Joni Mitchell | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Joni Mitchell

Joni (Roberta Joan) Mitchell (b Anderson). Singer-songwriter, guitarist, pianist, poet, painter, b Fort Macleod, near Lethbridge, Alta, 7 Nov 1943. She was raised in Saskatoon and developed childhood interests in painting, poetry, and music, all of which found expression in her later career.

Joni (Roberta Joan) Mitchell (b Anderson). Singer-songwriter, guitarist, pianist, poet, painter, b Fort Macleod, near Lethbridge, Alta, 7 Nov 1943. She was raised in Saskatoon and developed childhood interests in painting, poetry, and music, all of which found expression in her later career. When she was nine, she was treated for polio. She studied piano briefly as a child, bought a baritone ukulele while in high school, and turned to the guitar in the early 1960s. She studied for a year at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary and sang at a local coffeehouse, the Depression. She moved to Toronto, writing her first songs (eg, 'Day by Day,' 'Carnival in Kenora,' and 'Play Little David Play') and performing in such Yorkville coffeehouses as the Penny Farthing.

Mitchell made her first significant appearance in 1965 at the Mariposa Folk Festival. Of her return performance there in 1966, Arthur Zelden wrote: 'Miss Mitchell plays guitar tolerably; her voice is an interesting, although not unusual version of Joan Baez's. The songs that she writes and delivers so feelingly, though, are lovely, poetic, even Canadian in their tone' (Toronto Daily Star, 6 Aug 1966).

During her marriage 1965-6 to the US folksinger Chuck Mitchell, she lived in Detroit and performed in the northern USA and in Ontario. She gave birth to a daughter, whom she gave up for adoption. At this time the US folksinger Tom Rush began singing her songs 'Urge for Going' and 'The Circle Game.' Other artists, including Judy Collins, Ian and Sylvia, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, also introduced her songs to new audiences. Mitchell moved in 1966 to New York, appearing in Greenwich Village coffeehouses, and settled in 1968 in Los Angeles. In 1971 she had a home built at Half Moon Bay, B.C., north of Vancouver, but continued to base her career in the USA.

Mitchell's first two LPs, and the song 'Both Sides Now' as recorded by Collins and others, brought her international fame, sustained by subsequent albums. Her concert career, however, proceeded at an interrupted pace. She performed at the Miami Pop Festival and Newport Folk Festival and toured North America opening for Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1969, returned to Mariposa in 1969 and 1970, and sang at the Isle of Wight pop festival and elsewhere in Great Britain in 1970. She made other Canadian appearances during major tours (eg, in 1972, 1974, and 1980) and as part of Bob Dylan's 'Rolling Thunder Revue' in 1975. She was seen on CBC TV in the special 'Shadows and Light' in 1981. After an international tour in 1983, for some time she performed publicly only on rare occasions - eg, at Farm Aid at the University of Illinois in 1985 and in Roger Waters' production of The Wall (for the Memorial Fund for Disaster Relief) in Berlin in 1990.

Mitchell's early albums were more successful commercially than her singles, the third (Ladies of the Canyon) through eighth (Don Juan's Reckless Daughter) each selling in excess of 500,000 copies in the USA. Nevertheless, some of her singles (all her own songs) were popular: 'Big Yellow Taxi' (1970, re-released in a concert version in 1975), 'Carey' (1971), 'You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio' (1972), 'Help Me' (1974), and 'Free Man in Paris' (1975). Other songs of note from her LPs include 'Chelsea Morning,' 'Woodstock' (a hit in 1970 as recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), 'Cactus Tree,' and 'All I Want.' Among other artists who have recorded her songs are Bing Crosby, Bob Dylan, Ian Matthews, Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, and Frank Sinatra. Her Blue (1971) has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

The autobiographical nature of Mitchell's lyrics, many of them on the subject of love, has focused considerable attention on her personal life and prompted speculation on the inspiration for various songs (eg, 'Willie' for Graham Nash). Her imagistic and narrative style nevertheless attains a level of universality that allows her listeners to identify closely with her sentiments. Her lyrics have been published on the covers of her LPs (many of which she designed or painted herself) and have appeared in anthologies of poetry. Her songs have been published by Siquomb Music, Crazy Crow Music, or Joni Mitchell Publishing Co. Two volumes of the Joni Mitchell Songbook, for the periods 1966-70 and 1970-5 respectively, were issued by Warner Brothers in 1970 and 1975. Individual folios have been issued in conjunction with several of her albums. A revue comprising 24 of her songs, 'The Joni Mitchell Project,' was prepared by David Schweizer and Henry Edwards and produced in 1990 at the Los Angeles Theater Center.

Mitchell stands among the most influential women of her generation in pop music, both for her example as a self-directed artist who has maintained complete control of her career in a male-dominated industry, and for the asymmetrical, lyric-driven melodies and breezy vocal style that have been taken up by many other performers. She has been credited as an influence on Canadian singer-songwriters such as Sarah McLachlan, Diana Krall, and Jane Siberry. Of Mitchell's lyrics on Hejira, Doug Fetherling wrote in Saturday Night: 'She fits them into melodic lines that test her great skill at phrasing ... she bunches, stretches, and condenses phrases in unusual ways, somewhat like a poet whose breath control is as much a part of his writing as the images on the page ... It is as though she were using her voice as another instrument; in fact she is creating an almost contrapuntal relationship between melody line and lyric.'

From the relative simplicity of her early folk-based work, Mitchell's music grew increasingly complex through the 1970s. With the LP Court and Spark she introduced a distinct jazz flavour by using the saxophonist-flutist Tom Scott and the LA Express as her accompanists. The influence of jazz increased on subsequent LPs with the participation of members of the LA Express, the (Jazz) Crusaders, and Weather Report (particularly the saxophonist Wayne Shorter and the bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius). It culminated in Mingus (a collaboration with Charles Mingus, just before the bassist's death, in which she wrote lyrics to several of his compositions) and Shadows and Light (a concert recording with Pastorius, the saxophonist Michael Brecker, the guitarist Pat Metheny, and others).

Her recordings during the 1980s were a catalogue of exploration and eclecticism, likely influenced to some degree by the involvement as sideman and producer of her second husband, the bassist Larry Klein (they divorced in 1994). Her equivocal move towards rock on Wild Things Run Fast was confirmed with Dog Eat Dog, a 'synth-pop' effort that also revealed, in Mitchell's lyrics, a new and rather severe view of the larger world. The same critical topicality was maintained, if moderated, on the richly textured Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, in which she was heard to sing with Peter Gabriel, Billy Idol, Willie Nelson, and Tom Petty. With the release of Night Ride Home (which included 'Come in from the Cold') in 1991, however, Mitchell had moved full circle to the relative economy, intimacy, and introspection of her earlier, folk-based work. Her Turbulent Indigo (1994) won two Grammy awards, and the Globe and Mail called her subsequent Taming the Tiger (1998) "one of her best, most accessible albums since her peak in the seventies." In the interim she released Hits and Misses, both 1996 compilations of earlier work. She continued to explore unexpected musical approaches, eg, standards and "torch" songs on Both Sides Now (2000). In 2002, a new release entitled Travelogue was issued.

After a lengthy hiatus, Mitchell resumed touring and live performance. Her first folk festival appearance in decades was at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival 1994. She was seen live on MuchMusic in Toronto 1994, made a West Coast tour with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison 1998, and performed at a New York concert, and on pay television that year. In 2000, Mitchell's first Canadian solo art exhibit, in Saskatoon, brought recognition in this country for her paintings, which had already been exhibited in the USA, UK, and Japan.

As Mitchell's influential song-writing career reached its fourth decade, she became the subject of many tributes such as the Joni Fest 2000 in New Orleans, the theatrical concert Joni Mitchell: River, 2002, and the 1992 album Back to the Garden: A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (Intrepid/Capitol N21/N41 0016). She has been featured on CBC radio's The Arts Tonight and the Bravo! program Arts and Minds, and is the subject of a CBC TV Life and Times program, a PBS American Masters documentary, and a film documentary.

Joni Michell released the lushly-arranged Both Sides Now in 2000, an album of standard repertoire love songs which included her own "Both Sides Now" and "A Case of You." Both Sides Now ushered in an extended phase that saw the artist drawing back from new composition, focusing more on revisiting her long catalogue of recorded music. This included the release of collections grouped in thematic compilations and box sets presented in remastered versions with occasional inclusions of previously unreleased outtakes and alternative versions. With elaborate liner notes and visual art, usually produced by Mitchell herself. Notable among these were The Complete Geffen Recordings (2003), comprising all of the recordings Mitchell made for Geffen during the '80s (including Wild Things Run Fast, Dog Eat Dog, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm and Night Ride Home along with a number of unreleased rarities and demos) and Songs of a Prairie Girl (2005), a prairie-themed collection presented as a kind of tribute to the artist's Saskatchewan roots.

In 2007, Michell released Shine, the first instalment of a two-record deal with Starbucks Entertainment's Hear Music label and her first album of new music in nine years. Again focusing on her socially aware themes that have characterized her compositions throughout her career, the record includes songs written for "The Fiddle and the Drum," her dance-and-music collaboration with the Alberta Ballet Company which premiered in Calgary in 2007.

Mitchell won Grammy awards for best folk performance in 1969 with Clouds, in 1994 for best pop album with Turbulent Indigo, and in 2008 for best pop instrumental performance for One Week Last Summer. She received Juno Awards in 1975 as best female vocalist and 2001 for best vocal jazz album. She was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame in 1981, the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 (the first Canadian woman inductee), and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007; and in 2002 became the first Canadian to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She continues to be recognized in numerous forums, being named a Companion of the Order of Canada (2002), and winning Billboard Magazine's Century Award (1995), the Governor General's Performing Arts Award (1996), Sweden's Polar Prize (1996), a star on Canada's Walk of Fame (2001), and other recognitions.

Joni Mitchell

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