Going for a song

by Olly Knights
Sunday Times (of London)
September 16, 2007

Olly Knights on Hejira

It's 1989, It's hot, I'm in the back seat of my fathers car and I'm 12, going on 13. In my hands, I'm holding a small Japanese Super-8mm cine camera, loaded with K40 film. Today, I've decided I will be a film-maker, so I frame and shoot my older sister in the front as she slides another cassette into the car stereo.

"This is the singing canary," she shouts over the engine. Joni Mitchell's Hejira, recorded 13 years earlier, pours from the speakers and, immediately the seemingly mundane world in my viewfinder becomes utterly moving-every tree past the window sublime. Whatever the hell this canary is singing about is where I need to be.

It's now 1997, and the weather is freezing. I'm sitting alone by the Thames while I eat a sorry sandwich, and have Hejira on my personal stereo. I'm a film student on the BA course at St Martins College, and need to "find my voice"-or so the tutors tell me. Like Mitchell's words, my ideas are desperate, but with tenuous links.

She is singing about the loneliness of the human condition as I try to piece together an image sequence in my head that contains the magic in the mundane-those microcosmic moments that, somehow, I know mean so much. Hejira paints its words across me as Mitchell sings about travel and about the in-betweens that glue the cosmos together.

With a desert-dust tone of voice, she seems to describe to me my own life philosophy. "You know it's never been easy," she sings, "Whether you travel the breadth of extremities or stick to some straighter line." Her words are full of brutal contrast: "There is the hope and the hopelessness I've witnessed 30 years." Yet they are also strangely life-affirming: "So deep and superficial between the forceps and the stone."

If I were a music critic, I might be tempted to describe this song as "dark", but I think it's more like "darkness visible". Mitchell is dragging the truth of being a human into the light.

It's now 2007, and we're finishing the demo for Dark on Fire, the title track of our new album. I've got a tingling feeling running up my neck: "We've done it! This is the one." We managed to chip out a song that contains the essence of what I've been feeling since that day in my dad's car - a song that contains the DNA of all of our music, but imposes a kind of clarity or punctuation upon it, about the loneliness of the human condition, but also about self-belief and hope.

Mitchell's song Hejira, from the album of the same name, has been a true musical companion to me for all that time, and I believe my constant referring to it the past 18 years has set up a kind of neural highway from my vocal chords and fingers, and helped me, finally, to find my own voice - and turn that camera into a guitar.

Olly Knights is the lead singer of Turin Brakes, whose new album, Dark on Fire, is released tomorrow.

Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link: https://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=1739

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