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‘Clouds’: How Joni Mitchell Began To See Life From All Sides Now
In Depth

‘Clouds’: How Joni Mitchell Began To See Life From All Sides Now

With the ‘Clouds’ album, Joni Mitchell found her sweet spots: the joins between love and freedom, hope and despair, and much, much more.

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The red flower Joni Mitchell is pictured holding on the cover of 1969’s Clouds, her second album, is a prairie lily. It is the floral emblem of Saskatchewan, the Canadian province where Mitchell had spent her early years, and where she cut her teeth as a performer. The prairie lily is not only beautiful; its bulb is edible, and has been used for centuries for food and medicine. Like the prairie lily, Mitchell’s songs are not only lovely things: they are infused with wisdom. Like her pose in the painting, Mitchell is holding her songs to us, with serious intent. Her eyes are clear and her gaze steady.

Listen to ‘Clouds’ here.

After releasing her 1968 debut album, Song To A Seagull, Joni Mitchell had learned a few things. The first was that the songs she had toured around small clubs and coffeehouses really worked on record. The second was that they worked for her on record, and not just for those artists more famous than her – such as Judy Collins and Tom Rush – who had covered her songs. The third lesson was that one of her greatest strengths was in her vulnerability; just as she would commonly fix on one person in the audience when she performed, the more specific and personal her songs were, the greater universality they seemed to achieve. And, finally, she had learned a few things about production. Anyone trying to steer Mitchell in a direction she was unsure of had better be ready for a fight.

“A producer is a babysitter. A producer is an interior decorator”

Clouds is the product of all these lessons. There is a more confident air to her song choices; Mitchell knew she could deliver them and – unlike on her first album – did not refuse to record some of her finest material simply because someone had already covered it. Both Sides, Now, one of the best Joni Mitchell songs, closed the original vinyl album’s second side, and gives the record its title. Mitchell didn’t care that Judy Collins had already had an enormous hit with it. Joni knew that Judy Collins wasn’t her.

Both Sides, Now was written while Mitchell was literally gazing at clouds, on a plane, alongside reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson The Rain King. A passage in that novel inspired her to reflect on how she had looked up at the clouds throughout her life, and now, at that moment, she was looking down on them: both sides, now. But this didn’t help her to understand clouds any more, at all: they retained their glorious gossamer illusion. Mitchell recorded the song again in her 60s, for the 2000 album Both Sides Now, her narrative arc of a romantic journey. This time the song – now shorn of its apostrophe – came at the album’s close.

Reaching further into myth and darkness

Looking at life from both sides is a running theme throughout Clouds. The Gallery, a study of two people growing older, is taken from the woman’s point of view. She has given “all her pretty years” to a man, who now looks elsewhere. It’s almost an inversion of Cactus Tree on Song To A Seagull: in that song, the woman was the unconstrained spirit, largely unconcerned about collateral emotional damage to others. On The Gallery, Mitchell looks at that injury from the reverse angle, understanding that an expressed desire for freedom often leads to selfish actions.

There is a bleaker feel to this second album. While her debut had found in fairy tales and myth a vehicle to explore narrative, on Clouds Mitchell reaches further into their pagan heart of darkness. Roses Blue, for example, tells of the journey of Rose, a hippie psychic dabbler who falls into a cultish rabbit hole: casting spells, shunning friends, prophesying their deaths. I Think I Understand also details fragile mental health (in this case, anxiety). As the 60s ended, Mitchell sensed see that the decade had sown its own destruction.

Certainly, the mood in 1969 had grown grave, with the war in Vietnam a quagmire, police brutality staining civil-rights and anti-war protests, and political assassinations making depressingly regular newspaper headlines. In this space, the quietest song on Clouds wasn’t about love, but the pity of war: The Fiddle And The Drum, a stark a cappella piece on “trading the handshake for the fist”. It could be an ancient folk song; in Mitchell’s hands it is utterly contemporary.

“I decorated my own house. I don’t need a decorator”

Following her dissatisfaction with David Crosby’s production job on Song To A Seagull, Mitchell’s label Reprise brought in Paul A Rothchild. He was a house producer at Elektra Records and had produced The Doors and Love. He had also produced Tim Buckley’s debut album – the work of another wilful, experimental talent who would soon refuse the folk-singer box allocated to him. Unfortunately, Rothchild and Mitchell were not suited and didn’t get along. In their early sessions, recording the track Tin Angel, he told her off for moving when she sang, and then actually taped her feet to the floor. (“How soulless can you get?” Mitchell later seethed).

Mitchell never takes well to being told off, and didn’t particularly like the direction the sessions were going, either. Rothchild had some time off, so Mitchell turned to Henry Lewy, the engineer. “Could we get it done in two weeks before he gets back?” she asked him. He nodded. Mitchell and Lewy worked together – his technical expertise, with her vision and growing production confidence – to complete Clouds. The pair collaborated in this way for over a decade more, right up to 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast. “You don’t need a producer,” Mitchell has said. “A producer is a babysitter if you don’t know what you’re doing. A producer is an interior decorator. I decorated my own house. I don’t need a decorator.”

Released on 1 May 1969, Clouds was a much bigger success than its predecessor, peaking at No.31 on the Billboard chart and proving to be an enduring seller ever since. Mitchell had found her sweet spots: the joins between intimacy and universality, hope and despair, love and freedom, accessibility and experimentation. She would go on to explore these much, much more in the next decade and beyond.

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