Joni Mitchell Tells Elton John the Stories Behind Her Iconic Songs: “Both Sides Now,” “Carey” & More

When Joni Mitchell heard the great cabaret artist Mabel Mer­cer in con­cert, she was so struck by the old­er woman’s ren­di­tion of “Both Sides Now,” the endur­ing bal­lad Mitchell wrote at the ten­der age of 23, that she went back­stage to show her appre­ci­a­tion:

… but I didn’t tell her that I was the author. So, I said, y’know, I’ve heard var­i­ous record­ings of that song, but you bring some­thing to it, y’know, that oth­er peo­ple haven’t been able to do. You know, it’s not a song for an ingenue. You have to bring some age to it. 

Well, she took offense. I insult­ed her. I called her an old lady, as far as she was con­cerned. So I got out of there in a hell of a hur­ry! 

But I think I final­ly became an old lady myself and could sing the song right.

This is just one of many can­did treats to be found in Mitchell’s inter­view with Elton John, for his Apple Music 1 show Rock­et Hour.

For the most part, Mitchell’s rem­i­nis­cences coa­lesce around var­i­ous icon­ic tracks from her near­ly six­ty years in the music indus­try.

“Carey,” off Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue, sparks mem­o­ries of an explod­ing stove dur­ing a hip­pie-era sojourn in Mata­la on Crete’s south coast, with an Odyssey ref­er­ence thrown in for good mea­sure.

“Amelia” was hatched, as were most of the tunes on 1976’s Heji­ra, while Mitchell was on a solo road trip in a sec­ond­hand Mer­cedes, an expe­ri­ence that caused her to dwell on the first female avi­a­tor to cross the Atlantic solo. (She scrib­bled down lyrics that had come to her at the wheel when­ev­er she pulled over for lunch.)

Regard­ing “Sex Kills” from 1994’s Tur­bu­lent Indi­go, John quotes a Rolling Stone arti­cle in which Mitchell dis­cussed the “ugli­ness” she was detect­ing in pop­u­lar music:

I think it’s on the increase. Espe­cial­ly towards women. I’ve nev­er been a fem­i­nist, but we haven’t had pop songs up until recent­ly that were so aggres­sive­ly dan­ger­ous to women.

“What did you mean by that?” John asks. “ Peo­ple say­ing rap music with ‘my hos’ and stuff like that?”

“Oh, well, y’know, yeah,” Mitchell says, “Hos and booty, y’know, haha­hah.”

She may not seem over­ly fussed about it now, but don’t get her start­ed on what young women wear to the Gram­mys!

John also invit­ed Mitchell to dis­cuss three songs that have influ­enced her.

Her picks:

Lam­bert, Hen­dricks & Ross’s “Charleston Alley” (a musi­cal epiphany as a high school­er at a col­lege par­ty)

Edith Piaf’s “Les Trois Cloches” (a musi­cal epiphany as an 8‑year-old at a birth­day  par­ty)

And Chuck Berry’s “John­ny B. Goode” (danc­ing ‘round the juke­box at Saska­toon swim­ming pool)

Cir­cling back to “Both Sides Now,” Mitchell prefers the orches­tral arrange­ment she record­ed as an alto in 2002 to the orig­i­nal’s girl­ish sopra­no, with its pos­si­bly unearned per­spec­tive. (“It’s not a song for an ingenue…”)

When I per­formed it, the orches­tra gath­ered around me and I’ve played with clas­si­cal musi­cians before and they were always read­ing the Wall Street Jour­nal behind their sheet music and they always treat you like it’s a con­de­scen­sion to be play­ing with you, but every­body, the men — Eng­lish­men! — were weep­ing!

Per­haps you too will be moved to tears, as singer-song­writer Bran­di Carlile was dur­ing a per­for­mance of “Both Sides Now” as part of the 2022 New­port Folk Festival’s Joni Jam, Mitchell’s first show in 22 years, owing to a peri­od of major dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the music busi­ness as well as a 2015 brain aneurysm.

Tune into more episodes of Elton John’s Rock­et Hour here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Watch the Full Set of Joni Mitchell’s Amaz­ing Come­back Per­for­mance at the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val

Songs by Joni Mitchell Re-Imag­ined as Pulp Fic­tion Book Cov­ers & Vin­tage Movie Posters

Hear Demos & Out­takes of Joni Mitchell’s Blue on the 50th Anniver­sary of the Clas­sic Album

How Joni Mitchell Learned to Play Gui­tar Again After a 2015 Brain Aneurysm–and Made It Back to the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val

How Joni Mitchell Wrote “Wood­stock,” the Song that Defined the Leg­endary Music Fes­ti­val, Even Though She Wasn’t There (1969)

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and the soon to be released Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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