I have been trying to learn a Joni Mitchell song since I was 25, listening to her since I was 15. (not referring to songs like Big Yellow Taxi...) I was finally forced to face this monumental process when Joanne Juskus invited me to be a part of the 70th anniversary Joni Mitchell tribute here in Baltimore.
I can hands down say, learning her more challenging songs has been a feat of concentration, craft, and dedication, akin to writing my own song. Most covers do not require this much investment. I have codified the seven steps I used to learn, A Case of You. I hope that this helps other performers. I am currently on Step 7.
Step 1. Fake learning it. This manifests as actually printing out the lyrics and putting them on your stand, but never getting past the first two lines of the chorus. You may leave it in your home music studio for years, but never actually learn the whole song. Another manifestation is clicking on a You Tube version of it, and marvelling at how wonderful it is. That is a form of studying the song.
Step 2. Pouring several shots of Bourbon, or several glasses of wine, curling up in a ball and acknowledging that you need to focus on your day job, because you are just not that good. This happens after a long listening session where you are reminded of how incredibly brilliant she is.
Step 3. Starting to learn the song
Step 4. Practicing the song every day for months and months. It is akin to an addiction, to the alcoholic who drinks alone, and hides bottles in the closet. Visitors come over, your mother is calling, your best friend needs advice, but you are sneaking off into a corner of your house to play the song, apologizing all the while for the interruption. You cannot help it at this point.
Step 5. Pouring some more shots and curling back up into a ball after inadvertently comparing your best performance to hers.
Step 6. Finding your sweet spot, finally. Finding the place where you do not sing it exactly like her, where your individuality and artistry shine through, while balancing the places in the song that may sound more like Joni to help connect the listeners to the song.
Step 7. Creating plan B for all of the times you end up with more words than will fit into a line because she writes more words into one line than any other songwriter in the history of folk music and you are still getting stuck 2 days before a show with words falling out of your mouth at the wrong spot in the song even though you have practiced it hundreds of times.
I am on step 7. It is a jazz step. You gracefully catch yourself from falling. Avid listeners and other songwriters in the room will know, but they will be impressed that you do not end up flat on your face.
Back to the piano for another round!