Joni Mitchell, CC (born Roberta Joan Anderson; November 7, 1943), is a Canadian musician, singer songwriter, and painter. Mitchell began singing in small nightclubs in Saskatchewan and Western Canada and then busking in the streets and dives of Toronto. In 1965 she moved to the United States and, touring constantly, began to be recognized when her original songs ("Urge for Going", "Chelsea Morning", "Both Sides, Now", "The Circle Game") were covered by notable folk singers, allowing her to sign with Reprise Records and record her own debut album in 1968. Settling in Southern California, Mitchell, with popular songs like "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock", helped define an era and a generation. Her more starkly personal 1971 recording Blue has been called one of the best albums ever made. Musically restless, Mitchell switched labels and began moving toward jazz rhythms by way of lush pop textures on 1974's Court and Spark, her best-selling LP, featuring the radio hits "Help Me" and "Free Man in Paris".
Her wide-ranging vocals and distinctive open-tuned guitar and piano compositions grew more harmonically and rhythmically complex as she explored jazz, melding it with influences of rock and roll, R&B, classical music, and non-western beats. Her experimental run of jazz-inspired albums, including 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns and 1976's Hejira, confused many people and hurt her sales at the time, but they are acclaimed today. In the late 1970s, she began working closely with noted jazz musicians, among them Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, and Charles Mingus; the latter asked her to collaborate on his final recordings. She turned again toward pop, embraced electronic music, and engaged in political protest. She is the sole record producer credited on most of her albums, including all her work in the 1970s. With roots in visual art, she has designed her own album artwork throughout her career. A blunt critic of the music industry, she quit touring and released her 17th, and reportedly last, album of original songs in 2007. She describes herself as a "painter derailed by circumstance."
Mitchell has deeply influenced fellow musicians in a diverse range of genres, and her work is highly respected by critics. Allmusic said, "When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century," and Rolling Stone called her "one of the greatest songwriters ever." Her lyrics are noted for their developed poetics, addressing social and environmental ideals alongside personal feelings of romantic longing, confusion, disillusion, and joy.
Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, to Bill and Myrtle (née McKee) Anderson. Her mother's ancestors were Scottish and Irish; her father's were Norwegian and Sami. Her mother was a teacher. Her father was a Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant who instructed new pilots at Fort Macleod, where the Allied forces were gathering to learn to fly. During the war years, she moved with her parents to a number of bases in Western Canada. After the war, her father began working as a grocer, and his work took the family to Saskatchewan, to the towns of Maidstone and North Battleford. She later sang about her small town upbringing in "Song for Sharon".
In Maidstone, a "two-block, one church, one hotel town," Joni's family lived without indoor plumbing and running water. Many of the other residents were First Nations people. Canadians of European origin such as Joni's grandfather had only begun to settle there in recent decades. The town was along the old railway, and the line ran right behind her bedroom. She used to "sit up in bed each morning to watch the one train that always passed daily." Joni said, "The weird thing is that years later my parents met the conductor of that train at a party. He said: 'All I remember of your town is a house with Christmas decorations and a kid that used to wave at me.'" Joni loved spending time outdoors. She also said, "My mother raised me on words... Where other parents would quote from the Bible, she would quote from Shakespeare. She was a romantic woman. She encouraged me in all those old-fashioned things. I kept pressed-flower scrap books."
Joni's father was an amateur musician who loved swing records and played trumpet in marching bands, and Joni would join in town parades with her father's band and other children. Many of her childhood friends were taking music lessons, and she would tag along to their performances, where she developed her first musical obsessions: Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Chopin and Beethoven. Much later, the first LP she saved up to buy was Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Mitchell briefly studied classical piano between the ages of 6 and 7. She said, "I wanted to play... I wanted to do what I do now, which is to lay my hand on it and to memorize what comes off of it and to create with it. But my music teacher told me I played by ear which was a sin, you know, and that I would never be able to read these pieces because I memorized things... I didn't fall into the norm for that system, so I dropped that."
At the age of 8, Joni contracted polio during a 1951 epidemic in Canada, the same one in which singer Neil Young, then aged 5 and living in Ontario, also contracted the virus. It was the last major epidemic in North America before Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was successfully tested. Bedridden for weeks in hospital, Joni became aware that she would have to move across the hall and live in an iron lung for the remainder of her life if her condition worsened. As she later described, it was during her time in hospital that winter that she first became interested in singing. She told the story later:
Before contracting polio, Mitchell had been interested in the arts, but she had been more athletic than artistic. Once she recovered, she realized she would no longer be able to compete with the fastest swimmers or runners, and to compensate she became interested in dancing. At the age of 9 she began smoking, which has been a lifelong habit. Mitchell's smoking has been the subject of criticism from journalists, who have blamed it for changes in her voice as she has aged, but Mitchell has denied the connection, expressing no regret for what she calls "my terrible habits."
When Mitchell was 11 years old, her family settled in the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which she considers her hometown. Mitchell had always been inspired by the beauty of the Canadian Prairies, but she had developed into "a bad student" frustrated by the educational outlook in the provincial towns where she grew up, and school in Saskatoon did not inspire her either. Mitchell's initially dedicated note-taking in class would be replaced by a mess of drawings in her notebooks by year's end, and her report cards would say, "Joan does not relate well." She said, "The way I saw the educational system from an early age was that it taught you what to think, not how to think. There was no liberty, really, for free thinking. You were being trained to fit into a society where free thinking was a nuisance. I liked some of my teachers very much, but I had no interest in their subjects. So I would appease them—I think they perceived that I was not a dummy, although my report card didn't look like it. I would line the math room with ink drawings and portraits of the mathematicians. I did a tree of life for my biology teacher. I was always staying late at the school, down on my knees painting something."
Mitchell was drawn to art, but "growing up just at the time before arts were included as a part of education... at that time I was kind of a freak." In grade 7, she had "one radical teacher... a reverer of spirit... He criticized my habit of copying pictures. No one else did. They praised me as a prodigy for my technique. 'You like to paint?' he asked. I nodded. 'If you can paint with a brush you can paint with words.' He drew out my poetry. He was a great disciplinarian in his own punk style. We loved him... I wrote an epic poem in class – I labored to impress him. I got it back circled in red with 'cliché, cliché.' 'White as newly fallen snow' – 'cliche'; 'high upon a silver shadowed hill' – 'cliche.' At the bottom he said, 'Write about what you know, it's more interesting.'" Mitchell talked about "going out after the rain and gathering tadpoles in an empty mayonnaise jar," and he suggested she put her experience in writing. Mitchell's debut album included a dedication to that teacher, "Mr. Kratzman, who taught me to love words."
Mitchell wrote poetry as well. She said, "I was good in composition, but I wasn't good in the dissection of English... I wasn't scholastically good in it because I didn't like to break it down and analyze it in that manner, and I liked to speak in slang." Mitchell said, "I finally flunked out in the twelfth grade. I went back later and picked up the subjects that I lost." She said, "My identity, since it wasn't through the grade system, was that I was a good dancer and an artist... I made a lot of my own clothes. I worked in ladies' wear and I modeled. I had access to sample clothes that were too fashionable for our community... I would go hang out on the streets dressed to the T... I hung out downtown with the Ukrainians and the Indians... When I went back to my own neighborhood, I found that I had a provocative image. They thought I was loose because I always liked rowdies... But there also came a stage when my friends who were juvenile delinquents suddenly became criminals. They could go into very dull jobs or they could go into crime. Crime is very romantic in your youth. I suddenly thought, 'Here's where the romance ends. I don't see myself in jail...'"
Mitchell loved rock and roll. She said, "When I was in my teens, rock 'n' roll was only on the radio from 4 o'clock to 5 o'clock- after school- and two hours on Saturdays. If you didn't have a record player and you just HAD to hear those sounds, you went where there was a jukebox... I hung around two cafés that had jukeboxes. The AM Café was close to my house, and the CM Café was on the other side of town and I was forbidden to go there. They were owned by two Chinese guys- Artie Mack and Charlie Mack. You could loiter in the booths and you could smoke there." As a teenager in the late 1950s, she said, "I loved to dance. That was my thing. I instigated a Wednesday night dance 'cause I could hardly make it to the weekends. For dancing, I loved Chuck Berry. Ray Charles. 'What I'd Say.' I liked Elvis Presley. I liked the Everly Brothers. But then this thing happened. Rock & roll went through a really dumb vanilla period. And during that period, folk music came in to fill the hole. At that point I had friends who'd have parties and sit around and sing Kingston Trio songs. That's when I started to sing again. That's why I bought an instrument. To sing at those parties."
Mitchell bought herself a ukulele in 1957. She had wanted a guitar, but her mother, with rural roots herself, strongly opposed the idea because of the "hillbilly" image that she connected with the guitar. Before rock 'n' roll, the guitar in rural Canada had been mainly used in country and western music and was still widely associated with that genre. Mitchell eventually obtained a guitar, but she continued to play baritone ukulele well into the early 1960s. She initially taught herself how to play guitar out of a Pete Seeger songbook, but she never finished the book. Joni's left hand had been weakened by polio, and some fingerings were difficult or impossible for her to execute. As she added new folk songs to her repertoire, she began to devise dozens of alternative tunings that allowed her to play each song. Later this improvised approach would be "a tool to break free of standard approaches to harmony and structure" in her own songwriting.
Joni started singing with her friends at bonfires in the "northern lakes, up around Waskesiu Lake" in the early 1960s. Eventually she got a few gigs in coffeehouses in Saskatoon. Joni's first paid performance was on October 31, 1962, at a local club that featured folk and jazz performers. She was 18, and her record collection at the time ran from American folk revivalists whose LPs were helping to expand her repertoire of traditional songs, to her more personal favorites like Edith Piaf and Miles Davis. Joni and her friends were interested in jazz. Though she never performed jazz herself in those days, she and her friends sought out gigs by jazz musicians. Mitchell said, "My jazz background began with one of the early Lambert, Hendricks and Ross albums... The Hottest New Sound in Jazz [sic]. It was hard to find in Canada, so I saved up and bought it at a bootleg price. I considered that album to be my Beatles. I learned every song off of it, and I don't think there is another album anywhere – including my own – on which I know every note and word of every song."
As Joni finished up high school at Aden Bowman Collegiate in Saskatoon, playing music was a way to make some extra money, but she never intended to make a career of it. She wanted to paint, and she left home to attend the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary. At art school, Joni Anderson excelled academically for the first time in her life. However, she struggled with the sense that she was a poorer artist than her grades indicated. She said, "I found that I was an honor student at art school for the same reason that I was a bad student – an equal and opposite reason – because I had developed a lot of technical ability... I found that I seemed to be marked for my technical ability so that in free classes where I was really uninspired, my marks remained the same standard. Whereas people who were great in free class, who were original and loose who didn't have the chops in a technical class, would receive a mark that was pretty similar to their technical ability. So I became pretty disillusioned."
Mitchell was also coming to realize that her art was out of step with trends at the time, a movement to nearly total abstraction. Influenced by post-impressionists Van Gogh and Gauguin and by Picasso's work, she was still interested in painting landscapes and people, representing real things she saw. Figurative artists like herself were being directed to advertising and commercial art, which didn't at all appeal to her. At art school, to support herself, Joni kept gigging as a folk musician on weekends, playing at her college and at a local hotel. After a year, at age 19, she dropped out of school and kept playing. Mitchell took a $15-a-week job in a Calgary coffeehouse, "singing long tragic songs in a minor key." She played at The Depression! for three months in the autumn of 1963. She also sang at hootenannies and even made appearances on some local TV and radio shows in Calgary.
Mitchell's parents valued education very highly, having been raised during the Great Depression, and her decision to abandon her art studies was unpopular with her family, causing friction when she returned home to see them in Saskatchewan. In the summer of 1964 at the age of 20, she told her mother that she intended to be a folk singer in Toronto, and she left Western Canada for the first time in her life, heading east for Ontario. On the three-day train ride there, Joni wrote her first song, called "Day After Day." She also stopped at the Mariposa Folk Festival to see Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Saskatchewan-born Cree folk singer who had inspired her. A year later, Joni too would play Mariposa, her first gig for a major audience, and years later, Sainte-Marie herself would cover her.
1964–1969: Folk breakthrough
Lacking the $200 needed for musicians' union fees, Joni managed a few gigs at The Half Beat and The Village Corner in Toronto's Yorkville neighbourhood, but mostly played non-union gigs "in church basements and YMCA meeting halls." Rejected from major folk clubs, she resorted to busking, while she "worked in the women's wear section of a downtown department store to pay the rent." Without a lot of name recognition, Joni also began to realize each city's folk scene tended to accord veteran performers the exclusive right to play their signature songs—despite not having written the songs—which Mitchell found insular, contrary to the egalitarian ideal of folk music. She found her best traditional material was already other singers' property and would no longer pass muster. She said, "You'd come into a town and you'd be told, you can't sing that, you can't sing that." She resolved to write her own originals.
In the autumn of 1964, Joni discovered that she was pregnant by her Calgary ex-boyfriend Brad MacMath. She later wrote, "[he] left me three months pregnant in an attic room with no money and winter coming on and only a fireplace for heat. The spindles of the banister were gap-toothed fuel for last winter's occupants." At the time, "the pill" was legally unavailable in Canada, as was abortion, yet there was a strong social stigma against women giving birth out of wedlock. In Toronto, she could at least do so quietly, without alarming her relatives back home. In February 1965 she gave birth to a baby girl. Unable to provide for the baby, she gave her daughter, Kelly Dale Anderson, up for adoption. The experience remained private for most of her career, but she made allusions to it in several songs, most notably in "Little Green," which she performed in the 1960s but eventually recorded for the 1971 album Blue. At the time, the veiled lyrics were not widely understood – a review described them as impenetrable.
In "Chinese Cafe", from the 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast, Mitchell sang, "Your kids are coming up straight / My child's a stranger / I bore her / But I could not raise her." These lyrics did not receive wide attention at the time. The existence of Mitchell's daughter was not publicly known until 1993, when a roommate from Mitchell's art school days in the 1960s sold the story about the adoption to a tabloid magazine. By that time, Mitchell's daughter, renamed Kilauren Gibb, had already begun a search for her biological parents. Mitchell and her daughter met in 1997. After the reunion, Mitchell said that she lost interest in songwriting, and she would later identify her daughter's birth and her inability to take care of her as the moment when her songwriting inspiration had really begun. When she could not express herself to the person she wanted to talk to, she became attuned to the whole world and she began to write personally.
A few weeks after the birth of her daughter in 1965, Joni Anderson was gigging again around Yorkville, beginning to sing more of her original material for the first time, written with her unique open tunings. In March and April she found work at the Penny Farthing, a folk club in Toronto. There she met Chuck Mitchell, an American folk-singer from Michigan. Chuck was immediately attracted to Joni and impressed by her performance, and he told her that he could get her steady work in the coffeehouses he knew in the United States. In one interview, Joni marries Chuck only 36 hours after they meet, but it is unclear if they were ever married in Toronto. Sometime in late April, Joni left Canada for the first time in her life, going with Chuck to the US, where the two began playing music together. Joni, 21 years old, married Chuck in an official ceremony in his hometown in June 1965 and took his surname. Joni Mitchell said, "We had no money. I made my wedding dress... I walked down the aisle brandishing my daisies."
While living at the Verona apartments in Detroit's Cass Corridor, Chuck and Joni were regular performers at area coffee houses including The Alcove bar near Wayne State University, the "Rathskeller" a restaurant on the campus of the University of Detroit and the Raven Gallery in Southfield.Oscar Brand featured her several times on his CBC television program Let's Sing Out in 1965 and 1966, broadening her exposure. The marriage and partnership of Joni and Chuck Mitchell dissolved in early 1967, and Joni moved to New York City to pursue her musical dreams as a solo artist. She played venues up and down the East Coast, including Philadelphia, Boston, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She performed frequently in coffeehouses and folk clubs and, by this time creating her own material, became well known for her unique songwriting and her innovative guitar style.
Folk singer Tom Rush had met Mitchell in Toronto and was impressed with her songwriting ability. He took "Urge For Going" to popular folk act Judy Collins but she was not interested in the song at the time, so Rush recorded it himself. Country singer George Hamilton IV heard Rush performing it and recorded a hit country version. Other artists who recorded Mitchell songs in the early years were Buffy Sainte-Marie ("The Circle Game"), Dave Van Ronk ("Both Sides Now"), and eventually Judy Collins ("Both Sides Now", a top ten hit, and "Michael From Mountains", both included on her 1967 album Wildflowers). Collins also covered "Chelsea Morning", a recording which again eclipsed Mitchell's own commercial success early on.
While she was playing one night in "The Gaslight South", a club in Coconut Grove, Florida, David Crosby walked in and was immediately struck by her ability and her appeal as an artist. He took her back to Los Angeles, where he set about introducing her and her music to his friends. Crosby convinced a record company to agree to let Mitchell record a solo acoustic album without all the folk-rock overdubs that were in vogue at the time, and his clout earned him a producer's credit in March 1968, when Reprise Records released her debut album, alternatively known as Joni Mitchell or Song to a Seagull.
Mitchell continued touring steadily to promote the LP. The tour helped create eager anticipation for Mitchell's second LP, Clouds, which was released in April 1969. It finally contained Mitchell's own versions of some of her songs already recorded and performed by other artists: "Chelsea Morning", "Both Sides, Now", and "Tin Angel." The covers of both LPs, including a self-portrait on Clouds, were designed and painted by Mitchell, a marriage of her art and music which she would continue throughout her career.
1970–1974: Mainstream success
In March 1970 Clouds won Joni Mitchell her first Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. The following month, Reprise released her third album, Ladies of the Canyon. Mitchell's sound was already beginning to expand beyond the confines of acoustic folk music and toward pop and rock, with more overdubs, percussion, and backing vocals, and for the first time, many songs composed on piano, which would become a hallmark of Mitchell's style in her most popular era. Her own version of "Woodstock", slower and darker than the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young cover, was performed on a Wurlitzer electric piano. The album also included the already-familiar song "The Circle Game" and the environmental anthem "Big Yellow Taxi", with its now-famous line, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot."
Ladies of the Canyon was an instant smash on FM radio and sold briskly through the summer and fall, eventually becoming Mitchell's first gold album (selling over a half million copies). Mitchell made a decision to stop touring for a year and just write and paint, yet she was still voted "Top Female Performer" for 1970 by Melody Maker, the UK's leading pop music magazine. On the April 1971 release of James Taylor's Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon album, Joni Mitchell is credited with backup vocals – along with Carole King – on the track "You've Got A Friend". The songs she wrote during the months she took off for travel and life experience would appear on her next album, Blue, released in June 1971. Of Blue and in comparing Joni Mitchell's talent to his own, David Crosby said, "By the time she did Blue she was past me and rushing toward the horizon" (A 65th Birthday Tribute to Joni Mitchell, 2008).
Blue was an almost instant critical and commercial success, peaking in the top 20 in the Billboard Album Charts in September and also hitting the British Top 3. Lushly produced "Carey" was the single at the time, but musically, other parts of Blue departed further from the sounds of Ladies of the Canyon in favor of simpler, rhythmic acoustic parts allowing a focus on Mitchell's voice and emotions ("All I Want", "A Case of You"), while others such as "Blue", "River" and "The Last Time I Saw Richard" were sung to her rolling piano accompaniment. In its lyrics, the album was regarded as an inspired culmination of her early work, with depressed assessments of the world around her serving as counterpoint to exuberant expressions of romantic love (for example, in "California"). Mitchell later remarked, "At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong."
Mitchell made the decision to return to the live stage after the great success of Blue, and she presented many new songs on tour which would appear on her next album. Her fifth album, For the Roses, was released in October 1972 and immediately zoomed up the charts. She followed with the single, "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio", which peaked at #25 in the Billboard Charts in February 1973, becoming her first bonafide hit single. The album was critically acclaimed and earned her success on her own terms, though it was somewhat overshadowed by the success of Blue and by Mitchell's next album.
Court and Spark, released in January 1974, would see Mitchell begin the flirtation with jazz and jazz fusion that marked her experimental period ahead, but it was also her most commercially successful recording, and among her most critically acclaimed. Court and Spark went to #1 on the Cashbox Album Charts. The LP made Joni Mitchell a widely popular act for perhaps the only time in her career, on the strength of popular tracks such as the rocker "Raised on Robbery", which was released right before Christmas 1973, and "Help Me", which was released in March of the following year, and became Mitchell's only Top 10 single when it peaked at #7 in the first week of June. "Free Man in Paris" was another hit single and staple in her catalog.
While recording Court and Spark, Mitchell had tried to make a clean break with her earlier folk sound, producing the album herself and employing jazz/pop fusion band the L.A. Express as what she called her first real backing group. In February 1974, her tour with the L.A. Express began, and they received rave notices as they traveled across the United States and Canada during the next two months. A series of shows at L.A.'s Universal Amphitheater from August 14–17 were recorded for a live album release. In November, Mitchell released a live album called Miles of Aisles, a two-record set including all but two songs from the L.A. concerts (one selection each from the Berkeley Community Center, on March 2, and the LA Music Center, on March 4, were also included in the set). The live album slowly moved up to #2, matching Court and Sparks's chart peak on Billboard. "Big Yellow Taxi", the live version, was also released as a single and did reasonably well (Mitchell would ultimately release yet another recording of "Big Yellow Taxi" in 2007).
In January 1975, Court and Spark received four nominations for Grammy Awards, including Grammy Award for Album of the Year, for which Mitchell was the only woman nominated. She won only the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)
1975–1980: Jazz explorations
Mitchell went into the studio in the spring of 1975 to record acoustic demos of some songs that she had written since the Court and Spark tour ended. A few months later she recorded versions of the tunes with her band. Mitchell's musical interests were now diverging from both the folk and the pop scene of the era, toward less structured, more jazz-inspired pieces, with a wider range of instruments. On "The Jungle Line", she also made an early effort at sampling a recording of African musicians, something that would become more commonplace among Western rock acts in the 1980s. Meanwhile, "In France They Kiss on Main Street" continued the lush pop sounds of Court and Spark, and efforts such as the title song and "Edith and the Kingpin" chronicled the underbelly of suburban lives in Southern California.
The new song cycle was released in November 1975 as The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The album was initially a big seller, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Album Charts, but it received mixed reviews at the time of its release. A common legend holds that Rolling Stone magazine declared it the "Worst Album of the Year"; in truth, it was called only the year's worst album title. However, Mitchell and Rolling Stone have had a contentious relationship, beginning years earlier when the magazine featured a "tree" illustrating all of Mitchell's alleged romantic partners, primarily other musicians, which the singer said "hurt my feelings terribly at the time." During 1975, Mitchell also participated in several concerts in the Rolling Thunder Revue tours featuring Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and in 1976 she performed as part of The Last Waltz by The Band. In January 1976, Mitchell received one nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, though the Grammy went to Linda Ronstadt.
In early 1976, Mitchell traveled with friends who were driving cross country to Maine. Afterwards, Mitchell drove back to California alone and composed several songs during her journey which would feature on her next album, 1976's Hejira. She stated that "This album was written mostly while I was traveling in the car. That's why there were no piano songs..." Hejira was arguably Mitchell's most experimental album so far, due to her ongoing collaborations with legendary jazz virtuoso bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius on several songs including the first single, "Coyote", the atmospheric "Hejira", the disorienting, guitar-heavy "Black Crow," and the album's last song "Refuge of the Roads." The album climbed to No. 13 on the Billboard Charts, reaching gold status three weeks after release, and received airplay from album oriented FM rock stations. Yet "Coyote", backed with "Blue Motel Room", failed to chart on the Hot 100. While the album was greeted by many fans and critics as a "return to form", by the time she recorded it her days as a huge pop star were over. However, if Hejira "did not sell as briskly as Mitchell's earlier, more "radio friendly" albums, its stature in her catalogue has grown over the years." Mitchell herself believes the album to be unique. In 2006 she said, "I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me."
In the summer of 1977, Mitchell began work on new recordings, what would become her first double studio album. Close to completing her contract with Asylum Records, Mitchell felt that this album could be looser in feel than any album she'd done in the past. She invited Pastorius back, and he brought with him fellow members of jazz fusion pioneers Weather Report, including drummer Don Alias and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Layered, atmospheric compositions such as "Overture / Cotton Avenue" featured more improvisatory collaboration, while "Paprika Plains" was a 16-minute epic that stretched the boundaries of pop, owing more to Mitchell's memories of childhood in Canada and her study of classical music. "Dreamland" and "The Tenth World", featuring Chaka Khan on backing vocals, were percussion dominated tracks. Other songs continued the jazz-rock-folk collisions of Hejira. Mitchell also revived "Jericho", written but never recorded years earlier (a version is found on her 1974 live album). Don Juan's Reckless Daughter was released in December 1977. The album received mixed reviews but still sold relatively well, peaking at No. 25 in the US and going gold within three months. The cover of the album created its own controversy; Mitchell was featured in several photographs on the cover, including one where she was disguised as a black man (this is a reference to a character in one song on the album).
A few months after the release of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Mitchell was contacted by jazz great Charles Mingus, who had heard the orchestrated song, "Paprika Plains", and wanted her to work with him. Mitchell began a collaboration with Mingus, who died before the project was completed in 1979. She finished the tracks (most were her own Mingus-inspired compositions, though "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is a Mingus instrumental standard to which Mitchell composed lyrics) and the resulting album, Mingus, was released in June 1979, though it was poorly received in the press. Fans were confused over such a major change in Mitchell's overall sound, and though the album topped out at No. 17 on the Billboard album charts—a higher placement than Don Juan's Reckless Daughter—Mingus still fell short of gold status, making it her first album since the 1960s to not sell at least a half-million copies.
Mitchell's summer tour to promote Mingus began in August 1979 in Oklahoma City and concluded six weeks later with five shows at Los Angeles' Greek Theater, where she recorded and filmed the concerts. It was her first tour in several years, and with Pastorius, jazz guitar great Pat Metheny, and other members of her band, Mitchell also performed songs from her other jazz-inspired albums. When the tour ended she began a year of work, turning the tapes from the Los Angeles shows into a two-album set and a concert film, both to be called Shadows and Light. Her final release on Asylum Records and her second live double-album, it was released in September 1980, and made it up to No. 38 on the Billboard Charts. A single from the LP, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?", Mitchell's duet with The Persuasions (her opening act for the tour), bubbled under on Billboard, just missing the Hot 100.
1981–1993: Pop, electronics and protest
For a year and a half, Mitchell worked on the tracks for her next album. During this period Mitchell recorded with bassist Larry Klein, whom she married in 1982. While the album was being readied for release, her friend David Geffen, founder of Asylum Records, decided to start a new label, Geffen Records. Still distributed by Warner Bros., (who controlled Asylum Records), Geffen negated the remaining contractual obligations Mitchell had with Asylum and signed her to his new label. 1982's Wild Things Run Fast marked a return to pop songwriting, including "Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody", which incorporated the chorus and parts of the melody of the famous Righteous Brothers hit, and "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care", a remake of the Elvis chestnut which charted higher than any Mitchell single since her 1970s sales peak when it climbed to No. 47 on the charts. However the album peaked on the Billboard Charts in its fifth week at only No. 25.
As 1983 began, Mitchell began a world tour, visiting Japan, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and then going back to the United States. A performance from the tour was videotaped and later released on home video (and later DVD) as "Refuge Of The Roads." As 1984 ended, Mitchell was writing new songs, when she had a suggestion from Geffen that perhaps an outside producer with experience in the modern technical arenas that they wanted to explore might be a worthy addition. British synth-pop performer and producer Thomas Dolby was brought on board. Of Dolby's role, Mitchell later commented: "I was reluctant when Thomas was suggested because he had been asked to produce the record [by Geffen], and would he consider coming in as just a programmer and a player? So on that level we did have some problems... He may be able to do it faster. He may be able to do it better, but the fact is that it then wouldn't really be my music."
The album that resulted, Dog Eat Dog, released in October 1985, turned out to be only a moderate seller, peaking at No. 63 on Billboard's Top Albums Chart, Mitchell's lowest chart position since her first album peaked at No. 189 almost eighteen years before. One of the songs on the album, "Tax Free", created controversy by lambasting "televangelists" and what she saw as a drift to the religious right in American politics. "The churches came after me", she wrote, "they attacked me, though the Episcopalian Church, which I've seen described as the only church in America which actually uses its head, wrote me a letter of congratulation."
Mitchell continued experimenting with synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers for the recordings of her next album, 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. She also collaborated with artists including Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Wendy & Lisa, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, and Benjamin Orr of The Cars. The album's first official single, "My Secret Place", was in fact a duet with Gabriel, and just missed the Billboard Hot 100 charts. The song "Lakota" was one of many songs on the album to take on larger political themes, in this case the Wounded Knee incident, the deadly battle between Native American activists and the FBI on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the previous decade. Musically, several songs fit into the trend of world music popularized by Gabriel during the era. Reviews were mostly favorable towards the album, and the cameos by well-known musicians brought it considerable attention. Chalk Mark ultimately improved on the chart performance of Dog Eat Dog, peaking at No. 45.
After its release, Mitchell, who rarely performed live anymore, participated in Roger Waters' The Wall Concert in Berlin in 1990. She performed the song "Goodbye Blue Sky" and was also one of the performers on the concert's final song "The Tide Is Turning" along with Waters, Cyndi Lauper, Bryan Adams, Van Morrison and Paul Carrack.
Throughout the first half of 1990, Mitchell recorded songs that would appear on her next album. She delivered the final mixes for the new album to Geffen just before Christmas, after trying nearly a hundred different sequences for the songs. The album Night Ride Home was released in March 1991. In the United States, it premiered on Billboard's Top Album charts at No. 68, moving up to No. 48 in its second week, and peaking at No. 41 in its sixth week. In the United Kingdom, the album premiered at No. 25 on the album charts. Critically, it was better received than her 1980s work and seemed to signal a move closer to her acoustic beginnings, along with some references to the style of Hejira. This album was also Mitchell's first since Geffen Records was sold to MCA Inc., meaning that Night Ride Home was her first album not to be initially distributed by WEA (now Warner Music Group).
1994–2001: Resurgence and vocal development
To wider audiences, the real "return to form" for Mitchell came with the 1994's Grammy-winning Turbulent Indigo. While the recording period also saw the divorce of Mitchell and bassist Larry Klein, their marriage having lasted almost 12 years, Indigo was seen as Mitchell's most accessible set of songs in years. Songs such as "Sex Kills", "Sunny Sunday", "Borderline" and "The Magdalene Laundries" mixed social commentary and guitar-focused melodies for "a startling comeback." The album won two Grammy awards, including Best Pop Album, and it coincided with a much-publicized resurgence in interest in Mitchell's work by a younger generation of singer-songwriters.
In 1996, Mitchell agreed to release a greatest Hits collection when label Reprise also allowed her a second Misses album to include some of the lesser known songs from her career. Hits charted at No. 161 in the US, but made No. 6 in the UK. Mitchell also included on Hits, for the first time on an album, her first recording, a version of "Urge for Going" which preceded Song to a Seagull but was previously released only as a B-side.
Two years later, Mitchell released her final set of "original" new work before nearly a decade of other pursuits, 1998's Taming the Tiger. She promoted Tiger with a return to regular concert appearances, most notably a co-headlining tour with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. On the album, Mitchell had played a "guitar synthesizer" on most songs, and for the tour she adapted many of her old songs to this instrument, and reportedly had to re-learn all her complex tunings once again.
It was around this time that critics also began to notice a real change in Mitchell's voice, particularly on her older songs; the singer later admitted to feeling the same way, explaining that "I'd go to hit a note and there was nothing there." While her more limited range and huskier vocals have sometimes been attributed to her smoking (she has been described as "one of the world's last great smokers"), Mitchell believes that the changes in her voice that became noticeable in the 1990s were due to other problems, including vocal nodules, a compressed larynx, and the lingering effects of having had polio. In an interview in 2004, she denied that "my terrible habits" had anything to do with her more limited range and pointed out that singers often lose the upper register when they pass fifty. In addition, she contended that in her opinion her voice became a more interesting and expressive alto range when she could no longer hit the high notes, let alone hold them like she did in her youth.
The singer's next two albums featured no new songs and, Mitchell has said, were recorded to "fulfill contractual obligations", but on both she attempted to make use of her new vocal range in interpreting familiar material. Both Sides, Now (2000) was an album composed mostly of covers of jazz standards, performed with an orchestra, featuring orchestral arrangements by Vince Mendoza. The album also contained remakes of "A Case of You" and the title track "Both Sides Now", two early hits transposed down to Mitchell's now dusky, soulful alto range. It received mostly strong reviews and spawned a short national tour, with Mitchell accompanied by a core band featuring Larry Klein on bass plus a local orchestra on each tour stop. Its success led to 2002's Travelogue, a collection of re-workings of her previous songs with lush orchestral accompaniments.
2002–2005: Retirement and retrospectives
Mitchell stated at the time that this would be her final album. In a 2002 interview with Rolling Stone, she voiced discontent with the current state of the music industry, describing it as a "cesspool." Mitchell expressed her dislike of the record industry's dominance and her desire to control her own destiny, possibly by releasing her own music over the Internet.
During the next few years, the only albums Mitchell released were compilations of her earlier work. In 2003, Mitchell's Geffen recordings were collected in a remastered, four-disc box set, The Complete Geffen Recordings, including notes by Mitchell and three previously unreleased tracks. A series of themed compilations of songs from earlier albums were also released: The Beginning of Survival (2004), Dreamland (2004), and Songs of a Prairie Girl (2005), the last of which collected the threads of her Canadian upbringing and which she released after accepting an invitation to the Saskatchewan Centennial concert in Saskatoon. The concert, which featured a tribute to Mitchell, was also attended by Elizabeth II. In Prairie Girl liner notes, she writes that the collection is "my contribution to Saskatchewan's Centennial celebrations."
In the early 1990s, Mitchell signed a deal with Random House to publish an autobiography. In 1998 she told The New York Times that her memoirs were "in the works", that they would be published in as many as four volumes, and that the first line would be "I was the only black man at the party." In 2005, Mitchell said that she was using a tape recorder to get her memories "down in the oral tradition."
Also in the early 2000s, Mitchell worked with artist Gilles Hebert. She visited the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, where she and Giles produced a book called Voices. The book received international attention and extended her fame, and the fame of Gilles Hebert.
Although Mitchell stated that she would no longer tour or give concerts, she has made occasional public appearances to speak on environmental issues. Mitchell divides her time between her longtime home in Los Angeles, and the 80-acre (32 ha) property in Sechelt, British Columbia that she has owned since the early 1970s. "L.A. is my workplace", she said in 2006, "B.C. is my heartbeat." According to interviews, today she focuses mainly on her visual art, which she does not sell and which she displays only on rare occasions.
2006–2009: Late recordings and Morgellons advocacy
In an interview with The Ottawa Citizen in October 2006, Mitchell "revealed that she was recording her first collection of new songs in nearly a decade", but gave few other details. Four months later, in an interview with The New York Times, Mitchell said that the forthcoming album, titled Shine, was inspired by the war in Iraq and "something her grandson had said while listening to family fighting: 'Bad dreams are good—in the great plan.'" Early media reports characterized the album as having "a minimal feel... that harks back to [Mitchell's] early work", and a focus on political and environmental issues.
In February 2007, Mitchell also returned to Calgary and served as an advisor for the Alberta Ballet Company premiere of "The Fiddle and the Drum", a dance choreographed to both new and old songs. Mitchell also filmed portions of the rehearsals for a documentary that she is working on. Of the flurry of recent activity she quipped, "I've never worked so hard in my life."
In summer 2007, Mitchell's official fan-run site confirmed speculation that she had signed a two-record deal with Starbucks' Hear Music label. Shine was released by the label on September 25, 2007, debuting at number 14 on the Billboard 200 album chart, her highest chart position in the United States since the release of Hejira in 1976, over thirty years previously, and at number 36 on the United Kingdom albums chart.
On the same day, Herbie Hancock, a longtime associate and friend of Mitchell's, released River: The Joni Letters, an album paying tribute to Mitchell's work. Among the album's contributors were Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and Mitchell herself, who contributed a vocal to the re-recording of "The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)" (originally on her album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm). On February 10, 2008, Hancock's recording won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. It was the first time in 43 years that a jazz artist took the top prize at the annual award ceremony. In accepting the award, Hancock paid tribute to Mitchell as well as to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. At the same ceremony Mitchell won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Pop Performance for the opening track "One Week Last Summer" from her album Shine.
Mitchell is currently receiving treatment for the controversial condition called "Morgellons syndrome". Mitchell spoke to the Los Angeles Times on April 22, 2010 about the disease, saying, "I have this weird, incurable disease that seems like it's from outer space, but my health's the best it's been in a while." She described Morgellons as a "slow, unpredictable killer" but said she is determined to fight the disease. "I have a tremendous will to live: I've been through another pandemic—I'm a polio survivor, so I know how conservative the medical body can be." According to Mitchell, Morgellons is often misdiagnosed as "delusion of parasites," and sufferers of the disease are offered psychiatric treatment. Mitchell said she plans to leave the music industry to work toward giving people diagnosed with Morgellons more credibility. In the same interview, Mitchell made the statement that singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, with whom she had worked closely in the past, was a fake and plagiarist. The controversial remark was widely reported by other media. Mitchell did not explain the contention further, but several media outlets speculated that it may have related to the allegations of plagiarism surrounding some lyrics on Dylan's 2006 album Modern Times. In a 2013 interview with Jian Ghomeshi, she was asked about the comments and responded by denying that she had made the statement while mentioning the allegations of plagiarism that arose over the lyrics to Dylan's 2001 album Love and Theft in the general context of the flow and ebb of the creative process of artists.
While some of Mitchell's most popular songs were written on piano, almost every song she composed on the guitar uses an open, or non-standard, tuning; she has written songs in some 50 tunings, playing what she has called "Joni's weird chords." The use of alternative tunings allows guitarists to produce accompaniment with more varied and wide-ranging textures. Her right-hand picking/strumming technique has evolved over the years from an initially intricate picking style, typified by the guitar songs on her first album, to a looser and more rhythmic style, sometimes incorporating percussive "slaps."
In 1995, Mitchell's friend Fred Walecki, proprietor of Westwood Music in Los Angeles, developed a solution to alleviate her continuing frustration with using multiple alternative tunings in live settings. Walecki designed a Stratocaster-style guitar to function with the Roland VG-8 (Virtual Guitar), a system capable of configuring her numerous tunings electronically. While the guitar itself remained in standard tuning, the VG-8 encoded the pickup signals into digital signals which were then translated into the altered tunings. This allowed Mitchell to use one guitar on stage, while an off-stage tech entered the preprogrammed tuning for each song in her set.
Mitchell's longtime archivist, the San Francisco-based Joel Bernstein, maintains a detailed list of all her tunings, and has assisted her to relearn the tunings for several older songs.
Mitchell was also highly innovative harmonically in her early work (1966–72) using techniques including modality, chromaticism, and pedal points. On her 1968 debut album Song to a Seagull, Joni Mitchell used both quartal and quintal harmony in "Dawntreader", and she used quintal harmony in Seagull.
In 2003 Rolling Stone named her the 72nd greatest guitarist of all time; she was the highest-ranked woman on the list.
Influence on other artists
Mitchell's work has had an influence on many other artists, including Mikael Åkerfeldt, Marillion, their former vocalist and lyricist Fish, Paul Carrack, and Taylor Swift. Madonna has also cited Mitchell as the first female artist that really spoke to her as a teenager; "I was really, really into Joni Mitchell. I knew every word to Court and Spark; I worshipped her when I was in high school. Blue is amazing. I would have to say of all the women I've heard, she had the most profound effect on me from a lyrical point of view."
A number of artists have had success covering Mitchell's songs. Judy Collins's 1967 recording of "Both Sides Now" reached No. 8 on Billboard charts and was a breakthrough in the career of both artists (Mitchell's own recording did not see release until two years later, on her second album Clouds). This is Mitchell's most-covered song by far, with 587 versions recorded at latest count. Hole also covered "Both Sides Now" in 1991 on their debut album, Pretty on the Inside, retitling it "Clouds", with the lyrics altered by frontwoman Courtney Love. Pop group Neighborhood in 1970 and Amy Grant in 1995 scored hits with covers of "Big Yellow Taxi", the second most covered song in Mitchell's repertoire (with 223 covers). Recent releases of this song have been by Counting Crows in 2002 and Nena in 2007. Janet Jackson used a sample of the chorus of "Big Yellow Taxi" as the centerpiece of her 1997 hit single "Got 'Til It's Gone", which also features rapper Q-Tip saying "Joni Mitchell never lies." Rap artists Kanye West and Mac Dre have also sampled Mitchell's vocals in their music. In addition, Annie Lennox has covered "Ladies Of The Canyon" for the B-side of her 1995 hit "No More I Love You's". Mandy Moore covered "Help Me" in 2003. In 2004 singer George Michael covered her song "Edith And The Kingpin" for a radio show. "River" has been one of the most popular songs covered in recent years, with versions by Dianne Reeves (1999), James Taylor (recorded for television in 2000, and for CD release in 2004), Allison Crowe (2004), Rachael Yamagata (2004), Aimee Mann (2005), and Sarah McLachlan (2006). McLachlan also did a version of "Blue" in 1996, and Cat Power recorded a cover of "Blue" in 2008. Other Mitchell covers include the famous "Woodstock" by both Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Matthews Southern Comfort, "This Flight Tonight" by Nazareth, and well-known versions of "Woodstock" by Eva Cassidy and "A Case of You" by Tori Amos, Michelle Branch, Jane Monheit, Prince, Diana Krall, and James Blake. A 40th anniversary version of "Woodstock" was released in 2009 by Nick Vernier Band featuring Ian Matthews (formerly of Matthews Southern Comfort).
Prince's version of "A Case of U" appeared on A Tribute to Joni Mitchell, a 2007 compilation released by Nonesuch Records, which also featured Björk ("The Boho Dance"), Caetano Veloso ("Dreamland"), Emmylou Harris ("The Magdalene Laundries"), Sufjan Stevens ("Free Man in Paris") and Cassandra Wilson ("For the Roses"), among others. Some of the recordings were made in the late 1990s when a project entitled A Case of Joni was developed but left incomplete. Among those who recorded tracks for the first tribute album, which remain unreleased, were Janet Jackson, Steely Dan, and Sheryl Crow. Chaka Khan recorded "Ladies Man" from Mitchell's LP Wild Things Run Fast on her 2007 CD titled Funk This.
Several other songs reference Joni Mitchell. The song "Our House" by Graham Nash refers to Nash's two-year affair with Mitchell at the time that Crosby, Stills Nash and Young recorded the Déjà Vu album. Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" was said to be written about Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's infatuation with Mitchell, a claim that seems to be borne out by the fact that, in live performances, Plant often says "Joni" after the line "To find a queen without a king, they say she plays guitar and cries and sings." Jimmy Page uses a double dropped D guitar tuning similar to the alternative tunings Mitchell uses. The Sonic Youth song "Hey Joni" is named for Mitchell. Alanis Morissette also mentions Mitchell in one of her songs, "Your House." British folk singer Frank Turner mentions Mitchell in his song "Sunshine State". The Prince song "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker" contains the lyric – " 'Oh, my favorite song' she said – and it was Joni singing 'Help me I think I'm falling' ". "Lavender" by Marillion was partly influenced by "going through parks listening to Joni Mitchell", according to vocalist and lyricist Fish.
In 2003, playwright Bryden MacDonald launched When All the Slaves Are Free, a musical revue based on Mitchell's music.
To celebrate Mitchell's 70th birthday, the 2013 Luminato Festival in Toronto held a set of tribute concerts entitled Joni: A Portrait in Song – A Birthday Happening Live at Massey Hall on June 18 & 19. Performers included Rufus Wainwright, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding, and rare performances by Mitchell herself.
Awards and honours
In 1995, Mitchell received Billboard's Century Award. In 1996, she was awarded the Polar Music Prize. In 1997, Mitchell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but did not attend the ceremony.
She has received eight Grammy Awards during her career, the first in 1969 and the most recent in 2008. She received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, with the citation describing her as "one of the most important female recording artists of the rock era" and "a powerful influence on all artists who embrace diversity, imagination and integrity."
In fitting tribute to Mitchell, the TNT network presented an all-star celebration at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, April 6, 2000. Many legendary performers sang Mitchell's songs, including James Taylor, Elton John, Wynonna Judd, Bryan Adams, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Krall, and Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention fame. Mitchell herself ended the evening with a rendition of "Both Sides Now" with a full 70 piece orchestra. The version was featured on the soundtrack to the hit movie, Love Actually.
Regarding her as a national treasure, Mitchell's home country Canada has bestowed a number of honours on her. She was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1981 and received a star on Canada's Walk of Fame in 2000. In 2002 she became only the third popular Canadian singer/songwriter (Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen being the other two), to be appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honour. She received an honorary doctorate in music from McGill University in 2004. In January 2007 she was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In June 2007 Canada Post featured Mitchell on a postage stamp.
In November 2006, the album Blue was listed by TIME magazine as among the "All-Time 100 Albums."
In 1999 Mitchell was listed as fifth on VH1's list of "The 100 Greatest Women of Rock N' Roll." In 2010, VH1 would name her the #44 Greatest Artist of All Time.
In the 2010 film The Kids Are All Right, the character Joni is supposed to have been named after Joni Mitchell since the character Nic, Joni's mother, declares to be a fan of Mitchell.
On February 12, 2010, "Both Sides, Now" was performed at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
*Although officially a Herbie Hancock release, Mitchell also received a Grammy due to her vocal contribution to the album.
- Studio releases
- 1968: Song to a Seagull
- 1969: Clouds
- 1970: Ladies of the Canyon
- 1971: Blue
- 1972: For the Roses
- 1974: Court and Spark
- 1975: The Hissing of Summer Lawns
- 1976: Hejira
- 1977: Don Juan's Reckless Daughter
- 1979: Mingus
- 1982: Wild Things Run Fast
- 1985: Dog Eat Dog
- 1988: Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm
- 1991: Night Ride Home
- 1994: Turbulent Indigo
- 1998: Taming the Tiger
- 2000: Both Sides Now
- 2002: Travelogue
- 2007: Shine
- Canadian rock
- Music of Canada
- Official website
- Joni Mitchell's Secret – The full story of Joni giving up her daughter Kilauren Gibb (Kelly Dale Anderson) for adoption.
- Hear the public radio special "The Emergence of Joni Mitchell"
- Joni Mitchell at AllMusic
- Salon.com – Joni Mitchell
- Joni Mitchell at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- CBC Digital Archives – Joni Mitchell: All Sides Now
- The Governor General of Canada
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Image from Discogs