There are few names as synonymous with confessional songwriting as Joni Mitchell. Her 1971 studio album, Blue, has frequently been heralded as among the definitive examples of intensely personal songwriting with its tear-stained heartbreak and full-bodied, evocative arrangements. In a rare interview, given during a recent virtual Grammy Awards party, the legendary storyteller reflected on a particular transition she made early on in her career, the decision to excavate deeper in the way she wrote songs.
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“I started scraping my own soul more and more and got more humanity in it. It scared the singer-songwriters around me; the men seemed to be nervous about it, almost like Dylan plugging in and going electric,” she reflects to party host Clive Davis over Zoom. “Like, ‘Does this mean we have to do this now?’ But over time, I think it did make an influence. It encouraged people to write more from their own experience.”
Later in the conversation, Mitchell also recalls writing another one of her most well-known songs, “Both Sides, Now,” originally found on her 1969 record, Clouds. “I was up in a plane. I was reading Henderson the Rain King, and in the book he was up on a plane flying to Africa and he looked down on clouds and he mused that he looked up at clouds, but he’d never looked down on them before. So that was where the germ of the idea for the song came from.”
Joni Mitchell’s impact reverberates throughout the industry, and even today, rising singers, songwriters, and musicians turn to her catalog to draw out their own inspirations. “People used to say to me, ‘Nobody’s ever going to cover your songs. They’re too personal,’” she muses on her legacy. “And yet, that’s not true, they’re getting a lot of covers. It’s just humanness that I’m trying to describe. This generation is ready for what I had to say, I guess, and is not so nervous about it.”
The singer-songwriter readies The Reprise Albums (1968-1971), a set to be released this summer as part of her ongoing archive series and celebration of Blue.