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James Robertson's Pilgrimer: 'Joni Mitchell offered me the key to open up'

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The poet and novelist talks about his painstaking reimagining of Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira in Scots, which premieres on Saturday

Hejira is Joni Mitchell’s brooding chronicle of the road. She wrote the album in 1976 while crossing the US from Maine to Los Angeles, often driving alone and without a licence, or so the story goes, tailing truckers who flashed their lights when police cars were ahead on the freeway. Hejira is also the Arabic term for the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from persecution in the year 622. Mitchell’s songs examine what it is to wander: the fears and thrills of rootlessness, how liberty and loneliness can easily share the passenger seat. The music roams from folk to rock to jazz and blues; of all her great albums, Hejira probably takes the longest to get under your skin, but after a few listens it lodges. That serpentine drawl, those itinerant vocal lines, the odd-time lilt and lush guitars … And then there are the lyrics.

Poet and novelist James Robertson was 18 when Hejira came out. As he described in a recent interview, it was “the year I bought a motorbike, left home, went to university, had sex”. He had grown up in a middle-class home in Bridge of Allan near Stirling and had never travelled outside of Britain, but in 1978 spent an exchange year in Philadelphia. “Total culture shock!” he laughs. “Game changer. I stepped outside of one life and was able to look back into it.” That summer, he hitchhiked around North America, and Mitchell’s songs have resonated ever since.

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