A Beginner’s Guide to Joni Mitchell

How to introduce you to Joni Mitchell? She’s been called many things, from “one of the greatest songwriters ever,” to “one of the world’s last great smokers.” Some would say she’s one of the most influential female recording artists of the late 20th century. I would say she is the most influential recording artist of the late 20th century.

For over forty years, Joni Mitchell wrote and made music. She became famous as a folk singer, for that open-tuned guitar in “Big Yellow Taxi” and the sparse piano backing of “River.” But she has one of the most diverse discographies I’ve ever taken the time to sift through. Her later songs are almost indistinguishable from the earlier folk anthems. They’ve got a lilting air to them, accompanied by an errant saxophone, layered, too, with a base structure that strikes me as almost Sondheim-esque.

I first encountered Joni Mitchell in junior high, on a cassette tape of Court and Spark that my father had stuck under the piles of mixtapes, Allman Brothers, and The Band in our car. When I started driving that car my senior year of high school, the only album I bothered to burn onto a disk was Joni Mitchell’s Hits.

Falling in love with Joni Mitchell is like reading The Bell Jar for the first time. That is to say, it isn’t for everyone.

Here are my top five tracks, culled from her extensive library of albums. Go slow, take your time.

1. California

I’ve never been to California. But this song is more about the state of mind than the state itself. Driving down empty roads with the windows cracked. Burying your feet in the warm sand. Flying on an airplane by yourself for the first time. And trying to get that back. (If you ever find out what a sunset pig is, please do let me know).

2. Urge for Going

There are a couple different versions of this song, but this is the one found in Hits. Some the eeriness has been smoothed away from the arpeggios; it’s softer now, rounded out with the base notes. But the longing is still there. It’s that first week of November when you can feel autumn slipping away slowly, hanging about the air for one final moment.

3. Help Me

This is a very 1970s song. Not in the sort of way you could explain, it just is. Not quite a love song, not quite anything else either. The full accompaniment, the sustained reverberating notes. This is classic 1974 Joni Mitchell.

4. Cherokee Louise

This is from 2002’s Travelogue, an orchestral re-recording of her previous work. This exemplifies the best of Joni Mitchell’s late career. It’s bittersweet and soaring; you can tell she’s looking back at something behind her. I love this song because it feels like a jazz solo, all spotlight and saxophone, maybe a big red curtain behind her. Just like taking a bow.

5. River

The best and perhaps saddest Christmas song ever written.

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About Meaghan Murphy

lives, studies, makes radio in Chicago. writes about it too.

4 comments

  1. Jenai

    California is going to be my anthem when I am in China next year and looking forward to coming home and going to college in California!

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