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The Joni Project: Madison Cunningham

The Joni Project's Madison Cunningham at Rockwood Music Hall (photo by Gus Philippas/WFUV)

The Joni Project's Madison Cunningham at Rockwood Music Hall (photo by Gus Philippas/WFUV)

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Just in time for Joni Mitchell's 77th birthday on November 7, WFUV premiered "The Joni Project" on her birthday eve, a brand new hour of exclusive covers of Mitchell's songs by Sarah Jarosz, Courtney Marie Andrews, Son Little, Madison Cunningham, Margo Price, Bailen, The Mountain Goats, Nada Surf's Matthew Caws, Flock of Dimes, and Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith. The special is archived and available on demand.

Madison Cunningham recorded her cover of "California," originally found on 1971's Blue, during soundcheck prior to an FUV Live set at Rockwood Music Hall in January. (Listen in the player above.) After the performance, she spoke to Kara Manning about her deep admiration for Mitchell, as a songwriter and guitarist. Below, an edited transcript of that chat.

Do you remember the first time you ever heard Joni Mitchell? Do you have a vivid recollection of a particular song?

It was “Big Yellow Taxi” and my friend Danny Donnelly, who was a mentor for me and a guitar player that I looked up to, noticed that I started getting into open tunings. He was like, you should check out the queen of open tunings, Joni Mitchell. He showed me ["Big Yellow Taxi"] and I remember not liking it at first. Historically, every record that is now my favorite I’ve really had a negative reaction to at the beginning; now I realize that if I have that specific reaction, to give it another shot! Joni is absolutely my all-time favorite. I think it was upon second listen that I connected with [the song], it spoke to me, and unlocked new levels for me as a writer, guitar player and singer. Joni, in many ways, has been a vocal coach for me, like I know she’s been for many other people.

You are from California — so what is it about "California" that speaks to you?

I think it’s the nature of her traveling the whole time. You have the sense that “California” is a sort of oasis that she’s longing to get to. I feel that way about my hometown. I live in Los Angeles now and grew up in Orange County, and there’s just nothing like California to me. When I come back it feels so familiar, but also so inviting. And there’s a certain smell about it (laughs). When you touch down into LAX, the first thing you smell is exhaust — and then more exhaust and then smog — but then you can kind of feel the ocean. And so when I’m traveling I get homesick for California — I was really road weary last year — and I would think of that song and it would make me cry. It kept me sane and looking at the horizon.

What was challenging about playing the song?

I have a real reluctance to play Joni Mitchell because she’s such an icon. Her songs are so complicated and unique to her sense of rhythm, playing, and chords. But the challenge is honestly her rhythm. Her vocal phrasing is incredibly crowded, but the way that she does it is so fluid. She [uses] so many words, images, and things that are tongue twisters to say and she makes it so effortless. I wanted to try and slide into that as much as I could. I still feel truly insecure about it! But I’ve been trying to take that pressure off, and put my own twist on it. No one did it like she did. No one was bold enough to break from regular patterns and rhythms. She heard something different in her head.

You’re a wonderful guitarist yourself — are there Joni songs that are a mentorship within a song for guitarists?

Honestly, all of her songs. There’s not one that lets you off easy. All of them have some crazy turn or dive, and you’re like, "How do I keep up with this?" All of her songs are a kick in the ass.

What is it about her vocals and phrasing that you find to be a revelation?

She was the first person I had heard who was like a “singer singer,” but she wasn’t Aretha Franklin in the sense that she didn’t have to belt notes. She rarely did. She was always very close to the mic and in a beautiful falsetto; it felt like it was a new way in for me. I never felt like I was a singer who could hang with other singers. It felt like my marriage is between guitar and vocal and they kind of stay together. But Joni sang in a way that was manageable for me to try and work out. It worked with my voice. She had a way of singing falsetto that inspired me to try and incorporate in my writing, and I think it happened consciously and then suddenly subconsciously — and that’s kind of what our idols and heroes do to us. We let them come into our lives and we mirror them, and then suddenly we have our own twist on it, without trying to mirror anything, but you can always hear the parallels, I think, just automatically.

Essential artists have an impact on the world beyond music. What is Joni’s impact, for you?

I think she’s a poet. Her lyrics speak to people in real time and they can speak to people outside of the chords that surround the words. That’s a huge deal because in our day and age we have a lot of music that’s built on the production. [They] build on melody hooky-ness and everything else is piled on top of it; the production seems to be the foundation. Joni at the crux of everything is a poet and that’s what brings people back to her songs; that’s why they’re timeless. She has something to say that really means something and that’s how she made such a dent in our history and our world. She put into words what people like me, at a young age, were struggling with and feeling. I’m sure so many people have stories like mine when it comes to Joni and how they relate to her music. For me, there’s a couple of moments that I’ve had where it feels like she understands me. And that really blew my mind.

If you could ask Joni one question, what would you ask her?

What she thought was most important in the whole music industry. What was most valuable to her and the things that she felt that she could leave behind. There’s a lot of the industry that feels like it’s necessary because it keeps us going and it’s a platform for artists, but there’s other parts of it that just feel kind of gross (laughs) for lack of a better word. It can be shady and there’s a lot of self-promotion and narcissism. I just wonder how she dealt with that. What she would do differently or what she felt that she did right?  I ask myself that question a lot, as an artist today. What is important and what can you say no to? There’s a pressure that a lot of people put on you; that it’s now or never. In that, compromises can be made without realizing that they are being made and I felt that Joni had a really good head on her shoulders and obviously spearheaded the path for a lot of artists, specifically female artists.

If you were to fill in the blank. Joni Mitchell is …?

Hope. That was my experience, at least. Joni Mitchell is hope.

- Madison Cunningham
January 2020

Read what Son Little and Margo Price had to say about Joni Mitchell's songs.