Few musicians are name-checked as an influence as often as Joni Mitchell. Long considered a legend, the Canadian singer-songwriter will be celebrating her 70th birthday this Thursday.
Legions of musicians from the generations that have followed her, including Ellie Goulding and Corinne Bailey Rae, have cited her influence. Other young talents, such as Laura Marling, brought up by parents with a deep love of Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, have drawn comparisons to the star – a benchmark of melody, lyricism and vocal prowess in folk-pop since the mid-Sixties.
Joni Mitchell's lilting, melismatic vocals soar softly over piano or the gentle strumming of acoustic guitar. Her deft lyrical skill saw her intimately examine personal relationships on her most famous album, Blue (1971), in songs such as the evocative “The Last Time I Saw Richard”; she could achieve a rare complex shifting of emotions in a single song.
Here we speak to some of those musicians who continue to take her inspiration into their own music, be it electro-pop, folk, jazz-inflected folk, or the soft, soulful vocals that merge with experimental glitchy electronica.
Corinne Bailey Rae
I was introduced to Blue by [the songwriter] Rod Bowett after he had heard a demo of my song “Like a Star”. “You will love this,” he said. Immediately I was enfolded into a world of subtle longings, of “travelling, travelling, travelling”, of confessional intimacy and feminine energy. I was struck by the conversational melodies, the death-defying leaps into high registers which shook the soul and sounded like birds. I couldn't believe the titles of her songs, so evocative of memories, especially “The Last Time I Saw Richard”. These titles felt like permission to write about anything and anyone. Nothing was too romantic or too prosaic. Her songs have also defined particular places for me. In fact Laurel Canyon, where I am currently living while recording my new album has, through “California”, become a metaphor for shaking the dust off your feet and trying something new; for not being afraid to fail, and believing one can take flight.
Be it her music, her lyrics or her stunning personality ... the experience I had last June at Toronto's Luminato Festival of encountering all three of these elements together at the same time, live and in person, changed my life and the lives of everyone around me. She is a legend, and as with all legendary treasures – books, paintings, performers and so on – one is willingly transformed and brought to a better place when placed in their creative path.
Until writing my first album I'd only listened to Blue, and after the album was made I progressed in a reverse chronology to Clouds and Song to a Seagull. As embarrassing as it is to admit how little of her discography I actually have, I like the idea that I'll enjoy Joni's work over my lifetime, as though slowly peeling back the drape to uncover the larger picture. Meeting her assured me that the process will never be dull. She has a biting irony and we spent a lot of the evening laughing. Experiencing this side of her made me rethink some lyrics from Clouds and Blue. With her advice still fresh in my mind, on the plane home I wrote my second album, Overgrown.
Joni's music always reminds me that melody is flexible, and that if you want to reinvent yourself as she continually has, you should command it to bend and ebb and flow, and treat it as king. She is a great remedy to melodic block.
The first song by Joni Mitchell that I heard was “Marcie”. I remember being struck by how she had used the colours, and how she was able to tell a story and convey so much in just a few minutes. As an artist, she is intoxicating. Lyrically, she is dynamite.
I witnessed a friend going through a tumultuous love affair. He would listen to “A Case of You” (the orchestral version) and I saw how that song saved him. As a songwriter, that is something to aspire to – to be able to tell a story that might seem so personal to the writer yet can be shared by, and so deeply affect, the listener.
I'd say that what has consistently inspired me most about Joni is her relationship with jazz. I'm a massive jazz fan myself so it makes me so happy that despite the impending critical peril, she “went there”. The records she made with Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter are just stunning to me, such a forward-thinking musical twist and a satisfying musical development in her career. These may be my favourite of all of her albums.
Where I obviously still love the chanteuse-with-acoustic-guitar, that side of Joni being perhaps the most instantly jaw-dropping, her voice mixed with Jaco's bass work, for example, is something I just love listening to. Her melodic and rhythmic prowess has always been essentially jazz to my ears, so adventurous and free.
I grew up with her music – my Mum was a massive fan so it will always have an effect on me. I don't know exactly what it is, but she'll always come through in my music and it's hard to ignore her incredible musicianship. She's been one of the leading female musicians of the past 50 years and she's still so fresh. She has a unique sound and in that way she is really brave, she's not afraid to push boundaries. That's something we are seeing more of now; musicians who aren't afraid of change. Her albums influence me in different ways. I love Ladies of the Canyon. It sounds really naive and fresh. I also love The Hissing of Summer Lawns because it's really jazzy – almost Latin-American – and so different. Obviously Blue is incredible: so raw and heartfelt, and that strikes me as something I'd love to convey through my own music.
Along with Leonard Cohen, Joni is one of the first artists I really listened to and took inspiration from. What I love about her is that she takes all the things I love – poetry, art, music – and she combines them as a means of conveying her message. Her use of other media is really original and it's something that I aim to do myself. I think her diverse use of media is echoed in her lyrics, and what's important about her is that, rising to fame during the Sixties folk revival, she didn't simply focus her music on herself or on the boy she fancied – she made her music universally relevant, which makes it very real, timeless and inherently honest. That's something I try to put into my music. She is also very experimental; she puts her own stamp on her music, like in the organic sounds of Ladies of the Canyon. But I also think she is very careful with her music – it sounds incredibly thought out. For example, in “A Case of You”, my favourite song of all time, she makes something incredibly beautiful out of something sad, just through the way she chooses to tune her guitar. I feel like she wants it to be perfect and it is perfect.
It's no wonder Joni Mitchell found herself on “a lonely road, travelling, travelling, travelling”. As a songwriter, she has always been in a league of her own. There is no one else. To say I reference her unconsciously in every song I write is to flatter myself dangerously. But she's in every pore of my being. Blue, Court and Spark, and Miles of Aisles, were only a few of the LPs I wore smooth from constant playing. To think of her again is to go back to a great era in music, when people looked to find words of interest in songs; words that meant something; that they had to think about. People now accept so much in their music that is, by comparison, either repetitive cliché, or totally meaningless claptrap.