A consummate artist, Joni Mitchell is an accomplished musician, songwriter, poet and painter.
Hailing from Canada, where she performed as a folksinger as far back as 1962, she found her niche on the same Southern California singer/songwriter scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies that germinated such kindred spirits as Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Mitchell’s artistry goes well beyond folk singing to incorporate elements of jazz and classical music. In her own words: “I looked like a folksinger, even though the moment I began to write, my music was not folk music. It was something else that had elements of romantic classicism to it.”
Impossible to categorize, Mitchell has doggedly pursued avenues of self-expression, heedless of commercial outcomes. Nonetheless, she managed to connect with a mass audience in the mid-Seventies when a series of albums – Court and Spark (1974, Number Two), Miles of Aisles (1974, Number Two), The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975, Number Four) andHejira (1976, Number 13) – established her as one of that decade’s pre-eminent artists.
Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson in a remote northwest Canadian town called Fort MacLeod. An only child, she was raised in the city of Saskatoon. When she was nine years old, she was struck with polio. Doctors feared that she would never walk again, but she did recover. She took up painting and music at an early age, teaching herself how to play guitar by reading a Pete Seeger instruction book. After high school, she went to the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, where she began playing folk music. She wrote her first song, “Day by Day,” in 1964 while she was en route to a folk festival in Toronto. She moved to Toronto a year later, where she got caught up in the city’s flourishing club scene. In 1965, she married folksinger Chuck Mitchell. The following year, they moved to Detroit. They wound up getting divorced shortly after that move, but she kept his last name.
Mitchell began building a big reputation on the Detroit folk scene, and her songs were discovered, performed and recorded by such established folk musicians as Tom Rush, Ian and Sylvia, Judy Collins (whose version of “Both Sides Now” went to Number Eight in 1968), Dave Van Ronk and Buffy Saint-Marie. British folk-rockers Fairport Convention cut some of her earliest material, as well.
Mitchell was signed to Reprise Records in 1967, and her first album, Joni Mitchell, appeared a year later. It was followed by Clouds, which included Mitchell’s versions of “Both Sides Now” and “Chelsea Morning.” In 1970, she released Ladies of the Canyon. That album went platinum and included “Big Yellow Taxi,” an anti-"progress" ditty that stands as one of Mitchell’s signature tunes. Her fourth album, 1971’s Blue, was a stunning a suite of songs about romantic disillusionment that stands as a classic in the confessional singer/songwriter mode. It included the songs “Carey,” “My Old Man” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” and it featured guest appearances by James Taylor and other artists. Her next album, For the Roses, came out in 1972. It reached Number 11 and included the song “You Turn Me On (I’m a Radio).”
Mitchell’s popular breakthrough came with her next album, Court and Spark, a sprightly and intelligent jazz-pop album made with musical support from the jazz-fusion ensemble Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. The album made it to Number Two and included the hit single “Help Me,” which reached Number Seven. Court and Spark was followed byMiles of Aisles, a live album that also featured Scott and his band. It also reached Number Two.
Both experimental and accessible, Mitchell’s mid-Seventies output won her a large following. The Hissing of Summer Lawns made it to Number Four, while Hejira, which appeared in 1976, is regarded as Mitchell’s masterpiece. The title is an Arabic word meaning “flight from the dream,” and the album was a uniquely textured and exploratory song cycle that traced one woman’s mystical “hejira” through this world. Jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius played on the album. He also appeared on Mitchell’s next album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, as did Wayne Shorter, Chaka Khan, John Guerin and Airto.
In 1978, Mitchell was contacted by jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus, who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The two began collaborating on a project, with Mitchell writing lyrics to accompany his melodies. Unfortunately, Mingus died before the project was completed, but Mitchell finished the album – reverently titled Mingus – and it was released in 1979, reaching Number 17, a significant accomplishment for a jazz album.
From the beginning, Mitchell played guitar in different tunings to compensate for the fact her left hand had been left weakened by her childhood bout with polio. As a result, her chord shapes, combined with the meandering meters of her more fanciful compositions, tend to resemble jazz more than standard folk or rock. Her associations with the likes of Pastorius, Scott, Shorter, Mingus and Herbie Hancock have resulted in some of her most ambitious work.
Mitchell continued to record allusive, jazz-tinged material, studded with personal revelations and socio-political commentary, throughout the Eighties and Nineties. In 1982, she released Wild Things Run Fast, which included a cover of Elvis Presley’s “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” Dog Eat Dog, which came out in 1985, was more politically oriented, including songs about TV evangelists and the Ethiopian famine. The album was produced by Thomas Dolby. And 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm included appearances by Peter Gabriel, Tom Petty and Willie Nelson.
Mitchell kicked off the new millennium with Both Sides Now, an orchestrated album of torch songs by other songwriters and herself. In a sense, it brought her career full circle, since the title song was one of the very first she wrote while still a fledgling musician back in the mid-Sixties. In 2002, she released Travelogue, which featured orchestral versions of some of her earlier songs. At the time, Mitchell said that would be her final album. But then, in 2007, she issued Shine, a new studio album that she said was inspired by the war in Iraq.
Over the past decade, Mitchell has stopped touring, making only rare concert appearances. She is currently spending more time on her painting. Mitchell’s artwork adorns some of her album covers, such as the Van Gogh-inspired self-portrait on 1994’s Turbulent Indigo.
Mitchell has won eight Grammy awards during her career, and in 2002, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1981, she was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
Inductee: Joni Mitchell (vocals, guitar; born November 7, 1943)