I grew up with the music of Joni Mitchell often playing in the background of my home life. For me she blended with the voices of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Carole King, and other sixties folkies; my mother—who played instruments like dulcimers and autoharps and could not sing or keep time—loved these women. I will confess, I did not. Familiarity did not breed contempt so much as indifference, and I mistook the softness of the music for cheap sentimentality. This careless listening lead me wrong, especially in the case of Mitchell, whose songwriting is perhaps as poetic, complex, and yet as honest as it gets.
In songs like the absolutely wrenching “Little Green” and the stunning, imagistic “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” Mitchell’s jazz-inflected compositions demonstrate these qualities in such abundance that they make me shudder. Her visual imagination is particularly on display in the latter, and that enduring quality comes from a lifelong engagement with art, her own and others. Mitchell, we learn in the 2003 CBC documentary above, had a childhood ambition to become a painter. She tells us in voice-over “I always had star eyes; I was always interested in glamour.” Music, for her, was a hobby.
Nonetheless, she made a name for herself locally in Calgary as a folk-singing art student in the sixties, “mimicking” Joan Baez and Judy Collins songs at a coffeehouse called The Depression. A pregnancy—ruinous at the time—thwarted Mitchell’s desire for an art career and, as she puts it, forced her “on the bad girl’s trail, a trail of shame and scandal.” She gave birth to a daughter (the subject of “Little Green”) and, out of desperation, began to birth her music—through an ill-considered misalliance with first husband and musical partner Chuck Mitchell. These painful early experiences pushed Mitchell to write, to “develop her own private world,” she says above. A line from “Little Green” captures the emotional nuances of that world: “You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed.”
Watch the full documentary (with Spanish subtitles) to get more insights into Mitchell’s development as an artist and a person. Mitchell is open, lively, and reflective, as you might expect. She’s as lively as ever as a 69-year-old grande dame of folk music, as you can see in the CBC interview above, taped at her home, where she talks at length about the paintings that line her walls and her songwriting process, while unrepentantly smoking like a chimney.