It’s been 13 years since Joni Mitchell last released new music. And given the health challenges she’s faced since experiencing a brain aneurysm in 2015, as well as her overall disgust with the music industry, we may never hear a new song from her again. But fear not! The recent announcement of a sprawling archive series, which promises to provide an ongoing home to scores of Mitchell’s musical orphans, means we’ll have fresh material to ponder and relish for years to come.
The first in the series, which arrives this week, offers a generous pour of no fewer than 119 tracks, all of them captured before Mitchell issued a single sanctioned song. While intrepid fans could have ferreted out a bunch of these online, there was no way for those recordings to cohere, or to join with other obscurities from that time, until now. Every track on Joni Mitchell Archives – Volume 1 was recorded between 1963, when Mitchell turned 20 years old, and 1967, one year before her solo debut appeared. Altogether it collects over five hours of fascinating performances, including no fewer than 28 original songs that never made a solo album, more than two dozen cover versions of largely traditional folk pieces she never officially issued, and nascent runs at 15 songs that would go on to become part of her canon.
Mitchell recorded the majority of the tracks at important outposts in her early life, beginning with her hometown of Saskatoon, Canada, before moving on to the clubs and radio shows of Detroit, Toronto and Philadelphia, where she built a fan base before she found stardom in L.A. Depending on the sophistication of the equipment available at each session, the sound quality varies, but more of the recordings sparkle than not. The decision to arrange the recordings chronologically lets us marvel at the blistering speed with which Mitchell leaped from cover artist to songwriter to bard.
The most stunning measure of her trajectory occurs between her virginal attempt at songwriting in 1965, “Day After Day,” and a song from the next year, “Just Like Me,” which shows far more confidence and experience. In that blink of time, Mitchell pulled a gripping trifecta, changing her voice, her perspective and even her name. She delivers “Just Like Me” in a deeper range than the earlier recordings, while the song itself offers a far broader point of view. On the Canadian TV broadcast where she performs it, we hear her introduced for the first time as Joni Mitchell. (In the earlier tracks, she goes by her birth name, Joan Anderson.) The song’s blade-sharp lyrics excoriate a man for his aloof and selfish character, only to wryly conclude in the chorus that he’s “just like me.” The result tips off two hallmarks of Mitchell’s work to come — an unblinking self-awareness, and an acknowledgement that we are often complicit in the pain love brings.
Such recordings took place three years after the set’s earliest pieces, which stress traditional folk covers performed on a baritone ukulele rather than on acoustic guitar. Mitchell sings the songs in a voice as high as the clouds and as fluttery as windblown leaves. It’s hard not to think of Joan Baez when listening, though Mitchell makes sure to state in the set’s liner notes that she never considered Baez an influence. Regardless, the value of these recordings lies in hearing the purity of Mitchell as a young singer, undistracted from her coming power as a writer. What’s more, they chronicle her role as an entertainer. When introducing the traditional ballad “Maids, When You’re Young Never Wed an Old Man,” she quips, “This is what happens when a girl of 21 marries a man of 71: nothing.”
Tellingly, nothing on the set captures the fleeting time Mitchell performed in a duo with the man who was briefly her husband, Chuck Mitchell. But it does feature two songs that express her anger toward him: “A Melody in Your Name,” a minor-chord wonder that never made it to an earlier release, and “I Had a King,” which became the opening song on her solo debut one year after this rendering. An even more personal recording from 1967 presages a song she cut far later in her career, “Little Green,” which expresses the complexity of feelings she had about giving up her child for adoption. Not only did this version come to be four years before the song turned up on “Blue,” it spills the beans on the name Mitchell gave her child, “Kelly,” a tidbit that didn’t make the official recording.
In that vein, there’s lots of fun to be had for Joni obsessives in identifying songs that later received slightly different titles or altered lyrics. Her baby-step take on “Both Sides Now” is referred to here as “From Both Sides Now,” while a song she calls “Cactus Flower” came to be known as “Cactus Tree.” More significant, her early runs at “Conversation” feature a trio of verses cut from the official version three years later that alter the intent of the song’s narrator considerably.
Even so, you hardly need to be a Mitchell scholar to marvel at the sheer breadth and invention of those songs that never made the trip from stage to studio. In the lyrics to pieces like “Gemini Twin,” “Blue on Blue” and “Winter Lady,” Mitchell shows how she transferred her understanding of color as metaphor from her work as a painter to her vocation as a songwriter. Musically, more than a few of her early songs presage her allergy to conventional chords, favoring a musicality of her own design. That interest opened her melodic range exponentially, reaching a peak in the sophistication and beauty of the obscure “Carnival in Kenora,” a song she composed for a never-completed folk musical. We can also hear her break up conventional folk rhythms in the songs by borrowing a Bo Diddley beat, in the case of the whimsical “Dr. Junk.”
All of this isn’t to say that Mitchell suffered no early stumbles. “Favorite Colour,” about a blind child who sees something deeper, proves that even the greatest songwriter can pull a groaner. At the same time, the host of a radio show she performs on, Philadelphia’s Gene Shay, has a sense of the brilliance to come: He declares “The Circle Game” “already a classic” three years before her studio recording would appear. On that same show two months later, in May 1967, Mitchell performs the song that inspired “Circle Game,” Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain.” Though she says she loves Young’s piece, she makes it clear that her song is a rebuke, countering his belief that it’s all over at 20 and, instead, embracing life’s full arc.