In Autumn 1967, the American rock star David Crosby could have quit the music business forever. After breaking up with his first band, The Byrds, he was looking for a sailboat to live on and “another way to be”. But on a lukewarm October evening he walked into a small club in Coconut Grove, Florida, called The Gaslight South, and what he saw left him astonished. Standing on the other side of the club was a young blonde woman playing the guitar and singing, her voice as ethereal as her appearance. That woman was Joni Mitchell. “I couldn’t believe that there was anybody that good”, Crosby declared years later “and I also fell … I loved her, as it were.”
The moment he saw Joni playing, Crosby knew he had to produce her. That was the beginning of a short, troubled romance and of an enduring artistic collaboration. One year later, in 1968, Mitchell published her debut album: Song to a Seagull. With its minimalist folk sound and its dreamy lyrics, the album launched her myth as a hippie nightingale.
The Sunset Sessions
There was natural chemistry between Joni and Crosby. They both had been experimenting with alternate tunings for a while and they were now seeking a pure, intimate sound. And so, once they got to the Sunset Sound studio in LA, they knew exactly what to do.
The idea was to keep things as simple as they could be. Joni came from the folk scene. She took inspiration from Buffy Saint Marie and had learned alternate tunings from Eric Andersen: she could do wonders with as little as her voice and guitar. Therefore, she and Crosby both felt there was no need for orchestration. Apart from Night in the City, all the tracks are completely acoustic. “In music today I feel that I can put down my songs with an acoustic guitar and forget the violin and not feel that I need them,” she said to Les Brown, a music journalist for Rolling Stone.
Despite this quest for simplicity, Joni and Crosby came up with several tricks to warm up the sound. To enhance the purity of Joni’s voice, Crosby asked her to sing into the grand piano. The idea was to have the vocals reverberate into the piano strings. Unfortunately, this resulted in an excessive hiss, which had to be cancelled in post-production. Yet, even such failures were part of the process. “It was so beautiful,” Joni said, “he had so many ideas. He had that idea too of doubling my guitar part so some of the guitar sounds like twelve-string.”
And so, as complicated it might have been, they finally achieved the dainty, pure sound they were looking for.
A quest for purity
Such a quest for purity was not just confined to the realm of sound. While recording the album, Joni went in for a full-blown makeover. That was the moment she started building her artistic persona. With this in mind, Crosby had her lose her fake lashes, tons of mascara, and fancy bags. While Joni was not thrilled about these changes, she understood them. Not only such a shift was coherent with her musical style, but even with the lyrics of the album.
With its dreamy marine landscapes and its lyric evocations of nature, Song to a Seagull is about an escape from the city. Accordingly, side A is called I Came to the City and B Out of the City and Down to the Seaside. Joni described this way the urge she felt while writing the title track:
…well then I guess I’m just going to have to leave this city with its plastic plants and its dust on the window ledge. Maybe I’ll go off into the woods and become a hermit and be very independent and live off the land and eat wild raspberries and strawberries and Saskatoon berries, and be as free as a proverbial bird.
In this same track, she compares herself to “old Crusoe”, feeling as isolated and lonely in the big city as he was on his desert island.
The making of a legend, or maybe of two
Not long after the album was launched, the name of Joni Mitchell became well known. The remarkable clearness of her voice, the bizarre sweetness of her lyrics, the charm of her persona, made her debut a success. Her second work, Clouds, was published just a year later. This was just the first step towards the iconic status she would achieve in the years to come. With such a bright beginning, it should not come as a surprise that Joni would grow to be so influential. Apart from the major impact she had on the folk scene, she left her mark on musicians from all backgrounds. Even pop star Prince considered her one of his greatest teachers.
Yet, few have been touched by Joni Mitchell as deeply as David Crosby. The collaboration with Crosby was fruitful in so many ways: it was as life-changing to him as it was to Joni. In fact, the Sunset Sessions also prepared the ground for another cornerstone of rock history, because they brought together David Crosby with Stephen Stills, who would go on to unite with Graham Nash in CSN just one year later. But, as fascinating it might be, this is another story.
You can stream Song to a Seagull on Spotify.