It’s quite a testament to Joni Mitchell’s musicianship that her “voice is arguably the most underrated aspect of her music.” So writes a contributor to The Range Place, an online project that analyzes the vocal ranges of popular singers. This is not to say that Mitchell’s voice is underrated—far from it—but her adventurous, deeply personal lyricism and experimental songwriting are how she is most often distinguished from the cohort of 60s singer-songwriters who emerged from the folk scene. (She first became known as the writer of Judy Collins’ hit, “Both Sides, Now.”)
That said, there’s no mistaking her for any other singer. “With very wide vibrato, she would frequently reach into her upper register comfortably with a blissful falsetto while still being able to reach some smooth lower notes with ease.” You can hear examples of her vocal range above, in excerpts from dozens of songs, both studio and live versions, recorded throughout her career. “She was a mezzo-soprano through the late sixties and seventies, with her voice standing out among other singer-songwriters due to its unusual comfort in the fifth octave.”
There are many other qualities that set Mitchell’s voice apart, including her incredible sense of pitch and rhythm. As session singer and vocal coach Jaime Babbitt writes, “singers who study singing and play instruments that make chords are better than all the rest. Joni Mitchell played many: dulcimer, guitar, piano, and flute, even ukulele as a child.” Mitchell’s instrumental skill gave her precise vocal timing, “a critical and often overlooked singer-skill,” and one that contributes hugely to a vocal performance.
Her love of jazz infuses even her folkiest songs with rhythmic vocal patterns that run up and down the scale. (Hear an example in the isolated vocals from 1971’s “River,” just above.) Just as every singer’s voice will do, Mitchell’s range narrowed with age. “Her voice nowadays,” writes The Range Place (though she no longer performs), “is closer to that of a contralto than to that of a mezzo-soprano, having lowered substantially more than other singers from the seventies”—a likely outcome of her lifelong smoking habit.
It’s common to say of an older singer that “she can’t hit the high notes anymore,” but this judgment misses out on the richness of a mature voice. Mitchell’s “indomitable technique” never wavered in her later years, Paul Taylor argues at The Independent. Her later voice was “stunning (bereft, bewildered, stoical),” transformed from the ambitious, piercing falsetto to “radiant/rueful” and wise.
Watch Joni Mitchell Sing an Immaculate Version of Her Song “Coyote,” with Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn & Gordon Lightfoot (1975)
See Classic Performances of Joni Mitchell from the Very Early Years–Before She Was Even Named Joni Mitchell (1965/66)
How Joni Mitchell Wrote “Woodstock,” the Song that Defined the Legendary Music Festival, Even Though She Wasn’t There (1969)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
thanks great piece on my favorite singer. Will forever feel 20 when I listen to her sing. Her images of Canada draw me back to my youth when I lived there.
That few singer sing as well as they did fifty years ago can be laid to entropy. But Joni destroyed an exquisite instrument by chain-smoking for decades (Gordon ightfoot did it, too). She lost both the angelic top and rich bottom end of her range. Her melodies became less interesting over time, they too lost their range, because as any singer\composer knows, you can’t write what you can’t sing.
That being said, the only singer I can think of who sings as well now 60 years ago is Stevie Wonder. Maybe even better. Dylan doesn’t count.
Very well done. where did you get the isolated vocal on river from?