The Influence

Joni Mitchell’s classic “Both Sides, Now” has inspired writer and performer Laura Murphy since she was 14 years old.

By Kate Holden.

Laura Murphy

Joni Mitchell performs at The Riverboat in Toronto, Canada, in 1967 (above), and Laura Murphy (below).
Joni Mitchell performs at The Riverboat in Toronto, Canada, in 1967 (above), and Laura Murphy (below).
Credit: Frank Lennon / Toronto Star via Getty Images (above), Supplied (below)

Laura Murphy is an actor, composer, songwriter, playwright and all-round performer. She is best known for her work in children’s television – she composed music and played Sparkles on William & Sparkles’ Magical Tales and its spin-off, Magical Tales: Surprises on the Nine Network – and appearances in musical theatre, including productions of Cry Baby, Muriel’s Wedding The Musical, Grease The Musical, The Wizard of Oz, Into the Woods and Alice in Slasherland. Offstage she was composer and lyricist for The Dismissal (2021). She is currently in rehearsals  with Bell Shakespeare for her own work, The Lovers, which is based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and has its opening night at Sydney Opera House on October 28.

She wanted to speak about Joni Mitchell’s classic song “Both Sides, Now”, recorded by Mitchell for her 1969 album, Clouds.

Do you know the backstory of how this song was written? Apparently, she was on a plane, reading Saul Bellow about clouds, and looking out the window.

She was 23 and she was an upcoming talent, but not particularly well known, so she wasn’t the first to record the song. That was Judy Collins [in 1967]. Which is interesting because it ended up being one of Joni Mitchell’s most well-known songs. She later recorded it but it didn’t even chart. But that first recording has gathered its own meaning and legacy, which wasn’t really acknowledged at the time that she released it.

What’s your passage through the history of this song?

I really loved folk growing up, and I really loved female singer-songwriters. At 14, one of my favourite pastimes was to lie on my bed and light incense and watch the smoke dance up to the light, while listening to these songs, to Joni Mitchell. Listening to the lyric and trying to interpret its meaning – why is it so good, why is this the perfect song? Three verses and she just nailed it. So 14 was when it had a profound effect on me.

And whenever a new person comes into my life, a new friend or a partner and I feel like we’re bonding, I’ll make them listen to “Both Sides, Now”. And so, over the years, I’ve listened to it so many times and listened through the ears of someone else, wanting them to hear it, and [to know] what their interpretation is, and every time it does change meaning for me and make me so profoundly emotional. I’m still a big child at heart, and – I’m sure we all feel this – we experience the world with both that child and this grown-up together.

The inner child is always with me, making mistakes or helping me find incredible things. So, when I listen to this song it’s like both this hardened grown-up version of me that’s seen some things – felt some pain, had some losses – is holding the hand of that inner child and looking at the world and saying, wow, look at these clouds, look at how beautiful they are and how much hope they give. But there’s also something unreachable that just keeps us right on the ground. Being able to feel and look at clouds in both those perspectives at once. And the nuance of that, being able to see them as both a beautiful and painful thing, is what I experience when listening to that song now, in my early 30s.

It’s such a mild song on the surface – the lyrics don’t look much on the page. But as a lyricist yourself, you know how much effort goes into so little.

She starts the song singing about clouds, her perspective on clouds. How when you’re younger they’re these magical, amazing things – you’re on a plane, looking down at these clouds, the seemingly limitless, expansive nature of them. But as you get older you realise, actually those things block the sun and there is a limit to them. So, it’s looking at this idea of dreams versus reality. Then she brings the lens out and she says, what about love? And the same can be said of clouds that you can say of love: that it’s seemingly this fairytale, but then you cross to the other side of the fairytale and the loss and the heartbreak and the way it hardens you – maybe love is a little more complicated than we think when we’re young. And then she expands the lens out again and looks at life in general. Look at all the things that we lose and gain in life. And she ends basically saying, “I don’t really have the answers”. And the way that leaves it with the audience – she’s not giving an answer, she’s just posing questions – that’s allowed the song to evolve.

So in that first recording [on Clouds] it’s acoustic guitar, it’s got a bit of a bounce to it, a crispness to it, and as she sings at 23, “I really don’t know clouds at all”, “I really don’t know love at all”, “I really don’t know life at all”. There’s sort of a hopefulness to it in the sense of, I’m only 23 so maybe I’ll work it out yet. And then in the orchestral arrangement version, when she’s in her 50s, musically it has a melancholy, and even at the end of the song the strings are still moving, so there’s a weariness to it, an uncertainty, that basically says, “Look, I’m in my 50s and I still do not have these answers, and maybe I never will”. There’s a sadness in that.

And then you look at that 2022 version of her singing it live again, after she’s had a brain aneurysm, after she’s lived this life, and in that version, you hear it and her voice has deepened so much, and there’s almost a new meaning to the lyrics yet again. It’s like an acceptance: I don’t know life and that’s okay. I don’t have the answers and that’s okay. So, all of you, from 23 to your 70s: this is the human experience, where we just don’t have the answers. And the lyrics have never changed! But in those three different recordings, it means something different.

She takes this huge feeling and makes us able to access it in a really concise way. It’s so clever, it’s so simple, but also massive at the same time. Which is what I try to do as a songwriter. With The Lovers, it’s taking love, a massive thing, and making it really engaging with pop music, so I can say a thing or two about love in a way that’s fun and accessible.

Another thing that I love about it: the vocal quality. When she’s 23 her voice has a purity and a sweetness to it; in the 2000 orchestral version there’s a grit to her voice, it has deepened and you can hear, like, 15,000 cigarettes. That adds to giving the lyrics a whole new colouring. And then in 2022 [at Newport Folk Festival] her voice is so incredibly deep and she’s singing with Brandi Carlile and it’s like this younger voice and this older voice coming together and the juxtaposition of their two voices singing this very song is handing over a legacy, handing over the fact that she doesn’t have the answer and that that’s okay. If it’s not okay, then we’re all doomed!

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "Laura Murphy".

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