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Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court And Spark’ at 50: “She’s everyone in my generation’s cool aunt” Print-ready version

'Blue' was the album that made Joni Mitchell's name, but 1974's 'Court and Spark' cemented her place as a generational great. As the record turns 50, NME looks at how emerging musicians today still look to it for inspiration

by Rhian Daly
NME
January 30, 2024

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS: Joni Mitchell posed in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 1972 (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

"I knew I was a genius," Joni Mitchell sings on 'Twisted', the jazz cover that closes out her sixth album 'Court And Spark'. Although she didn't pen those words herself, it's apt that they help wrap up such a seminal record. 'Blue' might be the Canadian singer-songwriter's best-known album, but 'Court And Spark' was pivotal to the evolution of her artistry and legacy, might just be her best album, and - as if there was any doubt - made her genius resoundingly clear.

Released in January 1974, 'Court And Spark' arrived after a rare occurrence. In the year prior, for the first time since she shared her debut album 'Song To A Seagull' in 1968, Mitchell had taken a year off from releasing a full-length record. Anticipation was high for what she would do next - especially given she'd gifted the world with 'Blue' and 'For The Roses' in 1971 and 1972. When she made her return with a new record, she scored a critical and commercial success and 50 years after its release, 'Court And Spark' is still winning over new fans and influencing new generations of artists.

On Mitchell's sixth album, the star captured LA's glitzy celebrity scene and her relationship with the city. But beneath those snapshots of Hollywood parties and character studies of the people she encountered were universal themes that still resonate today. "Longing for love, but also wanting to be free - that's a thing a lot of my friends or people our age are going through at the moment," says Sarah Nauta of rising Dutch duo Sarah Julia. "There's so much out there, and we're young, so it's been really helpful knowing she was going through that, too."

"I think 'Court And Spark' best represents being in your late twenties and early thirties," reasons US singer-songwriter Samia. "This is a time when I am, certainly, and other people might be at our age, trying to distinguish between self-awareness and self-loathing. [Mitchell] does that really poignantly and beautifully on this record."

The yearning and search for freedom that permeates the album is something that isn't just tied to the romantic strands of our lives. "As non-male people, we don't live in a culture that's designed around our freedom, and it can be really uncomfortable to step into that or even know what that looks like," Samia says, noting that Mitchell has "paved the way" for a lineage of young female songwriters to talk about those issues in their music. "I was thinking a lot about Olivia Rodrigo's 'Guts' while listening to 'Court And Spark' - they're so thematically similar, but you wouldn't ever put those two records together. [The lineage is like] 'Court And Spark', 'Jagged Little Pill', 'Guts'."

For experimental rock band Mary In The Junkyard's Clari Freeman-Taylor, the vulnerability that seeps through Mitchell's lyrics is what strikes a chord with her generation. "Being able to express your emotions so much in a song - [whether that's being] sad or being excited with life - I feel like she was one of the first of that kind [of an artist] where a woman was really pouring her soul into a song," she explains. "As a generation, we're a lot more open to hearing that [than generations before]. It's so comforting and makes you feel really understood."

Between the glitz and glamour, 'Court And Spark' also bottles the every day - something Mitchell has done across her career in a way that makes the mundane feel magical. That ability has changed Indonesian singer-songwriter NIKI's approach to songwriting and imbues some of her favourite moments on this record in particular.

"'Car On The Hill' is incredible because, in the crassest way, the song is literally about a booty call and in the most Joni fashion possible, she made it so artful and beautiful," she notes. "She's so gifted at painting these scenes, and it's so vivid in your head when you're listening to these songs. With 'Car On The Hill', I see headlights in the dark and Joni on her porch with a cigar or something, waiting, and that feeling of being suspended in suggestion and the thrill of it all."

Mitchell's divergence from the typical is also something that's captivated alternative pop artist Jasmine Jethwa. On 'Help Me', she sings of sliding into romance - but, rather than creating a run-of-the-mill love song, injects it with tension. "That whole song is so juxtaposing," Jethwa says. "In the first line - 'Help me, I think I'm falling in love' - it feels like she knows she's falling in love, but she's resisting it. It's like there's a river flowing downstream, and she's trying to swim upstream. Even the whole song being titled 'Help Me' - that's not what you would necessarily think of when you think of falling in love, so you can feel that resistance before the song even starts."

Although nearly all the artists who spoke to NME first fell in love with Mitchell because of 'Blue', 'Court And Spark' is an album that contains important lessons for young musicians. Despite the huge success of its two predecessors, the legendary singer-songwriter began to move away from their folk sound on this record, shifting gear into jazzier sounds. In 1979, she shared her verdict on utilising your creative freedom to try new things.

"You have two options," Mitchell told Rolling Stone back then. "You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They're going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they're going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So, of the two options, I'd rather be crucified for changing."

For NIKI, there's a big moral to be taken from Mitchell's fearlessness and refusal to stay in one lane: "If you let people run your life, you'll never come to your full development." "That's always stuck with me," she explains. "I personally sometimes get really caught up in labels and boxes - what do I fit into? How do I define myself as an artist? But that's not what it means to be an artist; there shouldn't be all these limiting factors. 'Court And Spark' specifically is a symbol of that - you should explore because that's what artistry is all about."

While seeing someone so boldly follow their own path is inspiring for anyone, Mitchell's story has been particularly impactful for female artists over the decades. "Seeing someone so empowered and so adamant on their own course is very freeing as a female artist," reckons Lucy Rose. "To not please the crowd, not play the songs everybody wanted, to not do the things people wanted her to do - whether she was likeable or not - is so inspiring."

Watching Mitchell hold her own in The Last Waltz - Martin Scorsese's famed 1978 concert film of The Band's final live show - is symbolic of that for Sarah Julia. "It was just her and all these men," Nauta says. "But it felt so good to see that she was still doing her thing and not trying to do something else because they wanted her to. She would never compromise."

Five decades after the release of 'Court And Spark' - and six since she first made an impact on the world - Mitchell and her music still have the enduring power to influence and inspire each new generation of artists coming through. Sarah Julia's Julia Nauta reasons that's because of what she put into her songs: "She writes about feelings and emotions - of course, people are evolving but, at the end of the day, we're still feeling the same things."

"Art is meant to connect you to your humanness, appeal to that, and celebrate the good, the bad, and the ugly," adds NIKI, whose new single '24' is a testament to not just the prevailing influence of Mitchell's back catalogue, but her ability to still inspire today. The song reflects on the 25-year-old singer-songwriter's early twenties and was inspired by a performance of 'Both Sides Now' at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. "It was so beautiful to see her in her late seventies singing a song she wrote at 23. It felt almost [like a premonition] that she wrote something that's just as applicable now as when she was in her twenties."

The love that young musicians hold for Mitchell is abundantly clear during all of NME's conversations with the artists featured in this piece. Each one speaks about the star as if she's a friend who's always by their side - albeit an absolute genius one. "To me, she's my imaginary aunt," Samia laughs. "I don't think I've earned her friendship. She's everyone in my generation's cool aunt."

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