Web review: Joni Mitchell edition

Ages ago (ok, back in April) I wrote my last blog post on a French biography of Joni Mitchell. And now with a new biography of Mitchell in English hitting the stores, several publications have been prompted to look back into a career that manages the feat of being genre-bending AND genre-defining.

The New-Yorker: Joni Mitchell’s Openhearted Heroism

Men often wanted Mitchell to be a wife, a muse, a siren, or a star. Instead, they got a genius, and one especially suited to deconstructing their fantasies of her.

The Ringer : Joni Mitchell: Fear of a Female Genius

Over a singular career that has spanned many different cultural eras, she explored—in public, to an almost unprecedented degree—exactly what it meant to be female and free, in full acknowledgement of all its injustice and joy.

No Depression: Like Me, She Had a Dream to Fly

Whatever Joni’s misgivings were about the feminist movement, her music forced the world to make space for the full breadth of women’s ideas and experiences. And my understanding of Joni Mitchell – and, in truth, my understanding of most things – is impossible to separate from my knowledge of women’s struggle for equality. It’s hardwired in the way we forgive Neil Young or Bob Dylan their charming late-career cantankerousness while calling Joni “bitter,” or the way we praise Joni’s beautiful singing voice and confessional songwriting before considering her formidable chops as an experimental composer, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer.

And a belated happy birthday to Mitchell who turned 74 on Nov 7th.

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Joni Mitchell, en français dans le texte

Quelques jours après avoir lu un article du Monde sur la récente biographie Joni Mitchell, Songs Are Like Tattoos (Édouard Graham, Les Mots et le Reste, 2017), je me suis retrouvé en librairie, et, sérendipité, j’ai trouvé l’ouvrage. Petite fiche de lecture.

9782360542420FS[1]Joni Mitchell Never Lies

Tout d’abord, je viens à Mitchell en “néophyte”, moi qui ne connait, à part Hejira, que sa “période folk”, des œuvres “de jeunesse” dont elle n’aura de cesse de s’affranchir par la suite de sa carrière. Car c’est par mon premier prof de guitare que j’ai découvert la magie et la complexité de chansons comme Both Sides Now ou Chelsea Hotel. Ensuite, je me suis rendu compte qu’en bon enfant des années 90, j’avais évidemment entendu le sample de son Big Yellow Taxi sur une chanson de Janet Jackson dont le clip montre une jeune Mitchell sur un écran de télé et où l’on peut entendre “Joni Mitchell never lies.”

La biographie par Graham commence donc avant la naissance de Joni, dont les parents attendait un garçon. Elle s’achèvera sur l’hospitalisation de Mitchell et son issue, heureuse: Joni Mitchell apparaissant à un concert de Chick Corea en aout 2016. Au fil des albums, l’auteur effectue des flashbacks sur des moments de la vie de Mitchell qui ont inspiré telle ou telle chanson.

Car chaque album est présenté dans son détail, piste par piste. Riche en décorticage musical, ces descriptions permettent même aux illettrés musicaux tels que moi de comprendre un peu plus le talent de composition d’une femme qui n’a jamais fait de solfège. N’importe quel guitariste qui a tenté de joué Mitchell sait qu’elle affectionne les accordages alternatifs (plus d’une trentaine utilisés en fin de carrière), et l’auteur  nous montre qu’au-delà de cette particularité, Mitchell est tout aussi novatrice avec d’autres instruments (piano désaccordé, percussions africaines, latino-américaines, saxo jazzy, voix en contrepoint…) ou dans sa composition.

Les performances de Joni, en solo, avec un groupe, à la télévision ou lors d’évènements caritatifs sont aussi amplement détaillées autant dans les setlists que dans l’attitude de Joni à chacune d’entre elle. Cela laisse voir une personne de caractère, qui n’hésitera pas à répondre à un fan demandant un rappel que personne n’a osé demander à Van Gogh de peindre un deuxième Nuit Étoilée. Des années plus tard, elle répondra à une demande similaire qu’elle n’est pas un juke box.

L’engagement politique de l’artiste (pour l’écologie, en faveur des peuples natifs des US et du Canada, pour le droit des femmes) n’est pas en reste.

Tout cela donne un portait contrasté d’une artiste complète et complexe, et de son œuvre protéiforme; et fait du livre, grâce à sa structure très narrative, une belle entrée dans la carrière de Mitchell, ou un outil d’approfondissement pour ceux qui (comme moi) s’étaient limités à la période “folk” de l’artiste.

Comment ne pas parler d’une femme

Là où la biographie pèche le plus, c’est dans le traitement de la vie de Mitchell. Le Monde arguait que “Edouard Graham combine, par une écriture précise, l’analyse et le factuel.” Je ne peux malheureusement pas souscrire à cette description. Dans son analyse des textes et de leur portée autobiographique, Graham évite l’écueil de simplifier la portée des textes: il souligne en effet que ceux-ci dépasse la simple “confession” (qu’on attribue souvent aux auteures/interprètes féminines) pour devenir des œuvres d’arts ou des messages universels. Par contre, quand il s’agit de s’attaquer lui même à la vie de femme de Mitchell, il reste encore du travail.

J’ai trouvé plusieurs formules particulièrement… maladroites ? Ainsi pour décrire sa dernière performance vocale en direct, Graham nous explique que “c’est une jeune vieille dame un peu épaissie qui se lance dans un “Furry Sings The Blues”.” (p.372) L’oxymore n’excuse pas la description aussi inutile que déplacée sur la silhouette de l’autre/compositrice/musicienne/interprète. (Bon, on peut se “rassurer” en ce disant qu’une attention presque équitable aura été portée par l’auteur à la calvitie de James Taylor…)

3677[1]Pas mieux quand il s’agit d’aborder la vie amoureuse de Joni. Alors que l’auteur souligne que Mitchell a été ulcérée quand Rolling Stone a publié une cartographie de ses relations sentimentales, il ne se prive pas de placer des phrases telles que “rien moins que trois ex-amants ont été sollicités pour assurer les chœurs: David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor…” (p. 168)

Ces relations sont mises en scène par l’auteur avec une certaine théâtralité: Joni Mitchell participe en 1986 à un concert caritatif mais ne chante pas en solo lors du grand final “contrairement à ceux qui ont négocié leur tour au sein de cette foire d’empoigne: Joan Baez ou Jackson Brown, par exemple A quelques pas, la rivale historique et l’ex-amant méprisé accaparent des micros. Légèrement en retrait, enlacée par un Larry Klein protecteur, la Canadienne regarde ailleurs.” (p.269)

On en arrive ainsi au trope de la rivalité féminine. L’auteur oppose Mitchell à Baez en plusieurs endroit du livre, ou en supposant une rivalité entre Joni Mitchell et Judee Sill (p.109) Alors, certes, Mitchell s’en est prise à Baez dans la presse, mais bon, elle s’en est aussi prise à tout un tas d’autres musiciens homme ou femme (dont Dylan), sans que l’auteur ne le mentionne. La rivalité entre femmes est toujours plus vendeuse. Ainsi l’auteur ne peut pas s’empêcher de faire une petite référence à un “crêpage de chignon, diversement rapporté par la presse” (p. 324) entre Carly Simon et Chrissie Hynde lors d’un concert de Joni en 1995. Intérêt pour la description du concert en question ? Aucun.Bread & Roses IV

Ces défauts m’ont donc un peu fait grincer des dents à la lecture, mais la richesse des informations biographiques et musicales font de se livre une très bonne lecture pour quiconque aime la musique nord américaine en général, rockeur.se, folkeux.se, jazz.wo.man ou simple mélomane.

« Joni Mitchell, Songs Are Like Tattoos », d’Edouard Graham, éd. Le Mot et le reste, 24 €.

Every goddam reason Joan Baez is Rock and Roll

Let’s face it, she DOES belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s never really gone electric, she got famous singing British ballads and the occasional country tune, and you can’t really compare her lifestyle to that of Janis Joplin. But if the definition of folk music is today elastic enough to accommodate acts like Mumford & Sons or First Aid Kit that rely more or less heavily on electric guitars, basses, drums and synths… then Rock & Roll can live with Baez as a high priestess.Baezprotest

1) Because she’s “a Secret Badass”

I mean, come on, when even Rolling Stones calls you Badass, you belong to any Rock and Roll pantheon.

In 2010, when she was invited to perform at a White House celebration of music from the civil-rights era, Baez refused a request, from Michelle Obama, to sing “If I Had a Hammer.” “That is the most annoying song,” Baez says. “I told them, ‘If I had a hammer – I’d hit myself on the head. Ain’t gonna do it.’ ”

The article goes on to prove (as if proof was needed) that Baez is as relevant today as she was back in the sixties, leading the way as a protest singer (for Civil Rights and against Vietnam War in the sixties, to Standing Rock and Women’s marches in the late 2010s through Sarajevo in the 1990s.


2) Because she “rocked the folk world”

She got her start in Boston, and the Boston Globe hasn’t forgotten it. Recalling those early days, the journalist writes:

Almost overnight, Baez was a sensation, attracting a following of motorcycle-riding Harvard boys. When she made her second appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, she showed up in a hipster’s hearse, with a biker escort. She was the “Rebel Queen,” wrote Rooney and Von Schmidt.

Yup, before Dylan went electric at Newport, Baez went biker chick (chic?) The article of the Globe focuses on Baez’ rock and roll personality and style of performance, which belies the image she used to give.

3) Because she’s an “American Master”

A little older now (2009), this hour-long documentary follows Baez’ musical and militant career. Watching her walk to school with Black kids in Birmingham or walk among the ruins of eastern Europe, it’s hard to ignore the drive and the implication of Baez who’s sweet pristine soprano (in her early days) does little to hide her drive and iron determination to make the world a better, fairer place. And if going against the system for such reasons isn’t rock and roll, then nothing is.s

4) Because she wrote Diamonds and Rust:

Finally, the best proof that Baez is indeed Rock and Roll is perhaps her most famous song, Diamonds and Rust. Ironic and disenchanted, this tune written and composed by Baez has been covered by Judas Priest and Ritchie Blackmore’s band, thus proving that it belonged to the rock and roll canon. The way Baez sings it today, with her voice fully using its lower register, gives it even more grit.

5) Because Patti Smith said so:

If Patti Smith invites you to rock, you ARE rock.

She was suddenly among us, not claiming to lead but leading by example, guiding us towards a new path of creative expression synonymous with activism civil rights and the anti war movement. 16th century had their Joan of Arc, and we have our Joan Baez. – Patti Smith

Buffy Sainte-Marie, the artist and the advocate.

buffyAlthough she got her break with the rest of the sixties New-York folk scene, the Cree singer-songwriter has always evolved in a class of her own. This year, she will receive the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award at Canada’s JUNO Awards.

In a recent interview with Acoustic Guitar, Sainte-Marie describes her entrance on the folk scene: a Cree native of Canada, brought up by foster parents in Massachusetts, she wasn’t really taken by the message of peace conveyed by folk-singers of the time: “They were singing “This land is your land, this land is my land.” They didn’t realize how offensive that is to Native-American people.” She would make sure they eventually did, as she penned several songs to describe the plight of Natives, such as Now That The Buffalo’s Gone, Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee, or My County ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying that she describes as “Indian 101 in six minutes” (tested in class: it works). The song covers everything from broken treaties to westerns to American Indian Boarding school, broken treaties and diseased blankets. A visibly shaken Sainte-Marie performed the song for Peete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest.

Still, Sainte-Marie isn’t a mere poster girl for Native Americans. She’s also passionately anti-war and one of the first song she ever wrote, The Universal Soldier, became a hit when covered by British singer Donovan (and was more recently covered and updated by First Aid Kit.) Singing the song as an anti-Vietnam war anthem, she got herself black-listed from radio by the Nixon administration. See below for her own words on how she wrote the song.

buffybwOther of Sainte-Marie’s songs attracted attention through covers. The biographical Cod’ine, which tells of her addiction to the substance, was covered by artists as diverse as Courtney Love, Janis Joplin or Donovan or Gram Parson. She also became the first Native-American woman to receive an Academy Award for co-writing Up Where We BelongOne of my favorite songs of hers, The Dream Tree, gained renewed attention through a cover by young Canadian fiddler Owen Pallett.

The Dream Tree is extracted of Sainte-Marie’s 1969 Illuminations album. This proved to be a turning point in her career: it completely tanked. Departing from her usual style, she produced it entirely electronically. Here voice is often altered, and the sounds all come from synthesizers. She kept on experimenting afterwards and elements of electronica are still present in her most recent albums. Many people now credit Illumination for paving the way to Freak Folk creations of Devendra Banhart or Joanna Newsom.

Native American music is also feature in several of her songs. Her the educator (she was trained as a teacher after her studies in theology), Sainte-Marie used her five-year role in Sesame Street to educate about mouth bows (which work a bit like a jaw harp.) Talking of badassery, here’s a clip of her breastfeeding on a kid’s show. Imagine the stir if it were to happen today…

She also wrote Starwalker, a song she defines herself as a “incendiary powwow rock”.

By now, you must have noticed and either hated or loved her distinct vibrato which is often considered her trademark. Sainte-Marie, a self-taught guitarist, is also famous for her personal tunings – she used more than a dozen- which inspired fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell to create her own. Mitchell credited Sainte-Marie for helping her launch her career: she covered The Circle Game and also introduced her to managers that helped Mitchell build a career.

Today, Sainte-Marie, an artist, singer-songwriter, educator, is all but retired, as her latest album shows. This Humanitarian award crowns decades of artistry and advocacy for an artist who escapes categorization.