Mitchell, Joni (1943—)

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Mitchell, Joni (1943—)

Influential and iconoclastic Canadian singer and songwriter. Name variations: Roberta Joan Anderson. Born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 1, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada; daughter of Bill Anderson (a Royal Canadian officer turned store manager) and Myrtle (McKee) Anderson (a teacher); attended high school in Saskatoon (graduated 1963); spent one year at College of Art and Design, Alberta; married Chuck Mitchell (a musician), in 1965 (divorced 1967); married Larry Klein (a musician), in 1982 (divorced 1992); children: (with Brad MacMath) daughter, Kilauren Gibb (b. 1965).

Suffered from polio at age nine; studied piano as a child and later taught herself to play guitar; began performing at the Depression club in Calgary (1963); moved to Toronto and then to Detroit to perform as a folk singer; moved to New York (1967); early songs recorded by Judy Collins and Tom Rush; met David Crosby in Florida club (1967); recorded first album under his guidance (1968); wrote generational anthem "Woodstock," brought to fame by Crosby, Stills and Nash (1970). Over the course of more than 30 years, recorded more than 20 albums; pushed boundaries of folk-rock genre; credited with creating confessional singer-songwriter genre; experimented with jazz, working with artists including Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter and the L.A. Express; collaborated with Mingus on his last project, and performed and recorded with numerous influential rock artists, including James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne and Neil Young. Painted and exhibited throughout 1980s and 1990s, creating art for all her albums. Awards include Grammys (1974 and 1994) and Billboard magazine's Century Award (1995); inducted into Canada's Juno Hall of Fame (1981), Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters' Hall of Fame (both 1997).

Albums include:

Joni Mitchell (1968); Clouds (1969); Ladies of the Canyon (1970); Blue (1971); For the Roses (1972); Court and Spark (1974); Miles of Aisles (1974); The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975); Hejira (1976); Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977); Mingus (1979); Shadows and Light (1980); Wild Things Run Fast (1982); Dog Eat Dog (1985); Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988); Night Ride Home (1991); Turbulent Indigo (1994); Hits & Misses (1996); Taming the Tiger (1998); Both Sides Now (2000).

Singer, songwriter, muse and cultural touchstone, Joni Mitchell is one of the most distinctive and influential figures in 20th-century popular music. Having ranged from folk to rock to jazz in a long and often groundbreaking career, Mitchell is cited as an inspiration by numerous musicians and performers and lauded for her musical experimentation and poetic lyrics. As a fiercely independent female performer in a hitsdriven, male-dominated industry, however, Mitchell has achieved her legendary status without the consistent commercial success of many of her peers and imitators.

Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson in the town of Fort Macleod in Alberta, Canada, on November 1, 1943. Her parents Bill Anderson, a Royal Canadian officer turned store manager, and Myrtle McKee Anderson , a former schoolteacher, took their only child to live in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, not long after the end of World War II. She began studying piano at age seven, but chafed under the traditional discipline of her lessons and abandoned them after a year and a half. Instead, having shown a natural talent for drawing, she had aspirations of becoming a painter. The family moved again when Mitchell was nine, to Methodist-founded Saskatoon, where she contracted polio. Though she defied doctors' predictions that she would never walk again, she lived with the effects of post-polio syndrome for the rest of her life. Encouraged by her seventh-grade English teacher, her artistic interests broadened to include writing poetry (she would later dedicate her first record to him, noting that he "taught me to love words"). And all the while, she was listening to jazz LPs and tuning in to a rock 'n' roll radio show from Texas. Using a Pete Seeger instruction book, she taught herself to play a baritone ukelele, bought because she could not afford a guitar.

After graduating from high school in 1963, Mitchell left Saskatoon for Calgary, where she enrolled in the Alberta College of Art. Her love of music was gradually surpassing her love of painting (though she would go on to paint the cover art for most of her albums), despite an initial lack of ambition towards becoming a musician: "I just wanted to accompany people singing bawdy songs at weeny roasts," she later claimed. In Calgary, she became a regular performer at a club called the Depression. After her first year at art school, during which she found her courses "not particularly creative," she traveled to Toronto to see Buffy Sainte-Marie at the Mariposa Folk Festival. Mitchell decided stay in Toronto and find work on the coffee-house circuit as a folk singer.

Her first year was difficult. Unable to afford membership in the musicians' union, she worked at department stores to make ends meet while playing when she could in Toronto's Yorkville district. In February 1965, shortly after she had broken up with her boyfriend Brad MacMath, she gave birth to a daughter. Penniless and desperate in an era when single motherhood still carried a grave social stigma, Mitchell put her baby in foster care. After folk singer Chuck Mitchell suggested that he could help her keep the child if they got married, she agreed, against her better judgment ("I went down the aisle saying, 'I can get out of this,'" she told Vogue magazine in 1994). When the marriage looked as shaky as she had feared it would be, she decided to give her infant up for adoption. The decision would cause her much guilt and sadness in the future, and she would later note that a number of cryptic songs on her various albums were private messages to her unknown daughter.

That summer she and her husband moved to Detroit, where they performed together to some acclaim in local clubs. Mitchell made some important musical contacts in Detroit, among them folk singer Eric Anderson, who helped her refine her guitar techniques (she wanted to "play the guitar like an orchestra"). She divorced her husband in 1967, and early that year moved to New York City, to break into the thriving folk-rock scene there. Mitchell acquired a manager, Elliot Roberts—who discovered her playing in New York's Café Au Go-Go—and started performing her own songs in small clubs up and down the East Coast. Soon her work came to the attention of more established performers. "The Urge for Going" was recorded by both folk singer Tom Rush and country star George Hamilton IV (Rush also recorded her song "The Circle Game"), and other songs were picked up by Buffy Sainte-Marie and by Dave Von Ronk, among others. In 1968, Judy Collins would have a hit with "Both Sides Now," which has since gone on to become one of Mitchell's best-known songs.

I'm a painter first, and a painter—unlike a musician—is driven to innovate.

—Joni Mitchell

In 1967, at the invitation of producer Joe Boyd, Mitchell toured England as the opening act for the Incredible String Band. After returning from England, she performed at the Gaslight South folk club in Coconut Grove, Florida, where she met musician David Crosby. They became lovers, and he became an important supporter of her music. With his help, she signed a record deal with Reprise to make an all-acoustic album (a radical idea at the time) with Crosby as producer. Her first album, Joni Mitchell (also known as Song for a Seagull), was released in 1968. She chose not to include any of her songs which had been recorded by other artists, and instead offered a new set of sparely arranged, atmospheric folk songs. This album, which featured Mitchell on piano and guitar, along with Stephen Stills on bass, established her hallmark early style—pure, powerful vocals, complex songs and guitar-playing, and metaphor-heavy lyrics.

The focus of her career now shifted to Los Angeles, where she lived first with Crosby and then with her new lover, Graham Nash. She toured almost continually, playing at festivals and opening for Crosby, Stills and Nash. In 1967, she released her second album, Clouds, featuring her own version of "Both Sides Now" and "Chelsea Morning" (the song for which Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton named their only daughter). This album was more successful than her debut, reaching #31 on the charts and winning the Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance the following spring. The year 1970 was to become a banner year for Mitchell in terms of critical and popular success. Following Clouds with Ladies of the Canyon, recorded while she was living with Nash in Laurel Canyon, she enjoyed her first gold album and international success. Meanwhile, Crosby, Stills and Nash reached #11 on the U.S. pop charts with her song "Woodstock" ("And I dreamed I saw the bombers/ Riding shotgun in the sky/ And they were turning into butterflies"), which immediately became the lasting anthem of a generation and of that landmark event in pop culture. Ironically enough, Mitchell herself had not performed at Woodstock, opting out—allegedly on the advice of David Geffen—in order to make a TV talk show appearance.

Newfound celebrity and a grueling touring schedule gradually began to feel oppressive to Mitchell, and she took time off to travel in Europe. After singing backup on Carole King 's album Tapestry and performing on then-lover James Taylor's #1 hit "You've Got a Friend" (written by King), she released her most acclaimed album, Blue, in the summer of 1971. Hailed as a classic and credited with launching the confessional singer-songwriter genre, Blue reflected what she has described as her "emotionally transparent" state of mind. Mitchell has always resisted suggestions that her songs are all autobiographical, however, and prefers to portray her style as conversational rather than confessional, as singing "with an ear for the music and meter of the spoken word."

Although Mitchell left Los Angeles to live in privacy on the coast of British Columbia, she retained musical ties to what had become the center of the country-rock scene. Her next album, 1972's For the Roses, was recorded for David Geffen's new Asylum label during what she later described as "a time of withdrawal from society, and intense self-examination." A strong seller, the album explored her feelings about her turbulent romantic life and the complications of stardom. A review in The New York Times called her "a songwriter and singer of genius," praising each song as "a gem glistening with her elegant way with language." For the Roses featured her first real hit single ("You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio"), and also marked a shift in musical direction, introducing orchestral arrangements into her distinctive brand of folk-pop.

Her follow-up album, Court and Spark (1974), was an even bigger commercial success. It included her first and, to date, only top ten single ("Help Me," which she later dismissed as "a throwaway song"). The album reached #2 on the Billboard charts, and she toured North America and Britain to support sales, moving back to an L.A. base with her boyfriend John Guerin, who was the drummer for the L.A. Express.

The album was nominated for four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year (which she lost to Stevie Wonder) and Best Pop Vocal Performance (which she lost, more controversially, to Olivia Newton-John 's "I Honestly Love You"). The confident, jazz-inflected Court and Spark was to be Mitchell's commercial high point. To further exploit her soaring popular appeal, a live album called Miles of Aisles was released later that year.

A critical backlash followed with the release of The Hissing of Summer Lawns in 1975; Rolling Stone magazine named it the year's worst album. Stubborn and resolute, Mitchell shrugged off the criticism and joined up with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review. In 1976, she appeared at the Band's farewell concert in San Francisco and in the documentary about the concert, The Last Waltz. However, she maintained a preference for more intimate club settings throughout her career. "I never liked the roar of a big crowd," she said. "I could never adjust to the sound of people gasping at the mere mention of my name." Also in 1976 she released Hejira, an album inspired by a crosscountry road trip (during which she "gave up everything but smoking") she had recently taken after breaking up with Guerin. Mellow and jazzy, Hejira featured both Guerin and jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius and became her seventh consecutive gold album. Although the record was heralded by critics, Mitchell still felt hounded by the fickleness and commercial demands of the music business. She recorded the ambitious Latin-Afro-inspired double album, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1978), "on the tail of persecution…. I just had to fulfill my contract."

After hearing Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, jazz legend Charles Mingus asked Mitchell to collaborate on a project based on T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. This work was abandoned, but their collaboration continued when Mingus offered Mitchell six melodies he had written especially for her. She flew to New York and stayed at her apartment at the Regency Hotel to write lyrics for these songs. Already wheelchair-bound, Mingus was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease at this time, and Mitchell never heard him play. She accompanied him down to Mexico, where he consulted a faith-healer, and where he would die early in 1979. (On her return trip, she spent five days at the home of artist Georgia O'Keeffe .) Mitchell claimed that Mingus had reached out to her because he "wanted his stock to go up before he died. There was an element of choosing me to write his epitaph, make sure he got a bigger funeral." Their work together was the foundation of her next album, Mingus (1979). Although its sound seemed to indicate that she had become a full-blown jazz artist, the album owed little to the era's fashionable jazz-rock fusion movement, and it was ignored by both jazz and pop radio. Many of her fans felt estranged from her new sound and from lyrics less confessional than they expected; Mingus was her only album in that decade that did not reach gold status.

In 1980, she released another live album, Shadows and Light, and early the following year was inducted into Canada's Juno Hall of Fame by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Inspired by reggae and rhythmic rock heard on a vacation in the Caribbean, Mitchell returned to the studio in 1982 to record Wild Things Run Fast for David Geffen's new eponymous label. It was a time of change for her once again, both musically and personally; the album marked a step away from her jazz explorations, and was also the first in over a decade for which she hired a producer. After 17 years, she parted company with her manager Elliot Roberts and signed with Peter Asher. Later that year, at Roberts' home, she married Larry Klein, the bass player on Wild Things Run Fast.

Despite an exhaustive world tour, the album was not a major success; Mitchell later claimed that she grossed only $35,000 after months of touring. Having continued to create the paintings for her album covers, she turned her fuller attention to art once again, and exhibited twice in 1984. The following year, Geffen brought in New Wave synth-hitmaker Thomas Dolby to produce Mitchell's next record, Dog Eat Dog, an awkward attempt to give her a more contemporary sound that she resented. The release party for the album was held at the James Corcoran Gallery in Los Angeles and billed as "Joni Mitchell: New Paintings, New Songs."

Again disappointed with her album sales, Mitchell canceled plans to tour and turned her attention to painting, although she continued to participate in numerous all-star benefit concerts for favorite causes. Traveling with Larry Klein to the U.K., where he was working with Peter Gabriel on the album So, she began work on the songs released in 1988 as Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. Guest vocalists on the album included Gabriel, Billy Idol, Tom Petty, Don Henley, and Willie Nelson. Touring the world to promote this more pop-oriented effort, Mitchell held her first ever "for sale" art exhibition, in the Parco Gallery in Tokyo. In 1991, she released Night Ride Home, an album embraced by critics as a return to her '70s form. Equally positive reviews greeted 1994's Turbulent Indigo, released on the Reprise label after she had a financial dispute with Geffen. A melancholy album that followed her separation from Klein, Turbulent Indigo won Grammy Awards for Best Pop Album and Best Album Packaging.

In 1995, Mitchell received Billboard magazine's Century Award, its highest honor for creative achievement. Her career anthology Hits & Misses was released in 1996, although she refused to do the typical greatest-hits tours, declaring, "I will not be a living jukebox." After Hits & Misses, and some public nudging by Stephen Holden, music critic for The New York Times, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Mitchell in 1997 (she did not attend the ceremony); she was also inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame shortly thereafter. That same year, she met the daughter she had given up for adoption, Kilauren Gibb , who was by then a mother herself. They went on to build a close relationship, and Mitchell revels in her grandchildren. Taming the Tiger (1998) prominently featured her new computerized electric guitar. Both Sides Now, an album of old standards and love songs by such artists as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, as well as several of her own songs, all backed by a full orchestra, was released in 2000.

It has often been suggested—not least by Mitchell herself—that the depth of her musicianship was frequently overlooked while she was pigeonholed as a sensitive, poetic female artist. She recalled the disappointment of playing the just-recorded Court and Spark to Geffen and a group of male friends, including Bob Dylan, all of whom listened with polite indifference only to then thrill to the sounds of Dylan's new Planet Waves ("an ordinary record" by comparison, she felt). Increasingly cited as their primary inspiration by artists as diverse as Sarah McLachlan, Chrissie Hynde, Tori Amos, Courtney Love and Morrissey, Mitchell has proved an often ungrateful muse, openly deriding most current music and believing her musical successors enjoy a far greater level of commercial success and artistic respect than she ever received, and with far less merit. Writer Lisa Kennedy suggests that there have been times "when Joni Mitchell has appeared like a ghost listening in at her own wake to the glowing assessments of her early years, even as yet another Joni continued to do the work of song making."

"In the same way that Van Gogh searched for his own color schemes, I searched for my own harmonic voice," she once declared. "[I] found it, and spent a career being dismissed as too jazzy."


O'Dair, Barbara, ed. Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock. NY: Random House, 1997.

People Weekly. October 12, 1998, p. 108.

Rees, Dafydd, and Wile Crampton. DK Encyclopedia of Rock Stars. DK Publishing, 1996.

White, Timothy. Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews. NY: Henry Holt, 1990.

Paula Morris , D.Phil., Brooklyn, New York

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Mitchell, Joni (1943—)

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