Joni Mitchell - Biography

By Oliver Hall


Joni Mitchell is a musical genius with an idiosyncratic style based in folk, jazz and rock.  She is generally credited, along with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Van Morrison, as one of the best popular songwriters to have emerged during the 1960s.  Mitchell is also a gifted and inventive vocalist, guitarist, pianist, painter and writer.  Charles Mingus, Bob Dylan, and Herbie Hancock are among the artists with whom she has collaborated.  Her songs have been widely performed and recorded by other musicians. 


She was born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort McLeod, Alberta, Canada on November 7, 1943.  Mitchell grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, about 300 miles north and east of her birthplace; both provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, lie in the middle of Canada, bordering the state of Montana.  At the age of nine, Mitchell came down with polio, for which the prognosis was not good.  According to Rolling Stone’s bio, “Defying doctors' predictions that she would never walk again, she recovered after spending nights in the children's ward singing at the top of her lungs.”  Shortly after her convalescence, nine-year-old Mitchell started smoking cigarettes.  Her first instrument was the piano.  As a teenager, she learned to play baritone ukelele and guitar.


Most guitarists play only in standard tuning, where each string is always tuned to the same note; for example, the fourth thickest string is often called the “D-string.”  Mitchell has come up with numerous alternate tunings that chime in unfamiliar ways, and has even devised her own form of notation for remembering particular tunings.  Her guitar performances are difficult to mimic unless the guitarist knows the tuning and chord shapes Mitchell uses for a particular song.  In the 1980s, Mitchell began using digital guitars, which can switch instantly between different tunings without changing the tension of the strings.


Mitchell, a lifelong painter, attended the Alberta College of Art in Calgary for one academic year, 1963-’64, before moving to Toronto “to be a folksinger.”  As Joni Anderson, she performed traditional folk songs in clubs and coffeehouses and worked day jobs in Toronto department stores.  At some point in 1964, Mitchell realized that she was pregnant by her ex-boyfriend from Alberta.  In February 1965, she gave birth to her daughter.  Several weeks later, she married folksinger Chuck Mitchell—“I was kind of railroaded,” she later said—and put her daughter up for adoption not long after the marriage.  Mitchell sings about the birth on “Little Green,” from Blue (Reprise 1971): “Born with the moon in Cancer. . .”  Mitchell and her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, were reunited in the late 1990s after Mitchell went looking.


The couple, now performing as folksinging duo Joan and Chuck Mitchell, moved to Detroit in the summer of 1965.  Joni Mitchell got a break in 1966 when she performed by herself at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, where popular folksinger Judy Collins introduced her to the audience.  By 1967, she and Chuck split, and she moved to New York City to continue her solo career.  In New York, Mitchell met Elliot Roberts, the manager who started working with Neil Young that same year.  David Crosby, who had just recently left the Byrds, came to one of Mitchell’s shows in Florida, and advocated for her with Reprise Records.  Late in 1967, Mitchell moved into Crosby’s place in Los Angeles.  The acoustic Song to a Seagull (Reprise 1968) was her first release, produced by Crosby (whose “clout [with the label] earned him a producer’s credit,” according to the biography at Mitchell’s official website).  She began a romance with Hollies member Graham Nash, whom she met through Crosby, late in 1968, as Judy Collins’s version of Mitchell’s song “Both Sides, Now” rose into the US top ten. 


“Both Sides, Now” remains one of Mitchell’s best-known songs.  Her own version of the song appears on her second album, Clouds (Reprise 1969).  Mitchell performed at Carnegie Hall in February 1969.  She and Nash moved into a house in Laurel Canyon that year, celebrated in Nash’s song “Our House.”  Crosby and Nash joined with former Buffalo Springfield member Stephen Stills as Crosby, Stills and Nash, soon to be popular for their vocal harmonies.  In the summer, Mitchell appeared on The Johnny Cash Show and opened Crosby, Stills and Nash’s US tour.  She had been scheduled to perform, as CSN did, at the Woodstock Festival, but cancelled on her manager’s advice, due to the large traffic jams in the town of Woodstock and the importance of Mitchell’s upcoming appearance on Dick Cavett, where she performed, alongside Jefferson Airplane, Stills, and Crosby. 


Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise 1970), Mitchell’s first gold and subsequently platinum album, included perhaps the only song she has written that is better-known, and is covered, or sampled, more often, than “Both Sides, Now”: “Big Yellow Taxi.”  Ladies also features “Woodstock,” recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and [Neil] Young on Déjà Vu (Atlantic 1970).  The stark Blue (Reprise 1971) is one of Mitchell’s masterpieces and was again a platinum seller.  The romance with Nash appears to have ended by this time, since Mitchell sold the Laurel Canyon house and bought property in British Columbia.  For the Roses (Asylum 1972) was Mitchell’s first album for David Geffen’s new label and her first to feature orchestral settings for her songs.    


Mitchell recorded with the jazz-rock band The L.A. Express for Court and Spark (Asylum 1974), which reached number two on the Billboard charts.  Mitchell toured with the band and started going out with the drummer, John Guerin.  The double-LP Miles of Aisles (Asylum 1974) documents Mitchell’s live show with The L.A. Express, who return on her next studio album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum 1975).  Mitchell was among the changing cast of musicians and poets in Bob Dylan’s ad hoc road show, the Rolling Thunder Revue. 


After a Joni Mitchell and The L.A. Express tour in 1976, Mitchell and Guerin broke up.  Hejira (Asylum 1976) features some members of The L.A. Express as well as Jaco Pastorius, the bassist associated with the fusion group Weather Report.  Mitchell performed the song “Coyote” with The Band at their farewell concert, where she also sang, from offstage, with the numerous Canadians onstage that night playing Neil Young’s ode to Canada, “Helpless.”  Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who had played with Miles Davis and Weather Report, first appears with Mitchell on the double-album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (Asylum 1977), which features a cover photograph of Mitchell dressed as her black, male alter ego, Art Nouveau. 


Genius composer and jazz bassist Charles Mingus approached Mitchell about collaborating with him in 1978.  Initially Mingus, very ill by that time due to Lou Gehrig’s disease, wanted her to work with him on a musical adaptation of poet T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, but Mitchell declined after reading some Eliot.  Mingus returned with six original tunes for Mitchell to sing, and the two began to collaborate on what would become Mingus (Asylum 1979).  Charles Mingus died in January, 1979, before the album was finished; it is his last work.  Pastorius, Shorter, and drummer Don Alias return, and Herbie Hancock plays keyboards.  Mitchell headlined the Playboy Jazz Festival in Hollywood that year with this band, minus Pastorius.  Her shows at L.A.’s Greek Theater were filmed for the double-LP and concert film Shadows and Light (Asylum 1980).  The still unreleased movie Love, an anthology of nine stories each written by a different woman, featured Mitchell as Art Nouveau, Miles Davis blaring from his ghetto blaster. 


The Canadian Music Hall of Fame inducted Mitchell in 1981.  Mitchell began work that year on Wild Things Run Fast (Geffen 1982), an attempt to write and play contemporary pop music.  While making the album, she fell in love with bassist and engineer Larry Klein, whom she married in November 1982 at Elliot Roberts’s Malibu house.  A world tour to promote Wild Things Run Fast followed in 1983, documented in the home video Refuge of the Roads (Pioneer 1984).  Thomas “She Blinded Me With Science” Dolby contributed to the angry, synth-heavy Dog Eat Dog (Geffen 1985).  Though Dolby is credited as a producer on the album, Mitchell says his role was that of “a colorist and a player,” and that she and Klein produced the album.  In September 1985, Mitchell appeared at the first Farm Aid concert, a benefit for family farmers.  Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (Geffen 1988) was also made in collaboration with Klein, and partly recorded at Peter Gabriel’s studio. 


In January 1989, Mitchell presented civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson with an NAACP award at a televised ceremony.  Night Ride Home (Geffen 1991), though again produced with Klein, turns from synth-laden arrangements to acoustic presentations of songs.  Klein and Mitchell separated in 1993, on the same day, Mitchell says, that she started recording her next album Turbulent Indigo (Warner Brothers 1994), though Klein again collaborates on the album and continues to work with Mitchell.  Billboard Magazine presented Mitchell with a Century Award in 1995, and Turbulent Indigo won two Grammy awards, including Best Pop Album, in February 1996.  Mitchell also received the Swedish Polar Music Prize in May 1996 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.  Warner Brothers issued two retrospective compilations, Hits and Misses (both 1996).  Taming the Tiger (Warner Brothers 1998) followed.


On Both Sides Now (Warner Brothers 2000), Mitchell, backed by an orchestra, interprets jazz standards and two of her early songs: “A Case of You” and “Both Sides, Now.”  The double-CD Travelogue (Nonesuch 2002) consists of new interpretations of Mitchell’s songs with contributions from Herbie Hancock, longtime collaborator Wayne Shorter, a seventy-piece orchestra, and a twenty-voice choir.  Geffen issued the retrospective compilation The Beginning of Survival (2004), collecting angry, prophetic “social commentary” songs, as Dreamland (Warner Brothers 2004) collects lovely ones.  Songs of a Prairie Girl (Warner Brothers 2005) is a compilation of songs about Saskatchewan released to celebrate the province’s centenary.  Herbie Hancock and various vocalists, including Leonard Cohen and Mitchell herself, perform Mitchell’s songs on Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters (Verve 2007).


The Alberta Ballet premiered “The Fiddle and the Drum,” a ballet based on Mitchell’s music and overseen by Mitchell, in February 2007.  The ballet included two songs that would appear on Mitchell’s next album, Shine (Hear 2007), released in cooperation with Starbucks.

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