In 2020, Joni Mitchell and her record label, Rhino, announced a project that was once considered unthinkable: a career-spanning exploration of her archives. The first set - Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) - tracks Mitchell's ascent as a songwriter, singer, and performer and is now up for a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.
Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971) followed in November 2021, featuring 122 rare and unreleased recordings. Among them are demos, home recordings, studio outtakes, and live performances from a remarkably prolific time in the artist's career.
On February 18, the set will be issued as a 10-LP set exclusive to Joni's online storefront and limited to just 4,000 copies.
To celebrate this exciting release, I spoke with Patrick Milligan, who co-produces the series with Joni Mitchell. He shares the history behind these amazing unheard gems, gives an inside look at what it's like to put the Joni Mitchell Archives series together, and gives us a sneak peek at the 10-LP box set. Let's start with that unboxing!
Before we dive into our discussion about Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 2, congratulations on the Grammy nomination for Archives, Vol. 1 - up for Best Historical Album! How are you and the team feeling about the reception to this series so far?
Thank you! It's thrilling. To get nominated for a Grammy is really exciting, for sure, but to be nominated with Joni and with Bernie Grundman, too - that's pretty special.
Everyone's really excited. We're all super happy with everything that's going on, but the most gratifying thing is how happy Joni is with everything. She went from being mildly skeptical to really, with the first volume, opening up to accept her early performances and music. [She] realized that it's clear why people like it!
She's so thrilled with the reception of both volumes and also all the attention around the 50th anniversary of Blue. It was really surprising to her but very gratifying and vindicating in a way. You know, "People didn't like that album when it came out," and I've heard her say it a few times as something that obviously really meant something to her: "Blue went to #1 fifty years later," so that was something that really excited her, too.
Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 2 is a fascinating collection. It was released on CD in November, but it's also finally being issued as a deluxe, limited edition 10-LP box set - due on February 18. What sparked this idea to put the whole collection out on vinyl?
We had decided early on with Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1 that because so much of that early material wasn't professionally recorded that it potentially didn't lend itself to an LP box. Thinking about it now, I sort of wish we had [done a big vinyl box set for Volume 1, although a single-disc highlights album was released on vinyl for Record Store Day]. But with the professionally recorded live shows and studio recordings that are featured [on Vol. 2], it seemed more warranted to do an LP box this time. The audio is sourced from the same high-resolution sources, cut by Bernie Grundman. The artwork and design are beautiful. The printing and detail are incredible. And, of course, every aspect was shown to Joni and chosen by Joni - everything had her input. She was very, very hands-on.
What's your involvement in the Joni Mitchell Archives series?
My role has been to deal in the content and the audio. It's determining what goes into the sets, getting music to Joni in the best way, and allowing her to decide what she likes.
With Archives, Vol. 1, we saw the birth of an artist. Joni was finding her footing and taking the highway, so to speak. What would you say is the story told in Archives Vol. 2?
It's Joni developing as a person and as a songwriter, while dealing with changes in her career. Archives, Vol. 1 is really her establishing herself initially as a performer and a songwriter. By Archives Vol. 2, she's going on national TV, she has major record releases, she's touring internationally, and becoming famous. She's considering, "What am I doing? Do I want to do this?" There's a lot of self-discovery. That's the theme of her entire career, which these sets will ultimately show: her way of constantly pushing herself and redefining herself, going to the next thing.
On Archives, Vol. 2 we're also hearing Joni learn how to make records. You hear recordings done under the guidance of David Crosby, where, to his credit, he kept someone from coming in and being heavy-handed. [There are also] home demos on Disc 1 where she's experimenting with overdubbing on her own.
Those home demos are so intriguing. I love the version of "The Dawntreader" with the vocal overdub.
As I go through building these sets, I end up getting obsessed with certain songs. On Archives, Vol. 2, it's "The Dawntreader." I mentioned that to Joni, and she goes, "Oh, yeah. You know, Jimi Hendrix liked that song. He liked the line about the mermaid." She said, "He was going to write a song with something about a mermaid." Well, we know that happened!
Speaking of which, one of the gems of this set is a beautiful complete concert that Jimi Hendrix recorded in Ottawa in 1968. What's the story there?
Well, this is one of those amazing things. In the liner notes of Archives, Vol. 1, Joni mentions Jimi Hendrix and this show. Jimi went to her show and got Joni's permission to record it. They hung out afterwards at the hotel, playing music, listening to the tapes, making noise. Shortly after, Jimi's tape, his recorder, and other equipment were stolen from his van.
Soon after Vol. 1 was released, a gentleman in Canada named Ian McLeish managed to get in touch with Joni to say he had the tape. There was a tape collector in Ottawa who had a bunch of tapes that ended up being donated to the National Archives of Canada, but Ian who did the transfers for the family realized that it was that tape. Joni listened to it and said, "I know that's it."
Another interesting home recording is the early rendition of "Roses Blue" with the peacock harp overdub. She's really experimenting there.
That was an interesting one, because I heard that and thought she might not like it. [The peacock harp] is a little out of tune, but to me it's fascinating because it's her just trying something out. She's at home, recording in a crude way, trying some overdubbing: "I'm going to arrange this, or add this, or blend this with that."
This is the first I've heard of a peacock harp on a Joni Mitchell record.
I never knew what that was on the record. The credits didn't say. It sounded to me like something sped up or tape manipulated. It almost sounds like a mandolin or something. I ended up going through this whole long process with Joni, trying to figure out what that instrument was. She didn't have a name for it, but she'd describe it to me. I sent her some pictures and she said, "That's it!" It's a peacock harp. I was really thrilled to find out what it was.
It's kind of like a dulcimer meets an autoharp. It's got five strings plus some keys that almost look like typewriter keys. You press down and they fret the instrument. So, in that way, it's kind of like an autoharp, though it's not making chords. In fact, Joni ended up using the peacock harp on the final take but with a different arrangement. She'd figured out exactly what she wanted from it.
We also hear Joni in the studio. There are some thrilling outtakes on Disc 1 - "Jeremy," "Gift Of The Magi" - but on Disc 2 there's this outlier session at Western Recorders in May 1968 after Song To A Seagull came out but before the second album, Clouds. She's trying out a song called "Come To The Sunshine."
It's hard to determine what that session was about. But if you look at the [liner notes for the] David Crosby, If I Could Only Remember My Name deluxe edition set that came out last year, you'll see Crosby demos with that same date, also recorded at Western Recorders. So, he must have still been involved at that point. Maybe it was an opportunity for Joni to have some extra studio time, or she may have been considering "Come To The Sunshine" as a B-side.
You mixed a few of these rarities. What's your approach to mixing and determining what needs sweetening or fixing?
When I mix stuff, I try to be very light-handed and organic. Henry Lewy - Joni's frequent collaborator - was an amazing engineer and the stuff just sounds good. I don't think he used a ton of EQ or compression. He had a really light touch. I always listen to his mixes and reference [them]. So, if you listen to, say, the strings mix of "Urge For Going," if I did what I'm supposed to, it should sound pretty much like the original record.
It's refreshing that you're not just flying in things, overdubbing odd parts, or simply taking out an instrument and calling it an alternate recording fifty years after the fact.
I always opt to use something from the day of recording if it exists, and I did find some interesting things - string arrangements and that sort of thing. But they're things that were on the multitracks, that were recorded at the time, considered, and just not used.
It comes back to the thread of the set: Joni's learning to make records. Joni's albums are like movies, they're put together as a whole concept. For example, even though "Little Green" is an old song, it fits the vision of Blue in 1971. She tends to work that way a lot, always making the smartest decisions to end up with the strongest record.
You hear her decision-making on Archives Vol. 2. There's a fascinating home recording where Joni is basically sequencing the songs for her second album. She's always putting the concept first. It's not putting out whatever and fulfilling a contract. These are considered pieces of art.
[She worked that way from] the very beginning. On Vol. 1, you hear the home demos where she's referring to the two sides that would become the concept for the Song To A Seagull record. She's always thinking thematically. That reveals itself more and more in Archives, Vol. 2 - and you see the same approach in her concerts. She sequences the songs to tell a story or make contrasts. "That's 'Night In The City,' and here's another take on that kind of story." She's doing that all the time.
Still, it's incredible to see so many unheard recordings show up on Archives, Vol. 2. There are tracks that aren't just un-bootlegged, but in some cases undocumented completely. Songs like "Jesus" and "It's Easy" are brand new to fans.
[Those two] are recordings that came from Jane Lurie that she'd recorded in her apartment. Jane and Joni were friends going way back. They were roommates at one time in the apartment where Joni wrote "Chelsea Morning." When Joni moved to Laurel Canyon, Jane kept the Chelsea apartment, but Joni would stay there when she was in New York. The "Our House" recording from the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young Deja Vu anniversary box set was recorded there, also.
Jane was a documentarian who had bought a tape recorder - not super high-end, not the best microphone - but she had the foresight to hear Joni writing or playing through songs and think, "This might be historical someday." She saved these tapes for all these years.
Somewhat recently, I went to Joni's house, and she said, "Have you ever heard this song of mine called 'Jesus'? I just got it from Jane Lurie." She played the recording. Sitting in Joni's dining room listening to a song that no one's heard before - it's surreal.
And there are also two versions of "Midnight Cowboy," the rejected movie theme. Another dream come true for fans.
They turned the song down because it's a big spoiler - she basically tells the whole story in the song! I'm not sure why Joni did two versions, but she re-did it in an open tuning and used that figure that reappears in "Barangrill" on [the 1972 album] For The Roses. The first version, though, is in standard tuning. That's kind of unusual for her guitar style at that point. But I realized the way she plays the opening figure on "Midnight Cowboy (Version One)" is pretty much the same opening figure that she plays on the ukulele in the beginning of "House of the Rising Sun," the first track on Archives, Vol. 1. It was one of those things: how perfect is it to have both sets start with songs about prostitutes that are both in standard tuning, and have that same little arpeggio thing? [laughs]
What's your approach when you're presenting unreleased material to Joni?
It's changed. There was a point when we were making the first set where we'd go through big chunks of stuff at a time, and it was just overwhelming. So instead, I went through all that she'd commented on and built what the set could be - giving her the 5 CDs, which she listened to and loved. It helped that she'd gone through and listened and commented. But my role was to also make it make sense, the whole arc of the story.
The Early Joni 1963 tape [a radio session from Archives, Vol.1, also released as a standalone album] really opened the door to Joni listening to her younger self and going, "Gee, I was pretty good! I was a folksinger after all." I also got the tapes of her performance at Canterbury House in 1967, and she loved that. Those two bookended Archives, Vol. 1 and were also broken out as standalone releases.
This time around, the breakout release was Live At Carnegie Hall, which, of course, also features in the 10-LP box.
I'd told Joni about the Carnegie Hall show from February 1969, which we had in the Warner vaults. I made her a CD of that, and she loved it and agreed it ought to be the breakout release. The show was recorded by Reprise at the time and initially considered for her second album. In fact, I've seen some tapes that were cut down [from the full show] with her handwriting showing what the album would have been. Basically, as one would have done at the time, she took the songs from Song To A Seagull pretty much out of the running and was going to cut between Carnegie Hall and the Berkeley show, recorded two weeks later. We've intercut a few songs from that performance here, as well.
How does Joni feel about her unreleased studio material?
Well, Joni would sometimes say, "I don't know what [tapes] you're going through because I didn't leave anything behind" and I'd have to say, truthfully, "There is stuff, and there's really great stuff." But I wasn't sure how she was going to feel about studio outtakes; if she was going to say, "Nobody needs to hear that." We were speaking one night, and I happened to mention that I was going through the multitracks for Blue and that there was this recording of "Urge For Going" that had a string section on it that she didn't use.
The recording that became the B-side of "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio"?
Yeah, it's that take. It was recorded during [the sessions for] Blue. "Urge For Going" and "Hunter" were on the original lineup for the album, then she came in around early '71 and did "The Last Time I Saw Richard" and "All I Want" to replace those.
On the multitracks of this take is a really beautiful string arrangement and she goes, "Oh, I'd like to hear that." I sent it and she immediately called back, "Wow! That's beautiful. I wonder why I didn't use it." She thought the mix was great and it opened the door to more session material being on the set.
[I also sent] the BBC radio show with James Taylor. She heard it and said something to the effect of, "That's the best thing I ever did. My intonation is so good here and James and I sound great together. Maybe James and I should have been an act!"
Do you run into any challenges when you are researching and trying to find material for these Archives sets?
When you're looking in the vault at these tapes you sometimes see conflicting information or a lack of any information. Sometimes things are very well-documented other times not at all - even with Joni's stuff that was [engineered by] Henry Lewy. I've gotten to where I completely recognize his handwriting, and the information he puts varies greatly from tape to tape. Sometimes there's a date, sometimes not. Sometimes the dates are really just dates that the engineer wrote when they were doing something to the tape - editing or transferring, not necessarily recording. So, it's often hard to figure out exactly what went on just by looking at the tape.
There's also a great amount of storytelling that goes into curating these volumes. How do you balance making a set that flows logically, while honoring historical importance and trying to please different types of listeners?
It's a case of Your Mileage May Vary. Some listeners point out that there are repeat songs. But it's not always easy to balance [how many versions there are]. If you aren't as big a fan you may think, "Well, I've heard this song in the set however many times, how much more do I need to hear it?" And for people like you and me - and a lot of people who are big fans - we want to hear that song any number of times and spot the differences. On the first set, there's [a lot of "Circle Game," a lot of "Both Sides Now"]. But there's a tape of her doing "Both Sides Now" on the radio where she says, "I wrote this three days ago." That's historical. It's really fascinating to hear her telling the story. And there's a live version because it was a staple of her repertoire. One other thing to keep in mind is her repertoire wasn't constantly changing. So, it takes some curating and counting, but also making room for the story and for interesting performances.
And there are plenty of interesting arrangements and performances of well-known songs.
On Archives, Vol. 2, there are those BBC recordings from Top Gear in 1968 with The John Cameron Group. Those are songs that appear elsewhere on the set but here they have a really cool, almost Donovan kind of vibe, since they were his backing band. So, sure, it means another version of "Chelsea Morning," but it's one that's unlike anything you ever heard.
Some material is undeniable. Take the Carnegie Hall concert or The Dick Cavett Show, for instance. Those two signify her arrival as a performer and a musician, plus Cavett was the gig that kept Joni from going to Woodstock.
Exactly, I think that the Cavett performance is such an important part of the historical legacy around Woodstock, so it was important to include it. And the interaction with Dick Cavett is always magical so it's fun to get to hear that.
And you hear her on national television, dealing with fame in real time.
Yes, we get to see how fame affects her work and her creative approach. On tracks like "For Free" she's addressing it, and she's coming to terms with the [expectations that] your life is your art, and your art is your life.
It seems she always battled with that balance. On the Jane Lurie recording from 1968 where Joni is discussing what would become her second album, she says, "This one is going to be more observational and not as personal as the last one. I don't want to put that much of myself out there anymore."
And that's only after her first album. But when you think about the arc over the course of this set, by the time we get to Blue in 1971, the gloves are off completely. There is no more personal a record. So, it's interesting that she has that take on the eve of her second album. [In fact,] each album actually becomes more and more personal as she goes along.
But she also knows how to convey the personal. She's not just telling us her experiences. It's about the transference of those emotions, and what we can all learn about ourselves. There's balance, too. If you look at Blue, she's addressing deeply personal stuff, but there's also a lot of joy, and a lot of humor that people tend to disregard.
I say that about Blue all the time. It's a very personal album, for sure, but it's not all down. There's some very upbeat stuff going on there. And then think about the fact that she considered putting "Hunter" on the record for a long time.
"Hunter" is another great outtake. There's a really fun live take of it, and a studio version, too.
But you can also see why she took it off, it wouldn't fit. But, no, Blue isn't as much of a downer as some portray it.
Blue really feels like a logical progression, too.
There are so many songs, going back to the earliest - "Urge For Going," "Day After Day," "Born To Take The Highway" - they're about getting out and breaking away. That continues through Blue.
That travel theme goes through her entire career.
But the songs get more introspective - still universal - but think of how those ideas evolve when you get to an album like Hejira [released in 1976 and written on a cross-country journey]. It's very similar to those early themes. Throughout her career we see how her life informs her art, and her reaction to it. It's impossible to look at one without the other.
In that way, her career isn't really as segmented as it might appear at first glance. The notion of "eras" - folk, jazz, synths, all the buzz words people use to divide her music - it all goes away, or blends into one another.
The idea that Joni emerged as a jazz-influenced artist [in 1974] with Court and Spark is not really true. There are elements of it even on Archives, Vol 2. She talks about [the jazz vocal trio] Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and how learning their songs informed her vocals on "Pirates of Penance" from Song To A Seagull. You don't listen to that song and say, "It's jazz," but the influence is there.
And you see her becoming an arranger, becoming the auteur in every way. Not just building new harmonic worlds on her guitar, but also beginning to direct other people. She's saying, "This is my vision. I trust your talents but what if you play this figure, this way?"
She's trying things out and not ultimately using it all, but each record shows her trying different things, playing with different musicians, and directing the arrangements. One interesting thing I found on the multitracks of "River" was some unused horn parts - layers of Christmas carols overdubbed by a French horn player. And Joni actually sings those parts exactly on the tape as a guide. So, she's clearly saying, "Here's what I want this to be." She may make a different creative choice in the end, but it's always her vision.
As her career takes shape, does your approach to curating these sets also change?
Joni's working habits change, so the material morphs with it. In the next rarities set [Archives, Vol. 3, which will cover 1972 to 1975], there are fewer unheard songs, but there are more studio alternates - different versions of songs that are completely finished with full band arrangements and overdubs where she just said, "No, I'm doing it again in a new way."
There's also a narrower set of songs to choose from, there's less "Circle Game," less of her older material. So [the methodology behind sequencing the set] is a bit different. Ultimately, I have to be mindful of making something enjoyable and listenable that also puts Joni in a good light.
It really is incredible how much archival material there is, with more to come. For fans from my generation - who may have only become aware of her after her last album, Shine - this is the first time we're really getting to enjoy new Joni Mitchell music.
And it's all really pleased Joni. She's involved in curating the box sets, working on the art - she's part of it all. It's her way of being creative. She's making musical decisions, artistic decisions, doing the artwork. Just as she's always done it, [she's] continuing on.
It's fantastic that she's so involved. Thanks to you and Joni, and the whole team for making this series happen.
Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971) is a detailed examination of a crucial part of Joni Mitchell's career. Fans of vinyl will want to clear some space off the shelf for the 10-LP set, due out on February 18 and available in a limited edition of 4,000, only at JoniMitchell.com.
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