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Trouble Is Still Her Muse

Trouble Is Still Her Muse

On the complex and profound music of Joni Mitchell


Well hello folks and welcome back to The Secret Chord.

This is episode 35 and we're here to discuss the music of the great Joni Mitchell.

A special treat for me.

Joni was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7th, 1943 and she's an amazing Canadian singer-songwriter.

Her work draws from folk pop rock jazz and her songs often reflect social and environmental ideals as well as her feelings about romance confusion disillusionment and joy. Let's see, she's received so many accolades including nine Grammy Awards and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 97.

Rolling Stone magazine called her one of the greatest songwriters ever and AllMusic stated “When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century.”

Not bad.

In addition to that, she was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, which is Canada's highest honor in the performing arts.

She also received a star in Canada's Walk of Fame back in 2000 and in 2002 she became only the third popular Canadian singer-songwriter (which also included Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen) to be appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honor.

Joni's 1971 album Blue is often cited as one of the best albums of all time. It was rated the 30th best album ever made by Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2000, the New York Times chose Blue as one of the 25 albums that represented turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music.

But I'd like to play you something from an earlier Joni album called Clouds.

As it happens, this is the song that made me into a Joni fan.

I was actually kind of obsessed with it for about two months and now, some 30 years later, I'm not even close to being tired of it.

As I've said before, to me these songs are like old friends who have grown up with and they never aged themselves. It's a pretty great arrangement.

Joni can cover a wide range of styles and moods from comedy to stark depression.

Like all truly great artists, her willingness to go there and share her inner self with the world is what has solidified her standing in the annals of music.

She's a master at this and this bittersweet song is no exception.

Let's give it a listen.

This is Tin Angel by the great Joni Mitchell.

We've mentioned the idea before that there are two metaphorical chambers in the heart. One called joy and the other called crying. And I've suggested that the very best music hits both chambers simultaneously.

This tune does that in spades. Ostensibly, she's singing about a newfound love. And what could be more joyful than that?

On the other hand, listen to how melancholy and hesitant it is.

It's almost like she recognizes that it's not going to work out, but she needs to go through with it anyway.

This is not a happy camper she's dating.

Rather, he's:

Dark with darker moods. Not a golden prince who's come.

The music itself? Beautiful top-shelf guitar work. It vacillates between minor and major tonalities.

You can almost hear her confusion.

In the end, she decides to give it a shot but wonders at her tin angel, an elevated creature who's sadly constructed from flimsy material and asks:

What will happen if I try to place another heart in him?

Can he handle that?

Will the structure hold?

The song ends in the major key and a moment of optimism.

So what has all this got to do with spirituality?

We all have what are known as days of love and days of hate, and they often overlap. Some moments look bright and full of promise and others bleak and hopeless. This is the human condition. This is life.

But despite all of Joni's misgivings, she says:

Still, I'll take a chance and see.

It's worth it to attempt to attain that most transcendent of states, love.

Back in January of 1974, Joni released an album called Court and Spark.

And this began her flirtation with jazz and with jazz fusion that marked her, let's call it, experimental period.

Court and Spark went to number one on the Cashbox album charts. The album made Joni a widely popular act for perhaps the only time in her career and it was songs off of the album like Raised on Robbery and Help Me which was released the following year. It became Joni's only top 10 single when it peaked at number seven in the first week of June and Free Man in Paris was another hit single and a staple in her catalog

The song I'd like to play for you today and the main feature of the podcast today is called Same Situation off the Court and Spark album.

I hope you enjoy it.

Let's give it a listen.

This is Same Situation by the great Joni Mitchell.

Another gorgeous tune of hers.

She has so many.

Each one of her albums is so unique and so special and I never get tired of any of them.

I recommend her entire catalog.

Now let's talk about the music.

So while some of Joni's most popular songs were written on piano, almost every song she composed on the guitar uses an open or non-standard tuning.

She has written songs in some 50 different tunings playing what she has called “Joni's Weird Chords.”

The use of alternative tunings allows guitarists to produce accompaniment with more varied and wide-ranging textures.

Her right-hand picking strumming technique has evolved over the years from an initially intricate picking style typified by the guitar songs on her first album to a looser and more rhythmic style, sometimes incorporating percussive slaps.

Joni was also highly innovative harmonically, especially in her early work, incorporating modality, chromaticism, and pedal points.

On her 1968 debut album called Song to a Seagull, Joni used both quartal and quintal harmony in the song Dawn Treader and again quintal harmony in Seagull.

These are highly unusual voicings for any artist and she does them extremely effectively.

It's beautiful, haunting, special music.

In terms of her lyrics, like many deep artists, Joni had a lot of woes in her life, from being stricken with polio as a child to the traumatic experience of giving up a baby daughter for adoption as a young woman, which by the way is the subject of the song Little Green.

She also had famously difficult romantic relationships.

Yet as we know and have explored in other episodes, this is often the catalyst for an incredible richness of depth in music and in the written word.

As it's stated in the Kabbalah, “Going down for the sake of going up.”

I read an article at NPR that beautifully summarized this.

In an article entitled, Joni Mitchell at 75, Trouble is Still Her Muse, author Ann Powers said the following:

Call it her craving for innovation or her refusal to rest in comforting cliches. Call it the essence that makes her a secret sharer for millions of listeners and most musicians' daunting standard-bearer. Trouble is Mitchell's Jazz, the blasted open space that can feel like a void but is also the real ground of possibility. It rings through her famous open guitar tunings and surfaces in the way her foot worries the piano pedal.

It's in the impossible careening of her young soprano and the cracked resonance of the lower tones that came later. To become preoccupied with Joni Mitchell's music, whether as a fellow musician or a serious fan, is to welcome trouble as a friend, as the challenge that animates life. Her songs ask us to live within trouble, to see the mirrors embedded in its cracks, the trouble we make, the trouble that waylays us, that makes a nest that we then fill with more trouble because we are made of it too.

That's great writing and an amazing description.

Joni writes in this song:

Still, I sent up my prayer, wondering where it had to go, with heaven full of astronauts and the Lord on death row, while the millions of his lost and lonely ones call out in clamor to be found, caught in their struggle for higher positions and their search for love that sticks around.

So what exactly is prayer?

Whatever its exact definition, it seems to be a kind of reaching out across the divide, yearning for something.

When we reach an impasse in life of understanding or an inability to alter our circumstances, it's the most natural thing in the world to turn to something that is greater than ourselves.

It's no coincidence that the first of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable.”

And that is immediately followed by step two, we came to be aware that “a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Impasse followed by an appeal to a higher power.

That's a winning formula.

So Joni, using her troubled muse, throws up her problem into the air, not dissimilar to the idea in Psalm 55 that you should “cast your burden unto the Lord,” even if you don't precisely know how to do it.

But she certainly is correct in identifying that millions are lost and lonely.

And what do they want most? As she says, to be found, to be acknowledged, understood, and valued.

That's it.

That's what people most want and need in this world.

And why does it often seem so hard?

What is holding people back?

She identifies that too.

The struggle for higher positions and the search for love that sticks around.

What's that about?

The ego and constant jockeying for status plus a lack of love is like acid for the soul.

And of course, the way she describes it again and again in the same situation.

Often it seems like we can't break out and sometimes we're willing to appeal to a higher power to try to get us out of that rut.

And in the end, she says still, despite it all, she's going to give it a shot, which I think is a very beautiful and a very spiritual thing to do.

That's my thoughts on the great Joni Mitchell and the wonderful song Same Situation.

As always, I hope you've enjoyed being here and we look forward to being back next week with more music and more ideas.

Thank you for listening.

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