Joni Mitchell | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell, singer, songwriter, guitarist, painter (b at Fort Macleod, Alta 7 Nov 1943). Born Roberta Joan Anderson, Joni Mitchell, as she later called herself, gravitated towards music from an early age.

Joni Mitchell with her guitar in a case, 11 January 1969 (Library and Archives Canada 3598197)

Joni Mitchell, singer, songwriter, guitarist, painter (b at Fort Macleod, Alta 7 Nov 1943). Born Roberta Joan Anderson, Joni Mitchell, as she later called herself, gravitated towards music from an early age. At age 7, she began studying classical piano, but like all curious young minds her interest shifted a year and a half later to drawing, a passion she still holds today. In the months that followed, Mitchell, who had relocated with her family to Saskatoon, Sask, contracted polio. She made a full recovery. Her love of language and visual expression was inspired by an English teacher, who once told the grade 7 student: "If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words." It's a sentiment that would remain with her throughout her life. Mitchell dedicated her debut album to this teacher.

Early Years

In her teens, Mitchell didn't have the means to afford a guitar, so she purchased a baritone ukulele for $36 and entertained at parties. She also started hanging out in a local coffeehouse, the Louis Riel. Upon graduating from high school, Mitchell attended the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, but she didn't find her curriculum creative. Instead, now proud owner of a guitar, she performed regularly at The Depression coffeehouse, which marked the start of her career as a folk singer.

Before the Deal (1964-68)

In the summer of 1964, Mitchell moved to Toronto, Ont, to follow her dream of becoming a folk singer. At first, she worked at the Simpsons-Sears department store to make ends meet. In February 1965 she discovered she was pregnant by an ex-boyfriend (a secret she revealed publicly in 1994) and hastily married folk singer Chuck Mitchell. Shortly after, she gave her newborn girl up for adoption. Pursuing her career, she played clubs and festivals, covering other artists' songs, until she started composing. Mitchell's first original composition was penned as she travelled to the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1965. It was entitled "Day after Day."

New York and Los Angeles

That summer, she and Chuck moved to Detroit. The marriage disintegrated after a year and a half, and, in early 1967, Mitchell moved to New York City. She played clubs all over the eastern United States, building a live following and attracting the interest of artist manager Elliot Roberts. Another folk singer, Tom Rush, took Mitchell's "The Urge for Going" to Judy Collins but ended up covering it himself. Singer George Hamilton IV also made it a country hit. Mitchell was fast earning a reputation as a songwriter, whose stellar work enticed Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins to record her songs.

It was at a Florida gig that Mitchell met David Crosby, who persuaded Reprise Records to sign her. Crosby produced her first album, known both eponymously and as Song to a Seagull. She moved to southern California in 1967, where she frequently played at the Hollywood homes of Crosby's friends. Press accolades followed her shows in LA to London to Miami. In December of 1968, Judy Collins's version of "Both Sides Now" hit the national Top 10 chart and paved the way for Mitchell's sophomore album, Clouds, in April 1969. That year, she toured as the opening act for Crosby, Stills & Nash. While she bowed out of performing at Woodstock, she captured its essence in "Woodstock," a song CSN made a hit. In 1970, she won her first Grammy for Best Folk Performance of 1969 for Clouds. Her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, earned her her first gold record.

Recordings and Other Accolades

At the start of the seventies, Mitchell sang background vocals on James Taylor's Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon and on Carole King's Tapestry, including King's "You've Got A Friend," but she largely took a breather from her new-found fame to come to terms with the pressure-filled lifestyle. The songs which resulted can be found on Blue (1971), which hit the Top 20 album chart. Her next album, For The Roses (1972), was Mitchell's first to employ orchestral arrangements and likewise broke into the Top 20.

Incorporating unconventional rhythms in her folk/pop music and now viewed as an exceptional songwriter, Mitchell released the groundbreaking Court and Spark in 1974. In March, the single "Help Me" became her only Top 10 single. In November, she released the live double LP Miles of Aisles. Next came 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns and a moodier batch of material entitled Hejira, released in 1976. In the summer of 1977, to fulfill her contract with Asylum Records, she recorded a loose, experimental double LP, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. It too went gold.

Jazz great Charles Mingus heard the album's adventuresome 17-minute "Paprika Plains" and contacted her to collaborate with him. She ended up writing lyrics to some of his work, a project Mingus did not live to see completed. At the same time the singer's album Mingus (1979) was released in May, Mitchell completed a coffee-table book of paintings and drawings. A double-album set and concert film, both entitled Shadows & Light, were released in 1980, marking the end of her deal with Asylum.

At the 1981 Juno Awards in Toronto, Mitchell was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. While recording Wild Things Run Fast, she met bassist and sound engineer Larry Klein. The well-produced pop album was released on her friend David Geffen's new label Geffen Records. On 21 November 1982, Mitchell and Klein married.

A film of the extensive 1983 tour, called Refuge of the Roads, which included in-studio performances and home movies, was released late in 1984 on Pioneer Artists LaserDisc. Mitchell still continued to paint and draw, exhibiting whenever the opportunity arose. In the mid-1980s, Mitchell and Klein teamed with synth-wiz Thomas Dolby to co-produce the more modern Dog Eat Dog. During its recording, Mitchell flew to Toronto for a day to participate in the charity single "Tears Are not Enough," Canada's version of "We Are the World." She also switched managers that year.

In the summer of 1996, Mitchell released a remix of "Shiny Toys" in the UK only. The following year, she hand-picked American pop stars Billy Idol and Tom Petty to play bit parts in "Dancin' Clown" as song characters Rowdy Yates and Jesse respectively. For her next album, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988), she and Klein continued to experiment with synthesizers and drum machines. The first single was "Snakes and Ladders," a duet with Don Henley; the second, a chart-busting duet with Peter Gabriel, "My Secret Place." In May, to coincide with the album's release in Japan, Mitchell held her first commercial art show in Tokyo.

When the 1990s hit, Mitchell and Klein got back to basics for the next recording. On 21 July 1990 she took a brief break to join musical group Pink Floyd's Roger Waters in his re-staging of "The Wall" at the site of the now fallen Berlin Wall. "Goodbye, Blue Sky" is included on Roger Waters's The Wall: Live In Berlin and Mitchell can be heard on the finale, "The Tide Is Turning." An exhibition of her work toured Europe in 1991. Shortly after, Night Ride Home was released by Geffen, and just before Christmas of that year, a Canadian tribute to the songwriter was released called Back to the Garden: A Tribute to Joni Mitchell.

In May of 1994, Joni added vocals to Seal's "If I Could" and he added his to her "How Do You Stop." That same year, Mitchell publicly acknowledged her search for her daughter. In the summer, she switched record companies again to re-sign with her original label, Reprise. By then, Mitchell and Klein's marriage was in trouble, but the 2 remained friends, performing 7 songs together on a Santa Monica radio station. "Moon at the Window" appears on the "How Do You Stop" CD single and "Just Like This Train" on the radio station's recording Rare On Air: Volume 2.

Mitchell's 1994 album, Turbulent Indigo, was an acoustic-based offering tackling various social issues. In September, Mitchell's classic "Big Yellow Taxi," which had appeared in the hit American television series Friends, was remixed and added to the series' original soundtrack release. Mitchell also signed an international publishing deal with Random House to produce 3 books, one of reproductions of her paintings, one of her lyrics and poetry, another of her memoirs.

On 6 December 1995, Mitchell became the recipient of Billboard's prestigious Century Award. The honour was bestowed upon her by presenter Peter Gabriel. In January of 1996, Reprise released a CD of various "Big Yellow Taxi" remixes. At the 38th annual Grammy Awards, Mitchell won Best Pop Album and Best Album Packaging for Turbulent Indigo. On May 15 1996 she received the highest honour, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Reprise released 2 best-of compilations, Hits and Misses. BMI also presented Mitchell with Performance Certificates (signifying radio play) for "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock" with 1 million plays, "Help Me" with 2 million and "Both Sides Now" with 4 million. On November 1, Mitchell received Canada's Governor General's Performing Arts Award. In the spring of 1997, Mitchell was finally reunited with her daughter, Kilauren. Her next album was Taming the Tiger (1998).

The new millennium saw Mitchell abandon new compositions largely in favour of revisiting her long catalogue, in both reworkings of previous material and theme-oriented compilations. In time for Valentine's Day 2000, she released Both Sides Now, an album of love songs from the 1920s to the 1970s, including her own "Both Sides Now" and "A Case of You." The package also featured the inclusion of 3 suitable-for-framing lithographs. The double-album Travelogue, released on Nonesuch, followed in 2003 and featured rearrangements of songs from 1966 to 1994 presented in lush, jazz-inflected orchestral settings. 2003 also saw the release of The Complete Geffen Recordings, a box set featuring a complete collection of the recordings Mitchell made for Geffen during the '80s, including all four albums (Wild Things Run Fast, Dog Eat Dog, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm and Night Ride Home) plus a number of unreleased rarities and demos. Two more compilations of previously released and remastered material followed in 2004. The Beginning of Survival offered a theme-oriented set drawn from the previous twenty years and focusing on social concerns. Dreamland collected together a group of songs displaying a more popular, rather than political appeal, offering interesting juxtapositions of well-known hits such as "Free Man in London" and "Big Yellow Taxi." To coincide with Saskatchewan's Centennial celebrations and in tribute to her home province, Mitchell released Songs of a Prairie Girl in 2005, a retrospective collection including "Urge For Going," "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," "River"and ten others. Shine was released in 2007, the first instalment of a two-record collaboration with Starbucks Entertainment's Hear Music label. Mitchell's first album of new music in nine years, Shine is a mature meditation on the singer's favourite themes - the environment, contemporary life and strife - but with perhaps a more world-weary flavour. The set includes some songs written for "The Fiddle and the Drum," a collaborative production with the Alberta Ballet Company which premiered in Calgary in 2007.

Mitchell continues to paint and write. A new generation of Canadian and international female singer-songwriters has been influenced by the rich imagery of her lyrics and her unique guitar style - and her ability to stay creative and relevant in a career spanning over 40 years.

Joni Mitchell

Music of
Joni Mitchell

Further Reading

External Links