(Since its inception in 1973, the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame has enshrined nearly 1,000 recordings across all genres. The Making Of … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of the essential recordings of the 20th century. You can read more Making Of … accounts, and in-depth insight into the recordings and artists represented in the Hall, in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition book.)
"Both Sides Now"
(As told to Roy Trakin)
I was sound asleep in my uptown New York apartment in 1967 when my old friend Al Kooper called on the phone. "I've just met this girl here in the bar. … She and I were talking and she told me she wrote songs. She's good-looking and I figured I could follow her home, which couldn't be a bad thing no matter how you look at it."
He put her [on the phone] and Joni Mitchell proceeded to sing me "Both Sides Now." It turned out she could write songs. I told him, "I'll be right over." I recorded the song and it became a big hit, though not immediately. People loved it on the album, but it took a few remixes by David Anderle before it was appropriate to go on radio, [where] it did quite wonderfully.
We recorded the song as part of the Wildflowers album in New York, with Mark Abramson producing and Josh Rifkin [conducting]. That album has virtually no guitars on it, except for "Both Sides Now." Josh had the smart, wonderful and amazing idea to put a harpsichord on the arrangement, which I think took it a long way. It's a great song, timeless and singable, even today, and did a great deal for my career, because people started answering my phone calls. It also led to a lot of success for Joni, who was given the respect she deserved as a songwriter, and was able to record it herself.
Hearing that song and deciding to cover it turned out to be an organic, holistic experience that happens immediately and without explanation. Some people are bound to sing certain songs. It was instantly obvious to me that "Both Sides Now" was my song. There's no science or way to predict it. I probably learned that from my father, who was in the radio business. He sang Rodgers and Hart and always chose the best songs from their shows, the ones that became hits. My mother said I came by this talent honestly because I inherited it from him. I know exactly what song will last and was meant for me to sing — "Both Sides Now" was one of those. It's all about gut instinct, which comes with training, time, experience, and knowing what you love to sing and what you hate. That's a lifetime education. And the song doesn't necessarily depend on the writer. It takes on a life of its own. The song knows where it's meant to go, and it knows what to do when it gets there.
That same year , I was on the board of the Newport Jazz Festival and pushed to have a singer/songwriter workshop with Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Janis Ian, and Tom Paxton. And I believe that helped kick off the careers of both Joni and Leonard, along with my covers of their songs. It was a really important event for the festival, because the traditional types were so against bringing in these younger performers who wrote their own material.
(Roy Trakin, a senior editor for HITS magazine, has written for every rock publication that ever mattered, some that didn't, and got paid by most of them.)