A good interview with Joni Mitchell, where she mentions the big shift in vocal timbre she underwent after her initial success. She refers to the voice of her youth as her ‘helium voice’.
I always think of Sarah Vaughan when I think of Joni Mitchell; two singers who became famous at a very young age singing totally outside of what any voice teacher would call their comfortable range. In addition to becoming icons in their respective genres, they both lost most of their popularity as they matured.
Critics like to describe their loss of popularity by saying that they became more ‘artistic’, ie. singing more to a core audience and less for ‘the masses’. But like most things, the simplest explanation is that most people, even their fans, much preferred the ‘unnatural’ voices of their youth.
I’ve tried to be open-minded, in Sarah’s case because she was so beloved by hard core jazz fans and in Joni’s case because I admire her songwriting. But the truth? I -liked- Joni’s helium voice. Joni’s ‘real’ voice–the one that comes to her naturally–regardless of the songwriting, just leaves me cold. So when she started shifting to more adventurous songwriting, it was doubly challenging for even her core fans. She wanted people to like quite radical shifts in songwriting without giving them the lifeline of that unique vocal timbre.
I mention all this because it begs the question: would Joni have been better off singing more like ‘herself’ as a kid? If she had run into a vocal coach who steered her towards ‘the correct voice’, would we still have that Big Yellow Taxi? To what degree is there a ‘right’ way to do things?
And then there is this old condundrum: if we stumble on something to which people respond, how much weight should we give to that in managing our affairs? After all, like so many others, Joni Mitchell -could- have decided to stick with her ‘helium voice’ because people enjoyed it so much. Don’t most of us end up doing things because of the approval of others?
Joni Mitchell has had a career that few people could equal and in effect she’s had the chance to have her cake and eat it too. But I wonder if there isn’t the slightest bit of a nostalgia for her in listening back to her early stuff and that ‘helium voice’. After all, that’s the voice that got her where she is now. It’s like the woman of a certain age, railing against the shallowness of men and their attraction to younger women. And every so often still checking the mirror.