Upbeat magazine article: 'Refuge of the Roads' - Celebrating 40 years of Joni Mitchell's 'Hejira'

This year commemorates the 40th anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s seminal album, Hejira, which multi-Grammy-Award-winning Mitchell wrote over the course of three journeys she took during late 1975 and early 1976. The final and most famous of these was the trip she took in Spring 1976 where, after having already driven two friends from LA to Maine, she decided to return to LA driving solo down the USA’s East Coast, around the Gulf of Mexico and through the desert back home to LA, writing the bulk of Hejira while in transit.

At the time Mitchell was recovering from what was to be the final breakup of her on-again-off-again relationship with drummer John Guerin, and much of the album sees her wrestle with the disappointment of ‘true love’ constantly eluding her versus the freedom-call of free-love and the open road, which she illustrates to great effect by balancing shifting tonalities within her songs.

Unsurprisingly, for an album written by a single woman in her 30’s driving solo across the US, Hejira also has a strong feminist bent. In songs like Amelia, she likens Amelia Earheart’s pioneering accomplishment as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, to her life’s journey as a musician and the compromises women make in order to be on the vanguard.

Indeed, Mitchell was not being arrogant in declaring herself a pioneer. Originally a Folk singer, she allowed the influence of Jazz to infiltrate her music, working across genres without necessarily beginning a new one. Mitchell’s foray into the cross-genre world of self-defined Folk-Jazz was met with immense disapproval and resistance from critics who were used to hearing her work in a more tonal and Popular context. Consequently, her cross-genre albums did considerably less well than her preceding work. As is often the case in history, for example, with the work of the Impressionists, Mitchell’s work in this era has become highly regarded for its level of craftsmanship melodically, harmonically and lyrically, and she is now revered as making one of the most significant contributions to songwriting in the Twentieth century.

My own songwriting journey has somewhat echoed that of Joni Mitchell’s in that both our music became heavily influenced by Jazz, having originally begun in another genre. For example, my last album Our Lady of Stars that was released last year brought together elements of Contemporary Music, Jazz, and the singer-songwriting tradition, to a similarly mixed reception. 

My interest in Mitchell’s music deepened when I began studying songwriters who break patterns of expectation in their music and also looking into the key elements that factor in genre-creation and cross-genre composition – all of which feature strongly in Hejira and in Mitchell’s subsequent albums.

To commemorate this seminal work, and to get me in the right frame for arranging my own re-interpretations of Hejira for my next album, I am going to be recreating the road trip on which Mitchell wrote Hejira, leaving the UK for Maine on the 15th March 2016 and following the exact route Mitchell took before flying home from LA on the 11th April. En route I am going to be conducting interviews with journalists and musicians that were associated with or influenced by Hejira. I'll also be taking my guitar with me to write some new material of my own and hopefully joining a few local jam sessions too.

By uploading to a daily vlog and blog of these events I also hope to create a portrait of Mitchell’s experience through the journey, producing a montage of footage and photographs from the places in this trip that inspired and featured in Hejira – from the Cactus Tree Motel to the Mandolin Brothers’ shop on Staten Island. I will also be uploading short commentaries and analyses of the songs themselves, as well as videos of a few music-making sessions I hope to make with other musicians while on the road. 

There'll be much to talk about on this trip - from Mitchell's overt socially charged statements feminism in the song Hejira itself (not to mention the statement that the trip itself is a statement) and the orchestral arrangements of Hejira's songs on the Grammy-award-winning albums Both Sides Now (2000), Travelogue (2002), which saw her collaborating with Jazz legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, and arranger Vince Mendoza, to, of course, the locations cited in the album.

When I return my new album of re-imaginings of Hejira will be well and truly under way and I am looking forward to sharing what fresh insight and inspiration I gain through this journey. I am due to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the preliminary funds for the album in the coming weeks (as I release music on my own label I have to raise a certain amount before I can approach other funding sources) but for now follow me at the social media links below and come join me! It’d be lovely to have you along.

Sorana x

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