How Joni Mitchell forged a path for Taylor Swift

Today’s biggest musical stars routinely bare their souls in songs – but women are still often judged for revealing too much. Joni Mitchell – performing at tonight’s Grammys – helped lay the groundwork for intimate female songwriting.

On Sunday night, the great and the good of the music world will gather in downtown Los Angeles for the 66th Annual Grammy Awards. This year, female artists are set to dominate, with Taylor Swift, SZA, Olivia Rodrigo, boygenius, Lana Del Rey and Miley Cyrus each up for multiple gongs. If Swift takes home the best album award for Midnights, she’ll make history as the first ever artist to win it four times. If SZA beats her to it, she will be the first black woman to win the award in 25 years.

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But one of the most anticipated moments of the night will come from an artist who won her first Grammy more than half a century ago. Joni Mitchell – a nine-time winner – will perform at the show for the first time in her career, aged 80. It comes in the same week as she announced two shows at the Hollywood Bowl later this year.

Both of these are somewhat of a surprise – though welcome ones. In 2015 Mitchell had a brain aneurysm that left her temporarily unable to walk or talk. She hadn’t performed live since 2002, and her health struggles suggested she never would again. So her recent return to the stage (a live recording of her surprise appearance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival is nominated for best folk album) feels miraculous. Yet her performance at the Grammys isn’t just significant for what it represents – an incredible story of resilience – but because of the influence she’s had on many of the artists who will be in the room with her.

SZA described her 2021 song Joni as 'a trap song from the perspective of Joni Mitchell' (Credit: Getty Images)

SZA described her 2021 song Joni as ‘a trap song from the perspective of Joni Mitchell’ (Credit: Getty Images)

Lana Del Rey has frequently peppered her songs with Joni references. Phoebe Bridgers – one third of boygenius – has cited Mitchell as one of her biggest influences, as has Olivia Rodrigo. SZA’s 2021 track Joni is a tribute to the singer. Then, of course, there is Taylor Swift, whose 2012 album Red is thought to be partly inspired by Joni’s 1971 album Blue, and who shares an inclination towards emotionally candid lyrics. Last year’s album of the year winner – Harry Styles’s Harry’s House – takes its name from a Mitchell track. Joni may have been largely away from the limelight for some time, but her presence in the music industry is felt all around.

Early years

Born in Canada in 1943, Joni reached her mid-twenties having already experienced more than most: surviving polio, giving her child up for adoption, and leaving her first marriage to folk singer Chuck Mitchell. Songwriting became her way to process what she was going through. She released her first album Song to a Seagull in 1968. Her second, Clouds, won her a Grammy for best folk album and propelled her into the public eye.

But fame made her feel claustrophobic – as did domesticity. In 1970 she left her lover Graham Nash – who wanted to marry her – and ran away to Europe. “My grandmother was a frustrated poet and musician,” Mitchell explained in 2003 documentary A Woman of Heart and Mind. “She kicked the kitchen door off the hinges on the farm. As much as I loved and cared for Graham, I just thought, I’m gonna end up like my grandmother, kicking the door off the hinges.”

Mitchell told Rolling Stone, 'I guess I really started singing when I had polio. Neil [Young] and I both got polio in the same Canadian epidemic' (Credit: Getty Images)

Mitchell told Rolling Stone, ‘I guess I really started singing when I had polio. Neil [Young] and I both got polio in the same Canadian epidemic’ (Credit: Getty Images)

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“.

According to Bjork, Mitchell 'created an all-female universe with intuition, wisdom, intelligence, craftsmanship, and courage' (Credit: Getty Images)

According to Bjork, Mitchell ‘created an all-female universe with intuition, wisdom, intelligence, craftsmanship, and courage’ (Credit: Getty Images)

More than 50 years on from Blue, today’s biggest musical stars routinely lay themselves bare in their songs – but women are still often judged for revealing too much. Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and Lana Del Ray are labelled “confessional” – a description that Joni herself hated, believing it sounded like she was being forced to admit something against her will.

Swift, especially, knows something about having her music dismissed for being too personal. Last year, in a written prologue to the re-released 1989, she called out “the trivialisation of my songwriting as if it were a predatory act of a boy-crazy psychopath”.

The singer was once rumoured to be playing Joni in a biopic of the singer’s life. Mitchell apparently “squelched” the idea, saying: “All you’ve got is a girl with high cheekbones.” But the two share more than just great bone structure – with Swift clearly influenced by the specificity of Mitchell’s lyrics.

Swift has picked out Mitchell's song River, 'which is just about her regrets and doubts of herself' (Credit: Getty Images)

Swift has picked out Mitchell’s song River, ‘which is just about her regrets and doubts of herself’ (Credit: Getty Images)

Swift says Blue is her favourite Mitchell album because “it explores somebody’s soul so deeply” including “her deepest pains and most haunting demons.” Cross-reference that with Swift talking about her own album, Red: “Musically and lyrically [it] resembled a heartbroken person… a fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together in the end.”

For Swift and others, Mitchell left another important blueprint: that of a female artist totally in charge of her career; whether by owning the publishing rights to her music from the start, painting her own album covers, switching musical styles, or standing up to streaming services like Spotify (in 2022 Mitchell pulled her music from the platform in protest at Joe Rogan’s podcast), Joni has always done things her own way.

By singing at this year’s Grammys, she’s again proving her doubters wrong, and delighting the many people there who owe her a creative debt. Whether, like her, they’ll still be enrapturing audiences in 50 years’ time, is less certain.

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