The very first time I heard Joni Mitchell I was watching The Last Waltz in my living room. I just discovered The Band and knew that their 1976 concert, featuring everyone from Neil Diamond to Bob Dylan, was going to change my life. Joni Mitchell was the first woman to take the stage. When she did, she kissed the Band’s front person, Robbie Roberson, then cupped his face with her long fingers, before picking up her guitar to play.
At first I noticed her unique strumming style. It was rhythmic and percussive. The chords felt like the beat and the bass carried a kind of melody. Mitchell was playing “Coyote,” the lead track off her latest album Hejira.
Hejira came out in November of 1976, the same month as the Band’s famous concert and in between the releases of the experimental The Hissing of Summer Lawns and the jazzy Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Hejira featured nine tracks and was a departure from Mitchell’s folk style which catapulted her to success in the late 60s. Instead of taking a similar road, this time she journeyed into the world of jazz; ‘hejira’ is an Arabic word meaning exodus, after all.
“Coyote” is an upbeat lament about a womanizer Mitchell knows too well, where “Song for Sharon” picks at the conflict between marriage and freedom. “Strange Boy” channels the droning of sitars, a unique addition to Hejira’s already distinctive sound. The album ends with Mitchell’s signature strumming punctuated with rhythmic slaps in “Refuge of the Roads.” Mitchell takes her lived experiences and turns them into songs where each instrument is heard making its point.
Mitchell is as much a musician as she is a poet and painter. The artistry of her work extends far beyond the musical composition. The lyrics on Hejira are beautifully crafted and explore the ways in which loneliness and feminism can often intersect. Mitchell is never didactic but always a storyteller, painting poignant pictures with her songs that still reflect our landscape.
Hejira is easily missed sitting in the shadows of Mitchell’s mainstream success with albums like Blue and Court and Spark, but it’s one that marks a turning point in her career and is as relevant as ever.