Remember When: Joni Mitchell Declined to Record a Song Prince Wrote for Her

The influence Joni Mitchell had on Prince’s music may not be immediately recognizable, but if you listen closely, it’s there. Even if you don’t pick up on how Prince’s vocal phrasings sometimes approximate those of Mitchell, he left us several hints as to the degree of his fandom and respect for the Canadian singer/songwriter.

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The name “Joni” graces the sleeve of his Controversy album as a headline under the banner of “The Controversy Daily,” and Prince thanked her in the album’s liner notes. On “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” from Sign o’ the Times, Prince name-dropped Mitchell and her biggest hit when he sang It was Joni singing / “Help me, I think I’m falling.” He also covered Mitchell’s “A Case of You” (as “A Case of U”) on his 2002 album One Nite Alone…

It is hardly surprising, then, that Prince penned a tune for Mitchell to record. The song, “Emotional Pump,” did not become the next “Sugar Walls” or “Manic Monday.” Prince offered those songs to Sheena Easton and The Bangles, respectively, and their recordings became Top-10 hits. Mitchell never recorded “Emotional Pump,” and the listening public wouldn’t get to hear Prince’s version until well after his death in 2016.

Mitchell liked Prince’s music, so why didn’t she follow in the footsteps of Easton and The Bangles? She eventually explained her reasoning in an interview, so we don’t have to speculate on her reason for turning Prince down.

A Fresh, Funky Song for Mitchell

Prince didn’t just write and record a song for Mitchell out of the blue. The two musicians had been jamming together, and according to Mitchell in a 1988 interview for the Auckland Sun, she was intrigued by a comment Prince had made to her during the session. Mitchell told the Sun, “He implied that something would happen between our two musics. Something that he had never done before. That whet my curiosity.” While Mitchell was interested in hearing more about Prince’s vision for a collaboration, asking him for more details didn’t provide much clarification. She said, “The closest he came to articulating it was that it was the open harmonies I got in conjunction with funk into a hybrid that would be fairly fresh.”

Mitchell was sufficiently interested that she asked Prince to send her a track. During an October 1986 recording session at Sunset Sound in Hollywood—one of the many sites where he recorded tracks for Sign o’ the Times—Prince created “Emotional Pump.” He was joined by saxophonist Eric Leeds and trumpeter Atlanta Bliss, both of whom played on several Prince albums, including Sign o’ the Times. The trio created a danceable track that mostly features Prince singing over a bass line and drum machine loop. As he previously indicated, “Emotional Pump” was indeed funky, and he layered his vocals into open harmonies. Following through on Mitchell’s request for a song, Prince sent her the track.

Why Mitchell Turned It Down

Upon listening to “Emotional Pump,” Mitchell decided she would not record the song. In an interview published on the Stranger In Australia YouTube channel, she explained why. “I called him up and I said, ‘You know, I can’t sing this,'” apparently referring to the lines You are my emotional pump and Make my body jump. She continued, “I’d have to jump around in a black teddy. … I shouldn’t be jumping around in a black teddy.” Even though Prince reassured her by saying, “Oh, Joan, we don’t do that anymore,” she passed on recording her own version of “Emotional Pump.”

An Enduring Connection

Mitchell has yet to return the favor of Prince covering “A Case of You” and record a Prince-written song. Given that she has not released any new studio recordings since her 2007 album Shine, it may be fair to assume it will never happen. We can look to Prince’s body of work for reminders of the connections between the two artists. Mitchell acknowledged in a 1988 interview for Dutch national television she could hear her influence on Prince’s work, though “not as much as he does.” She commented she did notice her influence on the harmonies in “Purple Rain.”

Prince’s version of “Emotional Pump” was finally released as part of the 2020 Super Deluxe edition of Sign o’ the Times. Would it have worked as a cover song for Mitchell? We’ll probably never know for sure, but it’s fun to give Prince’s version a spin and imagine the possibilities.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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