A few days back we looked at Bob Dylan’s first album and noted while it was the debut of a great artist, it wasn’t necessarily a great debut. Today, the same could be said about the first one from an artist Pitchfork call “Mary Magdalene to Dylan’s folk rock messiah” – Joni Mitchell. Her debut, Song To A Seagull, came out this day in 1968.
By this time, Joni was 24 and had become something of a star in her native Canada, with her spending time in Toronto’s hot Yorkville folk scene, then relocated to the U.S., living briefly in Detroit then “found” and relocated to L.A.’s artsy Laurel Canyon by David Crosby . She’d already established herself as a decent songwriter, with several artist recording her work, including Judy Collins’ who had a hit with her “Both Sides Now” right around the time this album was hitting the stores.
Crosby helped Mitchell get a good contract with Reprise Records, with an unusual amount of control over her own music. The downside was he also got to produce Song to a Seagull, a rather simple, 10-song, 38-minute effort of her own songs with limited outside help. Mitchell played guitar and piano, even painted the cover as she usually did with her records, and Stephen Stills added bass in places. (To top it off, at the time she was living with the other member of CSN, Graham Nash, which prompted him to write the song “Our House (Is A Very, Very Fine House.)” The problem was Crosby didn’t seem to have the knack of producing at that point. He placed mics oddly in the studio and ended up with a lot of ambient noise and hiss on the masters. He sought to eliminate that, mainly by wiping out the high end treble… resulting in what Joni would say made it “sound like it was recorded under a jello bowl”. Wikipedia term it sound with a “flat feel.” (In case you’re wondering, Mitchell eventually re-mixed and mastered it herself, and the better result came out last year on Rhino Records.)
She dedicated the record to “Mr. Kratzmann,” her grade 7 teacher, “who taught me to love words.” And while the album, seemingly her first impressions of L.A., didn’t have any hit songs or ones which live on widely – unlike the one she wrote for Collins – it got her noticed as a fine singer/songwriter, with songs like “Night In the City”, “Pirate of Penance” and the title track for the seabird. Although it barely even nicked the top 200 album chart and was one of only a few of her early records not to go gold anywhere, it got her on her way and by her next album, Clouds, with the single “Chelsea Morning” she began to become a significant artist on the charts and radio.
Perhaps Joni felt a bit sentimental about March 23, because 20 years to the day after Song To A Seagull, she put out her 13th studio album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. The 1988 album was quite a departure from the first (and many of Joni’s albums), because it had some glossy production, courtesy Larry Klein who co-produced it and co-wrote several of the songs with her . For it she called on a number of her famous friends… Tom Petty, members of Prince’s backing band, Benjamin Orr of the Cars and more. Particularly of note were Willie Nelson, who sang with her on “Cool Water”, Billy Idol and his guitarist Steve Stevens, who appeared on “Dancing Fool” (“it was for the contrast he provided,” she said about having Idol on the record. “He brings real life to the part”) , Don Henley, who sang on “Snakes and Ladders” and Peter Gabriel. Gabriel joined her on the single “My Secret Place”, a song she recorded in Gabriel’s studio in England. The album mixed straight-forward love songs like that one with more socially-aware ones like “Lakota”, about disappearing American Indian culture, and “Beat of Black Wings”, a lament of Vietnam vets with PTSD.
This one got middling reviews. Both Rolling Stone and allmusic rate it 3-stars.The former noted that somehow “as Mitchell has grown older…the assumed priority of words over music has reversed,” suggesting the music was largely for the tunes and beats more than her poetry. Allmusic note “Mitchell uses vocal firepower over spare tracks, heavy on percussion” which now “already begins to sound dated.”
That notwithstanding, the public took to it better than some of her releases. It got to #23 in Canada and #26 in the UK, with “My Secret Place” being a minor hit single in Canada, where the album did go gold, no doubt to the relief of Geffen Records. That made her first gold record anywhere since she’d joined that label at the start of the decade.
Alas, Joni didn’t keep the trend going and release an album on this day in 2008. In fact, her last album of new material came out in 2007 and she’s said she’s retired from music, lately splitting her time between L.A. and Canada and spending much of her spare time painting or drawing.