Joni Mitchell refuses to compromise her artistic visions
Having vowed never to record again, one of pop's most lauded singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell, is returning with a new album this year. A tribute album is also due for release and Radio 2 was recently granted a rare interview. Is this the resurfacing of just another rock relic or that rare event: a comeback worth waiting for?
Not one to shy away from controversy, our Joni. "To enjoy my music, you need depth and emotionality," she recently told one interviewer. "Those two traits are bred out of the white, straight males who control the press."
That's not to say she has much time for feminists either. In the same interview she called them "amazons", adding that the women's movement "created an aggressive-type female with a sense of entitlement that's a bit of a monster".
From her earliest incarnation as the sweet-voiced ingénue flower child - whose lithe frame seemed dwarfed by her acoustic guitar - to the politically-committed grandmother we see today, Joni Mitchell has always been big news.
Mitchell is outspoken
She struggled with polio in childhood, started smoking at seven and gave up her baby daughter for adoption.
Her high-profile lovers have included Graham Nash, once of The Hollies, who wrote the song Our House while living with Mitchell on Lookout Mountain in LA, James Taylor and Jackson Browne.
She hung out with Bob Dylan on the legendary 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, developed a cocaine habit and fled, motoring across the United States without a driving licence in her urge to return to California.
Her songs have provided hits for a number of acts: Judy Collins took Both Sides Now to the top of the charts after Mitchell, at the behest of a mutual friend, sang it down the phone to her one night.
Woodstock has been famously covered by Matthews Southern Comfort and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Even Led Zeppelin were inspired, witness their Going to California. And Bill Clinton's daughter was named after the Joni Mitchell song, Chelsea Morning.
But just where in the musical pantheon does the 63 year-old singer sit? Well, journalist Mick Brown, whose Tearing Down The Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector, is about to hit the bookshelves, is clear.
"She's very high up there with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits," he says. "Peerless, she was a trailblazer in terms of what the music industry allowed women artists to do. Of course, Joan Baez was already a renowned folk artist but Joni Mitchell went much further."
BBC 6 Music presenter and author Andrew Collins agrees: "It's not a bad place to be, especially for one whose rather shrill voice is certainly not everybody's cup of tea and the abstract jazz phase was seemingly designed to put us all off her in the 70s."
And what about that three-octave voice? In the morning of her career it was a thing of wonder, swooping and rising like an exotic bird riding the thermals.
Today, five or so years after nodes on Joni's larynx and other physical problems threatened to silence it forever, it has assumed the richness of patined wood: a jazzy, smoky sound at once world-weary and defiant.
Even so, not everyone was always impressed. Mitchell famously faced the audience's wrath at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival. Whether this was because of a lack of adequate sanitation, the £3 ticket price or just a case of rockers baiting a folkie, remains a moot point. Even so, it was an unedifying and unsettling spectacle.
But Mitchell belongs to that most select of all artistic groups, the happy few who have led their followers on a warts-and-all journey through life.
As Brown puts it: "By writing about the ageing process, she shows she's not a pawn of the music industry. Her work is full of confessional ardour and honesty." He says songs like Chinese Café, which opens with the great lines:
"Caught in the middle
Carol, we're middle class
We're middle aged
We were wild in the old days
Birth of rock 'n roll days
Now your kids are coming up straight
And my child's a stranger
I bore her
But, I could not raise her"
But that honesty has always been problematic, commercially at least. Refusing to compromise her artistic vision has lost Mitchell many fans over the years.
Those beguiled by "moons and Junes and Ferris wheels" in the late 1960s might have been wowed by albums like Ladies of the Canyon, Blue and the jazz-tinged Court and Spark, cited by Madonna as a major influence.
But they were reluctant to latch on to Mitchell's further groundbreaking forays into jazz and "world music" - Hejira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. When artists like Sting began to cover the same ground during the late-80s, Mitchell's irritation was obvious.
Speaking in 1988, she said: "When I began experimenting, people weren't ready for it. Once it's in its second and third generational stages, people can accept it... Sting is going over my territory."
Even a great fan like Brown admits: "She's an industrial strength moaner, complaining that she hasn't had recognition and has been passed over. I don't think that this is the case."
Mitchell is described as a trailblazer
More recently, Mitchell has become increasingly political, berating the US Government over issues as diverse as the war in Iraq, genetically-modified food and the treatment of Native Americans.
And her influence has been incalculable. Besides Madonna, Prince and Annie Lennox, she continues to inspire a new generation of artists, among them KT Tunstall.
Mitchell's disenchantment with the music industry first surfaced in the late 1960s when she admitted "you never love music in the same way after you enter the business".
But even after stopping recording and performing in 2002 and concentrating on her other love, painting, it seems that the improbable is about to happen. A new album, Shine, will be released later this year. Expectation is already building.
"I can't wait to hear what she has to say," says Mick Brown. "She's a great artist, just like Picasso, and the arrival of a new album is an event."
And Collins sees Shine as a great opportunity to reach younger listeners. "If it really is a minimalist return to classic form, and if the rumoured political content - inspired by the Iraq war, so we hear - turns out to be substantial, she may even find a new audience."
In an era seemingly characterised by a more superficial pop style, Mitchell's return to song writing will be keenly awaited by her fans and, perhaps, win some newcomers. Just don't call the feisty and fabulous Canadian "the female Bob Dylan".
Below is a selection of your comments.
Joni is a genius songwriter. Vocally she is incredible, on a par with Freddie Mercury.
Its fair to say she doesn't get the recognition she deserves, she should be lauded like Dylan.
For anyone who has not listened to "Blue", they should check it out, definitely one of the Top 10 albums of all time. My fav tune of hers is "California", some great lyrics in that tune...
Let's face it, Joni Mitchell was a one-trick pony whose lack of real talent was cruelly exposed once the drugs wore off. Her pretentious arrogance will leave her in the lay-by of musical history with some of those other has beens mentioned, Dylan, Waits, Cohen. Sure they all wrote a few good tunes 40 years ago, but none have them have recorded anything worthwhile in at least 25 years. Can we move on please!
David Williams, London
Over 30 years later, I still remember the prickles that ran up and down my spine the first time I heard "Blue". JM deserves to be remembered as one of the world's greatest songwriters, even if she is an "industrial strength moaner"!
Huge, Bedford, UK
From the first time I heard her songs in 1969 I was struck by the beauty and originality of her words and music, of her guitar playing with open tuning and of her unique voice. In particular the personal, confessional nature of her lyrics about the joys and pains of life and love struck so many chords with ones own experiences and emotions that it was impossible not to be affected.She is one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time.
Wayne de Nicolo, London
She has given immense pleasure to millions of appreciative listeners, inspired countless performers and guaranteed her place in musical history; any more the lady has to offer will be most welcome by the same.
David Hill, Saudi Arabia
Can't say I'm that bothered that she's coming back, to me she's like Dylan, over hyped.
Graham Barber, York
Joni's going to whinge about the war in Iraq? Wow! That's original!
Melina Jackson, U
how could you ever forget those lines...when asked to play something again, it's like asking an artist to paint it again. You know, an artist paints something, maybe it ends up in a loft, or hangs somewhere, but no one ever asked Van Gogh to paint a stary night again! I'm sure she will paint something quite new, that is the best she could do. Curious...
Catherine, Old Loft City
I have been listening to Joni Mitchell's work since first hearing Big Yellow Taxi as a child. At 23 I am the only person to my knowledge who listens to her still. I'm looking forward to what the next album as i've not really hear any of her recent work.
Robert Fisher, Rugby, Warwickshire, UK
Great to read a serious commentary about a legendary singer. I would add that the 'jazz' phase that was not necessarily accepted at the time was a platform to the commercial exposure of the brilliant Jaco Pastorious and the evergreen Pat Metheney.
Personally I would have to add that this is the favourite phase of her career, Hejira, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Mingus and The Hissing of Summer Lawns. All wonderful albums with a unique harmonic texture.
David Taylor, York
Last year I bought Joni Mitchell's album Blue. It's the first time I have bought anything by her and I bought it mainly because of the song Carey. I love her voice although I am not overly keen on one of her biggest hits Big Yellow Taxi.
When you listen to her voice you can see just how appalling a great many of today's female singers are, all sounding the same with no extra special quality to their voices. Joni Mitchell has that quality in spades!
Sue, Hants, UK
Do we really need another moaning faced sixties "icon" resurfacing? Boring and up her own arse then, what has changed now?
Personaly I think she's the greatest rock songwriter ever. Far cleverer than her peers, including people like Dylan who very much went off the boil in the 70's. Joni's stuff, whether it's been folk, jazz or rock has always been ahead of her time. The greatest and it's about time she was recognised as that.
Chris Kelman, Manchester, U
Yes Joni is outspoken, honest and a trailblazer.
What wonderful music,
with the seeringly painful and poetic lyrics.
I was 18 when I discovered
her first LP and I fell in love with my own Michael from the Mountains- and I carried on, as she did!
I look forward to Shine and I know that Joni has young fans as I was speaking to some last night.
They envied me that I saw her perform in London in the early 70s- magic!
Helen Whutworth, Exmouth devon UK
After seeing her on a BBC re-run of 'In Concert', I re-discovered 'Blue' and it is such a beautiful record and 36 years after it was made easily stands up to any comparison. I would encourage anybody who loves music, whatever genre, to listen to this or 'Hissing of Summer Lawns', and then make up their own mind about Joni Mitchell. Personally, I think if you can write and perform songs of this standard you have earned the right to be an 'industrial strength moaner'!
Kevin, Bosham, West Sussex
I'm glad she's sharing more of her work. She's been an inspiration aince I "discovered" her work in the early 70's while working theatre in Toronto. I've always admired her eloquence in turning a phrase like "humans are hungry for worlds they can't share". I even quoted her "Woodstock" in a thesis on the Golden Section. "We are star dust, we (truly) are golden". I'm glad to hear she's coming back. She's always been a star.
James Preslar, Hickory, NC, USA
I can't really blame Joni for wanting to keep out of the music business but I'm pleased she's decided to release new material and look forward to hearing it. Maybe there'll be another 'Big Yellow Taxi'...
Serena Snoad, England