Music by VICE

David Bazan Listens to Joni Mitchell's 'Blue': 'Oh My God'

The Pedro the Lion frontman finally confronts one of the most emotionally resonant albums ever for the first time.

by Josh Terry; photos by Brittany Sowacke
May 30 2019, 2:18pm

No one writes about love the same way as Joni Mitchell. The iconic Canadian singer-songwriter sings about relationships with a disarming vulnerability and piercing generosity that’s been stunning and resonant for 19 studio albums. Her best and best-selling LP—1971’s Blue—was rightfully hailed as a masterpiece and captured heartache in such a defiant and fearless way it’s endured for decades. Tracks like “River” and “A Case of You” rank as some of the most affecting and sorrow-filled breakup songs ever. It’s not just essential listening for anyone going through it but for damn near every listener.

Coming out of several traumatic breakups and personal turmoil, Mitchell put everything she had into the album’s 10 wonderful songs. "There’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals," Mitchell told Rolling Stone in a 1979 interview. "At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” She added, “I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.” Even without the quote, that struggle is easy to hear throughout Blue.

David Bazan sounds nothing like Mitchell, but he's also made a career off of songs filled with emotional clarity. With his band Pedro the Lion, the now 43-year-old frontman’s lyrics maturely dealt with knotty issues of faith, political upheaval, love, sex, and crippling doubt, and were performed with the spiritual gravitas of someone going through a crisis of faith, which made Bazan leave Christianity in 2006. Throughout his ensuing solo career (and later Pedro the Lion’s reunion, which brought about the excellent and nostalgic 2019 LP Phoenix), Bazan navigates complex feelings and pain with remarkable depth. When he told Noisey he had never heard Blue, it was a shock.

Because experiencing Blue is a must for any listener, we brought over a copy of the seminal LP to Chicago’s Thalia Hall where Pedro the Lion was set to play a show. “I know that she was a singer in the ‘60s. I think she also performed well into the 70s and that she stopped making music and touring at a certain point,” explains Bazan from the venue’s green room. “I know her song 'Big Yellow Taxi' and for whatever reason, there was a lightness to it that kept me from really diving in, which I’m going to realize is ridiculous and probably a mishearing.”

Read on for Bazan’s track-by-track reaction.

1559165053779-PedroBlindSpots_003

1. "All I Want”

Noisey: The first thing you hear is a dulcimer. This record sort of came out of a breakup and she processed the end of that relationship by going on vacation to Europe. In Greece, she wrote a lot of these songs and used a dulcimer because it was easier to travel with than an acoustic.

David Bazan: Holy shit.

What’s the first thing that strikes you?

Just the nuance of "Oh, I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some / Oh, I love you when I forget about me." It’s an amazing and grown-up line that I literally wouldn’t have understood at all even two years ago. It’s cool.

She was around 27 when she started writing this album.

Fuckin’ A.

I can’t imagine being in your mid-twenties and writing a song as emotionally mature as “Both Sides Now,” which was on her sophomore album Clouds. Do you know that one?

I don’t know if I do.

It’s one of her bigger songs. Judy Collins recorded it and had a hit with it in 1968.

Oh, ok.

When Noisey interviewed you in 2017, you talked about how you primarily focus on lyrics as a songwriter and listener.

I do. For this, there’s a pulse here that’s being so simple but so incessant and propulsive. It creates so much of a kind of form in the song just in the way she’s playing. And then it goes it half-time here. It’s a cool arrangement trick. The danger with this is that technical things are going to appeal to me. A lot of my experience listening to music now that I’ve been making it for years and years, is remembering what turned me onto doing it in the first place. When I was starting out just strumming a Beatles song, I’d realize they used like the wrong chords and chords that weren’t in the same key. I was just fascinated by how those crazy melodies existed and just what you can do with simple musical elements and arrangement ideas. It just turns me on and when I listen to something that feels so complete even though it’s very minimal. This just flips me out.

2. "My Old Man”

Whoa. It’s crazy how she was in Greece for this. She seems very fluid in all of this. Melodically and lyrically, it’s just so virtuosic. All of it. It’s crazy.

She lived in a cave with hippies who lived on the island of Crete. This album has such a fascinating story.

Wow!

This was her fourth album at this point.

Was she making a record or two a year?

Basically. Her first album Song to a Seagull came out in 1968 and was produced by David Crosby. Her third album 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon had the song “Big Yellow Taxi.”

Oh, OK. That’s amazing. I know that one.

This one’s allegedly about her relationship with Graham Nash. Also around this time, she’s dating James Taylor who also plays on several songs on this album.

Oh, right! I noticed his name in the credits inside the LP. He played on that first one. Another danger here is that I’m just going to really sink into this. It’s really arresting.

The best way to listen to this record is probably alone with headphones on. With emotionally intense albums like this, I always get so-self conscious that making someone’s first experience with it a press interview is going to ruin the whole thing for them.

No, it’s amazing. She’s just singing...She’s just playing both sides of a breakup or a relationship that there’s so much generosity.

1559165142857-PedroBlindSpots_010

3. "Little Green”

This song is about the daughter that she gave up for adoption in the mid-’60s when she was a poor, undiscovered songwriter in Toronto. This is one of the sadder songs.

Oh, my God.

The two actually reunited in the late ‘90s.

That’s incredible.

Finding your birth parents is already probably such a big thing already….

And then to have it be Joni Mitchell? I can’t even imagine.

Exactly.

This one’s gonna sink me. This is so sad. Was it known that this was a product of one of those musician relationships she was in?

It was by her ex-boyfriend who was not a successful musician. It wasn’t even publicly known what this song was about or that she daughter until decades later.

It obviously doesn’t matter at all but I just found myself curious.

What sort of things did you grow up listening to?

Until about the 10th grade, I was only allowed to listen to Christian music so just from the Christian bookstore and then church music that was happening around me. So yeah, there were shelves with tapes at the Christian bookstore, and that was what I got to choose from. Once I was allowed to listen to secular music, there wasn't much that would have been labeled Christian music up until that point that really I continued to listen to. It was just wasn't what I wanted to hear.

4. “Carey”

It must’ve been fun to start discovering all these classic “secular” records at such a formative age.

Oh dude, that happened years later. The one exception is that in the eighth grade, I was hanging out with one of my buddies from church camp. We had watched videos about “backwards masking,” about how if you played the Beatles “Revolution #9” backwards you’d get a secret message. It was dumb but it made me want to keep listening to the Beatles. My mind was just blown over and over again from The White Album. He brought a cassette to church the next day for me to secretly check out. I just listened to it on a loop on my Walkman. It changed my life totally but I was forbidden to listen to it. Once it became clear to my parents that I needed this quasi-psychedelic music in my head, then it became a couple of years for my dad to come back to it. That was my introduction to basically anything besides some stragglers from like a Coke commercial. But then during a Pedro the Lion tour in 2000, I was driving with my drummer at the time who’s been my longtime booking agent Trey Many listening to classic rock radio and I had no idea who any of these artists were. He would tell me, “It’s Van Halen. It’s Diamond Dave Van Halen. What the fuck?” I just didn’t know any of it and he guided me through it. My knowledge was very random and very limited. I tried to lean towards Fugazi and the Cure and Nirvana when I was allowed to listen to secular music.

1559165099053-PedroBlindSpots_007

5. "Blue”

I love this song and I know it. I had to listen to this one song for something I had to do. I think it was on a playlist I had to write about. I remember thinking it was mind-blowing. That was my first gateway into Joni Mitchell because none of my friends were listening to her. Because I didn’t really have money to buy records, I was dependent on who was around and what they had. This is why I picked it because I knew an immersion into her catalog is upon me at this point in my life is imminent.

I’m so excited for you. She has so many great albums. This was recorded in Hollywood and it was such an intense part of her life. I was reading that she basically locked herself into the studio and if someone would enter, she would break down into tears.

Well, when your sensitivity is cranked like that if you’re trying to get that connection, interruptions can be the worst. I’m only learning how to do that or that it’s OK. I’ve spent so much time trying to tamp down my sensitivity which is why I’m so blown away by this. There’s a defiance to this. You can hear her doing this everywhere. It’s stunning. It’s such a really vulnerable place to be in.

6. "California"

The rhythm and the phrasing of the lyrics are playful in a way that’s almost like hip-hop.

I’ve never thought about it that way.

She’s just not playing by the rules. There are sort of like, cyclical forms, but she’s just busting the form every time she gets to a new line it feels like. I was listening to that latest billy woods record this morning. God damn, that’s a good record. John Vanderslice who I’m on tour with showed me it and it just blew me away.

He had this album from 2012 called History Will Absolve Me and it’s such a beautiful record. The last song on it is called “The Wake” and has stuck with me over the last seven years. It’s a really emotional song.

He’s such a good writer. I’ll check that one out. Her singing is incredible here. She can just make her voice do anything.

The way she phrases things is so stunning. In a weird way, her phrasing reminds me of this ‘60s songwriter named John Hartford who wrote “Gentle On My Mind” which became a popular Glen Campbell song.

She has a flow.

While she was recording this in Studio C of Hollywood’s A&M studios, Carole King recording Tapestry in Studio B.

That’s a favorite record of mine. It was simultaneously?

Yes, and then the Carpenters were in Studio A.

That was one of the few bands that my Dad had records of.

Every evangelical parent has one secular band to enjoy.

Totally. They were so safe it was fine for me to listen to it.

7. "This Flight Tonight”

When you’re born into that sort of cultural milieu, it just takes awhile to find what you actually like. I’m thinking about that because of this because here there’s just zero conformity in the music and that’s something I really gravitate towards. If you’ve struggled with scarcity in any way in terms of belonging, the drive to fit in is so strong that it changes your personality constantly. It just takes so long to find out how to be yourself without having people around you knocking you for it. Here, it feels like she was powerful enough as a person and artist to just go for it. Also, the way the song changes here. It’s just crazy music. That’s insane.

Right? When the band comes in here it’s my favorite part of the record.

The picture I have is her just being like, “here’s an idea that I can execute immediately” and just knocking it out one by one.

It’s stunning to think about how playful and fun this album is knowing that it came from such a terrible part of her life.

So was this a record that preceding her mental and emotional state or was it part of her processing?

Definitely the latter. She’s described the period of making this record with phrases like “psychological descent” and “mental breakdown.” She’s said that it took years to get over what she was going through.

I understand that.

1559165168588-PedroBlindSpots_008

8. "River”

So this is her hit, right?

Yeah, it’s one of her most well-known songs and also her most-covered song in her discography. She’s joked that it’s her “Bah humbug” song.

It’s all so unflinching.

There’s a really fascinating story about how she showed Kris Kristofferson the album and he responded, “Jesus Joan, save something for yourself.”

I mean if your emotional state is at that level, that’s what you’re doing it for. It’s to make that kind of connection. I wonder if she had trouble performing this music.

I know she didn’t perform much or even tour the year this album came out. I had read early reviews that described her as the kind of performer that starts off nervous and wins the crowd over by the end. It’s definitely emotionally demanding material for both the performer and the audience.

I’ve heard people talking about how there are such different muscles that creative people have between songwriting and performing. Elliott Smith, for example, is somebody who might be in the camp of live performance being the cost of doing the thing he loves to do which is write songs. For the extremely sensitive artists who put themselves out there to have such a little barrier between themselves and the craft, performing can be too much. Richard Swift was like that performing his own jams on tour. It’s just such a huge risk every night. You have to have mental armor that you develop. Even tonight, we’ll play to 500 heads and I’ll have to play a trick on myself. There’s a sensitivity that makes my performance now. You have to turn it up on purpose for money. It’s crazy. It makes sense that someone who could tap in that directly that live would be a nightmare. Some dipshit could totally ruin it.

9. "A Case of You"

This is my favorite song on the LP.

Wow. I had to just stay silent and listen to it all the way through. That Kris Kristofferson quip is pretty apt here.

I’ve heard this song at least a hundred times and it almost always gets me.

For real. That’s awesome. I’m speechless. This is such a remarkably emotionally literate and bare for even now in a culture of oversharing. This had to have stuck out a lot back then. There’s such an honesty and a generosity and vulnerability and self-reflection and kindness to herself and her former partners.

Kindness is probably the most crucial and underrated element to a breakup song.

Absolutely. That’s what astonishing about it because it’s not sparing but it’s also kind. She gets into all of it and there’s a kindness at the heart of it. It’s not water under the bridge because there’s still so much pain.

10. "The Last Time I Saw Richard”

So it ends with a piano song.

Both sides of the album have the same order of the primary instrument with dulcimer, piano, guitar, dulcimer, and piano.

You’re right. That’s so crazy.

I’m so fascinated by how records like this get made.

It’s less and less common but maybe things are coming back around. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings are carrying a tradition of that performance-based thing even though they aren’t stylistically similar. It’s amazing.

At certain points in your life have you listened to a lot of folk music?

There was a Peter, Paul, and Mary record I loved when I was younger. I listened to Bob Dylan in spurts. There’s this folk singer named David Wilcox who is a modern singer-songwriter who I knew from high school. I think once I started getting older I had to come back around to it. Not that my stuff is particularly rock’n’roll but there are certain textures I’m trying to hear. This is so ethereal and moves around a lot. My attention span is getting better. This is so dense and chewy and I think I can get back into a folk phase. This music is insane.

I’m so happy you picked it.

My immersion begins now. The decision to allow yourself to get into this record is a decision to face some feelings that are probably going to be very difficult. It takes time and space to do it. You have to schedule time for yourself for these records.

Final Verdict:

Mind-boggling. I think it is generally what I expected but the specifics of it are just stunning and so was seeing it all in its entirety. I’m negotiating with myself now on when to take the big Joni Mitchell deep dive. I have a drive home after this tour. Honestly, I’m such a morbid and grief-driven person that this is the kind of album that hooked me. I mean, everyone likes “Big Yellow Taxi” but this is so much more for me. I’m still carving out space for light happy things but I want this. I realize that’s a response to some kind of trauma but eventually have space for stuff lighter stuff. This is such a good entry point for me.