Joni Mitchell Tells Elton John The Story Behind His Iconic Song: “Both Sides Now”, “Carey” & More
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Joni Mitchell Tells Elton John The Story Behind His Iconic Song: “Both Sides Now”, “Carey” & More

When Joni Mitchell heard great cabaret artist Mabel Mercer at a concert, she was so entranced by the older woman’s rendition of “Both Sides Now,” the timeless ballad Mitchell wrote at age 23, that she went backstage to show her appreciation:

… but I didn’t tell him I was the author. So, I said, you know, I’ve heard various recordings of that song, but you bring something to it, you know, that nobody else has been able to do. You know, it’s not a song for the common man. You have to bring ages to it.

Well, he’s offended. I insulted him. I called her old lady, as far as she was concerned. So I got out of there in a hurry!

But I think I’ve finally become an old woman myself and can sing that song right.

This is just one of the many candid treats to be found in Mitchell’s interview with Elton John, for his Apple Music 1 event Rocket Clock.

For the most part, Mitchell’s memories coalesce around various iconic tracks from his nearly sixty years in the music industry.

“Carey,” from Mitchell’s 1971 album Bluetriggers memories of an exploding stove during a hippie-era sojourn in Matala on Crete’s south coast, with Odyssey references thrown in for good measure.

“Amelia” was hatched, like most songs in 1976’s Migrate, as Mitchell travels solo in a used Mercedes, an experience that makes her think about the first woman aviator to cross the Atlantic alone. (He wrote down the lyrics that came to him behind the wheel every time he pulled over for lunch.)

Regarding “Sex Kills” from 1994’s Turbulent IndigosJohn quotes a Rolling stone articles in which Mitchell discusses the “ugliness” he has detected in popular music:

I think it’s increasing. Especially towards women. I’ve never been a feminist, but until recently we’ve never had a pop song that’s so harmful to women.

“What do you mean by that?” asked John. “People say rap music with ‘my hos’ and stuff like that?”

“Oh, well, you know what,” said Mitchell, “Hos and booty, you know, hahahahaha.”

She may not seem too fussy about it now, but let’s not get her started on what young women wore to the Grammys!

John also invited Mitchell to discuss three songs that influenced him.


Lambert, Hendricks & Ross”Charleston Alley(musical enlightenment as a high school student at a college party)

Edith Piaf “Les Trois Cloches” (musical epiphany as an 8 year old on a birthday party)

Dan Chuck Berry”Johnny B. Goode(dancing ’round the jukebox in a Saskatoon pool)

Revolving back to “Both Sides Now,” Mitchell prefers the orchestral arrangement he recorded as alto in 2002 to his original feminine soprano, with a perspective he may not have gotten. (“This is not a song for the common man…”)

When I play it the orchestra gathers around me and I’ve played with classical musicians before and they’re always reading the Wall Street Journal behind their scores and they always treat you like it’s condescending to play with you but all the boys – British! – cry!

Maybe you’ll shed a tear, too, for singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile during a performance of “Both Sides Now” as part of the 2022 Newport Folk Festival Joni Jam, Mitchell’s first show in 22 years, due to a period of major disillusionment with the music business as well as a 2015 brain aneurysm. .

Watch more episodes of Elton John’s Rocket Clock here.

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Come on Halliday is Chief Primatologist of Inky East Village zines and authors Creative, Unknown: The Little Potato Manifesto and which will be released soon Creative Activity Book, Not Famous. Follow him @AyunHalliday.

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