If you know me, you also know that I am obsessed with Joni Mitchell.
My first encounter with her music happened when I was 14. My singing teacher suggested I listened to Goodbye Porkpie Hat to realize what I could do with my voice.
Not a great start for a kid who considered herself a punk!
Years later, at around 18 or 19, I gave that song a second chance and it simply blew my mind this time.
When I discovered the rest of her discography, I understood that I wanted to sound just like her.
There are so many things young songwriters can learn from Joni Mitchell. From her personal and innovative approach to her impressive musical instinct, the list of golden nuggets we can uncover by studying her work is quite long and useful.
Let's start with the very first lesson we can all learn from her.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Tip #1: Be An Explorer
Joni Mitchell experimented with a lot of different genres. She started out as a folk singer, firstly as part of a duo, with her ex-husband Chuck Mitchell, and then by herself.
For a long time, she represented the ideal female singer and songwriter, with a guitar case always in her hand and a simple and fresh presence on stage.
For a long time, that's what I aspired to be, at least after realizing that my shyness wasn't really a good fit with rock'n'roll parties and attempts at stage diving.
But Joni didn't stick to this image for long. In 1974, she published Court and Spark and started touring with the L.A. Express, a full band.
She went from being the lonely and vulnerable artist on stage to being the frontwoman of a band, getting a richer sound both on her records and live gigs, and delivering quite a different show to her audience.
So, in only a six-years span she went from I Had A King (a melancholic folk ballad, recorded with just her voice and a guitar) to Raised on Robbery (a fully-produced, rock-n-roll song).
Later on, she became a jazz artist and collaborated with musicians like Charles Mingus, changing her sound again.
Long story short, we could say that Joni is an explorer, not simply an artist.
If you want to excel in the art of songwriting, it would be a good idea to take Joni's example: be an explorer.
Tip #2: Get Personal
This piece of advice might not be for everyone, as it is very hard to get personal in songs.
Yet, an authentic song is a relatable song.
If you want to learn how to get personal without exceeding in the process, have a listen to Blue.
Here's what Joni said about the album: "...there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either."
Being personal doesn't necessarily mean you need to talk about your life or problems all the time. Your songs should be rants. Listeners do not want to hear you complain all the time.
But you could definitely develop your style and your sound getting inspired by your personal life journey.
Joni is a master at that.
She has a very personal and innovative approach to songwriting, influenced by the experiences she had.
Let your life become the main inspiration for your art!
Tip #3: Get Creative With Tunings
I dare to say that no other artist out there used alternative tunings the way Joni Mitchell did. In fact, she wrote songs using more than 50 different tunings. She ranged from the classic open ones, much used in blues and folk music, to others she invented.
Let's take some examples.
The Circle Game, which is probably one of her most well-known songs, is in open G, a tuning also used in traditional folk and blues music.
However, Coyote, another great song by her, is written in a more peculiar tuning: CGDFCE, which she called California Kitchen Tuning. That tuning forms a suspended C11sus2 chord.
Now, of course, you could play a C11sus2 chord using a standard tuned guitar, but it would sound very different.
Joni realized the sonic potential of these alternative tunings and adopted them widely throughout her songs. They actually became a sort of trademark of her songwriting and her productions.
Getting creative with guitar tunings could be a great idea for your songs too. Have you ever tried to write a song in open D? If not, give it a go!
Tip #4: Get Creative With Your Harmonic Structure
The use of open and alternative tunings opened up a lot of new harmonic possibilities.
More interestingly, Joni was able to transfer the peculiar sounds and rhythmical structures she would use on the guitar to another, less flexible, instrument.
She composed a bunch of songs at the piano and most of them present the same kind of suspended chord you could obtain with those alternative tunings.
The song Blue, for example, is based on the use of specific bass lines. For example, we often have the note A in the bass under an E chord. This way, we are creating a suspended chord.
Suspended chords are the essence of Joni Mitchell's songwriting.
As she explained in the book Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words, by Malka Marom, she would call these "chords of inquiry", because they are not major nor minor. They usually tend to resolve on a more stable chord, but not in her songs.
In her songs, she uses them to address a sense of research, where questions are not always answered.
Joni used suspended chords in a new way, making them the protagonists of her compositions.
After all, that particular sound created by this kind of chords perfectly fits with her lyrical style.
You can use suspended chords in your songs too. They are a great ingredient to add variety and deliver feelings and emotions.
Tip #5: Paint With Words
Joni Mitchell often uses words as colors. Don't forget she's also a painter: that's why she is so visual in her songwriting.
Listening to her songs often feels like watching a great painting.
Let's see a couple of examples.
One of my favorite songs by her is Cactus Tree.
You will agree that the title is quite peculiar already! As we listen to the lyrics, we get to understand that this image represents the heart of a girl, the protagonist of the song.
In other words, the song portrays a woman who is courted by many men, but who wants to keep her independence and freedom.
To represent this, Joni uses the image of a cactus tree. Genius, right?
Another great example is Urge For Going, which starts with a beautiful description of winter.
I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town.
It hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down.
The lesson here is: don't just write a song, try to paint a picture.
Alright, guys - I hope you found these five songwriting inspirations from Joni Mitchell useful!
Happy songwriting...and rock on! Ciao!