The artistic philosophy that guides Joni Mitchell’s work is a coherent, conscious, and concentrated manifestation of the creative impulse that motivates and sustains her career. The creative influences from her youth complement a natural inclination toward intense, probing expressions to render a consistent approach to the songwriting process. Correspondingly, her rebellious, determined, and decidedly idiosyncratic attitude toward commercial music also reflects that creative imperative and its professional resolve. Mitchell’s philosophy of song, her perceived relationship with her audience, and the compositional process that flows from those starting points work in a creative harmony that is as inspiring for our auteur as it can be frustrating for the industry that supports her. Mitchell’s impulses yield creative imperatives that take her far and wide in their intuitive adventures—often into uncharted or underdeveloped areas of the musical world. Her approach is as distinctive as her commitment is unshakable; as industry executive Joe Smith said of his charge: “You don’t tell Joni Mitchell what to do.” The following pages reveal that while no one may tell Mitchell “what” to do, her creative impulse deploys a standard repertoire of songwriting techniques that respond to a guiding philosophy on a remarkably consistent basis. As usual, there is method to the auteur’s madness.
We begin with definitions. One fact is absolutely certain: Joni Mitchell relishes the concept of “art.” In 1979, she told Rolling Stone: “Some people get nervous about that word. Art. They think it’s a pretentious word from the giddyap. To me, words are only symbols, and the word art has never lost its vitality. It still has meaning to me. Love lost its meaning to me. God lost its meaning to me. But art never lost its meaning. I always knew what I meant by art.” She conveys that understanding via precise—and prescriptive—