In her nearly four decades as a musician and lyricist, Joni Mitchell (born 1943) has spanned the fields of folk, pop, rock, and jazz with 23 albums. Her willingness to change direction without warning has frequently left fans upset, but her free spirit has endowed her creativity. By 2002, Mitchell had achieved the stature of Bob Dylan and influenced the likes of Madonna and Prince. Even Frank Sinatra recorded one of her songs.
Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada. She was daughter of Bill Anderson, a grocer, and his wife Myrtle, a schoolteacher. Mitchell moved with her parents to North Battleford, Saskatchewan, after World War II ended. At the age of nine, she and her family would move again to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which Mitchell today considers her hometown.
After a friend introduced her to classical music, Mitchell asked her parents whether she could study piano. Although the seven-year-old aspiring musician did in fact start piano lessons, the lessons only lasted eighteen months. By then Mitchell had had enough of the "knuckle-rapping" school of music that was then in vogue. More importantly, she had discovered that she enjoyed creating her own music more than she did learning to do piano exercises. Also at the age of 9, Mitchell contracted polio, a disease that was often fatal at the time. Cared for by her mother, she eventually recovered. Mitchell also dates her taking up smoking to this period—a habit she continues to indulge in.
In the seventh grade, Mitchell was inspired by an English teacher who encouraged her to write about things she knew and to develop her ability to convey descriptive imagery. Mitchell would later dedicate her first record album to this teacher. Unable to afford a guitar, Mitchell purchased a baritone ukulele, which she played at parties and the local coffeehouse. After she graduated from high school, she enrolled in Calgary's Alberta College of Art. Finding the classes to be uncreative, she left after a year. Mitchell had, by this time, become a regular performer at a club in Calgary, so it was not entirely surprising that she left in June 1964 for Toronto to pursue a career as a folksinger.
Finding success in the Toronto music scene proved to be more difficult than Mitchell had imagined. Unable to afford membership in the musician's union, she was unable to get many performing jobs. Instead, she was forced to take a job in a department store. In February 1965, she gave birth to a baby girl who had been fathered by her ex-boyfriend from college. Shortly before giving birth, she had met a folk singer named Chuck Mitchell, who had offered to take care of her and the child. A few weeks after the birth of her daughter Joni and Chuck were married. Soon after, Mitchell gave her daughter up for adoption. (Mitchell kept the child a secret for 30 years, not even telling her parents. In 1995, following rumors that appeared on the Internet, Mitchell made contact with the lost daughter.) In the summer of 1965, Chuck Mitchell took Joni with him to Detroit, Michigan, where he found work. A year and a half later Joni and Chuck Mitchell had separated.
Following the 1967 divorce, Mitchell relocated to New York to pursue her musical career. Based in New York City, she acquired a reputation as an East Coast songwriter and live performer. In the fall of 1967 she met Elliot Roberts, who began managing her career. With the help of former Byrds band member David Crosby, she landed a recording contract for a solo acoustic album. In the meantime, she moved to California, where she shared a house with Crosby.
Mitchell was given very little compensation in her first recording contract. Eventually Elliot Roberts negotiated a better deal for her at Reprise, and she received total artistic control of her work. When Mitchell left Reprise, she was able to negotiate similar arrangements with Asylum Records—and later with Geffen Records—that gave her considerably more autonomy than most other recording artists enjoyed. However, disagreements over unpaid royalties would follow and relations with record boss, David Geffen, were strained.
Mitchell's debut album, Joni Mitchell, was released in March 1968. On the album she declined to record any of her songs that other artists had turned into hits. That December, Judy Collins' version of Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" would reach the top of the record charts, earning Mitchell considerable income in royalties. Instead she performed her relatively unknown folk songs. Interestingly, Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" was written when she was only 21. This fact has amazed many people who have been struck with the depth of emotion expressed in the song. But as Mitchell told W magazine in 2002, "When I did experience these things, I was right, so I seemed to know what I was talking about."
In April 1969, Mitchell's second album, Clouds, was released. It included her classics, "Chelsea Morning," "Both Sides Now," and "Tin Angel." Although Mitchell was unable to get to the 1969 Woodstock rock festival due to excessive highway traffic, she chronicled the event with her song of the same name, which became a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. In 1970, shortly before Reprise released her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, Mitchell won a Grammy for Clouds. " In Ladies of the Canyon, Mitchell ventured into increasingly complex arrangements, adding woodwinds, backup singers, and a cello to her own performance. Ladies would become her first gold album (with 500,000 copies sold).
At this point, Mitchell decided to take a year off from performing. She began traveling through Europe, visiting France, Spain, and Greece. Her subsequent album, Blue, released in 1971, featured songs she had written during her travels. Blue was also of note because it saw Mitchell alternating between acoustic guitar-and piano-based arrangements. In "For The Roses" (1972), Mitchell used pop-rock arrangements to back up her songs about the problems with being in love and the difficulties of being an artist. The album quickly climbed the charts. Looking back, Mitchell noted that she passed through her folk period rather rapidly. Her rock 'n' roll career was equally short-lived, probably, she said, because she was never much of a "druggie."
In 1974, Court and Spark was released. The album found Mitchell increasingly embracing a "pop" sound, but with the addition of orchestral arrangements and jazz-inspired sounds. Court and Spark had the distinction of appearing when Mitchell was at the peak of her popularity. Her next offering, Miles of Aisles (1974), was a live rock album based on concerts she gave during the summer of 1974 at the Universal Amphitheater, backed up by the L.A. Express. The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975), although a top seller, evoked some of the first negative reviews to greet Mitchell's work. Some of her fans took particular issue with the criticisms that Mitchell levelled at society in the album. A year later, Mitchell's Hejira (1976) found the artist vocalizing about a spiritual journey she had made. On this album a guitar, bass, and drums accompanied her. With songs written for the most part when Mitchell was traveling by car though the U.S., the album was recorded in the summer of 1976. Many of the songs dealt with Mitchell's concerns about not having a family.
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) was followed by Mingus (1979). It is generally felt that in Mingus, which Mitchell composed with jazz great Charles Mingus shortly before his death, she failed to reach her own, and presumably Mingus's, expectations. The news was scarcely better a year later when Mitchell released Shadows and Light (1980), which contained live versions of songs that Mitchell had already recorded in the studio on Miles of Aisles. Critics called the album a disappointment.
In December 1980, Mitchell returned to Toronto for her acting debut in a film anthology entitled Love, about women's perceptions of love. She also contributed the title song. However, the film was never released. But there was also good news—in 1981 Mitchell was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. She subsequently left for a six-week Caribbean vacation, during which she took time to paint.
About this time, Mitchell became embroiled in a dispute with a salmon fishing company that wanted to build a hatchery near some property she owned in Vancouver, Canada. The local newspaper sided with the hatchery, arguing that its construction would lead to more jobs, while pointing out that Mitchell was not even a full-time resident. The salmon company, for its part, claimed that Mitchell was just some Hollywood celebrity who was out to ruin its business.
The Limelight of Decline
In 1985, the all-star single, "We Are the World" was released. Mitchell, who was at the time studying yoga, later said her yoga teacher sent her to a psychic dietician who hardly allowed her to eat anything. In response, she recorded "Ethiopia" in 1985, a song about an Ethiopian who is experiencing famine. In Dog Eat Dog (1985), Mitchell complained angrily about increasing trends toward censorship, especially in rock 'n' roll music. The response to Dog Eat Dog was, as usual by this time, mostly negative, and the album ended up with only moderate sales. The disappointing reception led Mitchell to cancel her six-month 1986 tour. She instead stayed home and painted.
But there would be bright spots too. In the fall of 1990, the Los Angeles Theater Center put on a revue with five singers performing the songs of Mitchell. The show ran for three months. Then in the early part of 1991, a traveling exhibit of Mitchell's paintings made the rounds in Europe. In Night Ride Home, released the same year, Mitchell made do without any guest artists, and her vocals came across as deep and rich. Turbulent Indigo (1994) saw Mitchell return full circle in a melancholy mood to her earlier work.
In February 1996, Mitchell received the Orville H. Gibson Award for best Female Acoustic Guitar Player, even though she had by that time switched from acoustic to electric guitar. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Mitchell in 1997. On Taming the Tiger (1998), Mitchell played a computerized guitar to produce a sound unlike anything she had achieved before.
With Both Sides Now (2000), Mitchell's voice came across as ravaged from her years of smoking. The album could not be salvaged even with the backup of a large orchestra conducted by Vince Mendoza. Travelogue (2002) once again saw Mitchell performing well past her prime. On the album, she recorded some of her old songs with the backup of the London Symphony Orchestra, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. The album had few admirers. Part of the problem was that by 2002, Mitchell's voice no longer had the three-octave range of her youth. While her cigarette smoking had contributed, it was also as Mitchell told W magazine, "I don't take good care of my voice." But she added that she would rather sound gravelly like Louis Armstrong than pitch-perfect like Streisand.
Following the release of Travelogue in 2002, Mitchell took aim at the music industry, calling it a "corrupt cess-pool," while announcing her decision to stop recording. Mitchell also said that musicians today are made, not born. She told W magazine, "The artists don't have to play anything—they can cheat, buy songs and put their name on them, so they can build the illusion that they are creative. And because [the record companies] made you, they can kiss you off. Me, I don't sell that many records, but they can't kiss me off so easily." As she notes, her records have rarely sold large numbers. During her remarkable career she had only one Top 10 record ("Help Me"), and that was in 1974.
In November 1982—although the dates vary—Joni married bass player and sound engineer Larry Klein. Although they separated in 1994, they have continued to collaborate professionally. Besides her marriages to Chuck Mitchell and Larry Klein, Mitchell has been romantically linked to David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Warren Beatty, and Jackson Browne.
Fleischer, Leonore, Joni Mitchell, Flash Books, 1976.
Guardian (London, England), November 21, 2002.
New York Times, January 5, 2003.
W, December 2002.
"The Joni Mitchell Homepage," Available online at http://www.jonimitchell.com/ (January 2003).