Joni Mitchell ~1943 Singer Song Writer Polio Survivor
Roberta Joan Mitchell, CC (née Anderson; born November 7, 1943), professionally known as Joni Mitchell, is a Canadian singer-songwriter. Drawing from folk, pop, rock, and jazz, Mitchell’s songs often reflect social and environmental ideals as well as her feelings about romance, confusion, disillusionment, and joy. She has received many accolades, including nine Grammy Awards. Rolling Stone called her “one of the greatest songwriters ever”, and AllMusic has stated, “When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century”.
Mitchell began singing in small nightclubs in her hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and throughout western Canada, before busking in the streets and nightclubs of Toronto, Ontario. In 1965, she moved to the United States and began touring. Some of her original songs (“Urge for Going”, “Chelsea Morning“, “Both Sides, Now“, “The Circle Game”) were covered by other folk singers, allowing her to sign with Reprise Recordsand record her debut album in 1968. Settling in Southern California, Mitchell, with popular songs like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock“, helped define an era and a generation. Her 1971 album Blue is often cited as one of the best albums of all time; it was rated the 30th best album ever made in Rolling Stone‘s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time“, the highest entry by a female artist. In 2000, The New York Times chose Blue as one of the 25 albums that represented “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music”.In 2017, NPR ranked Blue Number 1 on a list of Greatest Albums Made By Women.
Mitchell’s fifth album, For the Roses, was released in 1972. She then switched labels and began exploring more jazz-influenced melodic ideas, by way of lush pop textures, on 1974’s Court and Spark, which featured the radio hits “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris“and became her best-selling album.
Around 1975, Mitchell’s vocal range began to shift from mezzo-soprano to more of a wide-ranging contralto. Her distinctive piano and open-tuned guitar compositions also grew more harmonically and rhythmically complex as she explored jazz, melding it with influences of rock and roll, R&B, classical music and non-western beats. In the late 1970s, she began working closely with noted jazz musicians, among them Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, as well as Charles Mingus, who asked her to collaborate on his final recordings. She later turned again toward pop, embraced electronic music, and engaged in political protest. In 2002, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards.
Mitchell is the sole producer credited on most of her albums, including all her work in the 1970s. A blunt critic of the music industry, she quit touring and released her 17th, and reportedly last, album of original songs in 2007. With roots in visual art, Mitchell has designed most of her own album covers. She describes herself as a “painter derailed by circumstance”.
Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, the daughter of Myrtle Marguerite (McKee) and William Andrew Anderson. Her mother’s ancestors were Scottish and Irish; her father was from a Norwegian family that possibly had some Sami ancestry. Her mother was a teacher while her father was a Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant who instructed new pilots at RCAF Station Fort Macleod. She later moved with her parents to various bases in western Canada. After the war she settled with her family in Saskatchewan. She later sang about her small-town upbringing in several of her songs, including “Song for Sharon“.
At school Mitchell struggled; her main interest was painting. During this time she briefly studied classical piano.
At age nine, Mitchell contracted polio in an epidemic, and was hospitalised for weeks. Following this incident she focused on her creative talent, and considered a singing or dancing career for the first time. By nine, she was a smoker; she denies claims that smoking has affected her voice. At 11, she moved with her family to the city of Saskatoon, which she considers her hometown. She responded badly to formal education, preferring a freethinking outlook. One unconventional teacher did manage to make an impact on her, stimulating her to write poetry, and her first album includes a dedication to him. In twelfth grade, she dropped out (she later picked up her studies) and hung out downtown with a rowdy set until deciding that she was getting too close to the criminal world.
At this time, country music began to eclipse rock, and Mitchell wanted to play the guitar. As her mother disapproved of its hillbilly associations, she settled initially for the ukulele. Eventually she taught herself guitar from a Pete Seeger songbook, but the polio had affected her fingers, and she had to devise dozens of alternative tunings of her own. This improvised approach later helped her break free of standard approaches to harmony and structure in her songwriting.
Mitchell started singing with her friends at bonfires around Waskesiu Lake, northwest of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Her first paid performance was on October 31, 1962, at a Saskatoon club that featured folk and jazz performers. At 18, she widened her repertoire to include her own favorite performers like Édith Piaf and Miles Davis. Though she never performed jazz herself in those days, she and her friends sought out gigs by jazz musicians. Mitchell said, “My jazz background began with one of the early Lambert, Hendricks and Ross albums.” That album, The Hottest New Group in Jazz, was hard to find in Canada, she says. “So I saved up and bought it at a bootleg price. I considered that album to be my Beatles. I learned every song off of it, and I don’t think there is another album anywhere—including my own—on which I know every note and word of every song.”
But art was still her chief passion at this stage, and when she finished high school at Aden Bowman Collegiate in Saskatoon, she took art classes at the Saskatoon Technical Collegiate with abstract expressionist painter Henry Bonli, and then left home to attend the Alberta College of Art in Calgary for the 1963–64 school year. Here she felt disillusioned about the high priority given to technical skill over free-class creativity, and also felt out of step with the trend towards pure abstraction, and the tendency to move into commercial art. After a year, at age 20, she dropped out of school, a decision that much displeased her parents, who could remember the Great Depression and valued education highly.
She continued to play gigs as a folk musician on weekends, at her college and at a local hotel. Around this time she took a $15-a-week job in a Calgary coffeehouse, “singing long tragic songs in a minor key”. She sang at hootenannies and made appearances on some local TV and radio shows in Calgary. In 1964, at the age of 20, she told her mother that she intended to be a folk singer in Toronto, and she left western Canada for the first time in her life, heading east for Ontario. On the three-day train ride there, Mitchell wrote her first song, “Day After Day”. She stopped at the Mariposa Folk Festival to see Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Saskatchewan-born Cree folk singer who had inspired her. A year later, Mitchell too played Mariposa, her first gig for a major audience, and years later, Sainte-Marie herself covered Mitchell’s work.
1964–1969: Folk breakthrough Ontario
Joni Mitchell has explained her unusual guitar chord technique, hence her characteristic acoustic sound as the result of her attenuated muscularity “My left hand is somewhat clumsy because of polio, but I craved chordal movements that I couldn’t get out of standard tuning”. She drew on the blues of the past and helped shape the rock of the present by delving into jazz with 35 unique tunings. These were not seen as limitation, but a prized original sound. Lacking the $200 needed for musicians’ union fees, Mitchell managed a few gigs at the Half Beat and the Village Corner in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood, but she mostly played non-union gigs “in church basements and YMCA meeting halls”. Rejected from major folk clubs, she resorted to busking, while she “worked in the women’s wear section of a downtown department store to pay the rent.] During this era, she lived in a rooming house, directly across the hall from poet Duke Redbird. Without a lot of name recognition, Mitchell also began to realize each city’s folk scene tended to accord veteran performers the exclusive right to play their signature songs—despite not having written the songs—which Mitchell found insular, contrary to the egalitarian ideal of folk music. She found her best traditional material was already other singers’ property and would no longer pass muster. She said, “You’d come into a town and you’d be told, you can’t sing that, you can’t sing that.”[ She resolved to write her own songs.
In late 1964, Mitchell discovered that she was pregnant by her Calgary ex-boyfriend Brad Mac Math. She later wrote, “[he] left me three months pregnant in an attic room with no money and winter coming on and only a fireplace for heat. The spindles of the banister were gap-toothed fuel for last winter’s occupants.” At the time, “the pill” was legally unavailable in Canada, as was abortion, yet there was a strong social stigma against women giving birth out of wedlock. In Toronto, she could at least do so quietly, without alarming her relatives back home. In February 1965 she gave birth to a baby girl. Unable to provide for the baby, she placed her daughter, Kelly Dale Anderson, for adoption. The experience remained private for most of her career, but she made allusions to it in several songs, for example “Little Green,” which she performed in the 1960s and recorded eventually for the 1971 album Blue.
In “Chinese Cafe”, from the 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast, Mitchell sang, “Your kids are coming up straight / My child’s a stranger / I bore her / But I could not raise her.” These lyrics did not receive wide attention at the time. The existence of Mitchell’s daughter was not publicly known until 1993, when a roommate from Mitchell’s art-school days in the 1960s sold the story of the adoption to a tabloid magazine. By that time, Mitchell’s daughter, renamed Kilauren Gibb, had already begun a search for her biological parents. Mitchell and her daughter met in 1997. After the reunion, Mitchell said that she lost interest in songwriting, and she later identified her daughter’s birth and her inability to take care of her as the moment when her songwriting inspiration had really begun. When she could not express herself to the person she wanted to talk to, she became attuned to the whole world and she began to write personally.
A few weeks after the birth of her daughter in 1965, Joni Anderson was playing gigs again around Yorkville, beginning to sing original material for the first time, written with her unique open tunings. In March and April she found work at the Penny Farthing, a folk club in Toronto. There she met Chuck Mitchell, an American folk singer from Michigan. Chuck was immediately attracted to her and impressed by her performance, and he told her that he could get her steady work in the coffeehouses he knew in the United States. In one interview, Mitchell claimed she married Chuck only 36 hours after they met, but it is unclear if they were ever married in Toronto. Sometime in late April, Joni left Canada for the first time, going with Chuck to the US, where the two began playing music together. Joni, 21 years old, married Chuck in an official ceremony in his hometown in June 1965 and took his surname. She said, “I made my dress and bridesmaids’ dresses. We had no money… I walked down the aisle brandishing my daisies.”
While living at the Verona apartments in Detroit’s Cass Corridor, Chuck and Joni were regular performers at area coffee houses, including the Chessmate on Livernois, near Six Mile Road; the Alcove bar, near Wayne State University; the Rathskeller, a restaurant on the campus of the University of Detroit; and the Raven Gallery in Southfield. She began playing and composing songs in alternative guitar tunings taught to her by a fellow musician, Eric Andersen, in Detroit. Oscar Brand featured her several times on his CBC television program Let’s Sing Out in 1965 and 1966. The marriage and partnership of Joni and Chuck Mitchell dissolved in early 1967, and Joni moved to New York City to follow her musical path as a solo artist. She played venues up and down the East Coast, including Philadelphia, Boston, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She performed frequently in coffeehouses and folk clubs and, by this time creating her own material, became well known for her unique songwriting and her innovative guitar style.
Folk singer Tom Rush had met Mitchell in Toronto and was impressed with her songwriting ability. He took “Urge for Going” to the popular folk artist Judy Collins, but she was not interested in the song at the time, so Rush recorded it himself. Country singer George Hamilton IV heard Rush performing it and recorded a hit country version. Other artists who recorded Mitchell’s songs in the early years were Buffy Sainte-Marie (“The Circle Game”), Dave Van Ronk (“Both Sides Now”), and eventually Judy Collins (“Both Sides Now”, a top ten hit for her, and “Michael from Mountains”, both included on her 1967 album Wildflowers). Collins also covered “Chelsea Morning”, another recording that eclipsed Mitchell’s own commercial success early on.
While Mitchell was playing one night in the Gaslight South, a club in Coconut Grove, Florida, David Crosby walked in and was immediately struck by her ability and her appeal as an artist. He took her back to Los Angeles, where he set about introducing her and her music to his friends. Soon she was being managed by Elliot Roberts, who had a close business association with David Geffen. Roberts and Geffen were to have important influences on her career. Crosby convinced a record company to let Mitchell record a solo acoustic album without the folk-rock overdubs in vogue at that time, and his clout earned him a producer’s credit in March 1968, when Reprise Records released her debut album, known either as Joni Mitchell or Song to a Seagull.
Mitchell toured steadily to promote the LP. The tour helped create eager anticipation for Mitchell’s second LP, Clouds, which was released in April 1969. This album contained Mitchell’s own versions of some of her songs already recorded and performed by other artists: “Chelsea Morning“, “Both Sides, Now“, and “Tin Angel”. The covers of both LPs, including a self-portrait on Clouds, were designed and painted by Mitchell, a blending of her painting and music that she continued throughout her career.
1970–1974: Mainstream success
Mitchell performing in concert at the Universal Amphitheatre in August 1974
In March 1970, Clouds produced her first Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. The following month, Reprise released her third album, Ladies of the Canyon. Mitchell’s sound was already beginning to expand beyond the confines of acoustic folk music and toward pop and rock, with more overdubs, percussion, and backing vocals, and for the first time, many songs composed on piano, which became a hallmark of Mitchell’s style in her most popular era. Her own version of “Woodstock“, slower than the cover by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, was performed solo on a Wurlitzer electric piano. The album also included the already-familiar song “The Circle Game” and the environmental anthem “Big Yellow Taxi“, with its now-famous line, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Ladies of the Canyon was an instant smash on FM radio and sold briskly, eventually becoming Mitchell’s first gold album (selling over a half million copies). She made a decision to stop touring for a year and just write and paint, yet she was still voted “Top Female Performer” for 1970 by Melody Maker, a leading UK pop music magazine. On the April 1971 release of James Taylor‘s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon album, Mitchell is credited with backup vocals on the track “You’ve Got a Friend“. The songs she wrote during the months she took off for travel and life experience appeared on her next album, Blue, released in June 1971. Comparing Joni Mitchell’s talent to his own, David Crosby said, “By the time she did Blue, she was past me and rushing toward the horizon”.
Blue was an almost instant critical and commercial success, peaking in the top 20 in the Billboard Album Charts in September and also hitting the British Top 3. The lushly produced “Carey” was the single at the time, but musically, other parts of Blue departed further from the sounds of Ladies of the Canyon. Simpler, rhythmic acoustic parts allowed a focus on Mitchell’s voice and emotions (“All I Want”, “A Case of You“), while others such as “Blue“, “River” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” were sung to her rolling piano accompaniment. Her most confessional album, Mitchell later said of Blue, “I have, on occasion, sacrificed myself and my own emotional makeup, … singing ‘I’m selfish and I’m sad’, for instance. We all suffer for our loneliness, but at the time of Blue, our pop stars never admitted these things.” In its lyrics, the album was regarded as an inspired culmination of her early work, with depressed assessments of the world around her serving as counterpoint to exuberant expressions of romantic love (for example, in “California“). Mitchell later remarked, “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong.”
Mitchell decided to return to the live stage after the great success of Blue, and she presented new songs on tour which appeared on her next album, her fifth, For the Roses. The album was released in October 1972 and immediately zoomed up the charts. She followed with the single, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio“, which peaked at No. 25 in the Billboard Charts in February 1973, becoming her first bona fide hit single.
Court and Spark, released in January 1974, saw Mitchell begin the flirtation with jazz and jazz fusion that marked her experimental period ahead. Court and Spark went to No. 1 on the Cashbox Album Charts. The LP made Mitchell a widely popular act for perhaps the only time in her career, on the strength of popular tracks such as the rocker “Raised on Robbery”, which was released right before Christmas 1973, and “Help Me“, which was released in March of the following year, and became Mitchell’s only Top 10 single when it peaked at No. 7 in the first week of June. “Free Man in Paris” was another hit single and staple in her catalog.
While recording Court and Spark, Mitchell had tried to make a clean break with her earlier folk sound, producing the album herself and employing jazz/pop fusion band the L.A. Express as what she called her first real backing group. In February 1974, her tour with the L.A. Express began, and they received rave notices as they traveled across the United States and Canada during the next two months. A series of shows at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheater on August 14–17 were recorded for a live album. In November, Mitchell released that album, Miles of Aisles, a two-record set including all but two songs from the L.A. concerts (one selection each from the Berkeley Community Theatre, on March 2, and the L.A. Music Center, on March 4, were also included in the set). The live album slowly moved up to No. 2, matching Court and Spark‘s chart peak on Billboard. “Big Yellow Taxi”, the live version, was also released as a single and did reasonably well (she released another version of the song in 2007).
In January 1975, Court and Spark received four nominations for Grammy Awards, including Grammy Award for Album of the Year, for which Mitchell was the only woman nominated. She won only the Grammy Award for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals.
1975–1980: Jazz explorations
Mitchell in 1975
Mitchell went into the studio in early 1975 to record acoustic demos of some songs that she had written since the Court and Spark tour. A few months later she recorded versions of the tunes with her band. Her musical interests were now diverging from both the folk and the pop scene of the era, toward less structured, more jazz-inspired pieces, with a wider range of instruments. The new song cycle was released in November 1975 as The Hissing of Summer Lawns. On “The Jungle Line”, she made an early effort at sampling a recording of African musicians, something that became more commonplace among Western rock acts in the 1980s. “In France They Kiss on Main Street” continued the lush pop sounds of Court and Spark, and efforts such as the title song and “Edith and the Kingpin” chronicled the underbelly of suburban lives in Southern California.
During 1975, Mitchell also participated in several concerts in the Rolling Thunder Revue tours featuring Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and in 1976 she performed as part of The Last Waltz by the Band. In January 1976, Mitchell received a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, though the Grammy went to Linda Ronstadt.
In early 1976, Mitchell traveled with friends who were driving cross country to Maine. Afterwards, she drove back to California alone and composed several songs during her journey which featured on her next album, 1976’s Hejira. She stated that “This album was written mostly while I was traveling in the car. That’s why there were no piano songs …” Hejira was arguably Mitchell’s most experimental album so far, due to her ongoing collaborations with jazz virtuoso bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius on several songs, namely the first single, “Coyote“, the atmospheric “Hejira”, the disorienting, guitar-heavy “Black Crow”, and the album’s last song “Refuge of the Roads”. The album climbed to No. 13 on the Billboard Charts, reaching gold status three weeks after release, and received airplay from album oriented FM rock stations. Yet “Coyote”, backed with “Blue Motel Room”, failed to chart on the Hot 100. Hejira “did not sell as briskly as Mitchell’s earlier, more “radio-friendly” albums, [but] its stature in her catalogue has grown over the years”. Mitchell herself believes the album to be unique. In 2006 she said, “I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.”
In mid-1977, Mitchell began work on new recordings that became her first double studio album. Close to completing her contract with Asylum Records, Mitchell felt that this album could be looser in feel than any album she’d done in the past. She invited Pastorius back, and he brought with him fellow members of jazz fusion pioneers Weather Report, including drummer Don Alias and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Layered, atmospheric compositions such as “Overture/Cotton Avenue” featured more improvisatory collaboration, while “Paprika Plains” was a 16-minute epic that stretched the boundaries of pop, owing more to Mitchell’s memories of childhood in Canada and her study of classical music. “Dreamland” and “The Tenth World”, featuring Chaka Khan on backing vocals, were percussion-dominated tracks. Other songs continued the jazz-rock-folk collisions of Hejira. Mitchell also revived “Jericho”, written years earlier (a version is found on her 1974 live album) but never recorded in a studio setting. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was released in December 1977. The album received mixed reviews but still sold relatively well, peaking at No. 25 in the US and going gold within three months. The cover of the album created its own controversy: Mitchell was featured in several photographs, including one where she was disguised as a black man, wearing a curly afro wig, a white suit and vest, and dark sunglasses. The character, whom she called Art Nouveau, was based on a pimp who, she says, once complimented her while walking down an LA street – and was a symbol of her turn toward jazz and streetwise lyrics.
A few months after the release of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mitchell was contacted by the esteemed jazz composer, bandleader and bassist Charles Mingus, who had heard the orchestrated song “Paprika Plains”, and wanted her to work with him. She began a collaboration with Mingus, who died before the project was completed in 1979. She finished the tracks, and the resulting album, Mingus, was released in June 1979, though it was poorly received in the press. Fans were confused over such a major change in Mitchell’s overall sound, and though the album topped out at No. 17 on the Billboard album charts—a higher placement than Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter—Mingus still fell short of gold status, making it her first album since the 1960s to not sell at least a half-million copies.
Mitchell’s tour to promote Mingus began in August 1979 in Oklahoma City and concluded six weeks later with five shows at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre and one at the Santa Barbara County Bowl, where she recorded and filmed the concert. It was her first tour in several years, and with Pastorius, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, and other members of her band, Mitchell also performed songs from her other jazz-inspired albums. When the tour ended she began a year of work, turning the tapes from the Santa Barbara County Bowl show into a two-album set and a concert film, both to be called Shadows and Light. Her final release on Asylum Records and her second live double-album, it was released in September 1980, and made it up to No. 38 on the Billboard Charts. A single from the LP, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”, Mitchell’s duet with The Persuasions (her opening act for the tour), bubbled under on Billboard, just missing the Hot 100.
1981–1993: Pop, electronics and protest
For a year and a half, Mitchell worked on the tracks for her next album. During this period she recorded with bassist Larry Klein, whom she married in 1982. While the album was being readied for release, her friend David Geffen, founder of Asylum Records, decided to start a new label, Geffen Records. Still distributed by Warner Bros. (who controlled Asylum Records), Geffen negated the remaining contractual obligations Mitchell had with Asylum and signed her to his new label. Wild Things Run Fast (1982) marked a return to pop songwriting, including “Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody“, which incorporated the chorus and parts of the melody of the famous The Righteous Brothers hit, and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care“, a remake of the Elvischestnut, which charted higher than any Mitchell single since her 1970s sales peak when it climbed to No. 47 on the charts. The album peaked on the Billboard Charts in its fifth week at No. 25.
Mitchell performing in 1983
In early 1983, Mitchell began a world tour, visiting Japan, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Scandinavia and then going back to the United States. A performance from the tour was videotaped and later released on home video (and later DVD) as Refuge of the Roads. As 1984 ended, Mitchell was writing new songs, when she received a suggestion from Geffen that perhaps an outside producer with experience in the modern technical arenas that they wanted to explore might be a worthy addition. British synthpop performer and producer Thomas Dolby was brought on board. Of Dolby’s role, Mitchell later commented: “I was reluctant when Thomas was suggested because he had been asked to produce the record [by Geffen], and would he consider coming in as just a programmer and a player? So on that level we did have some problems … He may be able to do it faster. He may be able to do it better, but the fact is that it then wouldn’t really be my music.”
The album that resulted, Dog Eat Dog, released in October 1985, turned out to be only a moderate seller, peaking at No. 63 on Billboard’s Top Albums Chart, Mitchell’s lowest chart position since her first album peaked at No. 189 almost eighteen years before. One of the songs on the album, “Tax Free”, created controversy by lambasting “televangelists” and what she saw as a drift to the religious right in American politics. “The churches came after me”, she wrote, “they attacked me, though the Episcopalian Church, which I’ve seen described as the only church in America which actually uses its head, wrote me a letter of congratulation.”
Mitchell continued experimenting with synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers for the recordings of her next album, 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. She also collaborated with artists including Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Wendy & Lisa, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, and Benjamin Orr of the Cars. The album’s first official single, “My Secret Place”, was in fact a duet with Gabriel, and just missed the Billboard Hot 100 charts. The song “Lakota” was one of many songs on the album to take on larger political themes, in this case the Wounded Knee incident, the deadly battle between Native American activists and the FBI on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the previous decade. Musically, several songs fit into the trend of world music popularized by Gabriel during the era. Reviews were mostly favorable towards the album, and the cameos by well-known musicians brought it considerable attention. Chalk Mark ultimately improved on the chart performance of Dog Eat Dog, peaking at No. 45.
In 1990, Mitchell, who by then rarely performed live anymore, participated in Roger Waters‘ The Wall Concert in Berlin. She performed the song “Goodbye Blue Sky” and was also one of the performers on the concert’s final song “The Tide Is Turning” along with Waters, Cyndi Lauper, Bryan Adams, Van Morrison and Paul Carrack.
Throughout the first half of 1990, Mitchell recorded songs that appeared on her next album. She delivered the final mixes for the new album to Geffen just before Christmas, after trying nearly a hundred different sequences for the songs. The album Night Ride Home was released in March 1991. In the United States, it premiered on Billboard’s Top Album charts at No. 68, moving up to No. 48 in its second week, and peaking at No. 41 in its sixth week. In the United Kingdom, the album premiered at No. 25 on the album charts. Critically, it was better received than her 1980s work and seemed to signal a move closer to her acoustic beginnings, along with some references to the style of Hejira. This album was also Mitchell’s first since Geffen Records was sold to MCA Inc., meaning that Night Ride Home was her first album not to be initially distributed by WEA (now Warner Music Group).
1994–2001: Resurgence and vocal development
To wider audiences, the real “return to form” for Mitchell came with 1994’s Grammy-winning Turbulent Indigo. While the recording period also saw the divorce of Mitchell and bassist Larry Klein, their marriage having lasted almost 12 years, Indigo was seen as Mitchell’s most accessible set of songs in years. Songs such as “Sex Kills”, “Sunny Sunday”, “Borderline” and “The Magdalene Laundries” mixed social commentary and guitar-focused melodies for “a startling comeback”.The album won two Grammy awards, including Best Pop Album, and it coincided with a much-publicized resurgence in interest in Mitchell’s work by a younger generation of singer-songwriters.
In 1996, Mitchell agreed to release a greatest Hits collection when label Reprise also allowed her a second album, called Misses, to include some of the lesser known songs from her career. Hits charted at No. 161 in the US, but made No. 6 in the UK. Mitchell also included on Hits, for the first time on an album, her first recording, a version of “Urge for Going” which preceded Song to a Seagull but was previously released only as a B-side.
Two years later, Mitchell released her final set of “original” new work before nearly a decade of other pursuits, 1998’s Taming the Tiger. She promoted Tiger with a return to regular concert appearances, including a co-headlining tour with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.
On the album, Mitchell had played a custom guitar equipped with a Roland hexaphonic pickup which connected to a Roland VG-8 modeling processor. The device allowed Mitchell to play any of her many alternate tunings without having to re-tune the guitar. The guitar’s output, through the VG-8, was transposed to any of her tunings in real-time. This improved live performance as Mitchell didn’t need to switch guitars between songs.
It was around this time that critics also began to notice a real change in Mitchell’s voice, particularly on her older songs; the singer later admitted to feeling the same way, explaining that “I’d go to hit a note and there was nothing there”.While her more limited range and huskier vocals have sometimes been attributed to her smoking (she has been described as “one of the world’s last great smokers”), Mitchell believes that the changes in her voice that became noticeable in the 1990s were due to other problems, including vocal nodules, a compressed larynx, and the lingering effects of having had polio. In an interview in 2004, she denied that “my terrible habits” had anything to do with her more limited range and pointed out that singers often lose the upper register when they pass fifty. In addition, she contended that in her opinion her voice became a more interesting and expressive alto range when she could no longer hit the high notes, let alone hold them like she did in her youth.
The singer’s next two albums featured no new songs and, Mitchell has said, were recorded to “fulfill contractual obligations” but on both she attempted to make use of her new vocal range in interpreting familiar material. Both Sides Now (2000) was an album composed mostly of covers of jazz standards, performed with an orchestra, featuring orchestral arrangements by Vince Mendoza. The album also contained remakes of “A Case of You” and the title track “Both Sides, Now”, two early hits transposed down to Mitchell’s now dusky, soulful alto range. It received mostly strong reviews and spawned a short national tour, with Mitchell accompanied by a core band featuring Larry Klein on bass plus a local orchestra on each tour stop. Its success led to 2002’s Travelogue, a collection of re-workings of her previous songs with lush orchestral accompaniments.
2002–2005: Retirement and retrospectives
Mitchell stated at the time that Travelogue would be her final album. In a 2002 interview with Rolling Stone, she voiced discontent with the current state of the music industry, describing it as a “cesspool” Mitchell expressed her dislike of the record industry’s dominance and her desire to control her own destiny, possibly by releasing her own music over the Internet.
During the next few years, the only albums Mitchell released were compilations of her earlier work. In 2003, her Geffen recordings were collected in a remastered four-disc box set, The Complete Geffen Recordings, including notes by Mitchell and three previously unreleased tracks. A series of themed compilations of songs from earlier albums were also released: The Beginning of Survival (2004), Dreamland (2004), and Songs of a Prairie Girl (2005), the last of which collected the threads of her Canadian upbringing and which she released after accepting an invitation to the Saskatchewan Centennial concert in Saskatoon. The concert, which featured a tribute to Mitchell, was also attended by Queen Elizabeth II. In the Prairie Girl liner notes, she writes that the collection is “my contribution to Saskatchewan’s Centennial celebrations”.
In the early 1990s, Mitchell signed a deal with Random House to publish an autobiography. In 1998 she told The New York Times that her memoirs were “in the works”, that they would be published in as many as four volumes, and that the first line would be “I was the only black man at the party.” In 2005, Mitchell said that she was using a tape recorder to get her memories “down in the oral tradition”. To date, Mitchell’s autobiography remains unpublished.
Although Mitchell stated that she would no longer tour or give concerts, she has made occasional public appearances to speak on environmental issues. Mitchell divides her time between her longtime home in Los Angeles, and the 80-acre (32 ha) property in Sechelt, British Columbia, that she has owned since the early 1970s. “L.A. is my workplace”, she said in 2006, “B.C. is my heartbeat”. According to interviews, today she focuses mainly on her visual art, which she does not sell and displays only on rare occasions.
2006–2015: Late recordings
In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen in October 2006, Mitchell “revealed that she was recording her first collection of new songs in nearly a decade”, but gave few other details. Four months later, in an interview with the New York Times, Mitchell said that the forthcoming album, titled Shine, was inspired by the war in Iraq and “something her grandson had said while listening to family fighting: ‘Bad dreams are good—in the great plan.'” Early media reports characterized the album as having “a minimal feel … that harks back to [Mitchell’s] early work” and a focus on political and environmental issues.
In February 2007, Mitchell returned to Calgary and served as an advisor for the Alberta Ballet Company premiere of “The Fiddle and the Drum”, a dance choreographed by Jean Grand-Maître to both new and old songs She worked with the French-Canadian TV director Mario Rouleau, well known for work in art and dance for television, such as Cirque du Soleil. She also filmed portions of the rehearsals for a documentary that she is working on. Of the flurry of recent activity she quipped, “I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”
In mid-2007, Mitchell’s official fan-run site confirmed speculation that she had signed a two-record deal with Starbucks‘ Hear Music label. Shine was released by the label on September 25, 2007, debuting at number 14 on the Billboard 200 album chart, her highest chart position in the United States since the release of Hejira in 1976, over thirty years previously, and at number 36 on the United Kingdom albums chart.
On the same day, Herbie Hancock, a longtime associate and friend of Mitchell’s, released River: The Joni Letters, an album paying tribute to Mitchell’s work. Among the album’s contributors were Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen, and Mitchell herself, who contributed a vocal to the re-recording of “The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)” (originally on her album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm). On February 10, 2008, Hancock’s recording won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. It was the first time in 43 years that a jazz artist took the top prize at the annual award ceremony. In accepting the award, Hancock paid tribute to Mitchell as well as to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. At the same ceremony Mitchell won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Pop Performance for the opening track, “One Week Last Summer”, from her album Shine. Joni demonstrated solidarity with disabled people on Turbulent Indigo, showing herself as Vincent Van Gogh. She sung Helpless with Neil in the film the ‘Last Waltz’.
In a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mitchell was quoted as saying that singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, with whom she had worked closely in the past, was a fake and a plagiarist. The controversial remark was widely reported by other media. Mitchell did not explain the contention further, but several media outlets speculated that it may have related to the allegations of plagiarism surrounding some lyrics on Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times. In a 2013 interview with Jian Ghomeshi, she was asked about the comments and responded by denying that she had made the statement while mentioning the allegations of plagiarism that arose over the lyrics to Dylan’s 2001 album Love and Theft in the general context of the flow and ebb of the creative process of artists.
In 2009, Mitchell said that she has Morgellons syndrome the informal name given to a self-diagnosed skin condition that is generally believed to be delusional infestation, according to a study conducted by the CDC as well as consensus within the medical community. Mitchell spoke to the Los Angeles Times in 2010 about Morgellons, saying, “I have this weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space, but my health’s the best it’s been in a while.” She said at that time that she planned to leave the music industry to work toward giving more credibility to people diagnosed with Morgellons.
On March 31, 2015, Mitchell was found unconscious in her Los Angeles home. She regained consciousness in an ambulance on her way to hospital, but was taken to intensive care for tests. Since then, there have been conflicting reports about her condition. On April 28, 2015, an official statement was made through JoniMitchell.com:
Contrary to rumors circulating on the Internet today, Joni is not in a coma. Joni is still in the hospital – but she comprehends, she’s alert, and she has her full senses. A full recovery is expected. The document obtained by a certain media outlet simply gives her longtime friend Leslie Morris the authority – in the absence of 24-hour doctor care – to make care decisions for Joni once she leaves the hospital. As we all know, Joni is a strong-willed woman and is nowhere near giving up the fight. Please continue to keep Joni in your thoughts.
Her longtime friend Leslie Morris invited get-well wishes at a website called “We Love You, Joni!” In early May, Mitchell’s lawyer released a statement during a court hearing concerning a request for conservatorship from Morris, stating that Mitchell would soon be released from the hospital and returning home; but that did not immediately occur.
On May 29, 2015, it was confirmed that Mitchell had suffered a brain aneurysm and that while speech was difficult, she had been communicating with others. As of May 2015 Mitchell was expected to be moved to a rehabilitation facility, as her condition was still considered to be “very serious”. About a month later close friend David Crosby said “nobody found her for a while” and “to my knowledge, she is not speaking yet.” However, Mitchell’s conservator, Leslie Morris, later released a statement saying that “details that have emerged in the past few days are mostly speculative. The truth is that Joni is speaking, and she’s speaking well. She is not walking yet…”
In July 2015, Mitchell was back at home, undergoing physical therapy and “making progress”, according to her lawyer Rebecca J. Thyne. In October 2015, Mitchell’s friend, singer Judy Collins, reported that she was taking part in rehabilitation every day and was walking, talking and painting.
Mitchell made her first public appearance following the aneurysm when she attended a Chick Corea concert in Los Angeles in August 2016. In February 2017 she was escorted to the Clive Davis annual Pre-Grammy Gala in Los Angeles by long time friend Cameron Crowe. On June 1, 2018, she attended a concert by James Taylor at the Hollywood Bowl.
Rejection of Baby Boom counter-culture
Despite her prominence among the young musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, and her writing of “Woodstock” (where she was prevented from performing because her manager thought it was more advantageous to appear on The Dick Cavett Show), she did not align herself with the Baby Boom era’s protest movements or its cultural manifestation, the associated 1960s counter-culture. She has said that the parents of the boomers were unhappy, and “out of it came this liberated, spoiled, selfish generation into the costume ball of free love, free sex, free music, free, free, free, free we’re so free. And Woodstock was the culmination of it.” But “I was not a part of that,” she explained in an interview. “I was not a part of the anti-war movement, either. I played in Fort Bragg. I went the Bob Hope route because I had uncles who died in the war, and I thought it was a shame to blame the boys who were drafted.” Even Bob Dylan, one of the most iconic musicians of the Baby Boom generation, has not escaped Mitchell’s generational critique: “I like a lot of Bob’s songs. Musically he’s not very gifted.”
|Dr. Joni Mitchell, 15:12, January 7, 2005, CBC Digital Archive|
|Joni Mitchell on Q – Part 1, 32:43, June 11, 2013, q on CBC|
While some of Mitchell’s most popular songs were written on piano, almost every song she composed on the guitar uses an open, or non-standard, tuning; she has written songs in some 50 tunings, playing what she has called “Joni’s weird chords”. The use of alternative tunings allows guitarists to produce accompaniment with more varied and wide-ranging textures. Her right-hand picking/strumming technique has evolved over the years from an initially intricate picking style, typified by the guitar songs on her first album, to a looser and more rhythmic style, sometimes incorporating percussive “slaps”.
In 1995, Mitchell’s friend Fred Walecki, proprietor of Westwood Music in Los Angeles, developed a solution to alleviate her continuing frustration with using multiple alternative tunings in live settings. Walecki designed a Stratocaster-style guitar to function with the Roland VG-8 virtual guitar, a system capable of configuring her numerous tunings electronically. While the guitar itself remained in standard tuning, the VG-8 encoded the pickup signals into digital signals which were then translated into the altered tunings. This allowed Mitchell to use one guitar on stage, while an off-stage tech entered the preprogrammed tuning for each song in her set
Mitchell was also highly innovative harmonically in her early work (1966–72), incorporating modality, chromaticism, and pedal points. On her 1968 debut album Song to a Seagull, Mitchell used both quartal and quintal harmony in “Dawntreader” and quintal harmony in Seagull.
In 2003 Rolling Stone named her the 72nd greatest guitarist of all time; she was the highest-ranked woman on the list.
Mitchell’s approach to music struck a chord with many female listeners. In an era dominated by the stereotypical male rock star, she presented herself as “multidimensional and conflicted … allow[ing] her to build such a powerful identification among her female fans”. Mitchell asserted her desire for artistic control throughout her career, and still holds the publishing rights for her music. She has disclaimed the notion that she is a “feminist”; in a 2013 interview she rejected the label, stating, “I’m not a feminist. I don’t want to get a posse against men. I’d rather go toe-to-toe; work it out.” David Shumway notes that Mitchell “became the first woman in popular music to be recognized as an artist in the full sense of that term…. Whatever Mitchell’s stated views of feminism, what she represents more than any other performer of her era is the new prominence of women’s perspectives in cultural and political life.”
Mitchell’s work has had an influence on many other artists, including Katy Perry, Ellie Goulding, Corinne Bailey Rae, Gabrielle Aplin, Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth Marillion members Steve Hogarth and Steve Rothery, their former vocalist and lyricist Fish, Paul Carrack, Haim and Taylor Swift. Madonna has also cited Mitchell as the first female artist that really spoke to her as a teenager; “I was really, really into Joni Mitchell. I knew every word to Court and Spark; I worshipped her when I was in high school. Blue is amazing. I would have to say of all the women I’ve heard, she had the most profound effect on me from a lyrical point of view.”
Several artists have had success covering Mitchell’s songs. Judy Collins‘s 1967 recording of “Both Sides, Now” reached No. 8 on Billboard charts and was a breakthrough in the career of both artists (Mitchell’s own recording did not see release until two years later, on her second album Clouds). This is Mitchell’s most-covered song by far, with over 1,200 versions recorded at latest count. Hole also covered “Both Sides, Now” in 1991 on their debut album, Pretty on the Inside, retitling it “Clouds”, with the lyrics altered by frontwoman Courtney Love. Pop group Neighborhood in 1970 and Amy Grant in 1995 scored hits with covers of “Big Yellow Taxi”, the third-most covered song in Mitchell’s repertoire (with over 300 covers). Recent releases of this song have been by Counting Crows in 2002 and Nena in 2007. Janet Jackson used a sample of the chorus of “Big Yellow Taxi” as the centerpiece of her 1997 hit single “Got ‘Til It’s Gone“, which also features rapper Q-Tip saying “Joni Mitchell never lies”. “River“, from Mitchell’s album Blue became the second-most covered song of Mitchell’s in 2013 as many artists chose it for their holiday albums. Rap artists Kanye West and Mac Dre have also sampled Mitchell’s vocals in their music. In addition, Annie Lennox has covered “Ladies of the Canyon” for the B-side of her 1995 hit “No More I Love You’s“. Mandy Moore covered “Help Me” in 2003. In 2004 singer George Michael covered her song “Edith and the Kingpin” for a radio show. “River” has been one of the most popular songs covered in recent years, with versions by Dianne Reeves (1999), James Taylor (recorded for television in 2000, and for CD release in 2004), Allison Crowe (2004), Rachael Yamagata (2004), Aimee Mann (2005), and Sarah McLachlan (2006). McLachlan also did a version of “Blue” in 1996, and Cat Power recorded a cover of “Blue” in 2008. Other Mitchell covers include the famous “Woodstock” by both Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Matthews Southern Comfort, “This Flight Tonight” by Nazareth, and well-known versions of “Woodstock” by Eva Cassidy and “A Case of You” by Tori Amos, Michelle Branch, Jane Monheit, Prince, Diana Krall, James Blake, and Ana Moura. A 40th anniversary version of “Woodstock” was released in 2009 by Nick Vernier Band featuring Ian Matthews (formerly of Matthews Southern Comfort). Fellow Canadian singer k.d. lang recorded two of Mitchell’s songs (“A Case of You” and “Jericho”) for her 2004 album Hymns of the 49th Parallel which is composed entirely of songs written by Canadian artists.
Prince’s version of “A Case of U” appeared on A Tribute to Joni Mitchell, a 2007 compilation released by Nonesuch Records, which also featured Björk (“The Boho Dance”), Caetano Veloso(“Dreamland”), Emmylou Harris (“The Magdalene Laundries”), Sufjan Stevens (“Free Man in Paris”) and Cassandra Wilson (“For the Roses”), among others.
Several other songs reference Joni Mitchell. The song “Our House” by Graham Nash refers to Nash’s two-year affair with Mitchell at the time that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded the Déjà Vu album. Led Zeppelin‘s “Going to California” was said to be written about Robert Plant and Jimmy Page‘s infatuation with Mitchell, a claim that seems to be borne out by the fact that, in live performances, Plant often says “Joni” after the line “To find a queen without a king, they say she plays guitar and cries and sings”. Jimmy Page uses a double dropped D guitar tuning similar to the alternative tunings Mitchell uses. The Sonic Youth song “Hey Joni” is named for Mitchell. Alanis Morissette also mentions Mitchell in one of her songs, “Your House”. British folk singer Frank Turner mentions Mitchell in his song “Sunshine State”. The Prince song “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” contains the lyric – ” ‘Oh, my favorite song’ she said – and it was Joni singing ‘Help me I think I’m falling’ “. “Lavender” by Marillion was partly influenced by “going through parks listening to Joni Mitchell”, according to vocalist and lyricist Fish, and she was later mentioned in the lyrics of their song “Montreal” from Sounds That Can’t Be Made. John Mayer makes reference to Mitchell and her Blue album in his song “Queen of California“, from his 2012 album Born and Raised. The song contains the lyric “Joni wrote Blue in a house by the sea”.
In 2003, playwright Bryden MacDonald launched When All the Slaves Are Free, a musical revue based on Mitchell’s music.
Mitchell’s music and poems have deeply influenced the French painter Jacques Benoit‘s work. Between 1979 and 1989 Benoit produced sixty paintings, corresponding to a selection of fifty of Mitchell’s songs.
Maynard James Keenan of the American progressive rock band Tool has cited Mitchell as an influence, claiming that her influence is what allows him to “soften [staccato, rhythmic, insane mathematical paths] and bring [them] back to the center, so you can listen to it without having an eye-ache.” A Perfect Circle, another band featuring Keenan as lead vocalist, recorded a rendition of Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum” on their 2004 album eMOTIVe, a collection of anti-war cover songs.
Awards and honours
Joni Mitchell’s star on Canada’s Walk of Fame
Mitchell’s home country of Canada has bestowed several honours on her. She was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1981 and received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Canada’s highest honour in the performing arts, in 1996. Mitchell received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2000. In 2002 she became only the third popular Canadian singer-songwriter (Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen being the other two), to be appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honour. She received an honorary doctorate in music from McGill University in 2004. In January 2007 she was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In June 2007 Canada Post featured Mitchell on a postage stamp.
Mitchell has received nine Grammy Awards during her career (eight competitive, one honorary), the first in 1969 and the most recent in 2016. She received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, with the 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”.
In 1995, Mitchell received Billboard’s Century Award. In 1996, she was awarded the Polar Music Prize. In 1997, Mitchell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but did not attend the ceremony.
In tribute to Mitchell, the TNT network presented an all-star celebration at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City on April 6, 2000. Mitchell’s songs were sung by many performers, including James Taylor, Elton John, Wynonna Judd, Bryan Adams, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Krall, and Richard Thompson. Mitchell herself ended the evening with a rendition of “Both Sides, Now” with a 70-piece orchestra. The version was featured on the soundtrack to the movie Love Actually.
To celebrate Mitchell’s 70th birthday, the 2013 Luminato Festival in Toronto held a set of tribute concerts entitled Joni: A Portrait in Song – A Birthday Happening Live at Massey Hall on June 18 and 19. Performers included Rufus Wainwright, Herbie Hancock, Esperanza Spalding, and rare performances by Mitchell herself.
Due to health problems she could not attend the San Francisco gala in May 2015 to receive the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2018, Mitchell was honoured by the city of Saskatoon, when two plaques were erected to commemorate her musical beginnings in Saskatoon. One was installed by the Broadway Theatrebeside the former Louis Riel Coffee House, where Mitchell played her first paid gig. A second plaque was installed at River Landing, near the Remai Modern art gallery and Persephone Theatreperforming arts centre. As well, the walkway along Spadina Crescent between Second and Third Avenues was formally named the Joni Mitchell Promenade.
ASCAP Pop Awards
|2005||“Big Yellow Taxi“||Most Performed Song||Won|
|1969||Best Folk Performance||Clouds||Won|
|1974||Album of the Year||Court and Spark||Nominated|
|Record of the Year||“Help Me“||Nominated|
|Pop Female Vocalist||Court and Spark||Nominated|
|Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)||“Down to You“||Won|
|1976||Pop Female Vocalist||The Hissing of Summer Lawns||Nominated|
|1977||Best Album Package||Hejira||Nominated|
|1988||Pop Female Vocalist||Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm||Nominated|
|1995||Best Pop Album||Turbulent Indigo||Won|
|Best Album Package||Turbulent Indigo||Won|
|2000||Best Female Pop Vocal Performance||Both Sides, Now||Nominated|
|Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album||Both Sides, Now||Won|
|2002||Lifetime Achievement Award||–||Won|
|2007||Album of the Year||River: The Joni Letters||Won*|
|Best Pop Instrumental Performance||“One Week Last Summer“||Won|
|2016||Best Album Notes||Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced||Won|
*Although officially a Herbie Hancock release, Mitchell also received a Grammy due to her vocal contribution to the album.