A Love Letter to Joni

Brian Kennedy covers classics and obscure tracks by legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell

Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell celebrated her 70th birthday on November 7, 2013. To mark the occasion, Belfast’s own Brian Kennedy has released an album of cover versions of his favourite Mitchell songs, entitled A Love Letter to Joni.

The ten songs Kennedy has chosen to pay homage to range over 23 years of Mitchell’s discography, from 1968's debut album Song to a Seagull to 1991’s Night Ride Home, and include three songs from 1971’s Blue, a seminal heartbreak album, which arguably stands as a high water mark in the confessional singer-songwriter canon.

To those familiar with Kennedy’s back catalogue, this album may seem to be a strange sidestep for an artist who swapped an initially promising solo career for middle-of-the road mediocrity – a younger Daniel O’Donnell in John Rocha designer clothes, perhaps – but Kennedy has long cited Mitchell as a major influence in his work.

'I have everything she's ever released,' he once told an interviewer. 'She's been the biggest influence on me as an artist, in terms of my guitar playing and approach to writing. She got me interested in open tuning on the guitar, which was a consequence of listening to Blue for the first time. I must have slept and ate that record for years.'

Kennedy even got to meet his idol whilst touring as a backing singer with Van Morrison in the USA in 1998, when Morrison shared a bill with her and Bob Dylan. The pair are still in touch, and Kennedy sent a copy of the album to Mitchell on its completion.

It would be interesting to hear Mitchell’s thoughts on A Love Letter to Joni. Although his love of her music is obviously heartfelt and reverential, Kennedy has taken tunes that are harmonically and rhythmically complex – songs which blend folk and rock ‘n’ roll with open-tuned jazz stylings and deeply personal lyrics – and saddled them with uninspired arrangements and a saccharine vocal style.

Opener ‘Night Like This', taken from Mitchell’s 1991 album of the same name, is an inauspicious beginning. Over generic soft rock guitar strumming and polite drumming, Kennedy sings the opening lines as if from a lyric sheet that he doesn’t quite understand. This is the problem with most of the songs on the album. There is no sense of Kennedy having lived the songs, or at least the sentiments behind them.

He should be applauded for highlighting lesser known gems from Mitchell’s back catalogue, however. Album highlight ‘Amelia', from Mitchell’s 1976 jazz infused Hejira – which interweaves the story of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart’s tragic last flight with the singer’s realisation of an affair being 'just a false alarm' rather than true love – brings out the best in Kennedy’s voice.

Likewise closing song ‘The Fiddler and the Drum', a lament about America and her wars. Sung almost accapella (a faint keyboard underpins the vocal) the song could, in this version, at least, be looking to Ireland and its internal conflicts.

Mitchell has always been a difficult artist to cover. Her songs are so personal, her lyrics written from deeply felt experience, memory and dream, that artists who attempt to sing them – and there have been many, from Judy Collins to Prince – find it difficult to put their own stamp on them. These are Joni Mitchell songs. They’re woven from the valves of her heart, and even the best interpreters struggle to capture their essence.

Kennedy would have had more success with his attempt if he hadn’t hobbled this album with such pedestrian arrangements. In trying to both honour Mitchell’s songs and, at the same time appeal to his core audience of musically conservative pop lovers, Kennedy has transformed brave confessionals into what sound, at times, like West End musical numbers co-written by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

As an album, A Love Letter to Joni is a failure, transforming the unique into the generic, which is quite a feat considering the greatness of the original songs. Maybe Kennedy should expect a Dear John letter in reply.

A Love Letter to Joni is available to download from iTunes now.