The first time I heard Joni Mitchell’s voice, I hadn’t been born quite yet. Taming the Tiger and Blue played in the background while I was still learning to walk, Hejira accompanied more than one road trip, and I distinctly remember my sister and me bursting into a chorus of “Dad, no, put the Beatles back on!” when he switched from Abbey Road to Court and Spark on the way to our Saturday morning violin lessons. I heard her voice late at night when I couldn’t sleep, when my father sat in the living room quietly listening to his favorite albums.
It wasn’t until I left for college that I sought out Joni Mitchell on my own. Moving from Southern California to Seattle, away from the sun and the family I’ve always been close to, I listened to Blue, letting the album repeat throughout the day. The familiarity of Mitchell’s high, clear voice brought back blurry, comforting memories of childhood, and the songs about California soothed the ache for the ocean and chaparral, something I never expected to feel. Her songs evoked, for me, the red-and-gold glitter of the Los Angeles highways, and the dry dust and speckled, sandy mountains of the Mojave desert. I learned to love Joni Mitchell, not for her music, but for the connection I built between her and home.
Blue was the first Joni Mitchell album that resonated with me, but when I finally began to explore others it was her earlier, folk-influenced music that captivated me. I had listened to other folk artists during high school—James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens—so the basic structure of Mitchell’s earlier work wasn’t too difficult to follow. (Oddly enough, Mitchell has expressed irritation with being classified as a folksinger, resenting the implication of simplicity or immaturity, but I didn’t know that then, and I’m not sure I fully understand her resentment now.) I loved the clarity of Mitchell’s voice, the simple quality of the melodies, and the gentle chords in harmony with her vocals. Her youth stands out in those early albums; Joni Mitchell’s songs from her twenties felt more accessible to me at nineteen than her more experimental projects.
As I moved into the later albums, towards Mingus and Taming the Tiger, the complexity of rhythm and the contributions of the musicians she brought on—Jaco Pastorious, Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter—intrigued me in a new way. At the time, I had begun to listen to jazz more extensively, frustrated with the predictability of so much of pop music, and the discovery that Joni Mitchell had drawn on jazz delighted me. Jazz offers a challenge: you have to listen closely and actively to hear the delicate patterns beneath the appearance of spontaneity. I began to pay close attention to Mitchell’s instrumentation as well as her lyrics, and to the shifts in her approach to composition. My connection with her music shifted as well; Joni Mitchell conveys emotion with a power that will never fail to reach me, but learning to hear these other musical characteristics of her work revealed that Mitchell was an incredibly talented composer.
When I went home to California this winter, I sat down and listened to Mitchell’s discography from start to finish. I still love her earliest songs, when her voice betrayed her youth even while she sung about ageless, timeless things, but I love those songs for more nuanced reasons. It’s a mark of her capability as a songwriter and composer that what Mitchell makes appear effortless is the result of a complex combination of harmonic strategies. It is a mark of my own youth that when I first listened to those songs, I heard only the simplicity and noticed none of the work.
As her voice aged, deepening with alcohol and cigarettes, Mitchell moved away from confessional narratives. Some of the topics are lost on me simply because they occurred before my time—old politics, incidents in the news that I’d have to look up—but others come from a more world-weary view than I can possibly imagine. I can’t understand what Mitchell means when she sings about watching a beautiful, younger boy in Rome: “In my youth, I would have followed him/all through this terra cotta town,” or what it’s like to look back on love affairs from a distance. I began to love Joni Mitchell because I could empathize with the songs she wrote when she was young, and grew to love her later work for its musical complexity. In twenty or thirty years, perhaps the words of those later songs will mean something different to me.
Joni Mitchell changed as an artist frequently throughout her career. When I think about her music as the result of a specific time and place and person, I think of her work as a long chronicle of an individual’s transformation. But when I think about listening to her at different times—different ages, moods, and seasons—I think about the way her music seems to change imperceptibly as I change. I notice new things; I choose to notice new things. When we engage with art, so much of what we get out of it comes from inside, from how we approach it. Anything we get out of art is the result of an active engagement, in one way or another. Joni Mitchell’s brilliance, as a composer, lyricist, musician, and performer, comes from the infinite possibilities contained within her music—whole worlds, lying patiently in wait for someone to pick that particular world that particular day.