Inside the spirit of Joni Mitchell’s music

In Her Own WordsThe first time she wrote a song, as a child taking piano lessons, her teacher rapped her knuckles with a ruler. Her well-loved song “Both Sides Now,” recorded by numerous artists, was ridiculed when she first performed it for someone. When she tried recording with a band early in her career, the bass player refused to play anything other than the root note of the chords, telling her that her suggestions for a more melodic approach were wrong. The story of Joni Mitchell is a story of someone who, time and time again, was told NO. Yet she persevered. It’s an amazing story in many ways, because for a woman to assert herself and not back down was much harder 50 years ago. We learn many of these things in Malka’s book of transcribed conversations with Joni, In Her Own Words.

Joni’s childhood bout with polio likely reinforced this sense of determination. She willed herself to heal, despite isolation in a hospital ward and predictions that she wouldn’t walk again. There was probably a kernel of this attitude in her temperament to begin with that only grew over the years. Some of her most artistically successful and daring work during the 70s—albums like Hejira, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter—did not garner much commercial or critical acclaim at the time. Yet many people (myself included) count these albums among their favorite. This was the period, starting with Court and Spark, when she expanded her musicianship to work with jazz musicians, who could better help her realize her musical vision and weren’t intimidated by her unorthodox guitar tunings and chords. The mutual love between these artists across boundaries—the singer/songwriter and the jazz musician—yielded rich music across the years, from her collaboration with Charles Mingus to Herbie Hancock’s Grammy award winning album Letters to Joni.

Malka’s book offers much insight into what makes Joni tick, creatively as well as temperamentally. The interviews are open and honest. In one of the early questions, she laughs and says she has no interest in being vulnerable, yet she opens up and invites us inside her spirit, unguarded. Given the profound nature of her body of songs and her influence, it will surprise some people, especially musicians, to hear how she thinks of herself as a painter rather than a musician or poet. There are few musical artists during the past 50 years who can match the combined genius of her music and lyrics. Filled with lyrics and images of Joni’s artwork, In Her Own Words is a fascinating read that will reward anyone interested in popular music, creativity, and the spirit of one of our greatest artists.

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