One of the most independent female recording artists in popular music, Joni Mitchell enjoyed a considerable following for her graceful folk songs of the late 1960s, including "Both Sides, Now," "Chelsea Morning" and "Big Yellow Taxi," the success of which allowed her to experiment with pop, rock, jazz and fusion over the course of a celebrated four-decade career. Emerging from the Canadian folk scene in 1968, Mitchell established herself as a powerful new talent with the purity of her voice as well as her jazz-influenced guitar tunings and poetic lyrics. In the 1970s, she flirted with pop stardom with "Help Me" before turning increasingly towards more eclectic material, including collaborations with jazz entities like Charles Mingus and Weather Report, as well as explorations of world music and improvisational material. Response was often mixed for these efforts, but Mitchell persevered, remaining true to her own muse rather than industry trends. In doing so, she became an inspiration for a generation of recording artists, both male and female, who sought to preserve the integrity of their own work in the marketplace. Mitchell briefly retired from the business in the new millennium, but returned with a new album in 2007, the same year The River, a tribute record by Herbie Hancock, took Album of the Year at the Grammys. The simultaneous comeback and Grammy win underscored Mitchell's standing in popular music as one of its most influential and creatively dynamic figures.
Born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod, a former North-West Mounted Police barracks in the Canadian province of Alberta, she was the daughter of Royal Canadian Air Force lieutenant Bill Anderson and his wife, Myrtle, a teacher. Her father was also an amateur musician who imbued his daughter with his passion for swing jazz and classical compositions, while her mother imparted a love for literature. Mitchell began studying classical piano, but soon ran afoul of traditional teaching methods and dropped the lessons. In 1951, she contracted polio as part of the Canadian epidemic of that year, and consoled herself during her hospitalization through singing. After recovery, she abandoned her initial interests in athletics to pursue art and poetry, which put her at odds with her teachers and schoolmates. Mitchell also developed an interest in early rock-n-roll, which inspired her to learn how to play guitar, though she initially struggled to learn the tunings due to lingering weakness in her fingers from the polio. By 1962, the 18-year-old was giving her first paid performances in coffeehouses with a set list devoted equally to folk and jazz tunes. Music, however, was simply a means to make money for Mitchell at this point. Art remained her main focus, but her studies at the Alberta College of Art and Design revealed that her talents lay more with figurative art than with the abstract movement of the period. Mitchell rejected her teachers' suggestion that she pursue a career in advertising and returned to the coffeehouse circuit. By her 20th birthday, Mitchell had decided to pursue folk music as a career.
She left Western Canada for Yorkville, a bohemian neighborhood in Toronto with a coffeehouse scene second only to Greenwich Village in New York. Competition for gigs was fierce, and Mitchell was forced to support herself by busking. She soon found herself in dire straits; pregnant by an ex-boyfriend, and living in an attic room with no heat in the middle of winter. In February 1965, Mitchell gave birth to a daughter, Kelly Dale Anderson, whom she subsequently gave up for adoption. She then returned to her music career, which earned more positive response once she began incorporating original material into her performances. By spring of that year, she was playing regularly at the Penny Farthing, a Toronto folk club where she also met American singer Chuck Mitchell. The pair married in the summer of 1965 before relocating to Detroit, MI, where both became fixtures on the local college club circuit. The marriage proved short-lived, ending in divorce in 1967, but the exposure afforded to Mitchell by performing in the United States lent momentum to her career. She moved to New York City in 1967, earning a reputation for her jazz-inflected vocals and unique guitar style. Fellow folk singer Tom Rush became an early champion, performing her original song "Urge for Going," which spawned a hit country version by George Hamilton IV. Her material soon generated hits for other artists like Judy Collins, who earned a Grammy-winning Top 10 single with a cover of "Both Sides, Now" in 1968.
In 1968, David Crosby brought Mitchell to Los Angeles after hearing her perform in a Florida club. He subsequently produced her debut record, Song to a Seagull (1968), which was also known as Joni Mitchell due to printing and publishing errors which omitted the album title on numerous copies. Its follow-up, 1969's Clouds, was her true breakthrough album, thanks to the inclusion of original songs made popular by other artists, including "Both Sides, Now" and "Chelsea Morning." The record captured the Grammy Award for Best Folk Performances the following year, and spawned her third album, Ladies of the Canyon (1970). Its key singles, "Woodstock," which became a major hit for Crosby, Stills & Nash, "The Circle Game" and the effervescent "Big Yellow Taxi," helped to sell over a half-million copies, earning Mitchell her first gold record. She then decided to stop touring for a year and focus on songwriting. The end result of his hiatus was Blue (1971), a collection of highly confessional, sparsely arrangement songs that soared into the Top 20.
Her 1972 LP For The Roses took a decidedly pop-flavored approach, scoring a Top 25 hit with the single "You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)." However, her 1974 effort, Court and Spark, signaled the start of her growing interest in merging pop and folk with jazz. Recorded with the Los Angeles jazz/fusion band L.A. Express, the record generated three hit singles, including the gorgeous "Help Me," which became Mitchell's only song to reach the Billboard Top 10. The record itself, which reached No. 2 on the albums chart, netted the Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) in 1975. However, her experiments did not always yield positive results; 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which featured flirtations with African music, received mixed reviews, while Hejira (1976) found no interest with the buying public. The record itself, which featured the extraordinary bassist Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report fame, rose to No. 13 on the albums chart, but its lack of a hit single essentially signaled that Mitchell's tenure as a mainstream artist had come to an end.
Mitchell continued to toil outside the mainstream for subsequent releases. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) featured Pastorius and other Weather Report members stretching out on long, percussive, seemingly improvised numbers with backing vocals by Chaka Khan. The record sold well but again generated uneven reviews. It did, however, spawn a collaboration with iconoclastic jazz bassist Charles Mingus, who died prior to the album's release in 1979. Titled Mingus, the record debuted at a higher position than its predecessor, but failed to achieve gold sales status. A national tour to promote the record, featuring Pastorius and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, produced a double-live album, Shadows and Light (1980), which reached the Top 40. Following her induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1981, Mitchell joined David Geffen, head of her longtime label, Asylum, in his new imprint, Geffen, which released her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast. It marked a shift towards pop material like her cover of Elvis Presley's "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care," which slipped into the Top 50 to become her highest-charting single since the 1970s.
Mitchell stumbled a bit with her next record, Dog Eat Dog (1985), which was marked her exploration of electronic music via producer Thomas Dolby. It languished in the lower third of the albums chart, though its follow-up, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988), benefited greatly from a host of celebrity contributors, including Peter Gabriel, Don Henley, Tom Petty and Billy Idol. A resurgence of sorts began with 1990's Night Ride Home, which found Mitchell returning to her acoustic roots. It stalled just outside of the Top 40, but its immediate follow-up, Turbulent Indigo (1994), won the Grammy for Best Pop Album on the strength of guitar-driven songs like "The Magdalene Laundries" and "Not To Blame," which cast a critical eye at the reception given by the media to domestic abuse cases. A pair of anthologies, Hits and Misses< (1996), and three major music awards - the Billboard Century Award in 1995, the Polar Music Prize in 1996 and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 - preceded 1998's Taming the Tiger, her last album of original material in nearly a decade. Mitchell closed out the 20th century with Both Sides, Now (2000), a collection of jazz standards performed with an orchestra. She also recorded a new version of the title track that served as a showcase for her new, huskier vocal range, which had come about due to a variety of reasons in the 1990s.
In 2002, Mitchell announced that she was retiring from the music business. Her dismay with the then-current state of the industry, as well as her desire to have a more controlling hand in how her work was disseminated to the public, were cited as the primary reasons for her decision. For the next six years, she oversaw new compilations of previously released work while working on an autobiography. She also received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and became the third Canadian singer/songwriter after Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen to be made a Companion of the Order of Canada, which was the country's highest civilian honor. In 2006, Mitchell resurfaced with a flurry of new activity, including a documentary on the Alberta Ballet Company and, most significantly, a new album, Shine (2007), which marked the beginning of a two-record deal with Starbuck's Hear Music label. It debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard albums chart, her highest placement there since Hejira in 1977. That same year, jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock released River: The Joni Letters, a tribute to Mitchell's work which featured contributions by Cohen, Norah Jones, Tina Turner and Mitchell herself. It surprised the industry by capturing the Album of the Year award at the 2008 Grammys, where Mitchell also took home the award for Best Instrumental Pop Performance for the track "One Week Last Summer" from Shine.
By Paul Gaita