How Joni Mitchell made Ladies Of The Canyon and galvanised the singer-songwriter movement

Joni Mitchell in 1970
Joni Mitchell in 1970 (Image credit: ABC Photo Archives)

In the spring of 1970, Joni Mitchell was on top of the world. Her song Both Sides, Now, a hit for Judy Collins, was fast becoming a standard, with the release of cover versions by Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell and others. 

Another of her songs, The Circle Game, a hit for Tom Rush and Buffy Saint-Marie, was on its heels. She’d guested on US TV’s The Johnny Cash Show alongside Bob Dylan. She’d just won her first Grammy, for her second album Clouds. Now she was about to release Ladies Of The Canyon, the record that would crystallise her sound and catapult her to stardom. 

Appropriately, Mitchell’s redwood cottage on Lookout Mountain Avenue in Laurel Canyon was a place that felt on top of the world. Or at least on top of Los Angeles. 

When she moved to the city in 1968, at a flea market she’d found a book that stated: “Ask anyone in LosAngeles where the craziest people live and they’ll tell you Hollywood. Ask anyone in Hollywood where the craziest people live and they’ll say Laurel Canyon. And ask anyone in Laurel Canyon where the craziest people live and they’ll say Lookout Mountain.” 

“So I bought a house on Lookout Mountain,” Mitchell said. 

The house – depicted in a beautiful watercolour by her own hand on the cover of Ladies Of The Canyon – was filled with guitars, a piano, antiques and stained Tiffany windows. There were lots of books, including the two she was reading at the time: Dear Theo, Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra

Out front was her Mercedes 280 SE, which she nicknamed ‘Bluebird’, purchased with her first big royalty check. The Laurel Canyon air smelled of eucalyptus and wildflowers. Mitchell lived there with her boyfriend Graham Nash and a tomcat called Hunter. 

The house was also, as her manager Elliott Roberts said, “the center of the scene”. On any given night, you’d find her musician friends there, among them David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Judee Sill, Richie Furay, Glenn Frey and Cass Elliot, laughing, talking, passing guitars – and joints – around, and there were always lots of new songs wafting through the air, along with the smell of the aromatic pies that Mitchell loved to bake.

“Like Paris was to the Impressionists and to the PostImpressionists, LA back then was the hotbed of all musical activity,” she said. “The greatest musicians in the world either live here or pass through here regularly. I think that a lot of beautiful music came from it, and a lot of beautiful times came through that mutual understanding. A lot of pain came from it too, because inevitably different relationships broke up and it gets complicated.” 

It had been complicated for her and Nash. Beyond the friendly competition between the two of them to see who could get to the piano first and finish their latest song, it was the beginning of Mitchell’s reckoning with whether she wanted to be, in the parlance of the time, someone’s ‘old lady’ or on her own. 

She was fearful that marriage would stifle her creativity. And although she and Nash were deeply in love, she wasn’t willing to commit. “Graham was a sweetheart, but he needed a more traditional female,” she said. “He loved me dearly, but he wanted a stay-at-home wife to raise his children.” 

As Nash said in his autobiography, Wild Tales: “Joni and I shared everything. All the baggage, all the fantasies, as well as our strengths and insecurities. We held nothing back. She was a free spirit, a complicated woman, but it was an attractive complication. She was like an Escher drawing, with all its sharp angles, unexpected turns and mysterious depths.” 

Also contributing to their split was Nash’s drug use. “Cocaine puts a barrier up,” Mitchell said. “Where Graham and I had been a real couple, very close, suddenly there was this barrier. People were more secretive about drugs back then. I never was much of a druggie. Cigarettes and coffee, that’s my poison.” 

Mitchell, who remains close to Nash to this day, and called their time together “a highly productive time for me as an artist”, addressed two of the songs on Ladies Of The Canyon to him as “open letters” and ways to say goodbye: Willy (her nickname for him) and Blue Boy

Along with the challenges of domestic relationships, Ladies would explore the themes that became an integral part of the singer-songwriter’s conversation with herself and her fans through the 70s: California mythology (Ladies Of The Canyon), the uncomfortable fit of fame (For Free), the evils of a money-driven society (Big Yellow Taxi), and the chafing of strong, idealistic women against corporate men (The Arrangement, Conversation).

The latter theme ran deep into Mitchell’s Canadian roots. Born Roberta Joan Anderson in 1943, and raised among the flat prairies of Saskatoon, she was a polio-stricken child who loved music, poetry and painting. 

She started playing ukulele and singing at hootenannies as a teen. At 21 she got pregnant by an ex-boyfriend and gave up the child for adoption. The same year, she married guitarist Chuck Mitchell, who introduced her into the Canadian folk music world. Their marriage lasted less than two years (Joni said it ended with him ridiculing her song Both Sides, Now). 

She might have looked the part of the winsome songstress, with her blonde hair and bright blue eyes, but she was made of tougher stuff. She had also absorbed a deep lesson of independence from her grandmother, a frustrated artist who had traded her muse for a domestic life she resented. 

By 1970, Mitchell was already starting to call the shots in her career. In a bold move for any young artist at the time, she’d made it clear to her label, Reprise, that she would be self-producing Ladies. On her 1968 debut album, she’d worked with her friend David Crosby, who said: “It stopped being fun when I started producing her first record. Joni is not a person that you stay in a relationship with. It always goes awry, no matter who you are. We were starting to have friction, and at the same time I was starting to produce her record and I didn’t really know how.” 

On the follow-up, Clouds, Mitchell began a fruitful partnership with engineer Henry Lewy. “I realised a record producer is completely unnecessary,” she said. “It’s a babysitter, it’s an interior decorator. If you know what you’re doing, you have an engineer. You go in, you have the vision, he makes the sound, he has his knowledge, you have yours, and you interact.” 

Her first two albums were recorded sparsely, just voice and guitar. For Ladies, she wrote half the songs on piano and assembled a band of studio cats, most of them twice her age. Drummer Milt Holland came up playing the speakeasies in Al Capone-era Chicago, then moved to LA in the 1940s and become a successful session man. 

His credits included Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and the Rolling Stones. Flautist Paul Horn played with Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole, and was in India with The Beatles in 1968, studying under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Later he became a pioneer in world and new-age music. And Lewy, a former disc jockey and inventor, cut his teeth in the studio working with artists ranging from The Chipmunks to Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66. He would go on to engineer Mitchell’s albums Blue, Court And Spark and Hejira

Mitchell described these musicians as “alchemists” and what they created together as “mundane magic – but just as exciting as watching two birds disappear up a guy’s sleeve”

The only surviving member of the Ladies team is veteran woodwind player Jim Horn, who’s done sessions with a long list of major artists including the Beach Boys, Elton John and Tom Petty

“Joni knew what she wanted, and she was very creative,” Horn tells Classic Rock. “I think one of the things that made her music special is that she didn’t have a lot of outside people arranging parts. It all came out of her head. For my sessions, she gave me a lot of freedom to improvise and express myself, which I appreciated. She was colourful with her language when she talked to musicians. 

"She’d say: ‘Can you make that sound more yellow?’ or ‘I like those notes that sound like dolphins leaping out of the water.’ It was a breath of fresh air, because so many sessions back then were very structured, with scored music and an orchestra. Even with all the sessions I’ve done, that one does stand out, because of Joni and her distinct voice.” 

Horn was one of the first of many top musicians to be struck by Mitchell’s distinctive guitar style. “She played with open tunings that gave the music a special quality,” he said. “It was almost like Hendrix playing the guitar left-handed. The way the guitar sounded was different from anyone else’s guitar. A lot of suspended chords, which gave the songs suspense, an unresolved air. It’s one of the reasons that no other artist ever sounded like Joni.” 

Of her playing style, which was partially developed because polio had rendered her left hand slightly weaker, Mitchell said: “My talent was kind of mysterious in that it was unorthodox. I can tell you I had a good right hand. There is a picture of me with Eric Clapton and David Crosby and Mama Cass’s baby on the lawn of Cass’s house, and Eric is just staring at me playing guitar, and David looks proud, like the cat that ate the cream.”

Recorded over three weeks in January 1970 at A&M Studios (formerly the movie studios of Charlie Chaplin), Ladies Of The Canyon was a huge step forward. It was the album where Mitchell first sounded like the artist we know her as now. By closing rather than opening the record with three consecutive hits – Big Yellow Taxi, Woodstock and The Circle Game – she was also sending a message that commerciality was not at the front of her mind. But there’s no denying that the appeal of those songs helped elevate her status and give her her first platinum seller. 

Big Yellow Taxi was inspired by a trip that she and Nash took to Hawaii in 1968, at a moment when tourism was crowding out the island’s magical landscape. The line ‘They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot’ has a kind of Tin Pan Alley snap to it that has made it part of our cultural lingo, shorthand for the hope for a better world. Recorded as a run-through, when Mitchell didn’t know the tape was rolling, it has a breezy quality (the giggle at the end was real). 

Years later, when asked if she felt she’d had extra foresight in the song, she said: “I don’t foresee impending disasters all around me. It’s not psychic. It’s not anything paranormal. It’s just me being awake, being alert. I’ve got a fast eye.” 

Rolling Stone would later credit Tom Rush’s version of The Circle Game as the tune that ushered in the singer-songwriter movement. Joni wrote it when she was still married to Chuck Mitchell, apparently as an answer song to Neil Young’s carnival-themed Sugar Mountain, with her love of the fairground carousel as a metaphor for the march of time.

As for Woodstock, although Mitchell was disappointed that she couldn’t attend the festival, watching it on TV afforded her a unique perspective. 

“The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle,” she said. “Woodstock, for some reason, impressed me as being a modern miracle, like a modern-day fishes-and-loaves story. For a herd of people that large to co-operate so well, it was pretty remarkable, and there was tremendous optimism. So I wrote the song out of those feelings. And the first three times I performed it in public, I burst into tears, because it brought back the intensity of the experience and was so moving."

Even with the trio of singles leading the way, the marketing of the album, at the hands of Reprise’s creative guru Stan Cornyn, targeted a particular demographic, in the form of a fictional character named Amy Foster. 

According to the full-page print ads, Amy was “23 years old and quietly beautiful” recovering from the ache of a failed romance. She “was sitting in her orange inflatable chair listening to Neil Young’s second album, toying indifferently with the antique ring on the index finger on her left hand, as she thought about tie-dying some curtains for her ’64 Chevy camper.” 

A grocery delivery guy arrives and they smoke “a concise little joint” together and listen to a new album he brought called Ladies Of The Canyon. Amy recognises herself in the songs, and starts to feel better, more empowered. As the last song, The Circle Game, finishes, she “can’t wait to drive up to the top of Lookout and watch LA twinkle beneath the indigo April sky”. 

It was a novel pitch strategy, with themes very much of the time - smoking pot, free love, being one with nature. Not that Mitchell paid attention to any of it. Years later, she said: “When I was contracted to Reprise they didn’t know what to do with me. There was no overt sexuality, and I think the executive mentality found that difficult to market. We’re talking about a business that is not as much musical as it is physical. 

"The image, generally speaking, is more important than the sound, whether the business would admit it or not. Always women have had to burlesque it up, and I had no penchant for that, and I didn’t think it necessary. I thought we were liberated, and I guess I bought a lie and proceeded accordingly.” 

And she proceeded fearlessly into the 1970s, building on the success of Ladies Of The Canyon (The New York Times called it “powerful and brilliant”), releasing a now-classic album almost every year: Blue, For The Roses, Court And Spark, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter

It was a body of work that would influence generations of artists, from Prince to Bjork to Taylor Swift. Beyond that amazing run of records, she would become ever more experimental, a seeker of new ideas and sounds. But the through line was always a willingness to examine her own heart and soul with an unflinching eye. 

“My records have been very kind of subjective,” she said. “Subjective but hopefully universal. That was always my optimism. That if I described my own changes through whatever the decade was throwing at us, that there were others like me. And it turns out that there were.”

Bill DeMain

Bill DeMain is a correspondent for BBC Glasgow, a regular contributor to MOJO, Classic Rock and Mental Floss, and the author of six books, including the best-selling Sgt. Pepper At 50. He is also an acclaimed musician and songwriter who's written for artists including Marshall Crenshaw, Teddy Thompson and Kim Richey. His songs have appeared in TV shows such as Private Practice and Sons of Anarchy. In 2013, he started Walkin' Nashville, a music history tour that's been the #1 rated activity on Trip Advisor. An avid bird-watcher, he also makes bird cards and prints.