When Joni Mitchell Felt Defenseless

Some records leave a mark with their sound, and some with their story. Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ touching on Syd Barrett’s departure, Neil Young’s ‘Tonight’s the Night’ grieving the passing of his closest friends, and Slipknot’s ‘.5 The Gray Chapter’ dedicated to their late drummer Paul Gray’s memory, are only some examples of such emotionally loaded works.

While tributes are common among bands, not many musicians have courageously explored their day-to-day personal feelings in their records. Thus, there’s no doubt that Joni Mitchell’s works are quite exceptional in that sense since the boho queen never hesitated to use her music as a medium to convey her emotions, reflect on her experiences, and share them with like-minded people.

Although she entered the folk scene in the mid-’60s and got the chance to release her debut studio record, ‘Song to a Seagull,’ in 1968, the in-between was tainted by several painful experiences. While working part-time jobs, she started exploring her interest in music, she finally decided to move to Ontario, Canada. However, Mitchell quickly realized that she needed to become a songwriter to have a chance in the local folk scenes.

Young Joni was getting small gigs and trying to figure out how to catch a break when she found herself alone in a situation that many would frown upon even today. In late 1964, Mitchell realized that she was pregnant by her ex, who she later revealed had left her in an attic room, with no money and only a fireplace for heat. Needless to say that she struggled during her pregnancy, and shortly after her baby’s birth in February 1965, Joni decided to give her baby girl up for adoption, hoping she would have a better life.

Flash forward to only two years later, Joni Mitchell has improved her songwriting, moved to the United States, started building her reputation, and finally crossed paths with David Crosby, who helped the musician sign a record deal and record her first album. Joni Mitchell established her style right from her first album, as her lyrics explored her feelings after going through painful experiences that she would not actually disclose until later in her career.

Speaking on her songwriting, Joni once told Mojo the following:

“You have to pull the weeds in your soul when you are young, when they are sprouting. Otherwise, they will choke you.”

As time went by, Joni continued to ‘pull the weeds’ of her soul and prove that women can co-exist in a male-dominated industry without having to change their style and answer to the period’s demands. However, her image was still controlled by her label while her contemporaries, such as Jim Morrison or Graham Nash, had the liberty to create their own persona.

Nonetheless, she was also a part of the hippie and counterculture movement and had become the epitome of boho femininity. It seems like the movement’s wish to break free from social expectations and find her true self convinced Joni Mitchell to show her true colours by writing her most honest record, Blue.’ Although released in 1971, it should be no surprise that some of her songs were inspired by the struggles she experienced in the mid-’60s, right before she caught her break.

The musician said the following about ‘Blue’ at the time:

“I couldn’t look at people without weeping, I was just dripping in earnestness and sincerity. I realised a lot of people were listening to me, so they better find out who they’re worshipping, let’s see if they can take it, let’s get real – so I wrote ‘Blue.’ When people see themselves in it the communication is complete.”

Years later, in 1979, the songwriter looked at her intimate record retrospectively and admitted:

“The ‘Blue’ 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.”

The reason Joni Mitchell was determined to be completely transparent with her listeners now seems clear. On the one hand, she had started building a devoted fanbase that she believed understood her lyrics but didn’t know her on a personal level. She had always written from the heart, but the fact that her image was controlled made her feel uncomfortable and probably insincere.

On the other hand, she wanted to shed light on how her problematic romantic relationships had impacted her self-perception and understanding of romance, love, and dedication. Joni Mitchell had decided to let her guard down, show that she had never pretended to be happy or strong, and prove that ‘there were no defenses’ in her music either.

As for her little baby girl, Joni wrote probably one of her most touching songs ‘Little Green’ to express her feelings of despair, sadness, and hope. The song’s lyrics and meaning made a whole lot more sense in the ’90s, when Mitchell’s former roommate sold Joni’s adoption story to a tabloid magazine.

As it turns out, the transparent, emotional, and sincere boho queen had bid her baby girl farewell shortly after signing the adoption papers with the lines, ‘Child with a child pretending / Weary of lies you are sending home / So you sign all the papers in the family name / You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed / Little green have a happy ending.’ As you might know, Joni reunited with her biological daughter years later, but that’s a story for another day.