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Joni Mitchell’s Co-Producer Patrick Milligan Discusses New 'Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1' Box Set Print-ready version

by Sam Stone
Second Disc
October 30, 2020

“I was born to take the highway / I was born to chase a dream / Any road at all is my way / Any place is where I’ve been.” So sings a young Joni Mitchell on “Born to Take the Highway,” one of her earliest compositions. The 1965 road song is one of a staggering 29 previously unreleased tracks unearthed for a once-unthinkable project: a deep-dive into her archives.

The first installment in the series, Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967), sees her chasing that dream. Out today on Rhino, the 119-track, 5-CD box set spotlights a stunningly fertile time in Joni’s career prior to the release of her 1968 debut, Song To a Seagull. It begins with the earliest known recordings by Mitchell and tracks her remarkable ascent as a songwriter, singer, and performer with nearly six hours of unreleased coffeehouse performances, radio broadcasts, and recently unearthed home demos. (Two vinyl collections have been drawn from the box: the single-LP Early Joni – 1963 featuring the nineteen year-old’s audition tape for Canadian radio; and Live at Canterbury House – 1967 featuring three full sets on three LPs.)

Remarkably, Joni Mitchell herself has been intimately involved in the creation of the Archives project, which promises to span several volumes. At her side has been Patrick Milligan, Rhino’s Director of A&R and Mitchell’s co-producer on the series. The Second Disc recently caught up with Patrick to talk about Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967), Joni’s relationship with her past work, and how this unexpected project came to be. Here’s what he had to say!

Hi Patrick! Thanks for taking the time to talk about Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1. I’d like to start with what you do at Rhino. Can you tell us about your title and what the job entails?

I am currently Director of A&R. I actually just came back to Rhino in October of 2018, but I also worked here in the ’90s and the early 2000s. I’m basically responsible for putting together catalogue products – physical, streaming, video. It’s a pretty great job, especially when it means getting to go through Joni Mitchell’s archive and put together releases with her. It’s a career high point, for sure.

How did you get involved in The Joni Mitchell Archives series?

Our heads of the company had been involved in making a deal with Joni and Elliot Roberts, who was then managing her, to do a remastering of her catalogue. When I came back [to Rhino] and found out this was going on, I immediately raised my hand and said I would happily work on the Joni Mitchell project. So, they were assigned to me.

What was your approach as you began looking into her archives?

I initially looked at this like, “Okay, what do we have that we can use to add to the albums?” Looking at anniversaries and things like that.

I started going through our Warner archives and there were a number of things that had been transferred just a few years before when some of our staff had been working with Joni on the Love Has Many Faces project. And she had some tapes at her house. One of the people at Rhino said, “You know, you should really let me take those to the Warner tape library and store them properly and get them archived.” So, she agreed to that.

There was some really amazing stuff. Near as I can tell, [many of] these tapes were things that Joni’s mom had and when Joni’s mom passed away, they came back to Joni. Like the Live at The Half Beat tape that’s on the first CD – her mom had the tape. Joni apparently took that home to her mom’s house before she moved to Detroit and recorded three songs at the end of the tape at home [“The Long Black Rifle,” “Ten Thousand Miles,” and “Seven Daffodils,” dated February 1965]. And at the beginning of the second disc, there’s a tape that Joni made in Detroit and sent to her mom for her birthday. We have three songs off of that.

Once I started going through that stuff, it hit me that you don’t really want to take [the original] albums and expand them and reissue them. For one, because it’s a cliché but it’s true: you don’t want to put a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

Right, each album feels like a statement, too.

Joni’s albums are very considered, very put-together things that are exactly the way she wants it. To go back and add stuff to the end of it just seemed like messing with it too much. And to buy that album again just to get this other stuff?

But part of the [challenge] was I had all this stuff that predates that first album. So I thought what might be nicer is to just have a companion series of archival material, a set that’s all early stuff. And Elliot loved that idea. He immediately glommed onto it, “Oh, kind of like Neil’s thing,” which he really loved. So, Elliot was very, very instrumental in getting this over the line and talking Joni into doing this and really being a champion for the project. We met and looked over [the material]. And he loved the ideas.

It’s mentioned in Cameron Crowe’s notes that Neil Young visited Joni and gave her a chat about his series. He stressed the importance of rolling it out chronologically. I don’t know if he had a hand in helping her think of that or just that we presented it that way and she was okay with it.

How did you come across the Saskatoon radio session, the earliest known Joni Mitchell recording?

Elliot gave me the Early Joni – 1963 tape that came from [former DJ] Barry Bowman, who found this tape. He remembered doing the session for CFQC-AM but he figured it was long gone, then found it just a couple years ago. It took getting in touch with Joni, and Joni was really impressed that he said, “I really wanted to get [the tape] back to you,” and wasn’t asking her for thousands of dollars. She flew him to California, got the tape, and took him to dinner. And Joni just really, really loved that recording. I think that was part of what really inspired her to do this.

[Ed. Note: You can read more about Bowman’s tape and how it found its way onto Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1 here.]

That’s interesting because in the past Joni was very quick to say, “I’m not a folkie” and she would comment on the vocal quality of pretty much anything recorded before 1972. Yet, here’s this material from five years before she had a recording contract – before she’d even begun songwriting – and it was enough to spur the Archives project.

I think she’s definitely lightened to it. And she’s amazing on that tape. Nineteen years old and out of the gate just perfect singing. Her playing, her phrasing, just everything is spot-on. Going through this material, it’s incredible how much is like that.

So, for her to hear that again and come to terms with that “folksinger” thing, too, was [important.] She says it in the notes and she said it to me, too: “For all these years, I really rejected that notion of being called a folksinger because that’s just not what I am, but then I hear this and that’s exactly what I was.” It’s exactly what she was doing and what she was inspired by.

She goes through an incredible amount of growth as an artist, though. And unlike other Joni compilations, on Archives Vol. 1 we get to see that unfold chronologically.

I totally agree and I think that’s what makes the set fascinating. If you go from disc to disc, I love how it ended up breaking down. Once you get past that first disc – which is all in Canada and which is all “folk” songs – the second disc starts with “Urge for Going” [on the Myrtle Anderson Birthday Tape, a gift to her mother]. She goes, “I’ve written a couple new songs since you wrote me,” then plays “Urge for Going,” which is one of the first songs that she wrote.

Out of the gate she’s doing things that are completely unique and expressive. And from there she develops her sound very quickly. It’s still acoustic guitar and singing, but it moves pretty far away from folk. I mean, truly she’s just a freak of nature in every way [laughs]. Such a rare person not only in terms of her talents musically – singing, playing – but obviously writing, and her art, and just her view on life. She’s a complete artist and just so totally unique. To hear that taking off is fascinating.

As we look at Disc 2, there’s music from the middle of 1965 into ’66. That was right about when she was beginning to explore open tunings on guitar. There are also some songs in standard tuning here, from which she so quickly moved beyond. To hear her transition as an instrumentalist and songwriter is really special.

Clearly as an artist, throughout her career and from project to project, she moves on and she doesn’t sit still. The depth and the variety of her catalogue is incredible. From that Jac Holzman tape on, she’s moved on [from standard guitar tuning]. Then on the beginning of Disc 3, we hear her playing “Both Sides Now” on Gene Shay’s Folklore program.

Where she’s saying, “I wrote this three days ago!”

It’s like, “Oh my God!” So that kind of stuff – you get to hear it as it happens.

How has Joni warmed up to the process of going back through her archives? I understand it was a point of contention in the past.

I think she was really surprised! “Yeah, here is some good stuff here and we can do something with this.” I know in the past there were other [catalogue] projects that she was working on. I think Love Has Many Faces was going to have some rare material on it, but little by little she pulled all that stuff off and retooled it. And every [compilation] she’s done, she’s done. Nobody had ever done a Joni compilation but Joni, with the exception of some non-U.S. ’70s LPs.

On the projects she’s done, she looks at them very much as storytelling: “I’m going to put these songs in an order that tells a story,” whether fashioning a new story, making a ballet…So a lot of what she’s done is not chronological. It’s kind of a new thing for her, so I’m glad she embraced that.

What exactly was her involvement? Was it primarily to listen to the tapes and curate the sequencing?

When we started off, I had sent her some material that was sort of an initial pass at the stuff that I went through. She listened to that pretty quickly, just to get an idea of what it was. Then as I got more stuff, I came back around with everything and she went through it and made comments on it song by song. But we got to the point where there was even more to listen to and I think it got kind of daunting. I said, “Why don’t I just try to make some sense of this and put it into something that resembles what a final box would be?” That way she could hear it all together and see what she likes or doesn’t like. So that’s what I ended up doing and I think that made it much better for her, to hear it all in context.

Something I really enjoy about this set is that there are the rare recordings from the first two discs – stuff that even the biggest fans probably didn’t know existed – and then you have the more widely circulated Philadelphia radio material. With so many sources involved, what was the process for cleaning up the sound and making this material release-ready?

I don’t know the source of the radio bootlegs. Those tapes have traded hands for many years. Ed Sciaky was the engineer that recorded that stuff and Gene Shay was the host. I think they shared that material with people over the years. What we used are the tapes that Ed Sciaky made for Joni, so they’re considerably upgraded from bootlegs.

It’s good to see it all finally made canon, in a way.

Yeah! That’s kind of how I felt about this. Though, honestly, when we first were going through all this, I kind of was pooh-poohing that Second Fret and Folklore stuff because it had been pretty prevalent. I sent that stuff to Joni [and she] said, “Well, I did like some of that,” so I went back and [sequenced it]. There are going to be people out there who have the bootlegs going, “Oh, there’s a lot more,” but this is kind of distilled down to the essence to help tell the story.

Did you find any difficulty with, say, the Saskatoon tape or Myrtle’s birthday tape? We’re talking about nearly 60-year-old sources. How did you approach presenting this material for the current age?

I did actually consider going through restoration and I mentioned it to Joni. We got to talking about the ’63 [Saskatoon] tape, the Barry Bowman tape. Part of what she enjoyed was what we came to refer to as the patina of the tape. It’s got a certain sound because it is what it is. A lot of these are old home recordings and casual things. Some things were recorded better than others.

I think when Joni was in Detroit, she [used] a reasonably good tape machine, so that Jac Holzman tape is pretty good, and the tape she recorded in North Carolina and in her apartment she has a not-as-good tape recorder, and those tapes are a little gain-ier.

But it’s one of those things where obviously the historical value outweighs any of those anomalies. There are noises and things here and there, but that’s how the tapes sounded. I mean, we did clean up things here and there, and took out pops and things but we didn’t go overboard. The one thing is that the Canterbury tapes – which are reasonably well-recorded – they have flutter. We tried to attenuate that [using the Plangent Process], but it’s one of those things you mostly notice when she’s tuning.

You mentioned the Jac Holzman tape. Was that a demo for Elektra Records?

Well, it wasn’t really an official demo. It was something that she made at home and just sent it to Jac. And then years later, I believe Jac came across the tape.

One of the songs on the Holzman tape is “Let It Be Me,” and my first thought was, is this The Everly Brothers song? Then I hear it and it’s in fact an unreleased, practically undocumented Joni original.

Yeah! There are many of those on the set. it’s kind of a combination of songs that nobody has ever heard or even knew existed. Then there are songs that people have heard other people do, like “Eastern Rain” by Fairport Convention. So it’s the combination of those songs that in some cases even she forgot about.

On the second disc, the cover is an image of the Holzman tape, and that last song is just a question mark. There was no title. So we had it on the track list for a long time as “Unknown Title.” And one day I woke up – this was after we were already in rounds with the book and everything – and I thought, “We can’t put out something that Joni’s producing with a song that doesn’t have a title!” So, she listened through the lyrics and titled it.

And the new title is?

It’s called “Like The Lonely Swallow.”

Perfect! Now, by this point, she’s moved to Detroit and married Chuck Mitchell. I think the elephant in the room is: where’s Chuck on this set? They must have done some shows and demos together.

Here’s the thing. Joni didn’t really want to use anything with Chuck. But I can tell you there really isn’t much [available in the Warner vault]. They did shows together but they primarily booked themselves and each did their own set. They’d do a couple songs together; I think they did “Circle Game” on some of the radio broadcasts. But other than that, it was their own stuff.

I’ve heard about some sessions that were done in Chicago that have brass arrangements and a band?

Yeah, I’ve heard those and I think those demos are interesting. Joni doesn’t really like them. A lot of what they recorded they used as demo tapes. Chuck was involved in the publishing company [called Gandalf]; they set the company up together. I think he was also involved in trying to promote and get those songs out. [Those band recordings were] were partly an exercise in recording those songs so people could hear them more fleshed out, as opposed to looking at putting them on a record. And obviously, as Joni typically used very little extra instrumentation on her earliest albums, that wasn’t really her thing. They’re interesting but it would have made the flow a lot clunkier.

[Ed. Note: You can read more about the Chicago sessions here.]

Given all the work you put into this set, I assume you were a big Joni fan going into this project?

Oh my gosh, yes! I actually saw Joni on the ’79 tour with Jaco and Pat and that band. My first real awareness of Joni Mitchell was from my mom; she had the single of “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins. We had a bunch of those records – Tom Rush and people like that – so I knew those covers because my dad was really into folk music. It wasn’t until somebody loaned my dad a copy of Blue that I think I really heard Joni. But Hejira is probably my favorite album, so seeing her on that ’79 tour with Jaco and how much of that record she did was just amazing.

It’s a faultless record. That’s the one I go to when someone says, “I don’t understand Joni.” I say, “OK, go listen to ‘Coyote.’ If you get it, you get it; if you don’t, you don’t.”

It’s a good entry point. And honestly “Amelia” is likely my favorite Joni Mitchell song. A real thrill was talking to her on the phone one night and she was telling me about this video. Have you ever heard of this guy, Rick Beato?

Yeah!

He does these “What Makes This Song Great” videos [on YouTube] and he did one on “Amelia.” And she was on the phone one night telling me how much she loved this video and how much she was impressed with how this guy really understood her and the song and got it on every level. First she told me about the video and I said, “What was the song?” And she said “Amelia.” I said, “Joni, that’s really, truly one of my favorite songs,” and she goes, “Oh, thanks!”

I get the impression that Joni has a real appreciation for the people who really dig into her work and recognize the bold, risky moves that she did at every turn. I was reading an interview with Paul McCartney, and he said something about how it can be a real drag to put out an album, really putting yourself out there, and then it’s a dud and the press doesn’t like it, it doesn’t sell. But then 30 years later someone says, “Hey, that’s a great song!”

It’s true, I think artists seek some sort of acceptance or they wouldn’t be out making music. It’s got to be a weird thing to balance, especially for someone like Joni Mitchell, who is very driven by her vision and her art.

Joni is always so great at editing her work. She really does think of it like a painter or a film editor. When she was doing Love Has Many Faces, she said, “I had 40 years of footage” to make into a story.

And you can hear it on the live sets in this box. Even in concert, she strings songs together in such a way that they tell a story. You hear her say that sometimes when she’s introducing songs: “That previous song was ‘Night In the City,’ and now I’m going to do ‘Morning Morgantown'” to have both sides of the story.

I wonder how much studio outtake material there must be in the vault and how it might weigh against what was released. Were those songs that just didn’t quite fit the concept?

I think it’s a mixed bag. The way a lot of artists work is they fine-tune things as they go, so in some cases you’ve got different tries at songs, different arrangements, or different mixes. She might have recorded something for one project that ended up on something else later like “Dreamland” [which was demoed around the time of 1975’s Hissing of Summer Lawns, but was released on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter in 1977]. You can see how many songs she has on this set that ended up on Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon or Blue.

It’s so interesting to witness here on Archives, Vol. 1 how her ideas are kept for later, for when they’ll make more sense. It was such a bold move as she went to record her debut to say, “Yeah, I have ‘Urge for Going,’ ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘The Circle Game,’ and something like 60 songs ready, but I’m going to write a fresh batch and make a concept album.”

Yeah, I think that’s a lot of what drove the decisions for the first album. She had this concept in mind – “Out of the city and down to the seaside” – and you can kind of see that coming together on some of the [apartment demo] tapes from this set where she’s starting to work out the songs from her first album.

Going forward, do you have a sense of what the scope of the Archives series will be?

We’re just getting started on that so it will settle in and take shape as we go. We’re getting ready for the next one and I think a lot of this depends on what Joni’s comfortable with. When we talked about studio stuff, she said, “Well, I don’t really leave anything behind because my records are pretty finished.” [But the point about unheard songs], that’s not exactly true. So that’s something to look into going forward. Obviously, there’s tons of great albums and material, so it’s going to be a real fun journey.

Looking at the Warner-controlled stuff, of course there’s the classic ’60s and ’70s material. But there’s also some incredible music from 1994 through to 2002. How do you feel about that later Warner period?

I hope to get through the whole thing because there’s great material all the way through. When she was doing Turbulent Indigo, there’s that show at the Gene Autry Museum, and there’s another set she did for radio at KCRW. Fantastic. And we did a Rhino festival [The Troubadours of Folk Festival in June 1993] at UCLA that was incredible. Joni did a solo set. She wasn’t really playing live at that time, and it was magical and so human. She was forgetting lines of the songs and she looked out at the audience and someone would yell out the line to her and she’d laugh and sing it. It was really endearing. And then I later found out that the two people in the front row that were screaming the lyrics back at her were Wendy and Lisa!

Why is now the right time for the Joni Mitchell Archives project? How do you think this might change what the public thinks of Joni Mitchell’s career?

She’s come around to accepting this material and I think that this is a way for her to still be out there and putting music out. It’s making people aware of her. The 1963 tape really inspired her and opened her ears and mind. She had been saying all along, “This thing is great! I want to put this out as my next album.” We came back and [suggested that] we put that out as its own record and on the first disc of the set. “Yeah, I love it!”

I said, “What if we put out the album with that picture of you with the baritone uke on the cover?” And she said, “Actually, I think I might like to do a new sketch of that!” “Yes!” So, she got really inspired and did several versions. It’s pretty cool.

I think she’s finally at a place to [look back]. Even before [suffering an aneurysm in 2015] she had kind of said, “I’m done with music and the music business is crappy and I’m just getting out of it.” But she’s an artist who wants to create and continue creating.

Well, I have to say that, all the way through this seems like the perfect way to present the history of Joni Mitchell. As you know, the fans have been waiting a long time for this and to see that it’s being done right with her full approval and that she’s so engaged and involved in it all, it’s really a joy to see.

I’m with you. I think that as this became more of a reality and it did get announced and people started knowing about it, the reaction and the joy really excited her. This is a big deal and it’s exciting. It’s really cool in every way and I’m thrilled with how it turned out. The best part is how happy she is with this, so that’s really rewarding.

We can certainly understand that! Thanks for chatting with us, Patrick. All of us here at The Second Disc can’t wait to dig into the Archives!

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