When it comes to your favourite artists, it’s hard for a cover version to stand up to the original. It can feel jarring, inauthentic, even disrespectful sometimes to hear their words and melodies sung by another voice. But a cover that truly reimagines the source material, while capturing its essence, can allow you to experience a favourite song in a new light, making the familiar unfamiliar, and beguiling you all over again.
It’s no coincidence that Joni Mitchell’s most ardent admirers include visionary forward-thinkers like Prince and Bjork: her music has a flexibility, a fluidity and an independence from genre that mean it can be taken to infinite new places. I want to highlight some of the most imaginative covers, renditions that understand the richness and complexity that are innate to her music.
In no particular order, these are ten of the most compelling takes on Joni songs out there, from Mitchell’s contemporaries, to the generations of musicians inspired by her over the decades since her career began.
The Supremes – ‘All I Want’
Bursting in with bold, beefy horns blasting an almost menacing version of the gently strummed riff that begins Mitchell’s masterful 1971 album Blue, The Supremes absolutely power through this cover. Unrelenting tension, exultant backing vocals, ominous brass and propulsive energy, it’s a gutsy rendition befitting the plain-speaking self-assertion underpinning Mitchell’s lyrics.
Laura Benanti – ‘He Comes for Conversation’
This simple but infectious cover of ‘Conversation’ from Ladies of the Canyon, sung by Broadway singer Laura Benanti is a sheer joy to listen to. Benanti’s powerful soprano drives the song forward, piano splashing luxuriously over bright, warm acoustic guitar. The result is not a dramatic transformation, but brings with it a sense of limitless freedom that is far more uplifting than the pristine original.
Prince – ‘A Case of U’
A die-hard Joni-devotee, Prince would cover ‘A Case of You’ multiple times during his life but on this luscious jam, he outdid all other attempts to honour his idol. Liquid guitar and silky ‘Purple Rain’-style crooning glide over rich, jazzy piano chords. Prince understands the depth of harmony disguised by the simplicity of Mitchell’s arrangement, as well as squeezing out every drop of emotion in the song’s lyrics. Only one verse from the original is retained, but the lines Prince sings are perhaps some of the most vulnerable and evocative Mitchell ever wrote: ‘Oh I am a lonely painter, / I live in a box of paints…’
Annie Lennox – ‘Ladies of the Canyon’
Floating weightless through a fluttering, ethereal cloudscape, Lennox’s resonant voice carries Mitchell’s melody to new heights in this graceful, whimsical cover. With tabla drums, airy woodwinds and glittering streaks of sound, the Eurythmics singer approaches the track with a sophisticated, almost Björkian touch.
Herbie Hancock and Corinne Bailey Rae – ‘River’
Every last cover on Herbie Hancock’s 2007 album River: The Joni Letters deserves a place on this list. Extrapolating her gorgeous, deep chords into scatterings of twinkling piano keys, Hancock introduces more mystery and dissonance into Mitchell’s compositions. His loose, free-flowing, impressionistic take on ‘River’, one of Mitchell’s most popular and most covered songs, is held together by the warm, earthy strumming of acoustic guitar and Bailey Rae’s heartfelt, dulcet vocals.
Los Lobos – ‘Nothing Can Be Done’
During Joni: 75, a tribute concert to honour Mitchell’s 75th birthday, Californian band Los Lobos offer a take on a late-career Mitchell track. Like most of the songs on her 1991 album Night Ride Home, ‘Nothing Can Be Done’ is pretty but somewhat bleak and dampened by a subdued melancholy. In the hands of Los Lobos, however, the colours in the song’s chords are brought to life, with jazzy keyboard and guitar, pattering percussion and impassioned vocals.
Tierney Sutton – ‘Blue’
Mitchell’s ‘foggy lullaby’, ‘Blue’ is perhaps the barest and most atmospheric song on the album of the same name. A deep, spiritual and lonely hymn, the song has an ancient, mystical quality which is brought to the fore by American jazz singer Tierney Sutton’s ghostly vocals in this cover. Sutton brings in a thick thatch of strings to replace the restless, rippling piano of the original. The strings threatening to swallow up her vocals altogether, Sutton paints a powerful picture of the struggle described in Mitchell’s lyrics: ‘well there’s so many sinking / now you’ve gotta keep thinking / you can make it through / these waves.’
Diana Krall – ‘Black Crow’
In her husky contralto, Canadian musician Diana Krall transforms Mitchell’s sparse, ragged ‘Black Crow’ from her 1976 album Hejira, into a piece of cool, intricate jazz. Much more highly embellished, the song takes flight into a nimble guitar solo and a couple of rapturous piano solos, the mood remaining every bit as stormy as in the original.
Seal – ‘Both Sides Now’
Another highlight from Joni 75, Seal takes to the stage with two of the most emotionally intense performances of the night: ‘A Strange Boy’ and the iconic ‘Both Sides Now’. For this one, it’s worth watching as well as listening, because the passion and feeling on Seal’s face is part of what earned the performance a place on this list. You could certainly argue he overdoes it, but for whatever reason his almost anguished sincerity takes my breath away. As the song says, ‘something’s lost but something’s gained…’
Led Zeppelin – ‘Woodstock’
Even on paper, Led Zeppelin covering ‘Woodstock’ live on stage seems like a match made in heaven. Those otherworldly chords, the sense of grandeur in the lyrics, the expansive melody are all ripe for a psychedelic blues-rock interpretation, and the band don’t disappoint. Jimmy Page opens the wide-open, slow-burning performance with with a languorous, mystical guitar introduction, while Robert Plant dominates the chorus, his howls of ‘we are stardust, we are golden’ reverberating through the soundscape. It’s a complete deconstruction of the song, retaining only a sparse few lyrics, the dreamy chords, translated from electric piano to guitar, but most of all, the unearthly atmosphere which transcends any other song in either Mitchell’s or Zeppelin’s canon.