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Thirty-Three Times A Lady: Olly Alexander on Joni Mitchell

Welcome to a new feature, Thirty-Three Times A Lady. It’s an opportunity to focus on classic albums by female artists, just perfect to launch in time for Women’s History Month then.

First up is man on woman – Olly Alexander, frontman of the British electro outfit Years & Years, on his love for Canada’s finest.

But how do you choose the greatest Joni Mitchell album? Or even, abandoning the wild goose chase of objectivity, your personal favourite? With its nicotine ravaged vocals over downbeat orchestral makeovers of songs from throughout her career, hardly anyone would plump for 2002’s Travelogue, but as it was the first complete Joni LP I listened to it, naturally, occupies an infinitely sentimental place in my Chinese Café of a head.

As immense as Blue is it’s become almost a cliche to put it at the top of the rung. How about Hejira, or Court And Spark? Lennox loves Ladies. That’ll be Annie and Of The Canyon too you and I. Whatever your entry point into this revered singer-songwriter’s long and illustrious career, it’s a daunting challenge, so Olly’s hedged his bets and chosen several fave raves, and has recorded a cover of Both Sides Now for CALM’s Torch Songs initiative, because it was the first song he learnt on piano, aged 13. 

“There was only a few songs I could turn to without having to learn to play something from scratch,” he remembers. “I love that song. I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan. It was an obvious choice.”

Just don’t mention the one with Billy Idol. 

My mum used to play Joni Mitchell CDs when we were driving in the car. I was around 11-years-old when she bought the 2000 album Both Sides Now. For anyone that knows this album, it’s a world away from her earlier work — most of the songs are covers set against lush orchestral backgrounds and her voice is gravelly and deep. I wasn’t keen then on her voice or the sound of the songs, but I loved the lyrics. I remember hearing the lyrics to A Case Of You and Both Sides Now and experiencing somewhere in my chest some new feeling that I couldn’t verbalise or understand. It chimed almost painfully with the words she was singing, and from there I discovered Blue. 

There aren’t many albums I know all the words from start to finish but I do with Blue — I had a ripped copy in my CD Walkman that I played until it broke. I still think she is one of the greatest songwriters we’ve ever had. In Blue the vocal melodies are complex and surprising yet memorable and singable, her lyrics are heart-stoppingly honest and raw yet detailed and poetic. Her output is prolific and spans genres from acoustic to jazz to electronica. I love her so much and when I listen to Blue or Hejira now I feel the same intoxicating whirlwind heartache I felt when I was a teenager. Her songs framed the way I think about love, disappointment, happiness, and life.

She’s often mentioned in the same breath as her troubadour compatriot Bob Dylan, but she almost never receives the same kind of recognition or veneration even though her songs are just as good if not better, her voice is a million times better, and her lyrics and poetry are incomparable. Dylan received god-like status whereas the media tended to view Joni as more of a drippy-hippy, a lightweight and now in her old age she’s seen as a bitter, angry old woman. I like Dylan, don’t get me wrong, and partly it is my queer male heart that relates more to the sweet bruised longing in Joni’s lyrics and the stories of the men she loved and lost than it ever would to Dylan — but I can’t help but think the reason she never achieved the same status is because she is a woman. 

Mitchell herself doesn’t identify as a feminist (she recently described feminism in this continent as ‘too masculine’) but she has fiercely and consistently engaged with social, environmental and political issues across many decades. She has never been afraid to sing about sex, never been apologetic of her talents or ashamed to voice her opinions. So if she is now sometimes angry or dismissive in her interviews then let her be, we let plenty of older male stars do and say what they like because they’ve ‘earned it.’ I worry about her ill health and what the world will be like without her — but I will always have her music and for that I will always be grateful. I’ll finish with my favourite lyric of all time, from A Case Of You: 

I remember that time you told me

You said, ‘Love is touching souls’

Surely you touched mine

‘Cause part of you pours out of me

In these lines from time to time

I love you Joni!


Olly Alexander was talking to Reproduced by permission 

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