Lessons in Life, Style and Selfhood From Joni Mitchell

As the remarkable musician approaches her 73rd birthday, Liv Siddall examines what we ought to learn from her, from how to dress like a bohemian waif to eschewing conventional notions of ageing

by Liv Siddall
AnOther Magazine
November 4, 2016

Although she is often thought of as being the queen of the laid-back, bohemian 1970s, Joni Mitchell is in actual fact the original and ultimate punk. Her life is a near-untraceable journey of nonconformity and rebellion, punctuated with the creation of some of the world's rawest music and artwork made consistently throughout her life, not for a pastime, but out of true necessity. The strength of her spirit and the unique, personal level at which humans of this world cherish her creative outpourings makes her one of the most beloved, cross-generational stars on this earth. Here are some things we can learn from a woman who has led a truly extraordinary and utterly uncompromising life.

1. Make your house yours. Or, just make a house
Mitchell's Laurel Canyon home was famed for its parties and gatherings back in the late 60s and early 70s. Picture all of the incredible people who walked through her doors carrying dulcimers and strange drums from distant lands, to later sit in front of the fire drinking wine and writing songs together. Rumour has it that Crosby, Stills and Nash formed one night at a party at Mitchell's house, when they began singing together and realised their voices harmonised naturally. Throughout her life, Mitchell has owned a number of incredible houses, bought more for the way they made her feel than out of a passion for real estate.

In an interview with Architectural Digest in 1976 she describes actually building her own home: "A house is important to me. I have another place, in Canada, more like a cabin, really: one big room with a loft, and a cooking pot in the fireplace. There was no architect. I simply hired a stonemason, and we built it ourselves. The place itself is sheltered by trees that block out the view. Most city people would have cut them down and put in big glass windows. But if you want to see the view, you have to go outside. I like to go there three or four times a year and stay a couple of weeks to feel renewed. I'm a nocturnal person, but I go to sleep there with the birds. I have good feelings in my house in California, too - the kind of feelings that go beyond the surface of things."

2. To be alone is to be free
A lot of Mitchell's songs (maybe some of her best) deal with her frustration with or contemplation of the idea of marriage or monogamy. In her song Cactus Tree, from her 1968 album Song to a Seagull, she writes about a woman who is pursued by scores of different men but always eludes them and chooses to remain alone. The song ends: "She will love them when she sees them, they will lose her if they follow, and she only means to please them, and her heart is full and hollow like a cactus tree while she's so busy being free."

In Willy, from her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon, she writes about her relationship with Graham Nash and the pressure of marriage on their day-to-day happiness. She sings: "He says our love cannot be real, he cannot hear the chapel's pealing silver bells, but you know it's hard to tell when you're in the spell if it's wrong or if it's real. But you're bound to lose if you let the blues get you scared to feel." Mitchell's ability to completely entrance men but also hold them at arm's length in perseverance of a life of freedom and choice is unparalleled. She famously once said: "All my battles were with male egos. I'm just looking for equality, not to dominate. But I want to be able to control my vision."

3. Carve out your own style, then stick with it
This of course applies to her totally unique songwriting and vocal capabilities, but it would be wrong not to mention her wardrobe here. Throughout her life, Mitchell's style has been an uncompromising force of nature in its own right. Often people have tried to emulate this look, but never quite match it - simply because, in order to pull off laid-back, bohemian, you have to genuinely be laid-back and bohemian. This phenomenon is akin to the fact that skinny jeans will just always look better on Kate Moss because she's genuinely rock'n'roll, and us pond life are not.

Mitchell's style in the late 60s and early 70s consisted of being a honey-coloured, bra-less waif in layers of flowing silk dresses and shawls, with jewellery that she would have picked up on market stalls during her travels. She wore intricately embroidered linens and hippy jackets, and waistcoats adorned with hairy animal hides and beads. And that hair. She always looked fantastic. She could very easily have cut a hole in a lace tablecloth and used it as a poncho and still looked fantastic. Now, later in her life, she's adopted a less hippy and more regal way of dressing, still with her trademark jewels but with an air of being a wise mystic who is not to be messed with.

4. It's okay to run away
Back in the days before social media, you genuinely wouldn't have any idea what bands were up to in-between doing press for their latest records. The Rolling Stones spent countless months shut away in a chateau in France; Jimi Hendrix spent time in Morocco unbothered; musicians travelled around the world unnoticed. It was just easier then. After her time in Laurel Canyon, Joni Mitchell got the itch and fled to a place called Matala on the island of Crete, where she lived in a hippie-filled neolithic cave by the sea for months. There, she met a man called Carey for whom she wrote one of her happiest, most well-loved songs as a birthday gift. In Carey on her Blue album she sings gleefully: "My fingernails are filthy, I've got beach tar on my feet, and I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne." Rumour has it the locals of the island fell in love with her, and now on the island she is "more popular than Zeus". Carey - in all its giddy silliness - is a song filled with a contagion that would give any listener the itch to travel. Especially this part: "Maybe I'll go to Amsterdam or maybe I'll go to Rome and rent me a grand piano and put some flowers 'round my room. But let's not talk about fare-thee-wells now, the night is a starry dome and they're playin' that scratchy rock and roll beneath the Matala moon."

5. Age is a blessing, not a curse
It can be tempting to treat our inevitable, mortal slide towards death as a bad thing. We flit through our youth and then spend decades trying to claw it back through cold creams, exercise and expensive treatments. To "grow old gracefully" is harder than it looks, but there is no one better to look to for inspiration in that field than Mitchell. She has never moaned about her age or her loss of youth, instead looking at it as an interesting step to further her creativity. As her voice has changed over the years, so has her way of seeing the world, both things affecting her songwriting in a profound way. She seems to really see the beauty in things; dedicating her life to singing about it, and translating it into hundreds of paintings. It's almost like she's been giving us the key to eternal youth all along: be free, be honest, be in love with the world, and don't bother with looking back too much. Just like the lyric from I Had A King: "I can't go back there anymore. You know my keys won't fit the door."

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