Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell and the Musicians She Inspired
In the pantheon of legendary singer-songwriters, there are the greats, and then there is Joni Mitchell. Emerging during the folk revival of the 1960s, it didn't take particularly long for Mitchell to put her stamp on the music industry. Mitchell is a deeply personal songwriter, a master of fingerstyle guitar, and unafraid to experiment, dabbling heavily in jazz throughout her incredible career. Mitchell has influenced countless artists who came after, both in the folk genre and across the musical spectrum. To celebrate the re-issue of some of her greatest vinyl records, we're taking a look at Joni Mitchell, as well as some of the surprising (and not so surprising) musicians she inspired.
Let's lead off with Joni herself, and Blue, one of the greatest musical feats of the 20th century. Blue is a shockingly personal album, featuring Mitchell baring her soul, giving listeners an in-depth look into her fears, her insecurities, and her aspirations. Blue features little accompaniment, mostly relying on Mitchell, her guitar, and her mastery of the written word. Blue is what virtually all singer-songwriter records aspire to be, and continues to serve as an influence for nearly every record that followed.
We did say surprising, didn't we? Prince's style stands in stark contrast to Mitchell, known for his eclectic, flamboyant personality and bombastic musical stylings. Still, Prince considered Mitchell one of his greatest inspirations, referencing her on his track, "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker." True to his influence, Sign o' the Times is considered one of Prince's most personal albums, featuring his signature virtuoso ability on guitar and incorporating a wide variety of musical genres.
CSNY and Mitchell share an intrinsic link, having emerged around the same time, largely as a result of one another. Mitchell had a brief relationship with David Crosby, who was enamored with her music and produced her first record, helping to set her up for stardom. Crosby was invigorated by his relationship with Mitchell, rediscovering his love for music and teaming with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, and Neil Young to form the premier group in folk rock. Mitchell also formed a relationship with Nash, the subsequent fallout having largely influenced the subject matter of Blue.
Mitchell's foray into jazz served as a point of influence for many artists, as well. Norah Jones, one of jazz-pop's most gifted artists, saw Mitchell as a tremendous source of inspiration, especially as she got older and continued to develop her voice. Come Away with Me has its roots in jazz, but the story of the record lies in the dulcet tones of Jones' voice, offering up a decidedly folk-infused tone to accompany the subtle piano and horns.
The synth-pop duo of Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart wasn't exactly riding high in the early '80s. They hadn't achieved much commercial success, and the trials of life on the road were taking their toll. That changed with the release of Sweet Dreams in 1983. The title track has become iconic, still receiving radio play and remaining a synth-pop standard. Lennox considered Joni Mitchell a tremendous influence, having first heard her music in the 1970s, comparing her lyrics to a painting, and translating that feeling into her own music.
You won't find many Joni Mitchell devotees greater than Brandi Carlile. One of the greatest singer-songwriters working in music today, Carlile and Mitchell developed a close friendship, with Carlile encouraging her to return to the stage after a brain aneurysm nearly derailed Mitchell's career in 2015. Mitchell surprised fans, joining Carlile on stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 2022. In These Silent Days is songwriting brilliance in its own right, with "You and Me on the Rock" serving as a particular highlight.
Though known for heavy riffs and blinding guitar solos, Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page both consider Mitchell an influence. Page in particular claims that in 1975, he would go home from the studio and listen to her, hoping she'd decide to work with Led Zep. Physical Graffiti stands as one of Zeppelin's most cohesive albums, with a renewed focus on songwriting and lyricism. "Kashmir" is the record's best known song, a nearly 10 minute long progressive rock track most of the band agreed was one of their greatest.
Joni Mitchell's music remains on Stevie Nicks' pre-show playlist. Nicks, like many other, expressed a great admiration for Mitchell's songwriting talent, something she herself had become known for as a member of '70s legends, Fleetwood Mac. Still, ever the rock star, Stevie struck is solo with 1981's Bella Donna. Bella Donna was a smash hit, featuring a heavier sound than her work with Fleetwood Mac and spawning one of her greatest hits in "Edge of Seventeen."
Jimi Hendrix's journal entry after seeing Joni Mitchell perform was concise; "fantastic girl with heaven words," he wrote in 1968. Electric Ladyland was his final album with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and featured some of the experimentation he would become known for on Band of Gypsys. Hendrix, already known as one of rock's greatest virtuosos, began incorporating elements of free jazz, funk, and an overall heavier tone. The album offered up Hendrix's only #1 hit, the psychedelia soaked "Voodoo Child."
Strange one, huh? You may not find many musical similarities between Mitchell and Tool, the experimental progressive metal band, but frontman Maynard James Keenan disagrees. Having first listened to Blue in his youth, he was struck by its beauty, and developed an immediate admiration for Mitchell, someone he saw as "going against the grain" by baring her soul as a woman songwriter in a man's world. Lateralus is Tool at their peak, with complex rhythms led by drummer Danny Carey and existential lyrics. Most notable is their use of the Fibonacci sequence to construct the title track, moving between 9/8, 8/8, and 7/8 time to mirror the 16th integer of the sequence.