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‘Song To A Seagull’: The Story Behind Joni Mitchell’s Debut Flight
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In Depth

‘Song To A Seagull’: The Story Behind Joni Mitchell’s Debut Flight

Far from a regular ‘folk’ album, Joni Mitchell’s debut, ‘Song To A Seagull’, explored her voracious exploratory impulse.

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1968. In the year of The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul and The Beatles’ “White Album”, could a young woman from Canada named Joni Mitchell really offer anything new to the world with a singer-songwriter album titled Song To A Seagull?

Listen to ‘Song To A Seagull’ here.

Of course she could. With experience that belied her age, Mitchell had been playing live for several years before released her debut album, but she always felt like an outsider. “Folk music was very cliquish and very exclusive and very unfriendly towards me,” she said recently, reflecting on her early years for the Joni Mitchell Archives project. “I never really felt close to that community. They treated me badly.” She resented being called a folk singer. Folk didn’t cover even a part of her eclectic musical inspirations, which ranged from Chuck Berry to Miles Davis, Edith Piaf to jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks And Ross.

This was the first reason why Song To A Seagull, released on 23 March 1968, would be a special debut, even though Mitchell’s songs were already out there in the world, having been performed by others, including Judy Collins (Both Sides, Now) and Tom Rush (Urge For Going). On Song To A Seagull, Mitchell is debuting not just her songs but her musical inquisitiveness. Even in what might seem, at first, simple arrangements compared to what she would develop on later albums such as The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira, her voracious exploratory impulse underpins them all.

An embarrassment of riches

Given that Mitchell had written more than 60 songs by this point, the ones she chose for Song To A Seagull are significant. She has likened her early songs to fairy tales about herself and her life; the album’s opener, I Had A King, does this expertly, mutating the breakdown of her short first marriage into a fable about kings, moons and castles. Mitchell bridges the epic with the commonplace, infusing sweeps of emotion with petty revenges, such as changing locks on doors.

The whole of the album’s first half, subtitled Part One: I Came To The City, was written in urban environments – Toronto and New York City. Night In The City, the most joyful song on the album, is specifically about Yorkville Avenue in Toronto, a vibrant district with music blaring out from different venues and “spilling out into the street”. On this song, Mitchell accompanies herself on piano. Though she hadn’t played much piano since childhood, she felt she had to “find the notes” herself. Her exuberant plonking resonates with the elation in the song.

More evidence that Song To A Seagull is far from a regular folk album is in Marcie, also among the “city” material. Mitchell is uniquely gifted at evoking synaesthesia (the psychological phenomena which causes sound to be “seen”, becoming colours in the brain), and Marcie invites you to listen for the reds and greens of the lyrics, hearing their shades and understanding their changing meanings. A painter and frequent sketcher, Mitchell has often commented that painting is more important to her than music. The artwork on Song To A Seagull is hers, and the painter’s eye infuses much more than the album’s cover.

The album’s second half, Part Two: Out Of The City And Down To The Seaside, comprised far more recent songs and experiences. Mitchell had met David Crosby – a founder member of The Byrds, then on his way to Crosby, Stills & Nash – the previous summer. The Dawntreader details the flush of their brief romance: “‘Leave behind your streets,’ he said, ‘and come to me,’” go the lyrics, and that is what Mitchell did. She departed New York and stayed with Crosby in Los Angeles. It was also during these months with Crosby that she signed with Reprise Records and began thinking about how her debut might shape up.

“I was trying to maintain the freedom to be myself”

Their romance didn’t last, but Crosby felt Mitchell’s music deeply, and continued to champion it, taking on the producer’s role for Song To A Seagull. This was the first time he’d produced another artist, and Mitchell herself was new to the studio environment. The two frequently clashed. For instance, Crosby wanted to get a “real piano player” for Night In The City, replacing Mitchell’s imperfect but vibrant playing. Mitchell, spine strong as ever, held out and got her way.

Song To A Seagull’s closer, Cactus Tree, feels infused with the tension between the two. Though it’s about a woman who is “so busy being free” while suitors pile up to pursue her, it’s easy to see how Mitchell could feel this power play in her creative relationships, too. “I was trying to maintain the freedom to be myself,” she has said of this period, “and men will always Svengali on you.”

Unfortunately, Crosby’s inexperience also hampered the sound of the album, something he himself acknowledged. His microphone set-up meant there was a lot of background noise and tape hiss; an attempt to fix this before release removed the high-end, flattening out the songs. Another blunder – this time the label’s error – came with the artwork. The cover of the original release was cropped poorly, meaning that Mitchell’s painting, where the seagulls spell the album’s title, was incomplete. Reprise didn’t notice at the time, so the album was known as “Joni Mitchell” for many years. A frustrated Mitchell described her debut album as “scratched, like an old silent movie negative”. Thankfully, as part of the Joni Mitchell Archives project, in 2021 the album was remixed and remastered, addressing these issues and revealing the record’s full personality for the first time.

Ten tracks, then, made up Song To A Seagull, but they barely scratched the surface of her songbook. Mitchell held back dozens of tunes, many of which would go on to be among her most famous: Morning Morgantown, The Circle Game, Tin Angel, I Don’t Know Where I Stand, Little Green, her own versions of Both Sides, Now and Urge For Going – an embarrassment of riches that the world would have to wait for.

Buy Joni Mitchell vinyl, box sets and more and the Dig! store.

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