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BBC Radio 'Girl on Guitar' program Print-ready version

by Cerys Matthews
BBC Radio 2
June 30, 2014

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Jennifer Crook: She explores the big questions of life and it's also very personal, so you can see yourself in the songs.

Eddie Reader: One of the greats, like Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Bob Dylan, John Lennon.

Joni Mitchell: I've always been a creature of change. I have a pretty average North American attention span, I guess global attention span at this point. I crave change. As a result of that, I've been called a folksinger in the 60s, a confessional poet in the 70s, a jazz singer...

Max Bennett: She was one of the most interesting people I've ever met, and I've been around a while.

Judy Collins: Every song she sang, I'm telling you, every song she sang wiped me out.

["Chelsea Morning" playing]

Cerys Matthews: She's one of the most accomplished guitarists of the last 60 years. And Rolling Stone magazine has called her one of the greatest songwriters ever. She's been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and her music has been covered by the likes of Judy Collins; The Counting Crows; Cher; and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. She is, of course, Joni Mitchell.

I'm Cerys Matthews and you're listening to "Girl on Guitar" here on BBC Radio 2.

She plays guitar her own way, she writes songs her own way, she may look like a west coast hippie, but this girl's got fight in her. She doesn't pull any punches. And she takes risks musically.

Kate Mossman: What always amuses me is that as soon as there's a new female singer-songwriter out, any girl with a guitar, all the reviews can say is, "It sounds like a young Joni Mitchell." And it's funny, because I don't think there's anybody that sounds like a young Joni Mitchell. I don't think there ever will be.

Eddie Reader: Joni Mitchell is as great as Dylan or Byron or Shakespeare or Robert Burns. She's a creative, and she did with her creativity something that was highly unusual at the time, incredibly symbiotic as well. As soon as she opened the gates, thousands flooded through.

Cerys Matthews: Joni Mitchell is one of only two women to have made it onto Rolling Stone's One Hundred Greatest Guitarists of All Time. She's also received eight Grammies and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

[The Circle Game Playing]

Kate Mossman: She's one of those artists that was always slightly ahead. She came up through the folk scene and probably tired of it and moved on intellectually and wanted to go on to jazz. And then onto African and world influences. I think you can tell by the way the songs are constructed that the mind is so musical that it can't stand still for very long. Another example of a musician like that is Peter Gabriel, or Paul Simon. They can't stick to one genre. Sometimes they're ahead of themselves and everyone thinks, "What on earth are they doing?" There's some sort of strange African flute in there and then we look back years later and we think, oh, they were really innovative.

Cerys Matthews: But for me, it's the music of Joni Mitchell that remains timeless and maybe this is because she writes lyrics that speak to the listener. She's eclectic, experimental, and prolific.

Joni Mitchell: OK, let's say... Which came first, the lyric or the music? Usually the music comes first.

Cerys Matthews: Joni speaking to Jian Gomeshi in an interview for Canadian broadcaster CBC. This is the first time it's been broadcast here in the U.K.

Joni Mitchell: And then I mantra it. I play it over and over and in that kind of trance like, while it's kind of soothing, even if it's rhythmic. It's never... Oh, I write some party songs, but mostly I write late at night and for myself and so, it can be grooving, but when I'm listening to those chords, and I go, "OK, here's where the pinnacle thought has to go, here's where the high note goes, and this is where the main thrust, the most important idea has to go, because this is the pinnacle in the music. So then I'll get the melody, then I'll go over it. Like the Beatles. [sings] "Scrambled eggs da-da-da-da-da". You know, maybe get something phonetic and then something happens in the course of a day, it all comes in one day, or maybe it's later that week or, in some cases, it's taken as long as seven years to get the libretto, what is this music creating as a story. And then I try, it's a point in craft with me to marry... so that it's theatrical, first of all, they're dramatic pieces. It's frustrated film-making. It's very visual.

Kate Mossman: I don't think anyone would argue the idea that she's up there with Bob Dylan. She has incredible ability to compress thoughts into a couple of lines. One of my favourite lines of all is from "Harry's House" where she talks about a helicopter landing like a dragonfly on a tomb. And it's almost this... vividly impressionistic way of writing, which sometimes gets overlooked when people think of her as writing songs about human interactions and relationships. And I think it shouldn't be forgot that she's one of the poets of the 20th and 21st century, alongside Dylan, and alongside Cohen, and alongside people like Hart Crane and T.S. Elliot as well.

Joni Mitchell: It's just kind of being lucky. You know, you have a song... For instance, "Underneath the streetlight" was an assignment. I needed to write some brighter tempo pieces to complete this album, and I had gone to New York and the moment I got there, I started painting, and everybody kept saying, "When are you coming home?" and I said, "As soon as I'm finished!" And I kept waiting for this painting to end. And I would paint, and to clear my mind, I have a pinball machine, so I would go over and play the pinball machine. The machine is situated next to a window in an 11-storey building and down below me is the street, so at night, there are people going by. So I wore down the rug, between where I paint and the pinball machine, night after night after night, no song, no song, no song. And, during that time, every time I looked out the window, something would be going by underneath the streetlight. So, when finally the day came that I looked at the painting and said, "That's it. I can't do it anymore," BAM! The song came bursting out and it contained mostly these images of people passing underneath this light that I see.

Max Bennett: Most of the subjects that she touched on I thought when she played were personal experiences. That's one of the things that made her sound so interesting because these lyrics were all personally hers. They weren't so universal, like if I wrote a song, it would be more universal. It's like when somebody invents something that's brand new and there was't any past to it, in a sense.

Cerys Matthews: Of course, it's for her guitar playing that many fans love her. And many of us fellow musicians look up to her.

["Moon at the Window" playing]

Cerys Matthews: Almost every song Joni has written on the guitar uses non-standard tuning. This and her highly rhythmic strumming style creates a rich and unique guitar sound.

Thomas Dolby: She would very often have extraordinary chords tuned, and find inversions within them that sounded very unusual. This is in stark contrast to contemporaries of hers like, let's say, Bob Dylan or Paul Simon. So, I think her guitar playing was always very unusual. Most of her songs I think she wrote either on piano or guitar, and then added overdubs of different patterns, different parts, and just really unique textures.

Kate Mossman: You can't exactly pin it down. You don't know what she's doing but you know it sounds different. She's a very accomplished guitar playing but she's used the guitar as a sort of momentum behind the lyrics, rather than a standout, sort of showy moment. She's not doing Van Halen style solos on stage.

Max Bennett: First of all, she had a really good time when she played the guitar, and the way she voiced her chords, because she changed the keys on the guitar a lot was so unique. No one has ever done it before that I know of. As a matter of fact, I asked Robben Ford, who was our guitar player at the time, what was she doing, and he said he had no idea what she was doing. But she would turn one up and turn another one down of the strings and get a different sound on the guitar.

Cerys Matthews: Originally Joni tried to teach herself how to play from a Pete Seeger songbook. She never finished the book though. Her left had been weakened by childhood polio and some of the fingerings were difficult. Never one to give up, Joni created alternative tunings that allowed her to play her music her way.

Singer and songwriter, Eddie Reader.

Eddie Reader: She's an amazing guitar-player 'cause she shows you how to use the guitar in a way that introduces more than just the technical, academic quality of the guitar, that uses it as it is, raw, if you like. By tuning the strings to what you want, you can make an absolute orchestra up and

Jennifer Crook: A lot of guitarists, from Jimmy Page to Davy Graham have done this, but this is something that she did in her own unique way. What it means is that you have an open tuning which makes the chords much more interesting and therefore the colours and the sounds of the harmony and everything with it, so, instead of being in standard tuning, which ... [strumming] E-A-D-G-B-E, she tuned up to an open D, so, take your E down to D; A stays the same; D stays the same; and then, your G, you're going down to an F#; B goes down to A - quite a long way down, that one! And then the E down to D. So the strings are a lot looser, obviously, because they've been lowered. [strums open D tuning]

Max Bennett: I remember when she asked us to do a couple of songs on an album, We got in the studio and she started playing and Joe Sample and I looked at each other and went, "I don't know. This is so different!" It was like nothing we'd ever heard, in a way, the construction of the music itself. Never mind the lyrics, which were great, but we're concerned more with the music, and it was very lucid, in a sense, harmonically.

["Help me" playing.]

Cerys Matthews: But how did this guitar great get into music in the first place?

Joni Anderson was born on November the 7th, 1943 in Fort McLeod, Canada. Her father was an amateur musician who loved swing music and played the trumpet in a marching band.

Joni Mitchell: I have a very early memory of being walked on a leash, and I had on a little white kind of snowsuit and we passed a Woolworth's, and Woolworth's had a wood-shaped opening to it and in the roof of the exterior of the building was a kind of speaker, a tin speaker, and there was some kind of music, I don't know what it would be, spilling out there, and I stopped on my leash and began to bounce up and down and singing with great enthusiasm. My mother gave me a good tug. So you know, at an early age, music was a great pocket to be in.

Cerys Matthews: Many of Joni's childhood friends were taking music lessons and so she tagged along with them. She'd also developed a love for the likes to Chopin, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff. But when did the listener become the musician? It was while she was recovering in hospital from polio that Joni first began performing by singing to the other patients.

Her first musical love was rock'n'roll but, when she was a teenager, that sort of music was rarely on the radio. So, if you didn't have a record player, you went to where there was a jukebox.

Joni Mitchell: Little Richard and Chuck Berry were like the call of the wild. Radio was, for many years, as a child, full of ballads and classical programming and Mantovani. It was fairly bland, although there was a lot of melody on the radio in those days. Whoa! and then came rock'n'roll. when rock'n'roll came roaring onto the scene with all the controversy that it included... It was mostly black and it was raw and raging. "Lucille" would be a good example of that or Ray Charles, "Johnny B Goode". And it was great. It stirred up your feet. It stirred up your whole body. The next thing you knew, you wanted to go to three or four dances a week and nothing else was so important.

Cerys Matthews: By 1957, the girl on the guitar had bought herself a ukulele. She had wanted a guitar, of course, but her mother was against the idea, because of the guitar's so-called hillbilly image. Joni got her way in the end, though, and when she finished high school, playing music was a way to make some extra money. But she never expected to make a career out of it.

Joni Mitchell: After a few years, the music scene shifted and with the coming of a lot of white rock'n'roll, some of it was excellent and some of it got very formulated and the spirit got more middle-class or more genteel. It made it palatable. Rock'n'roll became respectable in a certain way and it made for a very dull pocket of music and, during that bland kind of period my interests began to search through other styles of music. And then, with the Beatles opening up the music again, lyrics began to become important, and jazz and folk music providing kind of an introspective vacation, so to say, from rock'n'roll in the middle. And then along came Dylan and he kind of put the two things together.

Cerys Matthews: Her first love was painting and so she enrolled at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Joni needed to support herself through school though, and so she kept gigging as a folk musician. After a year, she dropped out of school and kept playing.

["Black Crow" playing]

Cerys Matthews: Joni was developing an interest in jazz and became a regular audience member at jazz gigs.

Judy Collins: She moved, I think, towards them rather than moved out from them. And the more she was experimenting with tuning - I think that had a lot to do with it - and rhythm, and being able to work with synthesizers. Sometimes I'd call her in the middle of the night and she'd say, "I'm in the middle of this thing and I'm going to be up all night with it." She really began to experiment a lot, and it drew her to a lot of jazz musicians and then of course she moved into that direction with her albums. But I would say, for Joni, that she was more influencing than influenced by. I think her music influenced young writers a lot.

Eddie Reader: Well, I think any creative is going to be what you would call a jazz artist. What I understand as being a jazz artist is somebody who takes a form and improvises. And everyone I know - folk musicians, pop musicians, rock musicians, Jimi Hendrix, all those - that is all jazz. That is all about improvisation. So, your improvisation starts in a free-form way and then you try and capture it and then you have the milly-dilling(?), then you have the arrangement. But it all starts with improvisation. So it's all jazz to me, and I think she's one of the top jazz performers I've ever heard, and I've heard a few.

Cerys Matthews: In the summer of 1964, Joni headed east to Ontario to take her chances as a folk singer. On the three-day train ride there, she wrote her first song, "Day After Day."

["Day After Day" playing]

She also stopped off at the Mariposa Folk Festival to see Buffy Sainte Marie, as Saskatchewan-born folksinger who'd inspired her. A year later, Joni would be playing Mariposa herself.

In late '64, Joni discovered that she was pregnant by her ex-boyfriend. Unable to provide for the baby, Joni gave her up for adoption and kept the child a secret for most of her career.

Joni Mitchell: The thing that keeps getting written is that I gave up my daughter in order to further my career. this is not so.

Cerys Matthews: Joni speaking to CBC's Jian Gomeshi.

Joni Mitchell: What was done at that time was you didn't even see the daughter. The right thing to do, to protect your parents, was to get out of town, go into a home. Well, in '65 the homes were full. So many girls got caught out because everything was changing, and the pill was not available so there were a lot of unwed children born in 1965, more than could be adopted, and all the homes were full, so it was very difficult to survive. And at the time I had her, I was destitute, and there was no way I could take her out of the hospital into a blizzard, with no job, no roof over my head. There was no way I could take her. And there weren't even foster homes available at that time because there was such a glut of unwed children. But she was beautiful and she found her way into a foster home and I tried to get work and get a setup that I could bring her to. Well, in that time period, I couldn't get any work in Toronto, because I couldn't get 160 bucks to get into the union. I was beset by predators, like people trying to take advantage of the situation. I won't name names, but a lot of human ugliness came at me because I was in a white slaver thing. You wouldn't believe the gauntlet you have to run when you're young and destitute. It was a very difficult situation.

Cerys Matthews: Hints about the child did appear in several songs, though, particularly "Little Green."

Joni and her daughter finally met in 1997.

["Little Green" playing]

Eddie Reader: "Green" to me was speaking to me as a green young girl listening to her for the first time. When it really got me was when I put it on a compilation tape and I was having a party and there was a woman friend of mine whose husband had left her, and she brought up the two kids mostly on her own and, when I played it, she just started weeping for her own young children, and how they'd grown up, and it was obviously a song... She was about ten years older than me and it was obviously a song that she had gotten into when she was my age when I first got into it, when I was 18. So it reminded her of herself too and that's when I really realized the power of that song.

Cerys Matthews: A few weeks after the birth, Joni was gigging again and she soon found work in a folk club in Toronto, where she met American singer Chuck Mitchell. Joni and Chuck headed south to the USA, where they married, and Joni Anderson became Joni Mitchell.

The marriage was over in less than two years, though, and Joni moved to New York. She played venues up and down the east coast and became well-known for her unique songwriting and guitar styles. Judy Collins.

Judy Collins: I'm touched by her songs because they're vivid, they're incredibly musical, they're revealing. She's a very vulnerable writer. She talks abut things that people can identify easily.

Jennifer Crook: Well, I think lyrically, the kind os subjects she tries to tackle just embracing ambiguity. That's something I try to work with with my songs. Just listening to her songs, it stretches you, because she was stretching how we use language and the music as well. I think later people came to appreciate her musical skills as well as her lyrical skills.

["Song to a seagull" playing]

Cerys Matthews: When David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young hear Joni sing, he was immediately sold on her talent. Her persuaded a record company to let her make an acoustic album without the folk-rock overdubs that were common at the time. "Song to a seagull" was the result.

By 1969 Joni was already on her second album and it included her own versions of songs that had already been recorded by other artists. Incredible songs like "Chelsea Morning," and "Both Sides Now", which was first released by the legendary folk singer Judy Collins.

Judy Collins: It was probably June of 1967, and I got a call from my friend Al Kooper, who started "Blood Sweat and Tears". He called me up - we were very good friends - and so, about three in the morning, the phone rang and it was Al and he said, "You know, I followed this girl home because she's been hanging out at the bar here." And he said, "She told me she wrote songs. And she was very good-looking, so I just decided I couldn't lose. So I followed her home so she could play me a song." And he said, "You gotta hear this." And he put her on the phone, and she sang "Both Sides Now. So I said, "I'll be right over". I recorded "Both Sides Now" within the month, I think.

[Judy Collins' version of "Both Sides Now" playing]

So it became a huge hit for me, and of course it made Joni Mitchell's name and made everybody know who she was. It's a sudden kind of over-the-moon presence in the world, and it was her moment to come out and have everybody know about her.

[Joni's version of "Both Sides Now" playing]

Kate Mossman: She was not an older woman when she wrote "Both Sides Now". But I think no song better sums up Joni Mitchell's handling of the feeling of disappointment and resignation than "Both Sides Now'. she is absolutely brilliant at calmly standing back from the situation and somehow rising above it.

Cerys Matthews: Joni's version of "Both Sides Now" came from the 1969 album "Clouds", which won Joni her first Grammy award. The album cover was a self-portrait and mixing up Joni's art and music, which would continue throughout her career. TV and radio producer, Trevor Dann.

Trevor Dann: Back in the 1980s when I was working for the Old Grey Whistle Test, we were invited to make a film with Joni to publicize what was then her most recent album. And we said, do you know, it would be great to just do an interview, that was fine, but could we go to her house, because we were really interested in the fact that she makes these big oil paintings. And they came back and they said, yes, you can, which we were really surprised about. And it turned up and she was just fantastic - come in and have a cup of tea, come and look at my paintings.

Joni Mitchell: In solitude, what it does, is is clears the head. It's kind of like summer following for me. It would burn out. My talent would have burned out long ago, I think, as a writer and a musician if it wasn't for the painting, because it's mindless in a way. I mean, your critic, your analytical judgement has to come in at a certain part, but certainly not at this part of the process. This is just child's play, you know? Trevor Dann: At that point, she was doing really abstract kind of, Jackson Pollock stuff on massive canvasses. They must have been these canvasses about ten feet by six feet. And the way she painted them was by getting great big blobs of paint from the can and simply throwing them at the canvass.

Joni Mitchell: You have to imagine that this is like little snails crawling over leaves now, with sticky substances coming out of their mouth. I mean, this is just chaos. All this is, is a lot of things coming at each other.

Trevor Dann: And you could see there that that was an artist at work. That's how she often made her music. She defied the convention. Everybody expected her to play a guitar, so she played the piano. Everybody expected her to be a folky singer-songwriter, so she got into jazz. Everyone expected her to do jazz, so she went and did something else. That was always her thing. She was challenging the audience and herself.

Cerys Matthews: Her third LP, 1970's "Ladies of the Canyon" saw Joni moving towards a pop and rock style. It was her first gold album and included the hits "The Circle Game" and the iconic "Big Yellow Taxi".

[Big Yellow Taxi playing]

I'm Cerys Matthews and you're listening to "Girl on Guitar" here on BBC Radio 2.

Kate Mossman: "Big Yellow Taxi" is the one that people who don't know anything about Joni Mitchell think about when they think of Joni, particularly the laugh at the end, and the line about the tree museum.

I think it's a beautifully energetic, romantic, young-Joni record. But again, to me, all the energy in that song is the idea of the relationship finishing. "A big yellow taxi took away my old man." She's not gutted.

Eddie Reader: I learned that one on guitar, "Big Yellow Taxi." That was my party piece for ages. The beauty of it is the kind of almost-protestiness of it, but also the rhythm of it is what I got off on. I love the bar chords and the E-chord. It was either an E-chord or in an E-tuning or a D-tuning and it was very rhythmic. It was ba-da-dum, ba-da-da-dum-ja, so I learned how to play guitar a lot on that tune.

Cerys Matthews: After "Ladies of the Canyon," Joni stopped touring for a year, so she could concentrate on songwriting and painting. It didn't stop her being voted the top female performer of 1970 by The Melodymaker, though.

Joni Mitchell: I used to put out an album a year in the first part but then the press got longer, the tours got longer, the onuses increased, and they're going, "You're not putting out as much as you used to." And you go, "Geez, I'm dancing as fast as I can," and I'm not going to tell them I just spent a year in bed. It's none of your business.

Cerys Matthews: The songs she wrote during that time off appeared on her next album, "Blue."

Joni Mitchell: A lot of people are listening to me. Well then, they better find out who they're worshipping. Let's see if they can take it. Let's get real. So I wrote "Blue", which horrified a lot of people. And then it created a lot of attention that was really weird, and so then, I bought a property in British Columbia and dropped out, because what had happened is they're looking at me, and all I've done is reveal human traits. They haven't seen themselves in it. At the point that they see themselves in it, communication is complete.

Cerys Matthews: "Blue" made the top 20 in the American Billboard charts and reached number 3 here in the U.K. From that album, this is "Carey".

["Carey" playing]

Kate Mossman: "Carey" for me contains all the feeling of urgency that Joni Mitchell always has about moving on to the next place. So, "the wind is in from Africa." She has "beach tar on her feet." And she says to Carey, I love it here, but it's not my home. And you think she's really not that sad to leave. She's already made her mind up days ago, and this is just her farewell.

Thomas Dolby: She had attracted some attention before. She's had some minor hits with things like "Both Sides Now". But "Blue" was the album that critically got her in everybody's face. It was really an anthemic album of the time. Songs in there about living in a cave in Greece and dancing barefoot on the table at the Mermaid Cafe.

Jennifer Crook: The imagery is just so visual. You can see it. It's the line, "My fingernails are filthy. I've got beachtar on my feet, and I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne." It's a brilliant line.

Cerys Matthews: Joni soon returned to live performing and her fifth album, "For the Roses" came out in late '72. It included, "You turn me on, I'm a radio."

["You turn me on, I'm a radio" playing]

Eddie Reader: Was that not her attempt at a pop song, right? Because they'd sort of challenged her, or she'd felt challenged and there she is - she did it. She's great. It's just a pop song and I think she treated it as such and it's a great thing to listen to. There's nothing I could say that's more satisfying than that song. And I think she plays it on dulcimer too. She uses the four-string dulcimer to play the riff of it.

Cerys Matthews: Joni's next album, "Court and Spark", saw her moving into jazz and jazz fusion. It went down well with the critics and became her most commercially successful project. It included the hits "Help Me" and "Free Man in Paris."

["Free Man in Paris" playing]

Max Bennett: I started a band called LA Express. We were working at the Baked Potato in the valley in L.A. One night Joni came in and was very impressed with the band. So she asked us if we... She loved the band. She wanted to know if we'd like to do a couple of songs on her next album that she did. And we said, sure. And we were recording musicians. We were happy to record with anyone. So, we got into the studio at A&M, and she started playing one of the songs, which happened to be "Help Me" and I'm looking at Joe Sample, he's looking at me and we're thinking, "I don't know if this is going to work or not". But it's so unique where she was coming from musically. Not only did we do tunes, we did the whole album, "Court and Spark" and from then on, that was it, pretty much a love-fest musically, I think.

Trevor Dann: What I love about "Free Man in Paris" as well is it shows her grasp of vocabulary. Who else but Joni Mitchell would write the line, "As a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive." "Unfettered and alive." People don't write those kind of lyrics. That's not an Elton John-Bernie Taupin lyric. It's not a Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber lyric. That's a Joni Mitchell lyric. Brilliant.

Cerys Matthews: And as ever with the release of an album, a tour date was sure to follow, and Max Bennett was on that tour.

Max Bennett: "Court and Spark" had preceded her, not very long, just enough to wake people up and the crowds were so responsive, that usually the crowds can be very boisterous and noisy. I used to walk to the back of the places where we were staying, where there'd be 18,000 people. When she was on, her acoustic set, it would be completely, totally quiet. Everyone was listening to every note and every word she said.

Cerys Matthews: Joni was back in the studio by the spring of '75. The album, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns", was the result. Joni's musical influences were clearly moving towards jazz-inspired pieces, which made use of a wider range of instruments, and, on the track, "The Jungle Line," she even sampled a recording of African musicians, something that wouldn't become commonplace until the 1980s.

It's been said that Rolling Stone magazine declared it "the worst album of the year". The truth, though, is a little different. They just said that it had the year's worst album title.

["Hissing of Summer Lawns" playing]

Kate Mossman: In the period of "Hissing of Summer Lawns", people didn't know quite what to make of what she was playing. Well, I think you'll find yourself, when someone has moved ahead quite fast, and started bringing in synthesizers or jazz or instruments that aren't typically in the cool rock canon, it's not just electric guitars and drums and plaintive voice, and I think that maybe the image we have of Joni Mitchell was, to a certain extent, fixed by the reviews of "Blue" and "Ladies of the Canyon", and it was a different woman. It was a different lifetime, but I think that, I don't think that there's any doubt in the minds of most of the arts press that "Hejira" and "Hissing of Summer Lawns" or "Court and Spark" are brilliant records. But, I guess that, in terms of, "Can you file them next to The Velvet Underground?" No, you can't. They're not rock records.

Cerys Matthews: In early 1976, Joni travelled with friends to Maine. Afterwards, she drove back to California alone and composed some of the songs that would feature on her next album, "Hejira." "Hejira" has been described as one of Joni's more experimental albums, probably because of her collaboration with legendary jazz virtuoso Jaco Pastorius.

["Coyote" playing]

Trevor Dann: Hejira is Joni Mitchell's masterpiece. It starts with the fantastic "Coyote" which is... it's a great rock song, actually. Everybody forgets that Joni Mitchell wrote "This flight tonight" which was a great rock hit by Nazareth. You could make "Coyote" into a song by Iron Maiden, if you wanted to. It rocks, and it's the musical setting that carries it. You could hear Jaco Pastorius playing the bass guitar, interpreting those lyrics, and he's not quite sure where to go, and then, as she reaches the end of the phrase, it resolves. It's the most brilliant piece of jazz playing that is not just accompanying, but is supporting and driving the lyrical content. And that's where, I think, she found inspiration in jazz.

Kate Mossman: I think it's captivating because it's an electro-acoustic album. It's got a very, very tight musical landscape, too, which is sustained throughout the whole record. A lot of turbulent, kind of waterwheel guitar playing. Lovely jazz bass from Jaco Pastorius in a lot of the songs. And the record does actually feel like a road trip. "Hejira" means "journey", and it really has that sense of movement and energy behind it, which I think a lot of that comes from this electro-acoustic jazz work that you can hear there. That's not a folk record, and whenever people called her a folk musician, I think, Well, you turned off the radio about 1965 then, if you think that.

Jennifer Crook: By the time she's recording "Hejira", one of the things she's doing is double-tracking a lot of the guitar parts to make it as huge a sound as possible. And I think there's an even later album where her credit is "guitar orchestra". So she really takes what perhaps began as making it more open, brighter, with the tunings and then kind of builds on that.

Cerys Matthews: A few months after the release of her next album, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter", Joni was contacted by the jazz great, Charles Mingus. They started to work together, but he died before the project could be completed. Joni finished it though and the album "Mingus" was released in 1979.

Joni Mitchell: Well, he called for me. He called out to me to do a project with him and, as soon as I saw him, there was a look on his face which I tried to paint on the "Mingus" cover, that wry look over his shoulder, like just up to no good, just delicious mischief. As soon as I saw that look on his face, I thought, "Oh, this'll be fun." He had a great spirit and it was an opportunity to apprentice under a great master. I know friends of mine who were jazz musicians. I was't a jazz musician, but a folk singer that played with jazz musicians, you might say, or God knows what. So the idea of working with him made me a source of envy to many of my friends and, one by one, I brought a lot of those people into play on the record. It wasn't the way it finally came out, but there were a lot of people that kind of lined up, honoured to be working on his last project.

Trevor Dann: I think it's really interesting that people like Charlie Mingus and Benny Goodman actually get name-checks in Joni Mitchell's later songs. You can tell that, as a singer-songwriter, she was not prepared to be constrained by folk music. She wasn't going to just sit there with a guitar and play the same three or four chords. She was interested in painting her lyrical pictures, using lots of different palettes. And just as she used oil paints and water colours, in music she would use jazz and classical influences and folk influences. She was never happy with one idea. She was a restless artist, and I think has remained so.

Joni Mitchell: I have sympathy with the fans. I understand that there's some... the fact that I'm interested in certain colour schemes doesn't mean that everybody's going to be interested in the same colour schemes. Muted chords, you know, dusty colours. I got sick of the downbeat and I took it to the limit where I... You know, "the backbeat, you can't lose it?" I lost it! A lot of the Mingus stuff, I had the rhythm just flowing all over freely.

Cerys Matthews: After touring the album, Joni turned recordings of the Los Angeles shows into a live album and a concert film, "Shadows and Light". For the next 18 months, Joni worked on her next album, "Wild things run fast."

["Underneath the streetlight" playing]

Joni Mitchell: "Yes, I do, I love ya!" "Underneath the streetlight," for sure, that is really fun to sing.

Cerys Matthews: In 1983 Joni set off on a world tour visiting Japan, Australia, Thailand, Mainland Europe and, of course, the U.K. By the end of the following year, she was writing again. And synth-pop performer and producer Thomas Dolby was brought on board.

Thomas Dolby: I first met Joni Mitchell in the autumn of 1984. She had heard a cover version I'd done of her song, "The Jungle Line," and she said, "that's the sound that I want on my next album." So I spent much of the summer of 1985 in Los Angeles working with Joni and her then-husband Larry Klein. I have to say that Joni Mitchell is somebody that can't really be produced. I mean, she has her own set of opinions about things and you pretty much have to let her go at it. So, it was a mixed experience really for me, but I think the result was quite interesting. It was the first time she'd really used extensive electronics on one of her albums and it was an interesting experiment and departure for her.

Cerys Matthews: The album they produced was "Dog Eat Dog," and it dealt with some of the big issues of the 1980s, such as consumerism and famine in Ethiopia.

Thomas Dolby: It got criticism in many places because people felt that it was too electronic-sounding, compared to the organic sound that Joni had had in the past with her guitar-based and piano-based material. But I think it was a breakthrough for her, nonetheless, and I think that between her and Larry Klein, they managed on that album to embrace new technologies such as samplers and computers and so on, and weave them into the sound which, in future albums, gave her the ability to stretch out.

Cerys Matthews: One of the songs on "Dog Eat Dog" - "Tax Free" - focussed on televangelists and what Joni saw as a drift to the religious right in american politics.

["Tax Free" playing]

Thomas Dolby: During the Ronald Reagan era, which coincided with the expansion of cable TV in the U.S.A., you could channel-surf and you could find hundreds, literally hundreds of channels of TV evangelists spouting their stuff in the U.S.A. It was extremely right-wing and usually there was an 800 number at the bottom, asking you to pledge money so that they could afford their private jet for their next tour. And Joni would watch these in amazement, and it kind of matched a certain anger or fury that she was beginning to feel about the way the U.S.A. was going. And so, it made a lot of sense to her to write this song "Tax Free", which she originally... We used samples from TV evangelists but, because of copyright issues and the risk of being sued, she eventually got Rod Steiger, the actor, to replace some of those parts and play the part of the evangelist.

Cerys Matthews: Joni continued experimenting with synthesizers, sequences and drum machines for her next album, 1988's "Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm." By 1990 she was working on her next album, "Night Ride Home." It signalled a move closer to her acoustic beginnings, along with some elements in the style of "Hejira". To wider audiences, Joni's real return to form came with a Grammy-award-winning "Turbulent Indigo." Songs such as "Sex Kills", "Sunny Sunday" and "The Magdelene Laundries" mixed social commentary and guitar-focussed melodies for a startling comeback.

["Magdelene Laundries" playing]

Two years later, Joni released her final original work, "Taming the Tiger", before nearly a decade of other pursuits. It was around this time that critics began to comment on the change in Joni's voice.

Joni Mitchell: It changes, you know, your phrasing changes, just maturing chronologically changes voices, although, when I sing in a certain range, I still sound like I'm about 17 and I'm on helium.

Cerys Matthews: Her more limited range and her huskier vocals were put down to smoking, but Joni believes that the changes were due to other problems including vocal nodules and a compressed larynx and the lasting effects of polio.

Max Bennett: A lot of people don't realize what a strain it is on the vocal chords to sing.

Cerys Matthews: Musician Max Bennett played on several of Joni's albums.

Max Bennett: When you think about it, somebody standing all night in front of an audience and singing, singing their heart out, that's hard work and the vocal chords, through many, many years, suffer from that a bit as far as range in particular.

Kate Mossman: Back in the very early records it's almost like a Disney high voice, lovely sort of tweeting-bird sound and then, when she did "Both Sides Now" in 2000, which was the orchestral reimagings, it was almost part of the artistic experiment. "Listen, this is what I sound like," and the songs were extremely sombre, very, very dark and, for instance, the way she reimagined "Case of You" turned it from this kind of luscious moment when you realize you're in a bar, falling in love with somebody, to someone looking on in their 60s, thinking possibly, I lost that person, or that was a feeling I haven't had for a long time. So she was experimenting with how deep her voice was.

["A case of you" playing]

Cerys Matthews: In 2007 she was back and, according to Joni Mitchell, the album "Shine" was inspired by the war in Iraq and something her grandson had said while listening to family members arguing. "Bad dreams are good in the great plan."

Nowadays, Joni's public appearances have become more infrequent. She's currently receiving treatment for Morgellens Syndrome, a condition which results in crawling and stinging sensations under the skin. Joni speaking to Jian Gomeshi for a CBC interview never heard before in the U.K.

Joni Mitchell: This disease that I have is a nightmare. If you look at it subjectively, people all over the world kill themselves.They just can't take it. If you look at it objectively, it's fascinating.

Cerys Matthews: Opinion in the medical community is split over whether Morgellens is an infection or a psychiatric disorder. Whatever the case, the symptoms are real and Joni now works toward giving more credibility to people diagnosed with the ailment.

["Urge for Going" playing]

But if and when she next steps onto the public stage, plenty of us will be hanging on Joni Mitchell's every word.

Max Bennett: If I had to sum up Joni, I would say, first of all, a really good person, a really good gal, highly intelligent, unique, always thinking ahead. She could drive you crazy because she had so many thoughts all the time, progressing, progressing in her head, and it was hard to keep up with her in a sense, because that's just the way she thought.

Judy Collins: You know, you can't have talent without having the guts to do it and Joni has guts, and she's got tenacity and she's hung in there no matter what. And she's risen from an unknown gal playing the ukulele to somebody who's made, written things that have been recorded by people all over the world in all kinds of languages. And she's unique. There's nobody who writes songs like that, I don't think.

Cerys Matthews: Well, I couldn't agree more with those comments, but let's leave the last word to Joni herself.

Joni Mitchell: If you elevate me, you're not going to meet yourself in my songs. Maybe you can do it. I don't know. I don't think so. Yeah. [laughs]

[Joni singing: "And I get the urge for going when the meadow grass is turning brown, and summertime is falling down."]

Cerys Matthews: You've been listening to "Girl on Guitar". It was presented by me, Cerys Matthews, and it was written and produced by Phil Collinge. It was a "Made in Manchester" production for BBC Radio 2. Online, on digital radio and on 88 to 91 FM. This is Radio 2 from the BBC.

This article has been viewed 2,077 times since being added on September 7, 2016.

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