3 things to learn from Joni Photo by Jack Robinson, 1968.

3 things to learn from Joni

Jenna Simeonov
With the scary news that Joni Mitchell is currently recovering from a brain aneurysm, I went on a mini rediscovery of her music. No one doubts that Joni is one of the best songwriters of the 20th century, and I think the way she delivers her songs is a universal lesson in storytelling. Here are a few things that singers, operatic or otherwise, can learn from Joni.

The song is enough, if it’s true

Singers all strive for simplicity, and I think it’s so hard to achieve because it requires trust in what they’re singing. If the song/aria/scene is well-written, and you have something to say with the text, that really is enough for your listeners. I like how Joni starts “California,” chattering on about the cold weather and depressing news stories. Because she doesn’t affect these words, she lets us soak in the story. Watch:

She does the same in “Little Green.” It’s haunting how she stays unaffected by the worst stuff in her life, like the father of her child running off. More on that later…

Love your words

Joni’s words are lovable indeed, and she’s a master of making them sound like what they mean. So in “A Case of You,” when she sings, “I am a lonely painter,” it sounds like a wail. “If you want me I’ll be in the bar” has a hint of self-loathing in it. Joni sings the word “California” like it’s the love of her life. I even love with that last example, how you can see and hear her change as she thinks of California, before she even says the word. It’s such a natural, conversational thing, but it grabs at my heart.

It’s another small detail, but worth mentioning: great singers like Joni always know when they’re rhyming. It’s subtle, but it makes a difference. Give a listen to “Both Sides Now,” and you’ll see what I mean:

Know who you’re talking to

One of my favourite Joni Mitchell songs is “Little Green.” It’s a song for the daughter Joni gave up for adoption in 1965, so it’s clearly an emotional punch in the face. I love, though, how Joni sings with two different voices, one for talking to Little Green herself, and another for all the bad stuff around her. She talks about being too young to be a mom, about Green’s absent father who decided a hippie poem would take the place of fatherhood “he’s a non-conformer.” This is all done matter-of-factly, because Joni really just wants to tell her daughter some things (“There’ll be icicles, and birthday clothes, and sometimes there’ll be sorrows.”) You can hear her voice turn tender when she does that. Listen:

Who else is an unlikely source of wisdom for young singers today? Let us know in the comments below.


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