music conventions, have come to expect. Her guitar doesn’t really sound like a guitar: the treble strings become a cool-jazz horn section; the bass snaps out syncopations like a snare drum; the notes ring out in clusters that simply don’t come out of a normal six-string. And her voice adds another layer of invention, extending the harmonic implications of the chords and coloring the melody with plainspoken commentary as well as charged poetic imagery (Tate).

Even though all these qualities have made Mitchell one of the most revered songwriters of our time, an inspiration for several generations of musicians, the creative processes and impulses behind her music have always been clouded in mystery. A guitarist haunted by Mitchell’s playing on an album like Court and Spark or Hejira, for instance, can’t find much help in the music store in exploring that sound; what she plays, from the way she tunes her strings to the way she strokes them with her right hand, is utterly off the chart of how most of us approach the guitar. The only published documentation of her 30-year guitar odyssey is four single-album songbooks transcribed by Joel Bernstein, her longtime guitar tech and musical/photographic archivist, which show the real tunings and chord shapes. But that’s a very small slice of a career that spans 17 albums, each one a departure – often a radical one – from what came before (Boy).

Joni Mitchell began playing the guitar like countless young musicians of the ’60s, but she quickly turned onto a less-traveled path. “When I was learning to play guitar, I got Pete Seeger’s How to Play Folk-Style Guitar,” she recalled (Bardin).

I went straight to the Cotten picking. Your thumb went from the sixth string, fifth string, sixth string, fifth string. I couldn’t do that, so I ended up playing mostly the sixth string but banging it into the fifth string. So Elizabeth Cotten definitely is an influence; it’s me not being able to play like her. If I could have I would have, but good thing I couldn’t, because it came out original (Bardin).

At the same time that she departed from standard folk finger picking, Mitchell departed from standard tuning as well (only two of her songs Tin Angel and Urge for Going are in standard tuning) (Tate). “In the beginning, I built the repertoire of the open major tunings that the old black blues guys came up with,” she said. “It was only three or four. The simplest one is D modal; Neil Young uses that a lot..…. Then going between them I started to get more ‘modern’ chords, for lack of a better word” (Bardin).

As she began to write songs in the mid-’60s, these tunings became inextricably tied to her composing. On Mitchell’s first three albums, Joni Mitchell (1968), Clouds (1969), and Ladies of the Canyon (1970), conventional open tunings coexist with other tunings that stake out some new territory.

Pure majors are like major colors; they evoke pure well-being, anybody’s life at this time has pure majors in it, given, but there’s an element of tragedy. No matter what your disposition is, we are air breathers, and the rain forests coming down at the rate they are…… there’s just so much insanity afoot. We live in a dissonant world. Hawaiian, in the pure major – in paradise, that makes sense. But it doesn’t make sense to make music in such a dissonant world that does not contain some dissonances (Bardin).

The word dissonances seems to imply harsh or jarring sounds, but in fact, the “modern chords” that Mitchell found in alternate tunings have an overall softness to them, with consonances and dissonances gently playing off each other. It’s difficult to put a label on these sounds, but Joni is emphatic about one thing: they’re a long way from folk music. “It’s closer to Debussy and to classical composition, and it has its own harmonic movement which doesn’t belong to any camp,” she said. “It’s not jazz, like people like to think. It has in common with jazz that the harmony is very wide, but there are laws to jazz chordal movement, and this is outside those laws for the most part (Bardin).

So how does Mitchell discover the tunings and fingerings that create these expansive harmonies? Here’s how she described the process:

You’re twiddling and you find the tuning. Now the left hand has to learn where the chords are, because it’s a whole new ballpark, right? So you’re groping around, looking for where the chords are, using very simple shapes. Put it in a tuning and you’ve got four chords immediately— open, barre five, barre seven, and your higher octave, like half fingering on the 12th. Then you’ve got to find where your minors are and where the interesting colors are – that’s the exciting part (Bardin).

Mitchell likens her use of continually changing tunings to sitting down at a typewriter on which the letters are rearranged each day. It’s inevitable that you get lost and type some gibberish, and those mistakes are actually the main reason to use this system in the first place. “If you’re only working off what you know, then you can’t grow,” she said (Handelman).

It’s only through error that discovery is made, and in order to discover you have to set up some sort of situation with a random element, a strange attractor, using contemporary physics terms. The more I can surprise myself, the more I’ll stay in this business, and the twiddling of the notes is one way to keep the pilgrimage going. You’re constantly pulling the rug out from under yourself, so you don’t get a chance to settle into any kind of formula (Bardin).

To date, Mitchell has used 51 tunings (Wally). This number is so extraordinarily high in part because her tunings have lowered steadily over the years, so some tunings recur at several pitches. Generally speaking, her tunings started at a base of open E and dropped to D and then to C, and these days some even plummet to B or A in the bass (Tate). This evolution reflects the steady lowering of her voice since the ’60s, a likely consequence of heavy smoking (Infusino).

Mitchell herself is aware of her pop-music presence.

I can see my influence in Rickie [Lee Jones]’s work–we’re drawn to similar melodies even though we’re quite different … The girl from 10,000 Maniacs [Natalie Merchant]–she shaves off the end of lines the way I do. And there’s a clicking thing in my singing that I used to do–for a while there was a thin spot between my real voice and my falsetto, and I did this little click when I had to get up into the falsetto register. Well, Sinead [O’Connor] does that. I did it because I had to; she does it as a kind of stylistic gesture (Bardin).

To be sure, Mitchell has to be prodded into making such comparisons. If there’s an element of modesty to her reticence, there’s also a whiff of resentment, for Mitchell is caught in a mean paradox: the sound that has turned the music of others into a growing business is precisely the sound that now limits Mitchell’s commercial success (Boy). For years, older fans and many music critics have been fervently hoping Mitchell would turn away from the jazz-inflected music that has characterized her creations since 1975’s Hissing of Summer Lawns. Yet when she did in Turbulent Indigo–her seventeenth release and one of her strongest, most consistent collections in years–the album was a fast-fading dud, peaking on the Billboard album charts at a mere No. 47 and dropping off entirely after two months (Wally).

We’re used to reading profiles of performers who’ve just released a piece of work: they’re out promoting an album, a movie, a book, hoping through interviews and sheer media pervasiveness to get the word out, to shape the way that work is received.

But what if the item has been on the market for a while and hasn’t lived up to commercial expectations? An interview with the artist becomes less airy and theoretical, and more realistic–more dollars-and-cents.

If I don’t push enough digits, my record company [Warner Bros] will drop me. I need to sell twice as much as I have so far to recoup [the expenses for making the album]. You know, I haven’t seen a royalty [check] in over twenty years, which is kind of a shame, because you would think there’d be at least a million people out there who would appreciate my work (Bardin).

Meanwhile Sheryl Crow racks up Grammy nominations, a Mitchell admirer like Liz Phair wins critics’ polls and Sarah McLachlan stays on the charts longer than the source of so much of her inspiration (Boy).

Why? Mitchell gets a little stuffy here.

Culturally, Americans seem to like simplistic emotions in music. They like their happiness in major and their tragedy minor, and about as complicated a chord as they can take is a seventh. Throughout my career and up until recently, other musicians and fans alike referred to `Joni’s wierd chords,’ you know? Or they would call them jazz chords, which they aren’t–jazz has its own laws, and my chords deviate from those laws (Bardin).

There is to Joni Mitchell an abiding sense that she is fundamentally misunderstood, that the music which brought her acclaim early in her career typecast her as a mere sensitive soul, a quivering artist, when she considers herself a thick-skinned laborer, a stubborn innovator whose high standards haven’t been recognized.

Works Cited

Bardin, Brantley. “Joni Mitchell—Interview.” Details Magazine. July 1996. Available from URL

Boy, K. Y. The Joni Mitchell Conspiracy. 13 Jan 1997. Available from URL


Handelman, David. “Triumph of the Will.” Vogue Arts Music. Apr 1995. Available from URL

Infusino, Divina. “Chalk Up Another One For Joni Mitchell.” US Magazine. 22 Aug 22, 1988. Available from URL

Ruhlman, William. “Joni Mitchell: A Gogh Gogh.” Goldmine Magazine. 17 Feb 17, 1995. Available from URL

Tate, Greg. “The Long Run.” VIBE Magazine. Feb 1997. Available from URL


Wally, B. Joni Mitchell Summary and Biography. 1997. Available from URL /wallyb/jonihome.html.


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