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Joni Mitchell's Influence is at an All Time High Print-ready version

by Ken Tucker
NPR's Fresh Air
December 14, 1989

NPR News. This is Fresh Air.

The record collections of many baby boomers include well-worn copies of Joni Mitchell's early folky albums. Joni Mitchell has gone on to record albums in new styles, but several current female singers are imitating her old ways. Critic Ken Tucker has review of some of their efforts, but first the original from her latest album.

[Joni Mitchell's The Reoccurring Dream plays]

KT: Figure this out. Last year, Joni Mitchell put out a perfectly good album called Chalk Mark In a Rain Storm. Although I and a number of other reviewers thought it was good, strong stuff, commercially speaking it stayed around as long as a chalk mark in a rain storm. Now, a mere twelve months later, we're surrounded by records that are just glowing with the influence of Joni Mitchell. In fact, these students are so sedulous in their studies, you can frequently even pick out the particular Mitchell album that inspired their music. For example, Sara Hickman, a Texas folk singer, has certainly been listening to Joni Mitchell's great 1971 album Blue. Hickman's new debut album called Equal Scary People includes a tune called Song For My Father that captures much of Mitchell's dreamy romanticism.

[Sara Hickman's Song For My Father plays]

KT: For the best dead on virgin on parody impersonation though, you have to hear Wendy Wall, whose debut album contains this Joni approximation called Real Love.

[Wendy Wall's Real Love plays]

KT: That's Wendy Wall. Mind you, not Wendy Waldman. Wendy Waldman, you might recall, was a Joni Mitchell admirer who made a few Joni-esque albums in the 70's and now writes and produces country records in Nashville. But there are a lot of other junior Jonis to be heard just now. Shawn Colvin is a popular New York based folk singer. She's got that Big Yellow Taxi kind of Joni sound down pat on the title song of her new album Steady On.

[Shawn Colvin's Steady On plays]

KT: Other Mitchell soundalikes include Vonda Shepard and of course Jane Siberry, a Canadian just like Joni. This is all very odd indeed. The commercial appeal of Mitchell's own work has never been lower. Yet, her influence is at an all time high. One explanation for this is fairly simple. These women are using elements of Mitchell's style that Mitchell herself long ago disowned. You know, things like melodic hooks, catchy lyrics, hummable tunes. Mitchell stopped making commercially accessible music after Court and Spark fifteen years ago, and it's that album and all the ones before it that the junior Jonis are plundering. Certainly no one is ripping off such later convoluted Joni drags as The Hissing of Summer Lawns or Mingus. None of these performers has hit it really big yet, but if Mitchell wants to attract a bigger audience, she might do well to listen to what aspects of her music her most fervent disciples are picking up on, and adjust her own style accordingly.

Ken Tucker writes about popular culture for the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, and Spin.

[Joni Mitchell's All I Want plays]

This is Fresh Air.

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