To say that Prince was a fan of Joni Mitchell’s is no revelation. Her name features prominently on the cover art for Controversy (1981). The song title Ice Cream Castles (1984), one of the tracks Prince wrote for The Time, harks back to Both Sides Now (1970). In a 1985 interview for Rolling Stone, upon being asked whether he liked any current pop music, Prince replied: “Naah. The last album I loved all the way through was The Hissing of Summer Lawns ”. And so on.
So, one of the greatest artists in twentieth-century popular music influenced another of the greatest artists in twentieth-century popular music. However, the how of said influence is something I’ve had to think about, because the two of them don’t sound all that similar. It’s easy to hear oft-cited influences like Santana and Sly & The Family Stone in Prince’s music, but for someone such as myself, who lacks not only the tools but also the very toolbox of a musicologist, it takes a lot more patience to see how Joni might have been channelled through it.
Now, to be fair to myself, Joni Mitchell was also nonplussed to begin with. I quote an excellent radio interview from October, 1996. Joni is the interviewee, and the interviewer: Morrissey. Asked about “Junior Joni’s”, or whether she ever hears music that was a “direct lift” of her own, she responds:
“People tell me all the time that that is, but I don’t really — I don’t really hear it. I mean, I’ll hear a thing here and there — even Prince, you know, like who’s an interesting hybrid who’s taken some things from me, or so he claims, but his influences are me and Sly. Now you take me and Sly and hybrid that, you’re going to get something unique because he played back, I think it was “Paisley Park,” I went to a playback here. And there was a harmonic passage in one of the songs that really interested me, and I said to him, “Oh, you know, where’s that coming from?” Because it sounded fresh to me, you know, and he said, “You,” you know, and I couldn’t hear it. But time went by and I heard something and it was — the reason I couldn’t hear it was because it was something that Larry Carlton played against my architecture which I’m very familiar with and I’m familiar with what I added also, but — yeah, he’d taken something between those two things. You know what I’m saying?”
Certainly, both artists could masterfully layer and harmonise recorded iterations of their own voices in many of their songs, an example of which is presumably what Joni latched onto that time at Paisley Park Studios. On his part, Prince wasn’t often too specific about the nature of what he’d drawn from Joni’s music. That said, in another interview for Rolling Stone, this time from 1996, we do find a clue. Here we see Prince at his happiest. He’s just got out of his rightly or wrongly hated contract with Warner Bros. and can stop writing ‘Slave’ on his cheek, his wife Mayte is pregnant (tragically, their son will die within a week of being born), and he is palpably excited about the upcoming release of Emancipation. At a not-insignificant three hours in length, Prince’s nineteenth studio album inevitably suffers from the odd misstep, but is nonetheless one of my favourites.
Emancipation has a significant place in Prince’s catalogue because it is the record on which this often shy, extremely guarded man is most emotionally open as a songwriter. Songs like The Holy River and The Love We Make —my personal highlights— display a depth of feeling, honestly and maturely expressed in a way Prince had rarely achieved prior to those joyful months in 1996. Another one of those songs is Let’s Have a Baby, as we see in the abovementioned interview:
“As he prepares to preview a song called “Let’s Have a Baby,” O(+> [remember that Prince had changed his name to a symbol at this point] turns to Mayte and says, “You’re gonna start crying – you better leave.” Then he explains to me, “I got my house fixed up and put a crib in it. Then I played this song for her, and she started crying. She had never seen my house with a crib in it before.” “Let’s have a baby,” the lyrics run. “What are we living for?/Let’s make love.” As for the song’s spare arrangement, described by O(+> as “bass, piano and silence,” he says, “Joni Mitchell taught me that. If you listen to her early stuff, she really understands that.””
Space. Leaving the notes room to breathe. As I’ve said, it’s hard to trace direct lines of influence between these two, to be able to say “this song was inspired by that one”. Yet it is noticeable that after the breathless, sensual claustrophobia of Prince’s earlier albums —especially 1999 (1982)—, one of the innovations he started to bring in was to ‘open up’ some of his compositions, slow them down, leave space for silence. The serene opening to Sometimes It Snows In April (1986) is a beautiful example of this.
In Joni Mitchell’s case, that word, ‘space’, can also refer to how music is used to evoke physical depth, geography. She begins Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) with a song called Cotton Avenue. Two or three stabbing but sparse guitar tracks, and the equally sparing use of Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass are all that are needed to paint a living landscape: towering storm clouds rolling in across the prairies.
Similar things can be said of the sprawling Paprika Plains, which takes up the entire second side of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
I dream paprika plains, Vast and bleak and godforsaken. Paprika plains, And a turquoise river snaking.
A meandering, seemingly structureless instrumental follows that crescendo. I read in one review that it mirrors the flow of the serpentine river marking the frontier to the song’s first section. I believe this to be true, but I also feel there is a dreamlike quality to those seven minutes of piano and orchestra, their shifts in melody, in musical ideas, and in their loose composition, apparently lacking any kind of internal order. When, finally, “the rain retreats”, closing the cycle begun four tracks earlier in storm clouds over Cotton Avenue, it does seem as though one emerges from an oneiric haze of sorts.
There’s a nod to Paprika Plains in one of Prince’s most famous songs. In Raspberry Beret (1986), his character works part-time at a five and dime, and his boss was Mr McGee. The name isn’t coincidental or random. Paprika Plains:
When I was three feet tall And wide eyed open to it all, With their tasseled teams they came To McGee’s General Store. All in their beaded leathers, I would tie on colored feathers And I’d beat the drum like war.
Reminiscences about childhood, happy ones, though framed in the dark narrative of alcoholism and the destruction of indigenous American cultures. Prince’s reminiscences at Mr McGee’s shop are also happy ones; typically of him, they’re related to sex. Now, on that same album (Around the World in a Day), the song prior to Raspberry Beret is called Condition of the Heart. This song is a first in Prince’s official output because it opens with nearly three minutes of piano and orchestra, or rather the sounds of an orchestra recreated quite convincingly on synths. Prince was still at the stage in his career when trends followed him, rather than the other way around, so it was never going to sound like a direct copy, but similarities with Paprika Plains do exist.
God, talking about music isn’t easy, ignorant as I am of the technical vocab. To my untrained ears, Condition of the Heart’s heartbeat is hard to figure out. The rules that govern its peaks and troughs are as opaque to me as those that determine the meandering course of the turquoise river across paprika plains, down towards the sea. Nonetheless, to paraphrase A Case of You (1971), one of Joni’s songs that Prince covered on multiple occasions, and which clearly meant a lot to him: part of her poured out of him in the lines of Condition of the Heart. I declare “here be influence” and hope to be trusted.
In a broader sense, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Joni set a precedent for some of the idiosyncrasies of Prince’s musical evolution. Around the World in a Day was a remarkable follow-up to Purple Rain (1984) —one of the biggest-selling albums of all time; the record that catapulted Prince to global stardom— precisely because it was so different to what had come before. In a commercial sense, it might have been wise to release another guitar-heavy rock album in 1985. Instead, for millions of fans who’d just joined the bandwagon, it may have been disappointing that Around the World in a Day should be so subdued in comparison. It was still radio-friendly and had a touch of rock in the form of America and Temptation, but at the same time it was experimental, as Condition of the Heart can attest. It wasn’t a flop, but it wasn’t Purple Rain.
If Prince had any doubts about following his artistic sensibilities instead of his commercial interests, to some extent he might have looked to Joni Mitchell’s career as a partial template for his own. Joni’s highest sales figures were for Court and Spark (1974). She could have followed it up with a handful of catchy, folk-rock anthems like Free Man in Paris, and she’d have almost certainly made a lot of money. But instead, she continued to build upon the jazz aesthetic she’d already started to cultivate on Court and Spark, and went on to release The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Hejira (1976, featured in a background shot in Prince’s film Under the Cherry Moon (1986)), Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) and Mingus (1979). Each of these was less accessible than the last, and there’s not a single chorus between them. And yet, for me, they are Joni Mitchell’s creative peak as a musician. So, again, if Prince had any doubts about going his own way, at the very least he could look up to one of his musical heroes, see what she’d done, and see that it hadn’t killed her. Why shouldn’t he do the same?
Perhaps I should climb back onto firmer ground. I haven’t yet mentioned the most noticeable Joni Mitchell reference in Prince’s oeuvre. The Ballad of Dorothy Parker (1987) is a song in which Prince, tired of “fighting with lovers past” in a “violent room”, wanders off to have a fruit cocktail, engages in some harmless flirting with a waitress called Dorothy Parker, is cheered up by her charm and wit, and remembers to value women for more than what’s between their legs. When Prince namechecks Joni’s song Help Me (1974), he pulls something off that I’ve never heard any other musician do: he uses the listener’s presumed knowledge of another singer’s lyrics to flesh out the protagonists of his own composition.
For context, The Ballad of Dorothy Parker is one of Prince’s most interesting songs in terms of lyrical complexity, and it’s more open than most to myriad interpretations. Clearly attracted to him, Dorothy invites Prince to bathe with her, to which he replies “cool, but I’m leaving my pants on/‘cause I’m kinda going with someone”. Dorothy, laconic: “sounds like a real man to me”. What happens, or rather does not happen next is summed up with an ambiguous, even strange allusion to The Wizard of Oz:
My pants were wet, they came off But she didn’t see the movie ‘cause she hadn’t read the book first. Instead she pretended she was blind, An affliction brought on by the witch’s curse.
It seems that Dorothy has decided she doesn’t want to further corrupt a man who’s taken, but her company and personality are enough on their own to make Prince repent of his previous attitude to women and relationships:
Dorothy made me laugh, I felt much better So I went back to the violent room. Let me tell you what I did. I took another bubble bath, With my pants on. All the fighting stopped, Next time I’ll do it sooner.
Smiles all round. Now, rewinding a bit, before she and Prince had their bath together, Dorothy had turned the café radio on. “My favourite song” she said, and it was Joni singing “help me, I think I’m falling in love.” This is, I think, the cleverest part of The Ballad of Dorothy Parker, because Help Me is a song that parallels what’s happening between Prince and Dorothy, told from the woman’s point of view. Apart from being able to use Joni’s words to implicitly characterise himself as “a rambler and a gambler and a sweet-talking ladies’ man”, Prince also presages the fact that their flirting isn’t going to amount to much:
Didn’t it feel good? We were sitting there talking, Or lying there not talking, didn’t it feel good? […] Both of us flirting around, flirting and flirting, hurting too. We love our loving, but not like we love our freedom.
One imagines that those lines of Joni’s are sung in the background as Prince and Dorothy’s story goes on. They become a soundless and unwritten part of The Ballad of Dorothy Parker, but a part of it, nonetheless. It would be too big a claim to say that no other artist has so deftly used the words of another song to add to their own in the way Prince does here, but I know enough to say that it’s not something you hear every day.
If I’ve held your attention up to this point, it goes without saying that almost everything I’ve written here is based on inference, personal reflection and, when worst came to worst, hunches. That doesn’t mean I’m wrong, but you have to be honest about these things. Apart from anything else, it doesn’t matter if I’m wrong. I’ve learnt new things. I’ve made you think, or I hope I have. Now I must conclude, and in doing so there’s joy in repetition: one of the greatest artists in twentieth-century popular music influenced another of the greatest artists in twentieth-century popular music. I’ve shed some light on how.
I was born in the UK and now live in Galicia, Spain. I'm a high-school English teacher and historian specialised in Hispano-Paraguayan history. Sometimes those things are reflected in what I write, though they very often aren't.