How Joni Mitchell forged a path for Taylor Swift

Mitchell had a vision for her life and her art, and pursued it fearlessly – ripping up the rulebook for what was expected of women at the time. “I wanna wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive,” she sang on All I Want, the opening track of her fourth studio album, Blue. The record is widely considered her masterpiece – and the one in which she lays herself most bare. She wrote about her relationship with Nash, affairs with James Taylor and Cary Raditz (who she met in the caves of Matala, Crete), of feeling heartbroken, homesick, lonely. On Little Green, she sings about the child “born with the moon in cancer” that she gave up (Mitchell was eventually reunited with her daughter in the 1990s).

“I was demanding of myself a deeper and greater honesty, more and more revelation in my work,” she said in A Woman of Heart and Mind. Mitchell felt she owed it to her audience to make music that “strikes against the very nerves of their life… and in order to do that you have to strike against the very nerves of your own”. It wasn’t just the lyrics that wrung out every drop of feeling, but the music too, with Joni “twisting the knobs on the guitar until I could get these chords that I heard inside that suited me – they feel like my feelings.”

Talking to Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone in 1979, Mitchell said: “I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” It was this radical transparency – rare at the time – that made people feel such an intense connection to her music. She has said: “I have, on occasion, sacrificed myself and my own emotional makeup… singing ‘I’m selfish and I’m sad’, for instance. We all suffer for our loneliness, but at the time of Blue, our pop stars never admitted these things.”

Mitchell continued to write intensely personal songs, while also experimenting with different musical styles – jazz, world music and, in the 80s, synth-rock. A recurrent theme in her music was her struggle between two desires: love and independence. Her 1974 album Court and Spark finds her adrift at Hollywood soirees, “living on nerves and feelings, with a weak and a lazy mind” (People’s Parties). On the album’s Down to You, she grapples with the flip side of freedom, where “Everything comes and goes, marked by lovers and styles of clothes.”

On Amelia, a song from 1976 fan favourite Hejira, Mitchell finds common ground with aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, expressing how lonely it can feel chasing your dreams. “Maybe I’ve never really loved, I guess that is the truth, I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes.”

Not everyone appreciated her emotional honesty. On first hearing Blue, Kris Kristofferson famously told her: “Joni! Keep something for yourself!”. In a 2022 interview with Elton John, Mitchell said her lyrics made people nervous. “People thought that it was too intimate,” she said. “I think it upset the male singer-songwriters. They’d go, ‘Oh no. Do we have to bare our souls like this now?'”

Revealing lyrics

While disconcerting to some, Mitchell’s radically honest lyrics changed how people wrote songs, encouraging others to dig deeper. Stevie Nicks, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Carly Simon and Elvis Costello have all cited her as an inspiration. Morrissey, interviewing her for Rolling Stone in 1997 said: “I think you’re the greatest lyricist that ever lived.” Björk credited her as the first who “had the guts to set up a world driven by extreme female emotion“.

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