Joni Mitchell – The Trained and the Untrained


I first heard Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds” at my cousin Terri’s in Florida.  I used to visit them every summer in NJ before they moved to Florida and before we turned into teenagers interested only in our own friends.  Well it “skinned my ears” because the simple plaintive quality of the songs, the lyrics rich as modern poetry and the subjects were whatever she wanted. Some very clearly telling stories, others more obscure and her conversational style of singing felt like she was talking directly to me.


In those days though she lacked the interesting phrasing and dynamics which came later.   She delivered “helium girl” as large and full of feeling as she could muster.  Born into an over-the-top beauty physically in her manner, she was – like most divas- extremely feminine, ultra feminine.  This is just before the pop culture turned more to the androgenous for its icons – (Prince, Patti Smith) – the feminine are part of her natural gifts like any I had never heard in pop music, the sometimes strange chord progressions and then the gestalt of Joni – a reluctant but true diva and another American bodhisattva willing to go into our her own shadows, stay there fearlessly and bring back sad truths about being human and then express both in writing and in her performances. 


I was thinking about her painting.  She always said she was like a sharecropper.  Going to painting after writing to refurbish her creative field.  Her paintings don’t seem to me be as extraordinary at all compared to the recordings.  The thing is they are perfectly executed and you can see that she is real craftsman.  She knows paint, knows all the techniques, is a real “professional” in her paintings with no signs struggling with the craft that I can see.

She doesn’t read music. She can’t play the piano that well.  Her left hand used a very simple figure of 4 quarter notes 1, 5, 12, 5 – and then triad chords in her right hands (some with conversions) but in different keys and that made strange and very naked harmonies in their harmonic relation to what the left hand establishes as the tonic – the 1.  When the left plays 1, 5, 12, 5 let’s stay in C with the right playing the D triad there’s a lot of harmonic tension which resolves back to the triad in C a step above. “See You Sometime” demonstrates this very well.

Joni as Van Gogh
There shows her skill. She knows about paint and drawing. She knows craft unlike her music.

Her guitar playing was different.   She seems to be an unstoppable rhythm guitar player – a flawless time keeper that gives a lot of room for the other musicians because Joni is keeping time.  You can rely on that!  She was so perfect for Jaco Pastorius in that way (from Weather Report) who wanted to play bass like a soloist without having to the be the time keeper in the group. That works because she is doing just that and he’s set free so that “home” is always there for him. He must’ve loved playing with her 🙂

I studied Jazz Piano in my later teens.  Fortunately, the teacher I had wasn’t that concerned about my piano playing and I worked at it but my talent only took me so far.  I do okay and I do certain things quite well.  But I’m not a great player.  What I did learn was the structure of music from a jazz musician’s perspective focussed a lot on the modal thinking from the mid-60s (Kind Of Blue).

Joni doesn’t read music did not want to play like everyone else in folk so what did she do?   She retuned her guitar and then found chords she liked without knowing how to write them down.  She needed other musicians to interpret the charts because Joni could not have done it on her own.

How amazing is this?  She must use her intuition mostly to play and to write songs.  Putting her fingers on the frets and trying different rhythm on the right until she finds something she likes and then she begins to find the melody on top to sing. But I suspect the guitar part mostly comes first for her when writing.  She’s using her limitation as an asset and incorporating it into something unique without know what she’s doing.   Most artists don’t figure that out.  If you get a lot of training, you’ll be imitate most things.  If you don’t have the skill – cannot paint yourself as Van Gogh – you’re much more likely to find your way into the intuitive because you’re not thinking “let’s write something like this popular song (call it ‘X’) and get our own hit.”  But she can’t do that.  She doesn’t know how.  That’s wonderful!

This is why she is so unique.  Her own limitation forces her into simplicity, limits her but then gives her a lot of freedom to go mining for musical gold.  She can’t do that in painting because she doesn’t need to. Her knowledge of paint and drawing technique doesn’t force to go looking somewhere for something else. If you look at the self-portraits, you can see it. Very nicely done and she’ll even go out on a limb and paint herself as Van Gogh imitating his painting style quite well. Seems like she can imitate a lot of painters when she wants to. That takes technique!

Her intuition has to tell her when she’s finds a nice accompiament musical figure- a 2 to 4 bar figure- that sounds like it’s full of possibilities and then she goes exploring in that musical world.  The musicians probably think of it modally rather than Circle Of 5ths I suspect.

She’s more successful sometimes that at other times.  In the olden days she wasn’t afraid to keep it very naked so you can easily hear the Schenkerian aspect of the music without digging through all the other instruments.

There’s a recording out right now which features songs from the Archives including a recording of a french horn at the end of “River” that just does not work.  She couldn’t find a player that could improvise well and as her own producer, she couldn’t communicate what she wanted.   She smartly abandoned the track and left it naked.  It’s only because she didn’t know how to get what she wanted.  She couldn’t communicate without the skills to do it.