How a genius is born: history of Joni Mitchell’s archival recordings

joni mitchell

Born from an old cassette found by chance, ‘Archives Volume 1: The Early Years’ documents the singer-songwriter’s first steps in the world of music. “It was already great, it didn’t miss a note”

Five years ago, Barry Bowman’s daughter brought him a box full of old items. The ex-wife of the DJ thought he wanted to keep it. The retired man opened it and began rummaging through the recordings of his broadcasts. “I said to myself not too convinced: who knows if there is also that old house of Joni Mitchell , it would be nice, right?” He explains from his home in Victoria, British Columbia. “A moment later I found it. It was her. When I saw the worn out label in an instant it all came back to my mind ».

In the summer of 1963 Bowman was DJing the night shift at CFQC 600, a radio station in Saskatoon, Canada. He was 18 and lived in a giant 40’s downtown house on Fourth Avenue with friends Ed Hamm, Morris Postnikoff, Danny Evanishen. The group befriended a nineteen-year-old art student named Joni Anderson, who would become famous as Joni Mitchelll.

“Danny refers to that period as the summer Joni came in,” Bowman says. Friends often met in the old house, the nearby municipal swimming pool, or the Saskatchewan River, where they drank beer and ate hot dogs. Mitchell still lived with his parents and played in area cafes. Wherever he went, he carried his baritone ukulele with nylon strings. “Danny lent her the guitar one day,” recalls Bowman. “In a short time, maybe a couple of weeks, she was better than those three combined.”

That summer, Bowman invited her on the radio to do a test recording. Sitting on a stool facing the microphone, Mitchell recorded nine folk standards over two evenings, including House of the Rising Sun , Tell Old Bill , Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song) . “I gave her the copies, I kept the masters, and we went for a spree,” recalls Bowman. When that summer ended, the group split, and Mitchell left for Calgary’s Alberta College of Art.

In 1967 Bowman and Mitchell exchanged letters: she sent him a single of George Hamilton IV, a cover of Urge for Going , and asked him to play it on CFAX 1070, the radio he was working on at the time. Eventually they lost sight of each other and Bowman lost the tapes. “I looked for them, but I gave up,” he says. “Obviously this hasn’t stopped me from telling this story to anyone.”

The cassette she just found , labeled “Joni Anderson Audition”, is Joni Mitchell’s oldest recording. It is included in Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) , the first volume of the new archive series dedicated to the singer-songwriter. It contains five discs with more than six hours of recordings made at home, in concerts and on the radio. They precede the 1968 debut Song to a Seagull . The collection also contains 29 unpublished: some circulated on bootlegs, others were unknown to anyone.

“Listening to those recordings, people will realize that it has always been extraordinary,” says Patrick Milligan of the Rhino label, who co-produced the set with Mitchell. “Even if at the time he hadn’t started writing his own songs, the typical way of singing, playing and interpreting is already evident. There is hardly any wrong note. She is fantastic at what she does. “

In the box set there are also the first original compositions, which date back to 1965, such as Day After Day and the mystical Eastern Rain . There’s also a cover of Neil Young ‘s Sugar Mountain , which famously inspired The Circle Game (coincidentally, Neil Young’s upcoming Archives Volume 2 features Mitchell singing Raised on Robbery during Tonight’s the Night sessions ).

The Early Years is dedicated to Elliot Roberts, Young and Mitchell’s manager who died last year in the middle of the project. “It was crucial to getting the job started,” says Milligan. «I started studying the material looking for the best way to present it to the public. I was thinking about the standard and boring way of releasing extended album releases, it just didn’t seem right. Elliott was very involved in the Neil Young Archives and really liked that model. He was convinced we should have done something similar with Joni. ‘

Milligan visited Mitchell’s Los Angeles home multiple times to plan the release, then sent her some CDs with the material. When the pandemic hit, they worked in videoconferencing and on the phone. The collection allowed Mitchell to reconnect with his old material, music he no longer enjoys so much. “In the past he always made a mess of his early recordings,” says Milligan. “When he resented them he said: ‘They are actually good! They show that I was a folk singer for a while ”. I am proud to have won his trust. We know that it is not easy ».

Among the liner notes there is also an interview with Cameron Crowe, who told Joni Mitchell in the cover story of Rolling Stone  in 1979. The singer-songwriter rarely gives interviews, especially after the aneurysm of 2015, which she compares to the polio of which she suffered as a child. “I survived the polio and here I am, fighting again,” she told Crowe. “The polio wasn’t as devastating, the aneurysm took a lot. He has taken the ability to speak and walk. I got my voice back pretty quickly, but I still struggle with the rest. But in short, I am a fighter, I have Irish blood in my veins ».

The Early Years also contains two concerts recorded in 1967 at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Canterbury House was an Episcopal Church student dormitory that functioned as a kitchen, informal study room and concert hall. In the mid 60’s, Mitchell, Young, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Tim Buckley and others played there. “It was built on the idea that the sacred and the profane are one and the same, that we separate them,” says Bob Franke, a University of Michigan musician who became Canterbury House’s bouncer in 1965.

Her review of the Mitchell concert is part of the box set: “It’s hard to classify – she calls it acoustic pop – but I’d say she writes the songs Bob Dylan would write if she were a Canadian woman.” Franke remembers meeting her after reading the review. “He needed to hear those things and I’m happy,” he says now. “He asked to meet me. The cafe was run by some friends, so I went backstage and hugged me. At that moment a new world was being born, being part of it was a privilege ».

It is incredible to hear that concert: while he tunes the guitar Mitchell speaks to the audience, and almost seems like a stand-up comedian. He asks for a coke, mimics accents, says he has seen DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (“David Blue is a Dylan imitator, even if he doesn’t want to admit it,” he explains to the audience. “Don’t say I told you ! “). “It makes me laugh. When she’s nice she becomes human, ”Milligan says.

In addition to the five CD collection, Bowman’s 1963 session will also be released as a single LP. After years of trying to contact her, he flew to Los Angeles in 2018 to return the tapes to her. It was the first time they had met in over 50 years. He didn’t think he would eventually publish them.

“It’s a nice ending,” he says. “Talking to her once more was enough for me. I never thought it would turn out like this. They are wonderful memories that I will keep forever ».

This article was translated by Rolling Stone US .

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