For the past few months, the Providence avant-rock trio Arc Iris has been touring New England with a concert it calls "Arc Iris Reimagines Joni Mitchell’s 'Blue.' " The show is exactly what it sounds like, with an emphasis on "reimagines." Arc Iris takes great liberties with Mitchell’s 1971 masterpiece, unraveling those lovely, corkscrewing melodies and laying them across funky beats and spacey synth licks.
"Blue" is Mitchell’s most iconic album, and as the years have passed its significance in the popular music canon has only deepened. Just last month, it earned the number one spot on NPR’s list of the 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women.
Thanks to Mitchell’s poetic and bracingly personal lyrics, “Blue” has come to exemplify the much-contested subgenre of confessional songwriting.
“If it is a confessional album, if we’re going to call it that, it’s one that is so relatable,” Arc Iris' lead singer Jocie Adams told me recently. “It’s an unusual example of an album that I think does represent a lot of the self, the person who wrote it. But when you listen to it, you don’t think of Joni. You feel it as your own story.”
I visited the band in Providence on a drizzly Monday in August. They had gathered in a friend’s home studio, where they planned to record a few tracks. The narrow basement space spilled over with gear: synthesizers, drums, loop machines, effects pedals and a lone guitar. Cable, yards and yards of it, proliferated in dense coils on the floor.
The project, the band told me, originally came about as part of a collaboration with Ryan Miller, the lead singer for the band Guster. Miller wanted to do a concept album, something big and ambitious. So the members of Arc Iris — Adams, keyboardist Zach Tenorio-Miller and drummer Ray Belli — proposed a reimagining of Mitchell's most beloved album.
But “when we told him we wanted to do 'Blue,' he said, 'Joni is in Jocie’s DNA, and there’s really, there’s not much I can really add to that,' " Tenorio-Miller says. "And we said: 'OK, we’ll do it anyway.' "
And indeed, Adams feels a special kinship with Mitchell. The Arc Iris frontwoman got her start as a founding member of the spare, deliberate nu-folk trio The Low Anthem, but left to embark on a solo project that allowed her to indulge her instincts toward the elaborate. That project became Arc Iris, which seems to expand its sonic reach with each successive recording. There is a certain "squirreliness" to Mitchell’s musicality, Adams says, that she shares — a taste for the unexpected, for melodic twists and lyrical turns.
But where Mitchell’s original recording is sparse, almost minimalist, with the singer’s voice mixed close and warm, Arc Iris’ take is sprawling and explosive. The band dispenses with the established chord progressions and tempos, replacing them with slow-burning grooves, velvety textures and nimble polyrhythms. Folded between the songs are long sections of Mitchell’s own voice, clipped from old interviews with the singer. Even as the band roams further and further from the source material, Mitchell herself slides more sharply into focus, emerging as a self-possessed presence with a clear and unsparing sense of her own artistry.
It should come as no surprise that Arc Iris' loose take on "Blue" has been controversial. This was confirmed early on, when Tenorio-Miller posted a clip of the band performing its version of “The Last Time I Saw Richard” in a Joni Mitchell fan group on Facebook. Almost immediately, the negative comments began pouring in.
But the band insists that it simply tapped into an eccentricity that was present in “Blue” from the beginning. It was in Mitchell’s unusual phrasing and her sophisticated sense of harmony. And, perhaps most tellingly, in her strange, indelible melodies.
“There’s something about those melodies that are just unlike nothing else I’d ever heard,” Tenorio-Miller says. “Very familiar-sounding, but also from another planet.”
For definitive evidence of Mitchell’s experimental tendencies, one need not look long past “Blue,” as she delved memorably into jazz on albums like 1976's “Hejira” and 1979's “Mingus.”
“I think [in] her songwriting — and her lyric writing and everything, too — you can see [that] she loves to explore,” Adams says. “She loves to see what’s new: in herself, in the world, in music, in art.”
To drive this point home, the band begins every show with a sample from an interview that Adams found on YouTube. “If you don’t/ Change/ they’ll get tired of you, you have to change,” Mitchell intones, her voice seeming to echo from a great distance. Tenorio-Miller taps the keys with meditative rhythmicity, and a mantra emerges: change, change, you have to change.
It is in this moment that Arc Iris makes a case for more than its own peculiar vision of “Blue.” It offers, instead, a new vision of Joni Mitchell: no longer the archetype of the confessional songwriter, but a trailblazer, an experimenter. Not the subject of change, but its author.
Arc Iris performs its re-imagined "Blue" at Cloud Club in Boston on Saturday, Aug. 19, then at the Pawtucket Arts Festival on Sunday, Sept. 10.
This story comes from WBUR.