Unlike many of her peers, Joni Mitchell seems firmly opposed to raiding her own vaults. As folks like Bob Dylan and Neil Young allow more and more demos, live performances, and other rarities to be released formally, Mitchell's unreleased material remains mostly out of reach. In a 2015 New York Magazine interview, Mitchell referred to a hopeful archivist from her record company as "a burglar," and quashed plans for a box set that would include a wealth of unheard music from over the decades.
One can't help but respect her stubbornness in keeping those rough drafts and concert tapes to herself. But the unreleased Joni Mitchell material that has slipped into the hands of collectors (and subsequently onto the 'net) is illuminating - especially recordings from 1965 to 1975, which trace the songwriter's path from folk club obscurity in Winnipeg to superstardom. Joni might not like it, but a peek behind the curtain is nearly irresistible for fans.
Some of the earliest Joni Mitchell performance clips are from the Oscar Brand - hosted CBC television show "Let's Sing Out," on which she appeared several times in the mid-1960s. At first performing under her maiden name Joni Anderson, she obligingly plays a few folkie chestnuts, including John Phillips' "Me & My Uncle" and the old English traditional "Blow Away the Morning Dew." But she was already getting attention for her original compositions, too. In particular, the still-unreleased "Just Like Me" hints at the heights Mitchell would soon climb, showing off her signature soprano, her keen eye for lyrical detail, and her expert guitar skills. "My guitar playing was never like anybody else's," Mitchell told Malka Marom in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words. "For a moment I sounded a little bit like Joan Baez. An influence snuck in, but when I started to write, it disappeared. And I never, from then on, wanted to sound like anybody else."
In those early days, however, Mitchell wasn't entirely confident in her abilities. "It sucks and you're going to hate it," she told songwriter friend Tom Rush of "The Circle Game," her Ladies of the Canyon closing track that has since become a campfire singalong classic. "The Circle Game" was inspired by a song from another Canadian folkie who was just beginning to find his own singular voice: Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain." "I thought, God, you know, if we get to 21 and there's nothing after that, that's a pretty bleak future," Mitchell said of Young's melancholy ode to lost innocence. "So I wrote a song for him, and for myself just to give me some hope." Though she went to the trouble of responding in song, Joni also made "Sugar Mountain" thoroughly her own when she covered it on Philadelphia's WHAT-FM in 1967. And while Young has never covered a Mitchell song in return, he did write the lovely, as-yet-unreleased "Sweet Joni" in tribute to his old friend in 1973.
By 1969, Mitchell had found a sizable audience, with her debut LP Song to a Seagull and its follow-up Clouds. In this BBC clip, we see the songwriter as the listening public first saw her: an angel with a million-watt smile. But of course, it's her music that leaves the most indelible impression, whether it's the future hit "Big Yellow Taxi" or the made-famous-by-others-first favorite "Both Sides Now." Though the latter quickly became a modern standard covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Leonard Nimoy, "Both Sides Now" remained intensely personal to Mitchell. "'Both Sides Now' was triggered by a broken heart, the loss of my child," she said in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, referring to the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1965. "In this three-year period of childhood's end, I'd come through such a rough, tormented period as a destitute, unwed mother. It was like you killed somebody, in those times."
For many, Mitchell's 1971 LP Blue is her masterpiece, blending starkly personal lyrics with gorgeous melodies, razor-sharp wit with world-weary heartbreak. "Hunter," an unreleased song from the album's sessions, would have fit in perfectly among such classics as "River" and "A Case of You." The song was finally given an official release in 2009 as part of the Amchitka live album (which features Mitchell alongside James Taylor and Phil Ochs circa 1970), but this solo demo is the superior take - a lost Joni classic. "The Blue album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals," Mitchell told Cameron Crowe in 1979. "At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either."
"There are moments in shows where I have felt as comfortable with 4,000 people as with talking to a new friend," Mitchell told Malka Marom in 1973. "I felt mass warmth that I could translate to one-to-one." She didn't specifically call out this 1972 Carnegie Hall performance, but she easily could have. The good vibes flow from beginning to end as Mitchell presents a flawless selection of songs from Blue, the then-unreleased For the Roses, and a few dips into older material, including a communal "The Circle Game" with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash (not to mention the entire Carnegie crowd) joining in on harmonies.
Mitchell's music became more intricate and refined as the '70s progressed, but she attempted something much rawer when she dropped in on Neil Young's tequila-soaked Tonight's the Night sessions in 1973. "One night Joni Mitchell came in and did 'Raised on Robbery' in the most sexy and revealing version that song ever had," Young wrote in Waging Heavy Peace. "She still refuses to let me release it. I don't know what she was thinking when she joined us and sang the song. It kicks ass. What the fuck was that about? It was funkier than anything she has ever cut. A total gem!" Unfortunately for us, this rave review is all we have to go on: the recording has never been bootlegged. Perhaps Neil will convince Joni to let him include the tune on the next volume of his Archives project.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell's brilliant, ambitious 1975 LP, saw the songwriter further exploring jazz- and Latin American - influenced textures and rhythms. Not particularly well-received at first, the album would go on to have several high-profile fans, including Prince (a decade after its release, he called it "the last album I loved all the way through") and Morrissey ("it was the first album that completely captivated me"). The unreleased demos Mitchell made for The Hissing strip back some of the album's thick layers, linking the songs more closely (sonically at least) to Blue and For the Roses. While the finished product is certainly unbeatable, these intimate recordings give us a glimpse of the painstaking approach Mitchell takes to perfecting her art. "How does a person create a song?" she said in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words. "A lot of it is being open, I think, to encounter and to, in a way, be in touch with the miraculous."
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