Love Letter to a Record: Georgia Mooney on Joni Mitchell’s ‘Song to a Seagull’
Music Feeds’ Love Letter to a Record series asks artists to reflect on their relationship with the music they love and share stories about how it has influenced their lives. Here, Georgia Mooney (All Our Exes Live in Texas) confesses her love for Joni Mithcell’s debut album ‘Song to a Seagull’ (1968).
Georgia Mooney will release her debut solo album in 2023. The Eora/Sydney based musician has released two singles from the project to date. The first, ‘War Romance’, doubled as Mooney’s debut solo single. Mooney’s latest single, ‘I Am Not in a Hurry’, is an ode to spontaneity that pushes back against the encroachments of convention. As Mooney explains below, the song’s themes were particularly influenced by Joni Mitchell’s ‘Cactus Tree’.
Georgia Mooney’s Love Letter to Song to a Seagull
Georgia Mooney: I had forgotten that ‘Cactus Tree’, the Joni Mitchell song that inspired my recent single, came from her debut record. It’s a bit serendipitous really, as I contemplate the imminent release of mine.
So much has been written about Joni. She has been analysed, romanticised, criticised and deified many times over, particularly by fellow singer-songwriters. But that, in itself, is fascinating. Joni is not the sort of artist one would usually associate with mass appeal, yet here she is, the subject of countless articles, biographies, and songs.
Before David Crosby wandered into the Gaslight Café in 1967 and swept her away to make Song to a Seagull, Joni’s songs had mostly been recorded by other people. She’d been playing folk clubs and coffeehouses all over Canada and the United States and was becoming known for her distinctive songwriting style and guitar playing.
By the time she was 23, she was an art school drop-out, a divorcee, and had given up a baby for adoption. It’s fair to say, Joni was wise beyond her years, not only because of her intellect, but because she was already truly living.
Listening to Song to a Seagull more than fifty years after its release, it’s striking to realise how fully formed her iconic sound already was. While she undoubtedly matured and wandered in meandering musical directions over her many subsequent records, she’s undeniably the Joni we know and love from the very first song on her very first record.
It doesn’t sound like Song to a Seagull was trying to be a hit. Omitting many of her most well-known songs at the time, it feels like a genuine document of an artist at a specific moment. Ten songs introducing the world to a musician and poet who would go on to be a favourite for decades.
There are flaws of course. I crave the crisper production of her later records, and the “banshee” instrument that appears on ‘Nathan La Franeer’ is so strident it takes considerable will power not to press skip. It screeches like an elephant flying a Star Wars TIE fighter and will really throw you off if listening in traffic on the motorway.
Joni Mitchell – ‘Night in the City’
These songs do feel like the beginning. Joni’s voice is at its most agile and flexible, soaring from her lips to great heights. Her lyrics are intimate, astute, and there is already such poetry in her observations. Her melodies are not simple or even all that catchy. They take strange twists and enormous leaps, they are complex and chromatic, and yet she manages to catch you unawares with an earworm like ‘Night in the City’.
Famous for unusual tunings, her guitar parts have the same freedom of spirit as her voice, weaving and floating around chords that feel familiar but do not anchor in the usual way. There is something about Joni’s songwriting that puts you in a bit of a trance.
This mysterious free spirit leads us to the final song on the record, ‘Cactus Tree’. Despite being written in the third-person, Joni has said, “I’m the girl in all these songs”. ‘Cactus Tree’ describes a person who is hard to pin down. I relate in a big way to that sense of wanderlust. This record itself travels from one coast of America to the other. She repeatedly flees heartbreak and disappointment with a plane ticket. Leaving New York, she sings, “Once again I am escaping / Once again goodbye to symphonies and dirty trees.”
In ‘Cactus Tree’, there is a woman who is loved by many but kept by none. She travels and loves and continues on. Her heart is “full and hollow” – she is not without guilt, but aware that a woman who runs can leave hurt in her wake.
I sang this song at a dear friend’s funeral. Like Joni, Kate had a magic around her. She was beautiful, intelligent and artistic on a level that few could comprehend, let alone match. But while Joni was busy being free, Kate was busy being caged.
Joni Mitchell – ‘Cactus Tree’
My song, ‘I Am Not in a Hurry’ was inspired by the feeling that ‘Cactus Tree’ evokes. I was in Florence at the time, having just travelled from the Greek island, Skopelos, where I’d spontaneously married a painter – a holiday marriage that lasted a momentous three days – so I was in something of a whimsical mood. In those weeks, travelling alone, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to stay in one place again. How could you when there is so much to explore and there are so many people to meet?
But, of course, a longing to keep moving rarely permits a flight around the world. Sometimes the map is much smaller, often the journey is much humbler, sometimes it is an entirely emotional wanderlust. ‘I Am Not in a Hurry’ is about internal restlessness, too, and the desire to throw off the expectation society imposes on us to settle down, find a partner, have a baby.
Joni never really settled down in the traditional sense. Her life was full of travel of the mind and body. In her later years, she has lived mostly as a recluse. These days, a recluse with an impressively active Instagram manager.
While Joni’s songs tell small, intimate, often domestic stories, with characters that are nuanced and specific, they appeal to the small stories in all of us. In the 1960s, she captured the hearts of women bound by convention. She both adores and needles men in her songs. Beneath the angelic voice is a strength and wildness that galvanises an adventurous spirit in her listeners.
Her songs are largely ballads, not bangers. In 1968, the Los Angeles Times wrote “don’t buy this album UNLESS you are willing to sit back, relax and listen with gentle ears”. Rolling Stone said, “if nothing else, this album is good for the soul”, which does raise the question, what else is there?
Georgia Mooney – ‘I Am Not in a Hurry’
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