55 Canadian artists reveal their favourite Joni Mitchell song
Celebrating the birthday of one of Canada's greatest songwriters
We're celebrating the birthday of one of Canada's greatest songwriters, Joni Mitchell.
For over 50 years, Mitchell has inspired musicians around the world with her gorgeous, poetic storytelling, whether she was busking on the streets of Toronto or singing for thousands on a big festival stage. Her words have connected with generations of music fans, and people young and old continue to discover and fall in love with her music today.
To see how her music has influenced the next generation — especially in her home country of Canada — CBC Music has asked 55 Canadian musicians for their favourite Joni Mitchell song. Scroll down to hear from Buffy Sainte-Marie, Arkells' Max Kerman, Cadence Weapon, Nikki Yanofsky and many more.
"I carried Joni's tape around in my purse for a long time, playing it for people, and nobody wanted it. At last, a junior agent in the agency I was working with, Elliot Roberts, said, 'Okay, I'll listen to it.' I sent him down to hear her and, of course, Elliot Roberts and, later, his partner David Geffen made a great career with Joni. I recorded several of her songs when she was not very well-known herself, and the one that I like best — of the ones I recorded — is called 'For Free.' The music itself, the song, the story and the heart in it is just so, so lovely." — Buffy Sainte-Marie
'Free Man in Paris'
"My favourite — though it is impossible to pick — Joni Mitchell song is 'Free Man in Paris.' I often use it to warm up my voice before a show because it is so fun to sing. But that aside, I think one of the many inspiring features of Joni Mitchell's songwriting style is how seemingly effortlessly she paints a vivid picture. She turns one moment into a fully-arranged, unique and beautiful song, and 'Free Man in Paris' showcases that in spades." — Kathryn Calder (The New Pornographers, Frontperson)
"Court and Spark came out in 1974, the year I was born, and I feel like my parents must have been listening to it incessantly because it somehow entered my bloodstream. Whenever I hear that impossible opening woodwind riff from 'Free Man in Paris,' something unlocks in me like I'm a sleeper cell operative. It just activates me. And then I have to follow every cascading note of Joni's effortless vocal performance over that insane chordal structure. To this day, it just doesn't make sense to me that something can sound so otherworldly and still be such quintessential AM radio fare. There's simply been no song like it before or since." — Chris Velan
'Both Sides, Now'
"I don't have a favourite. They seem more like moods to me, but I have loved 'Both Sides, Now' deeply since I was a kid. It was exactly the sort of song that perked up my girl-ears and inspired daydreams and thoughts beyond the track itself. Still does." — Jennifer Castle
"'Both Sides, Now' is a classic because she pulls off one of the great songwriting tricks: she's at once mystical and otherworldly, and then very grounded and relatable, all in one song. I love the tone of the acoustic guitar, and how both effortless and vulnerable she sounds. The era of the recording is so warm, which adds to the depth of it all." — Max Kerman (Arkells)
"I love how this song explores perception. We can look at something from two sides and realize the more we know, the less we know. The opening lines give us the way we view clouds, as an example. We see their shifting nature, from something magical and whimsical to something that brings unpleasant things like bad weather and darkness. Likewise, love and life can be beautiful, innocent, happy, but it too can bring heartache and sadness. The truth of our human experience lies between the two sides. If we sell ourselves too much on one side then we will fail to really know what's real." — Lindi Ortega
"Having grown up in the Canadian prairies, I can't not feel some kindredness to Joni. I'll never forget the first time I heard 'Both Sides, Now' shortly after I had my heart broken for the first time. It captured all of the confusing emotions I was feeling — the nostalgia, the disillusionment, the sorrow, the hopefulness — all in one song. I'm very grateful for the legacy she has built, and for the way that she was able to help my young, wounded heart to feel understood." — Ellis
"'Both Sides, Now' is truly one of the most well-written songs I have ever come across. I love the way that she depicts 'growing up' as a process that begins with wonder and awe, but inevitably leads to disappointment as the realities of life unfold. The most relatable sentiment to me is her humble admission that although she's been through so much, she still knows so little." — Lowell Sostomi (Only Yours)
"I'm still growing as a human with the two versions of this song. With both versions you can transition from the assumed wisdom of youth to the wisdom that only time and the harshness of experience can give. She's a true artist for capturing both at the exact right moment." — Geraldine Hollett (The Once)
"It's hard to choose a favourite song by Joni Mitchell, but one that has always been a constant for me is 'Both Sides, Now.' As a woman in music, I will always appreciate her elegance in songwriting and the ways that she approaches topics of love and loss. She paints songs in a light that is void of tropes and clichés women so often sing about. Joni is so equally vulnerable and articulate; she has a singular genius and is such a beacon of inspiration to all women in music seeking their own distinctive sonic expression. No one compares to Joni." — Alexandria Maillot
"Undoubtedly, this is one of Joni Mitchell's most well-known songs, due in part to its super catchy melody. For me though, it's her lyrics that have a continuing and resounding impact. It's her deeply matured understanding of the ebb and flow of love and life, and yet ... she's learned only that she knows nothing at all." — Tim Moxam
"There's no better combination of lyric and melody, in my mind, that looks at the phenomena of maturing. The whimsy in these impeccable statements of growing to know life, love, and self is so powerful. Within the words alone, Ms. Mitchell's ability to jump from memory to maturity in a few lines, still gives me pause. The impressions we get, how they develop, how we mature; and how we are only ever learning. Intriguing, really." — Don Brownrigg
'Car on a Hill'
"I like 'Car On A Hill' because what's not to like? It's groovy and catchy and about a very simple thing that we've all experienced: waiting on the arrival of someone who we'd perhaps like to smooch with. But I could pick any Joni Mitchell song. There are no bad ones. She is the greatest Canadian songwriter of all time and perhaps the best English-language songwriter to ever live and that's not my opinion — that's scientific fact." — Donovan Woods
"I remember listening to this song with my good pal, Kinley Dowling, one summer when we were renting a house somewhere in the Ontario countryside, biding our time between festivals. It was just the two of us and we were cooking these crazy meals every night and smoking some marijuana we found in a cupboard which, as it turned out, was pretty strong and made us feel pretty whacked. But we made it through, I think because, when this song played, we started floating around the house together like two fairies of summertime. Very grateful for this big collection of Joni's music because she lets you into the quietest spaces of her heart. She is a true healer and I will always love her." — Jenn Grant
"I used to obsessively cover Joni's 'River' as a kid during my early open mic days and high school talent shows. It was my go-to song. I still remember my mom playing the full album, Blue, when I was 13. Sitting in the basement of my childhood home, she pulled the vinyl out and placed the needle down. The rest is history. Joni Mitchell informed my songwriting from a very young age. She is a poet and will forever be a symbol of true Canadian artistry." — Jadea Kelly
"Joni has always had a way of moving me deeply. The first time I heard 'River,' I couldn't help but cry. It felt like a song for us dreamers. Our minds always wandering to greener pastures, or getting swallowed up in the swirling waters of nostalgia. 'River' captures the solemn ache of it all and the unique beauty that comes with such longing." — Megan Bonnell
"Joni Mitchell's 'River' is a long-time favourite of ours. It paints such a vivid picture of regret and heartbreak. You feel it all and want to skate away from those regrets with her, and away from all the holiday cheer that's so hard to resonate with when you're sad. No one captures that type of feeling the way she does." — The O'Pears
Listen to The O'Pears' cover of "River" below.
"It's nearly impossible to pick a favourite Joni song. They're all good, and they're all from different stages of a life. I've selected this one from Turbulent Indigo, and later orchestrated on Travelogue, because I recently performed it with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra and Joni's collaborator, Vince Mendoza, was conducting. The orchestrated version is, I think, far superior to the original which is already incredible. The orchestra's might just nails the intensity of the lyrics, and the lyrics are what gives me whole-body chills. This is an elder Joni's scathing indictment of modern heartlessness, seemingly set off by a single detail observed in L.A. traffic — a license plate that says 'Just Ice.' She quotes Yeats, makes a respectful nod to First Nations people, and worries aloud about the trajectory of western society, as we all do. 'Just the strong doing what they can and the weak suffering what they must.' When singing this, full horn section blasting with anguished rage, mournful high strings crying, basses growling, I felt the power and eerie prescience of her genius." — Sarah Slean
"A hypnotic, lyrical masterpiece with incredible guitar playing. The lines, 'People will tell you where they've gone/ they'll tell you where to go/ but till you get there yourself you never really know,' always get me." — Kalle Mattson
"My favourite Joni Mitchell song is 'Amelia.' The first verse is etched in my mind. When I was a teenager, I listened to it over and over for it's imagery. It made me feel so much that I didn't understand, and as I grow older, this song means more and more to me." — Caroline Brooks (The Good Lovelies)
"I first heard 'Amelia' about 10 years ago, and it struck me as inspirational. The beautiful electric guitar interplay between Joni and guitarist Larry Carlton on this track has greatly influenced the way I approach writing guitar lines for my own music. The lead guitar fades in and out around Joni's vocals in an understated and haunting way that gives the impression of soaring through clouds or driving down a lonely desert highway. Now, as a touring musician, when I listen to this song, I identify with the desire to travel but also the struggles that come along with being so far away from family and home. The lyrics, 'I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel/ to shower off the dust/ and I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust," resonate strongly with me. Although, it's not always that easy to get a shower on tour!" — Darnell Stewart (Bears in Hazenmore)
'A Case of You'
"Joni Mitchell has this way of writing where the most simple and personal things she goes through become universal translations of emotion. We get so inspired by this and it gives us confidence to trust ourselves more and more in our writing. To not be afraid to share the simple things. They are often the greatest. 'A Case of You' is our favourite song because it takes us to this lonely state of melancholy and strength and weakness. Every time we hear the song, we are taken somewhere different. A new part of the song becomes our favourite at every listen. Joni is so free with her interpretation. It is so unique and sometimes hard to follow but always so reassuring and brave." — Milk & Bone
"I used to listen to Joni's Blue album on repeat as a teenager (what female singer-songwriter didn't?) and I wrote my share of Joni-esque songs, dreaming of being a cool, elusive and mysterious folk singer — basically the opposite of the loud, belting, gregarious soul/rockabilly singer I became! Songs don't come better than 'A Case of You.' It is a song I love for so many reasons. It's the song that, now that I live across the world in New Zealand, always makes my eyes well up with tears and homesickness with the line, 'I drew a map of Canada, oh, Canada.' Joni's music runs in my blood like holy wine." — Tami Neilson
"So many artists have covered that song. Her lyric writing is exceptional and there are not a lot of songwriters who inspire me the way Joni Mitchell does; she is known around the world for it. But 'A Case of You' is definitely my favourite, and any time I just need to get into a good space, getting into a ride or something, a lot of times I'll pull up that song." — Lindsay Ell
"My favourite Joni Mitchell song is 'A Case of You.' I actually kind of fell in love with that song more when I heard the James Blake cover. Now I just go back to it and can appreciate the lyrics. They're so crazy. She's such an amazing songwriter." — Charlotte Day Wilson
"'Circle Game' is a song that I've been singing throughout my career because it's a song I grew up with. It's like the verses carry new weight every year that passes by and they mean something different to me each time I sing them. It's rare that a song can touch on so many phases of life, woven together with such beautiful simplicity, but that's the beauty of the great Joni Mitchell. Happy birthday Joni — here's to many more years of your own circle game." — Nikki Yanofsky
"This song strikes a chord because I can empathize with her very raw sentiments. Joni was caught between opposing generations, where a woman's role was quickly changing in this world. As a woman and an artist, I struggled for many years to come to a decision as to wether I could manage being a mom and continue down this creative road. Luckily, I live in a time where it turns out I can have both and not lose my mind in the process. In 'Little Green,' Joni expresses the frivolity of the absent father, while herself being a 'child with a child pretending.' And then, in a gut-wrenching and brave turn, she signs the papers and her baby girl is given away. I'm grateful to Joni for sharing this very personal story and one that any passionate working mom can relate to in a small way." — Melissa McLelland (Whitehorse)
"Joni Mitchell's 'Little Green' both broke and mended my heart simultaneously the very first time I heard it. Although I was young at the time, I understood that this was a story of courage. A young woman who was fighting to stay strong while coping with the realities of not being able to care for her child. A devastating and beautiful love letter to her daughter, 'Little Green' continues to mend and break hearts for any of us who'd wish our families could write us their own love letters." — Flying Horses
"My dad took me to see Joni Mitchell when she played Maple Leaf Gardens with Bob Dylan in the '90s. I'd grown up listening to Joni's music on vinyl and this was my first live experience. I was maybe 12 and I still remember the impact it had on me, I felt overwhelming gratitude. 'Little Green' captures everything I love about a song. It takes me away and has such clear and distinct imagery, but allows the listener to paint their own picture, either embracing the light or the dark of the song, the joy or the sorrow, and the colour green carries all of that in its beauty: 'Like the nights when the northern lights perform.'" — Ben Kunder
"The first time I heard Joni Mitchell, I was 15 years old. I had just started playing guitar and writing songs and my older brother [Matthew Barber] gave me a copy of the album Blue as essential listening. Ever since, Blue has been my constant musical companion. I can sing along with every word. When I'm feeling blue, lonely, nostalgic, vulnerable or introspective, it goes on the turntable. I even listened to it during the early stages of labour with my first child. On 'Blue,' Joni sings: "Songs are like tattoos," and hers are burned in my brain, forever a part of my being. Joni may be celebrating her 75th birthday, but this album remains timeless." — Jill Barber
"I was brought up on Joni Mitchell's album, Blue, and it influences me still to this day. My favourite song is definitely 'Blue' itself. It's so vulnerable and melancholy. It feels so private, like a song just for her and her lover to understand. There is such loneliness in the lyrics and hopelessness that is mixed with courage. When I look back to when I was a teenager and going through my own struggles, I can hear her voice. I would sit in the bath and soak while singing along to 'Blue,' blaring it on my headphones. Sometimes I'd cry. It was cathartic. I have always understood that feeling of aloneness and her honesty inspires me to expose my own vulnerabilities and turn them into something magical." — Chloe Charles (Echlo)
"I like the song 'Blue.' I find the vocal melody original and lyrics move through very light and dark territories." — Rae Spoon
"I've written many songs that have touched on the minutiae of social gatherings. Joni Mitchell's 'People's Parties' does this as well with a masterful level of detail and depth. She uses the setting of a house party, something that many might consider a banal, shallow topic, to deftly explore beauty, insecurity, anxiety and social mobility. In her hands, the material is always elevated in unforgettable ways." — Cadence Weapon
"I was relatively late coming to know Joni's music. I think I was in my early 20s. Of course her lyrics and melodies completely overwhelmed me. Picking just one song is so difficult. 'People's Parties' was a song I loved right away, but after 20 years being a relatively introverted person in the music industry, this song resonates with me even more. It plays in my head at every industry event, afterparty, schmoozing-type situation and it makes me smile. Like Joni and I have a secret." — Erin Costelo
"I love 'People's Parties' because it expresses exactly how I feel at parties. I love the arrangement and phrasing and cadence and the lyrics, like all her songs, are so strong." — Pascale Padilla (Moscow Apartment)
"One of our favourite Joni songs — it's impossible to choose just one — is 'Help Me' from Court and Spark. The groove, the horns, Joni's voice and melody are in full Joni form. In other words, perfect." — Hey Ocean!
"'Woodstock' is one of my most nostalgic songs. I associate it with my very earliest memories — my parents playing music in the house when I was probably three years old. The lyrics that I hung onto at the time were, 'And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.' I didn't know what the song was about or who she was at all, but I connected it with my parents since they were the ones who had chosen to put it on.
"I remember feeling that they must have understood and agreed with the idea that we had to 'get ourselves back to the garden.' It was an enigmatic desire to me, and it added to the mystery of my parents. I remember feeling like if I could understand the song, I could also understand some part of them. Now that I'm older, I feel like I understand the song better, and I think my intuition was true, that the song is about a dream that was partially their dream as well." — Devon Welsh
"While it's hard to pick a favourite, I'd have to say that my favourite Joni Mitchell song is 'Woodstock.' It was such a magical time in music, and the fact that she wrote it after missing out on performing at the festival makes me feel like I can hear the sense of longing in her voice. Somehow, she perfectly captures the mood of the time, and transports the listener back there. It gives me chills every time I hear it." — Adyn Townes
'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat'
"These lines often spring to my mind: 'Love is never easy. It's short of the hope we have for happiness. Bright and sweet. Love is never easy street.' To me, this song has it all: a brilliant ensemble cast of players, the daisy-chained homage from one musician to another — Joni to Mingus, Mingus to Lester Young. That record blew my mind when I first heard it, and it probably had more impact on me than any record I know." — Christine Fellows
"'Cactus Tree' is such a doozie. It's a journey that's shot more like a movie than a song. Even the opening bars are more cinematic to me than any film I've ever seen. I don't even have to close my eyes to see it play out in technicolor." — Matt Mays
"When I first heard 'California' in the early '80s, a decade and a half after it was written, I was still learning to play the guitar. I remember thinking: how do I tune my guitar to make it sound like that, all open and drone-like? A few years later, I figured out she was playing the dulcimer, the instrument that creates that signature Joni sound. 'California' is still as compelling to me now as it was back then. Mitchell's voice is hard to pin down, those deceptively lazy falsetto notes that she somehow makes sound like everyday conversation. The narrator here — presumably Joni Mitchell herself — itches to leave France and Spain, to get back home to America. The listener pines along with her while, at the same time, feels a pull to remain in a state of perpetual homesickness, as long as this track keeps playing there, that is. Yearning never sounded sweeter than in the line 'California, I'm coming home,' and it's this simple refrain that offers respite to every doubt and question posed by the narrator in each preceding verse.
What makes Mitchell's song about place unique is that she's an outsider looking in. This version of 'California' exists as much in her mind as it does in reality. Imagination is a close kin to idealism, and this song makes us aspire to the dream of California as much as the Golden State itself. It's a four-minute anthem for the displaced that keeps us clinging to bittersweet optimism, a hope that each of us will not only find a place to call home, but a place that will listen when we say, 'Take me as I am.'" — Tariq Hussain (Brasstronaut)
"Joni captures a 'time and place' moment perfectly here in the song, 'California.' I'm struck by how much I see myself in these lyrics as I spend half of the year touring Europe solo, walking amongst a sea of strangers and balancing the excitement of new lands and the loneliness that comes with the trade-off. I feel what we can all relate to in 'California' is the yearning to go home, even if that version of home was an adopted one to begin with, as many performers of the arts know all too well." — Rob Moir
"One of my favorite songs is 'California' where she combines elements of 'finding home' with unapologetic, vulnerable description. She's travelling, she's meeting new strangers and describing them with quirky one-liner gems like 'I'll even kiss a sunset pig,' and 'He cooked good omelettes and stews.' The reason I love this song from her is that she asks, 'Will you take me as I am?' to which the songwriter in me responds, 'Absolutely.'" — Poor Nameless Boy
'Court and Spark'
"'Court and Spark' has a way of transporting me into what feels like a smoky memory. Is it Joni's memory? My own? I can never be sure, and there's something irresistible about that. From those first piano chords that pound with a soft kind of urgency, to Joni's voice and words coming in so loaded with emotion and intent, attack and release.... For those couple of minutes, maybe I'm the one feeling courted and sparked." — Lana Cooney (Caveboy)
"The ex-pat, European backdrop of 'Carey' reminds me of my own year living in Europe right when I graduated from high school. I love the decidedly upbeat and wind-swept nature of the song. It seems like a perfect sonic backdrop to this lifestyle of living only in the moment." — Mike Edel
'This Flight Tonight'
"'This Flight Tonight' is a jam. It's chill, but undeniably sexy — the perfect mix of poetry and playfulness." — Rachel Beck
'I Had a King'
"The first song I ever heard by Joni Mitchell was 'I Had a King.' I went to an arts high school and we were studying folk music. My teacher at the time told us to all close our eyes and to really focus on the lyrics. I didn't realize that hearing Joni Mitchell sing would have such an effect on the kind of artist I am today. I had never heard anything so beautiful and pure, yet so powerful and intoxicating. To think that the only thing behind her vocals was a guitar amazed me. I had such hesitation growing up thinking that I couldn't use the piano to support my voice, but hearing 'I Had a King' changed that outlook I had completely. I never wanted the song to end and I never wanted to open my eyes. I wanted to stay in the trance that her voice kept me in. Since that day, I have realized that heartache may hurt, but what you produce as an artist from those feelings can be truly beautiful. When I first heard 'I Had a King,' I was much younger and didn't really understand what it was about. Considering the song's gentle nature, the last thing I thought it was about was pain. But like I said, it really opened my eyes to see that pain can always make for beautiful lessons." — Emma Lokai
'Big Yellow Taxi'
"I have a few Joni Mitchell tunes that I love, but I have fond memories of my mother singing along to 'Big Yellow Taxi' while my siblings and I were growing up on a lake in the summer up near Algonquin Park. She'd be making dinner, Joni would come on the CBC and Mom would start singing 'shooooo bop bop bop bop' right along with her while dancing around the kitchen, putting smiles on our faces. It still makes me smile now when I listen to it. Her voice is beautifully playful and her laugh at the end is so pure and infectious. At the same time, she was singing about preserving the beauty of our Earth and appreciating the gifts that life provides you while you can. A message that seems as painfully poignant in our current climate as it did when she wrote it. Thanks Joni!" — Jay Foster (Long Range Hustle)
"The song centres on how human beings carelessly exploit the environment and take things for granted. It's a good reminder that we are, in many ways, privileged to live in a commercialized world, but at the same time, we must protect and love the world. She is also a pivotal figure in the singer-songwriter community, and her writing has inspired my own writing." — Sara Diamond
'The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines'
"While Joni Mitchell is known for her folky roots and heart-wrenching stories, there is something so appealing about her 1979 record, Mingus, and specifically, 'The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.' Upon the first notes of the incredible bass riff, you're immediately pulled into the upbeat, energetic vibe that makes you feel like anything is possible. I love songs that make you need to dance, no matter where you are. On top of everything mentioned, Joni's voice soars over the incredible instrumental like a trumpet. And even if you're not following the story, at the very least you get a good groove and the best feeling." — Deanna Petcoff
'All I Want'
"Joni Mitchell is a Canadian treasure. Blue was the soundtrack to so many formative moments of my childhood. I think every road trip I ever took started off with 'All I Want.' Her unique voice layered in with lush instrumentation has always left me in sublime wonder." — Kintaro Akiyama (Birds of Bellwoods)
'Furry Sings The Blues'
"I always liked this song about the crumbling death of Beale Street, but it never really hit me until I watched Joni sing it from the side of the stage at the Luminato celebration of her 70th birthday. I was blown away just to be asked to sing, but to also get to hang with her and watch her do her thing from right on the same stage was riveting and life-changing. 'Furry' came to life like a one-woman theatre piece. You could hear every syllable, see every image, feel every emotion. A year or so after watching Joni sing it, I was asked to take part in a Joni tribute and when trying to pick a song to sing, 'Furry Sings The Blues' just jumped out at me. It was like it was demanding to be learned and sung. So I did and it was hard. It's not an easy song and I had a high bar to meet after watching Joni, but I relished poring over every line and detail and lost myself in the imagery." — Liam Russell
"I love the melody of this song. It's joyful, with a touch of sadness, and the melodic peaks and valleys are really fun to sing along to. I also really love a good descriptive lyric about seemingly ordinary things, and this song satisfies just that." — Kat Burns (Kashka)
'Rainy Night House'
"I love 'Rainy Night House' because it has such a great piano part. It is a serious song in terms of its sound and then has these odd but memorable lyrics. 'You are a refugee from a wealthy family,' is such a good line and the choral part that comes in is so amazing." — Brighid Fry (Moscow Apartment)
"I didn't always like Hejira. In my early 20s, I loved the older Joni albums like Blue and Clouds (which I still love). I distinctly remember making fun of a friend for liking Hejira at the time. I didn't yet appreciate the arrangements, or understand the themes of that era of Joni's music. Now I am 30, and 'Hejira' is one of my favourite songs. I feel the longing, the uncertainty, and the complex wisdom she sings about inside my own self. I think 'Hejira' is a beautiful portrait of the mind and life of Joni and so many women before and after her at a potent moment in life: 'The hope and the hopeless I've witnessed 30 years.'" — Ivy Mairi