Both Sides, Now and Then: What Joni Mitchell's Songs Can Teach Us About the Art of Aging

Embracing change isn’t easy to do as you age, but Joni Mitchell's performances of the song "Both Sides, Now" over time offer a useful guide.

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Jul 28 2015, 6:25pm


Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now

Growing old is never easy. We have our aches, our pains, and even our fleeting mental sharpness. For the person who makes a living on the strengths of their musical ability, especially their voice, the stakes can be even higher. It’s not uncommon for artists to not be able to hit the same notes in their later years—one example being the late, great Whitney Houston. In the years preceding her death, it was clear that the woman once known as “The Voice” was apparently losing her namesake.

Another pivotal female artist who has been in the news lately for her voice is Joni Mitchell. After she suffered a brain aneurysm in May 2015, it was reported that Mitchell had problems speaking—rendering the singer temporarily mute while going through rehabilitation. Oddly enough, this isn’t the only vocal challenge that the Canadian singer-songwriter has had to face. Later in Mitchell’s career, it was obvious that her gliding soprano voice that made her famous had transformed into a smoldering, husky tone thanks to a variety of health-related issues. Yet far from inhibiting the power of her art, the change only gave her music a new dimension, nowhere more so than on her iconic song "Both Sides, Now."

Mitchell emerged on the 1960s folk scene as an earnest young woman with an arresting message. Originally from Saskatchewan via Alberta, Roberta Joan “Joni” Mitchell made a name for herself by busking on the street and playing in small clubs after a move to Eastern Canada. Mainstream success followed with her first three albums: 1968’s debut Joni Mitchell, 1969’s Clouds, and 1971’s critical and commercial smash Blue.

What made Mitchell so different was that she was a multidimensional, powerful female star in the time of the male uber-macho rock star. She booked her own shows and handled her own finances, alongside living alone in New York City—in that era something of a taboo. Mitchell used her sparkling voice to inspire plenty of women, my own mother included, to grab the reins that had for so long eluded them.

Throughout her career, Mitchell’s songs were widely covered by other artists. Probably the most well known in the modern era is “Big Yellow Taxi”, popularized by artists like Amy Grant in 1995 and Counting Crows in 2002. Although the covers of “Taxi” showed Mitchell’s art to huge audiences decades after she first sang it, it’s only her third-most covered song.

Off of Mitchell’s second album, 1969’s Clouds, “Both Sides, Now” is her most covered, with over 1000 unique takes by different artists. The actual list is mind-boggling—it ranges from Bing Crosby (1968) all the way to Telly on Sesame Street (“Three Sides Now” talks about what makes a triangle a triangle). Even Carly Rae Jepsen shows up on there thanks to her 2012 EP Curiosity.

Penned by Mitchell, the song was originally a hit for singer Judy Collins on her 1967 album Wildflowers, winning Collins a Grammy for Best Folk Performance in 1969. Lyrically, the song is fairly aloof. The song’s narrator examines life in both the negative and positive, with the subject being inspired by Henderson the Rain King, the 1959 novel by Saul Bellow. Mitchell told the LA Times about writing it in 1996:

I was reading Saul Bellow's "Henderson the Rain King" on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He's on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.

Watching Mitchell perform the song in 1970, it’s easy to understand the magnetism she emanated. Listening to her sing, you may notice that the final line of the chorus changes throughout—starting with “I really don’t know clouds at all,” then “I really don’t know love at all,” and ending the song with “I really don’t know life at all.”

It’s fair to say that Mitchell did know life up to that point: She had been forced to give up a daughter for adoption at age 22 (they later reunited), when her partner at the time abandoned her while she was three months pregnant. But what does a woman in her 20s know about life compared to a woman in her 50s? Mitchell herself answered that question 31 years later.

Beginning in the late 90s, it became clear that Mitchell’s voice was changing. Initially, the rumor was that her lifelong smoking caused it—when listening to her work across any decade, you can almost smell her preferred French Gitanes and American Spirits cigarettes—but Joni herself confirmed that it was a mix of vocal nodules, a compressed larynx, and remaining effects of having had polio when she was young.

Her new vocal range is clear on her 2000 rendition of “Both Sides, Now” on the confusingly titled album Both Sides Now. Mostly filled with jazz standards, it also included updated renditions of classic songs performed with a backing orchestra. Watching her live performance of the song from the same period, it's apparent Mitchell aged well for someone with such an aggressive lifestyle. Assuming the stage without her trusty guitar and only her new voice to guide her, she soars through the song she wrote in her 20s with the added wit and experience of a grown woman on the precipice of her later years.

Natural gifts falter with time, but sometimes—as in Mitchell’s case—that passing time is what allows the artist to gain perspective on their own subject matter and the listener to look at a classic through a different lens. Rather than remarking that her voice isn’t the same, the common consensus from fans over the years seems to be how this version has a new gravitas to it, to the point where it can now stand on its own.

Although Mitchell is going through her own health-related trials right now, what one gains from looking at the differences between her versions of “Both Sides, Now” is a sense of optimism. Embracing change isn’t easy to do as you age, and it’s definitely harder when you’re a public figure known for your image from a certain time, place, or era. Mitchell rose from folk stardom and later ventured into jazz, rock and electronic soundscapes, a reminder that embracing change can result in the often-elusive goal of career longevity.


Joni Mitchell's ad for Saint Laurent's "Music Project" Campaign

Before her sudden health issues, Mitchell still found ways to defy her age. One very recent example was appearing in Saint Laurent’s “Music Project” 2015 ad campaign. Holding a guitar and donning a wide-brimmed black hat, she remains every part of the cool, magnetizing woman she was over 40 years ago. Despite what happens when it comes to her health, it’s still probably best that Mitchell gets the last word on aging: “You wake up one day and suddenly realize that your youth is behind you, even though you're still young at heart,” she told the New York Times in 1991. “You've got to get through this lament for what was.”

Austin Bryant is a writer living in Boston. Follow him on Twitter.