Katy Steele admits, with some embarrassment, that she’d never even heard about Joni Mitchell’s 1971 masterpiece Blue until fairly recently.
It was while she was on tour with Paul Kelly, playing solo support on his 2007 Stolen Apples tour, that she heard this album played over the speakers as she was preparing to go on stage. She says she was dumbstruck, excitedly asking Kelly who the artist was.
After the tour wrapped up, Steele received a package in the mail, her own copy of the Canadian artist’s classic, which she’s since digested countless times.
But one song in particular, continues to stop her in her tracks; the vividly depicted, melancholic seasonal song ‘River.’
“It starts off and you’re just kinda imagining this beautiful Christmas scenario,” Steele says. “The snow falling and someone skating on ice. Then she brings in this emotional lyric ‘you’re the best baby I’ve ever had…’”
Indeed, Joni Mitchell is singing about a broken relationship wishing she could ‘teach my feet to fly’ so she could make a speedy escape from her troubles. And escape and freedom is a theme that also captured Katy’s imagination.
She says her favourite lyric from ‘River’ is: ‘I'm going to make a lot of money, then I'm going to quit this crazy scene’, a fantasy that many of us can relate to. But, for Katy, the line speaks to the difficult balancing act of being an artist whilst having to consider financial stability.
“There’s just [been] so many times in my life when I’m just over the music business and I always think about that line,” she says.
But her foremost concern is to continually push her songwriting into unexplored areas, something which this Joni Mitchell song sheds light upon.
“I never really write about places,” she says. “[It’s] something I’d really like to do more.
“[Joni Mitchell] sets the tone so well, it’s like as soon as the song starts, you’re taken away to the place that she’s at, it’s so visual yet so simple, and it’s quite repetitive how she repeats that last line at the end of every verse.”
She also has deep admiration for the song writing of the man who first brought Joni Mitchell’s music to her attention.
“People like Paul Kelly just do that so well,” she says. “I love the song ’They Thought I Was Asleep’ which is a song about a kid in the back of the car, the parents are in the front chatting, maybe fighting.
“Straight away, every time I listen to that, I’m just taken back to when I was a kid sitting in the back of the car on a family trip. It’s just incredible how people can take you away to a location, it’s a real art.
“My songs are always just about emotions, I guess. That’s cool, but as a writer, you’re always trying to get better. It’s something I really aspire to do in the future, is write about places, take someone away.”
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Katy Steele on Don't Look Back.