Clara Scott: Joni and I
“I know, no one’s going to show me everything / We all come and go unknown / Each so deep and superficial / Between the forceps and the stone.”
This is my favorite line from Joni Mitchell’s entire discography. It’s part of the title track off her 1976 album Hejira, a record full of longing and grit and beauty that is often overlooked in the great scape of her work at large. But it’s this line, this articulation of the uncertainty of life, that has stuck with me from the first time I heard it. Above everything she has done, Mitchell’s haunting voice captures the calm that comes from understanding simultaneous grandeur and microcosm of the human experience. We are both deep and superficial, all unknown, all in limbo between birth and death at any given moment. In this statement, I have found strength and calm throughout some of the most difficult periods of my life. The relationship I have with Joni Mitchell has changed over the years, but ultimately it comes down to that line, and the message it represents carries across much of her work: No matter who you are, what you do, or where you go, we are all here together, and we might as well find something deeper in the world around us. As a young woman growing up in a time where it’s sometimes hard to find the truth in popular music, Mitchell offered a sense of perspective on a larger scale, and for that, I will always be grateful.
Anyone who has ever had a conversation about music with me knows I love Joni; she is a puzzle and a master at the same time, an artist who has taught me more than even she could understand. Though I grew up with Mitchell’s hits like “California” and “River” playing throughout my house, it wasn’t until I had some of my own life experiences that I could truly appreciate her genius. I discovered her fully in the first few years of high school, which were arguably some of the darkest times I’ve been through. Being a teenage girl can often feel like a living nightmare, and I dealt with both chronic illness and depression on top of that. During those rough years, Joni was a friend, a mother and a prophet for me in a period where I desperately needed something to hold onto. For me at that point, Joni Mitchell’s music was both a salve and a lens to see myself through, an aid in understanding that accepting the future as it is provides more than trying to fix it in place.
Mitchell’s own story serves as a perfect example of strength and success in spite of a difficult past: She had a baby at 20 and gave her up, a choice alluded to in Blue’s “Little Green.” She went through a divorce at an incredibly young age, stood back up and became an unstoppable force in modern folk music. She is revered not only for her incredible talent for lyrics and music, but also her uncanny ability to synthesize her own experiences into universally applicable narratives. At the foundation of Mitchell’s work is a rock-solid sense of self, something that everyone who listens to her music cannot ignore. The songwriter has always known who she was, and while I was trying to find my own identity, her steadfast analysis of the toils and joys of her own life gave me hope that I would one day understand myself. I recommend her music to every young girl because of this: Though it may seem dense or weird at first, Mitchell’s heart is clearly in everything she has made, and a shining example of how vulnerability can be just as powerful as defense.
While that era of my life is fortunately over and I am happier and healthier than I’ve ever been, I firmly believe that the lessons I learned from Mitchell’s throughout those struggles will stay with me for a very long time. There’s a song on her third record Ladies of the Canyon called “The Circle Game” that details the cyclical nature of life, explaining that “We’re captive on the carousel of time / We can’t return we can only look behind / From where we came / And go round and round and round / In the circle game.” Here, Mitchell comments on the value of looking behind at the past to understand the present and future, something that serves as a window to much of her work. In every album that she has written, the singer takes stories from her own life and observations from the world around her and turns them into proverbs for the years to come.
We have all been at a party sitting by ourselves (“People’s Parties,” Court and Spark), watched mundane life with awe (“The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” The Hissing of Summer Lawns) or felt misunderstood by romantic partners (“Woman of Heart and Mind,” For the Roses). In these narratives, Mitchell taught me resilience and patience with myself and my idea of the future. Though it is easy to rush through your days with an intense focus, it is in noticing the beauty and sadness of life that we can learn the most. Joni Mitchell’s music serves as a book of parables if you look hard enough, all set to piano, guitar and her singular voice. For those who have never listened to her, I offer this to you: Be ready to open your heart and mind, because fully understanding Mitchell is impossible, but trying will teach you more about yourself than you would ever expect.