Kathryn Calder is a Canadian singer-songwriter. She is a member of the indie rock band The New Pornographers and one-half of the duo Frontperson. Frontperson’s album Parade is out now on Oscar St. Records.
When I was about 14, maybe younger, I found Joni Mitchell’s Blue in a box of vinyl records my mom had stored away in our basement. It was tucked alongside a handful of Nana Mouskouri albums and Raffi’s Baby Beluga. I remembered Baby Beluga from some distant childhood memories, but Blue, I didn’t really know yet. I remember being curious not only about the music itself, but also how it seemed like a glimpse into my mom’s life before she had my brother and I.
We didn’t have a record player — well, we did, but it was an antique phonograph and it made albums sound distant and warbly, and seemed like it could break at any moment, so we mostly didn’t touch it. So, I didn’t play the album then. It just stayed in my mind, a curiosity I would revisit another time. I’m trying to remember when I did hear Joni Mitchell for the first time, and I cannot remember — I know there was a time before I heard her music, but it also feels like it’s always been there, like quantum physics, how an electron is both a particle and a wave. As a female songwriter growing up in Canada, it was always kind of around. I found Joni’s music inspiring, and something to aspire to, but I don’t think I really appreciated her songwriting until I was a bit older, maybe in my 20s when I was really starting to lean into my own songwriting.
As my interest in music and songwriting grew from something I just “did,” to something I actively worked on, I reached for Joni to try to pull me out of the shadow of the singer/songwriter I felt most easily compared to at that time: Sarah McLachlan. I listened to Sarah a lot in my teens when her music was everywhere on the radio and TV, but when I discovered albums like David Bowie’s Changes, and The Velvet Underground and Nico, I stopped identifying with the pop music world pretty much altogether. I was looking for a sound, and I found Joni’s songwriting drew me closer to the kinds of songs I wanted to write.
Joni’s earlier poppier, folkier records — Blue, Court and Spark, Clouds, etc — have the perfect mix of melody, harmony, lyrical thoughtfulness, and production. She has lots of catchy melodies that bring you in, but when you listen to her songs again and again, the nuances reveal themselves. She is impossible to imitate, but her songs make me want to be better at songwriting. Her lyrics make me feel as if I am there with her, in whatever time and place she is singing about, and her musical knowledge and guitar tunings allow her to make beautiful and unusual chords that maybe you don’t really understand the depth of until you try to sit down and learn her songs. Her voice, clear and high, felt close enough to mine to be relatable as a singer, and I still often warm up for gigs by singing through her songs.
A song I particularly love is “Free Man in Paris.” It’s musically and melodically gorgeous, but what I am particularly in awe of are the lyrics. It’s inspired by record label owner David Geffen, and the specificity of the story makes it personable and relatable. It beautifully captures what it might feel like to be on a breezy holiday in Paris, away from the day-to-day business of working in the music industry. Each verse builds on the previous one, expanding the insights into the pressures, the longing to escape, the desire to be free, not needing to be anywhere or do anything except enjoy yourself, and then summing it all up in the chorus. Doing all this while rhyming and fitting all the words into a perfect rhythmic flow that you don’t notice until you think about it — or try to do it yourself, and realize it’s way harder than Joni makes it look.
I remember reading a story about Joni’s Blue recording sessions, where every time she played through a song, she delivered the lines like she had never heard them before. This is surely part of why her songs feel so fluid and conversational, but also deeply emotional. If you’ve ever tried to sing along to “A Case of You,” you will know that it’s hard to match Joni exactly, because her phrasing is so particular to each line of the song, and there’s an ease in the singing and playing that you can feel. You can tell she doesn’t labor over the phrasing, she performs her melodies effortlessly. She sings her songs the way she feels them, and the emotion is fresh for her, and therefore us, every time.
I read that Blue, at the time of its release, was criticized for being too personal. She wrote too much from the heart, and people at the time couldn’t handle it. But that’s what makes her music so timeless, and also allows her music to grow with you. Recently, I was listening to “Little Green” in the car — I had just had my first baby a few months before, and I remember realizing as a new mother, in all the tenderness that that brings, just how sad and difficult an experience it must have been for her to have given up her daughter for adoption. My mother was adopted as a baby; I thought about her and my grandmother, and how hard that must have been, and with tears in my eyes looked back at my little girl and felt so beyond grateful she was with me safe and sound. My mother and grandmother did thankfully get to reconnect later in life, which brought a lot of healing, and had a huge impact on my life, since I went on to join my mother’s youngest brother’s band, The New Pornographers. Joni and her daughter also reconnected later in life, which adds a hopeful ending to “Little Green.”
There are so many beautiful moments in Joni Mitchell’s catalog, and I take so much inspiration from her and her music, but I’m not sure if it would be totally obvious to someone sitting down and listening to my songs. I think where I’m most influenced by Joni is when I’m looking for a melody that will go somewhere unexpected, or trying to capture the fresh emotion of something each time I sing it. Joni doesn’t necessarily make me want to sound like Joni — which is an impossible challenge anyway. She has inspired me to find my own voice and use it.