Joni Mitchell’s best songs seem to be inspired by a divine force. Tracks like ‘Help Me’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ have a timeless quality to them, as if they’ve always been present. Mitchell found her inspiration beyond her contemporaries, and while she started out writing her own music, she was not largely influenced by her generation. Mitchell cited some of the biggest names in jazz and classical music as her biggest inspirations, including Rachmaninoff and Billie Holiday.
While many of her peers drew inspiration from old-school rock and roll, Joni Mitchell’s musical influences were much broader. Her love for melody stemmed from various classical composers, while the improvisational nature of jazz is evident in her recordings. In her songs, Mitchell’s lyrics have a conversational tone, almost like her voice is the main instrument. She brought this unorthodox approach to rock and roll, experimenting with different tunings throughout her career. Her guitar was often tuned to open chords, making it challenging for the average guitar player to work with, but giving her songs a more ethereal quality, as heard in tracks like ‘Amelia’.
Joni Mitchell didn’t start writing music until a few years after she began writing poetry. Initially, she admired jazz artists like Miles Davis but couldn’t incorporate their style into her music. It was only after moving to the US in 1965 that she began writing her own music, encouraged by fellow musicians Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, who were already pioneering the genre with politically charged and emotionally complex songs.
Despite being influenced by Cohen and Dylan, Mitchell’s songwriting style surpassed them in her ability to create vivid imagery through her music. Her album Blue, with songs like ‘River’, showcased a level of emotional depth that made Dylan’s songs seem simplistic in comparison.
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Despite her eclectic musical influences, Mitchell also had a deep appreciation for rock and roll, as she once praised Chuck Berry as one of the greatest of all time in the genre. Mitchell believed that Berry’s simple yet profound portrayal of small-town America was similar to the tone of literature from decades prior. While Berry may have been considered the Ernest Hemingway of rock, Mitchell was undoubtedly the Emily Dickinson of the genre.
As she continued to evolve as an artist in the years following her debut in the ’60s, Mitchell incorporated jazz elements into albums like Hejira, collaborating with top musicians such as Larry Carlton and Jaco Pastorius. For Mitchell, genres were merely another color to add to her artistic canvas, and she never let them limit her creative expression.