Friday, July 17th, 2020
My Favorite Album: Weyes Blood on Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira”
“It’s an intimate, beautiful record that is so modern that it sounds like stuff that didn’t happen for another 10 years.”
Jul 17, 2020
By Stephen Axeman
Photography by Koury Angelo Issue #66 – My Favorite Album – Angel Olsen and Sleater-Kinney
“I think it’s a sleeper, I’ve been hearing the record and knowing it for a long time and it all of a sudden came to me like a revelation that it was a great record,” Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, says of her deferred realization of her favorite album, Hejira by Joni Mitchell.
Titled after the suitably revelatory sojourn of the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622, the album documents Mitchell’s travels from Maine to Los Angeles in late 1975 to early 1976. “Joni was slowly morphing into a jazz lady at this time,” Mering says, remarking on the bizarrely futuristic and predictive palate of the album. “It’s an intimate, beautiful record that is so modern that it sounds like stuff that didn’t happen for another 10 years. Lots of pedal steel and weird electric guitar, very futuristic.” Known for its lyrical volubility, that sounds something like if Paris Spleen were written by Willa Cather or if someone took a hymnal to a slam poetry reading, as much as for its innovative bass stylings, courtesy of the infamous Jaco Pastorius, the album transcends easy classification.
Prompted by Mering’s viewing of Martin Scorsese’s recently released Bob Dylan documentary Rolling Thunder Revue, which features a performance by Mitchell of Hejira opener “Coyote,” she revisited the album and found new resonance with its themes in her own life. “I think as a kid I didn’t see the innovation. As a woman, growing up, I didn’t recognize how rampant sexism was and how people wrote certain women under the table for being really innovative, and instead of being praised for their innovation they were essentially crucified because people wanted them to stay a certain way. As a woman, seeing the record in that context now, having been through the music industry in that way, makes it pop that much more.”
Mering’s favorite track, “Amelia,” is an explicit meditation on the nature of ambition and the perils and pitfalls that are unique to women’s experiences juggling the opportunity costs of their enterprises. Influenced by Mitchell’s experiences in a desert post-breakup, “Amelia” represents perhaps the most distilled version of the solitary quest for enlightenment underlying the album’s loose travel narrative. Mitchell reportedly discovered the title for her album in a dictionary while searching for a word that meant “running away with honor.”
The resonances between this album and Mering’s own music are immediately apparent, from the lovelorn, yet spiritually wisened optimism to the baroque orchestrations and palatable experimental tendencies. Weyes Blood’s widely acclaimed fourth album, Titanic Rising, which came out last year via Sub Pop, is a clear companion to Hejira. Mering says the ideal context for listening to this album is “on the road driving through the long lonely roads in America, like how she wrote it…. I listen to it in the back too, and I just cry. Not in a negative way, but in a let it all out, cathartic way.”
[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 66 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online. For the issue we interviewed musicians and actors about their all-time favorite album.]