Joni Mitchell (born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta), is a Canadian-born American musician and painter. Initially working in Toronto and western Canada, she was associated with the burgeoning folk music scene of the mid-1960s in New York City. Through the 1970s she expanded her horizons, predominantly to rock music and jazz, to become one of the most highly respected singer-songwriters of the late 20th century.
A painter who had also dabbled in piano, guitar and ukulele since childhood, Mitchell took her surname from a brief marriage to folksinger Chuck Mitchell in 1965. She performed frequently in coffee houses and folk clubs and became well known for her unique style of songwriting. Personal and often self-consciously "poetic", her songs were strengthened by Mitchell's extraordinary wide-ranging voice (with a range in pitch at one time covering over four octaves) and unique guitar playing, tuning the instrument in unorthodox manners to produce a distinctive rhythmic, driving sound.
Her first songwriting credit to hit the charts, "Urge for Going", was a success for country singer George Hamilton IV and for folk singer Tom Rush . The songs on her first two solo albums Joni Mitchell (Song to a Seagull) (1968) and Clouds (1969) were archetypes of the nascent singer-songwriter movement of the time. Clouds represented a commercial breakthrough, containing her first two songs widely adopted by other artists, "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides Now".
By her third album, Ladies of the Canyon (1970), maturity brought a record infused with the spirit of California life (the canyon of the title is Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles) as well as containing her first major hit single, the environmental "Big Yellow Taxi ", and her song "Woodstock", about the music festival, which was later a hit for both Crosby, Stills and Nash and Matthews Southern Comfort. (Ironically, Mitchell did not even go to Woodstock, having cancelled her appearance at the festival on the advice of her manager for fear that she would miss a scheduled appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.) Also of interest, "For Free" is the first of Mitchell's many songs focusing on the dichotomy between the benefits of her stardom and its costs, both in terms of its pressure and of the loss of privacy and freedom it entails.
This more mature, confessional approach was continued on Blue (1971), widely considered the best of this period. Exploring the various facets of relationships, from infatuation on "A Case of You" to insecurity on "This Flight Tonight", the songs featured increasing use of piano and Appalachian dulcimer on "Carey" and "All I Want". Others were piano led, some exhibiting the rhythms associated with rock music. The rock influence was still strong on her next two albums made for her new label Asylum. For the Roses (1972), whose title track continued her exploration of the themes of "For Free", sold well, supported by the hit single "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio". Court and Spark (1974) was a huge success, producing the international hit "Free Man in Paris" (inspired by stories told by her producer and then-friend David Geffen). It remains her best selling single to this day.
Court and Spark was also notable for the first echoes of the influence of jazz on Mitchell's work, and despite the commercial success of the more mainstream tracks, she would spend the rest of the decade producing largely jazz inflected music. The first such album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), was also a lyrical departure, with the confessional style replaced by a series of vignettes of 1970s women, from nightclub dancers ("Edith and the Kingpin") to the bored wives of the wealthy ("The Hissing of Summer Lawns" and "Harry's House"). The album was stylistically diverse, with complex vocal harmonies set with African drumming (the Warrior Drums of Burundi making up the foundation of "The Jungle Line"). During 1975 Mitchell also participated in several concerts in the Rolling Thunder Revue tour headlined by Bob Dylan.
Hejira (1976) continued Mitchell's trend toward jazz, with many of the tracks led by (jazz musician) Jaco Pastorius's fretless bass guitar. The songs themselves, however, were more similar to earlier work, with dense poetic lyrics (whose precise meaning is frequently unclear) and swooping vocal melodies providing contrast and counterpoint to the jazz rhythms of the arrangements. To some, however, 'Hejira' lacked the concision that pop influence had given its predecessor. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) was a further move away from pop toward the freedom and abstraction of jazz, a wordy double album dominated by the lengthy part-improvised "Paprika Plains". The album received mixed reviews: some enjoyed its experimentation and originality; many others found it unengaging.
Mitchell's next work was to be a collaboration with legendary bassist Charles Mingus, who died before the project was completed. Mitchell finished the tracks with a band featuring Pastorius, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and the resulting free-form, arrhythmic music, while well received in some quarters, again found her appeal among a more selective audience.
The 1980s saw Mitchell's lowest recorded output since the beginning of her career. Only three albums of new material appeared, none terribly well reviewed. Seeming to reject the jazz influence, 1982's Wild Things Run Fast was an attempt to return to pop songwriting, including cover versions of "Unchained Melody" and "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care". Like its successor Dog Eat Dog (1985), questions about production values were asked; the synthesizer and drum machine-led arrangements have dated far quicker than the acoustic material of Mitchell's earlier work. Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm (1988) saw Mitchell collaborating with a wealth of talent, including Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and Don Henley, but the material was again patchy and the record did not sell well, although it is doubtful that the sale has ever been more important to the artist than the art.
1991's Night Ride Home, an album Mitchell described as "middle-aged love songs", was better received, but to many, the real return to form came with the Grammy winning Turbulent Indigo (1994) and Taming the Tiger (1998). A sumptuous album of songs mostly by other artists, set with orchestra, Both Sides Now (2000) was received rapturously by critics and remains a strong seller. The album contained reappraisals of "A Case of You" and the title track "Both Sides Now ", two 1960s hits transposed down to Mitchell's soulful alto range.
Recently, Joni Mitchell has voiced her discontent with the current state of the music industry, describing it as a "cesspool". She stated her dislike of the record industry's dominance, and her desire to control her own destiny, possibly through releasing her own music over the Internet. In 2002 she released Travelogue, a collection of reworkings of her previous songs with lush orchestral accompaniments, stating that it would be her final album. If so, Travelogue is an excellent reworking and recap of her staggering body of work.
Mitchell was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1981 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. On May 1, 2002, she was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada. She received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, with a 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."
Mitchell received an honorary doctorate from McGill University on October 27, 2004.
Vocalists with stylistic connections
2003 The Complete Geffen Recordings (4-CD box set of material 1982-91)
2004 The Beginning of Survival
2005 Songs of a Prairie Girl
Last updated: 08-18-2005 07:07:16