By Fiona O’ Connell
It may seem odd to couple these two wonderful ladies for any reason other than their outstanding contributions to the field of folk-influenced songwriting. However, there are many ways in which one can draw comparisons between Mitchell and Lenker. A traumatic childhood, a shared poetic desire, and a need to capture, recount, and express their inner chaos through the magic of words. Most significantly though, their shared conversational tone – each song penned by Mitchell and Lenker is a story that when sung, feels as if they are sitting right next to you recalling exactly what happened in minute detail. Their presence can be felt so heavily and so perfectly through their mastery which has gained the pair millions of individual as well as shared fans all around the world.
Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief
The lyrical mastermind behind some of the most beautiful songs of the last decade, Adrianne Lenker is the lead singer of American indie-rock four-piece Big Thief. The band has received huge critical acclaim since the release of their first album in 2016, with their latest album Two Hands receiving a whopping 9.0 from Pitchfork’s toughest critics. Even before the formation of the band, Lenker has been self-releasing music both with her bandmate Buck Meek as well as her own solo material since 2014. It was in that very year she released two short but sweet collections of gorgeous folk songs with Meek. A charming yet unassuming duo, Lenker and Meek channel heartbreak and emotional trauma into some of this decade’s finest acoustic guitar-led love songs. The real magic, however, lies entirely in Lenker’s own instrument. With a quivering voice that echoes with an emotional intensity as well as a tenderness that very few artists possess, every word she sings is believable and is less of a statement than a meaningful cry. These songs, both Lenker’s own material and her work in Big Thief, provide an intimate look into Lenker’s mind – chaotic and frantic with moments of gorgeous quietness and vulnerability.
- ‘Real Love’ – Masterpiece, Big Thief 2017.
This is one of the best love songs I’ve ever heard. The contrast between the verse and chorus is striking; a stripped back, rising and falling melody builds into an attention-grabbing cry as Lenker sings ‘Real love makes your lungs black; real love is a heart attack’. As the melody and instrumentation builds and fills out only to drop out again, the song builds up until the bridge where the intensity climaxes with soaring vocals and piercing lead guitar melody.
- ‘A Better Time to Meet’ – b-sides, 2014.
A song for the end of a relationship that you really didn’t want to end. This song is entirely bittersweet, simplistic, and utterly heartbreaking. Lenker captures the frustration of heartbreak and the fickle nature of timing in terms of romantic relationships. Reflecting lovingly on a failed relationship, Lenker’s delicate falsetto delivers one of her most heartbreaking choruses ‘And if I could I guess, I’d love you ten times over. It’s just I’d choose a better time for us to meet’
- ‘Mary’ – Capacity, Big Thief 2017.
Written in Lenker’s grandparents’ house for a college friend, ‘Mary’ as a song feels like a warm hug. The delicate piano accompaniment, along with an organ drone in the background, creates the perfect sonic space in which Lenker can deliver one of her most vulnerable and sweet lyrical performances. Stripped back, this song feels like a window into Lenker’s soul – into her most private and intimate childhood memories, into her closest friendships, all through her mystical storytelling ability through the medium of song.
- ‘Kerina’ – a – sides, 2014.
The folk-influenced, interlocking guitar melodies in this song are outstandingly gorgeous. Accompanied by Lenker and Meek’s complimenting vocals, the pair explore the idea of letting go of someone despite their best efforts. The song lends itself to questions of fate and the human condition, all in an effort to accept a fate that Lenker probably hadn’t hoped for in the writing of this song. A perfect breakup song.
What is there to say about this magnificent woman that has not already been said. Joni Mitchell was one of the most prolific songwriters of the last century, with numerous hit singles such as ‘California’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and the formidable ‘A Case of You’. Joni produced some of the most innovative, vulnerable, and poetic pieces of music in the form of folk-influenced ballads as well as jazzier blues numbers. As her musical influences and style evolved, her thought-provoking lyrical ability never wavered as she continued to provide insight into love, loss, and politics. Her conversational tone of writing but also of singing collides perfectly with the poetic nature of her songs, filled with metaphors and deeper meanings hidden beneath catchy folk melodies.
- A Case of You – River, 1971.
If you’re in love, be it in a relationship or the torment of unrequited love; you need to hear this song. It is difficult to recount any song that has captured the essence of being in love as perfectly or as painfully as this one. The feeling of willingness to give yourself entirely to another person, unable to get enough of them in any capacity. This one is timeless.
- Both Sides Now – Clouds, 1969.
To write a song as emotionally mature and well-rounded as this one at the age of twenty-one is unheard of. If anything, it shows the amount of emotional trauma Mitchell had experienced at such a tender age. From an unplanned pregnancy to her contraction of polio at the age of nine, Mitchell had seen more than the average youngster at her age, and this resulted in an emotional maturity incomparable to others. This song is as close as it gets to a perfect song in my eyes. ‘I’ve looked at life from both sides now, from up down but still somehow, it’s cloud’s illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all’
- Coyote – Hejira, 1976.
Straying from folk and opening her musical horizons to include that of the jazz variety with the introduction of new instrumentation and rhythmic techniques. This song more than anything, sounds like the retelling of a story as opposed to a singer attempting to showcase their range or ability for vocal gymnastics. Mitchell’s phenomenal storytelling ability as well as her aptitude for mood creation are showcased flawlessly in this tune.
- Big Yellow Taxi – Ladies of the Canyon, 1970.
Catchy and brilliant. With a syncopated triangle signalling the opening of the refrain, this is one of Mitchell’s most cheerful-sounding commentaries on life that actually has quite a sombre meaning. Dubbed an environmental anthem, Mitchell expresses her frustration due to the industrialisation of the world; the destroying of natural beauty in Hawaii with the creation of an ugly parking lot.