Among women in rock music, taking that genre in the broad sense, Joni Mitchell is perhaps the most talented and versatile. In a long career of prolific and many-sided artistry, she has combined the roles of composer, lyric writer, vocal artist and musician with an impressive array of “first instruments.”
Growing up in Canada
Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943 in Fort McLeod, Alberta, Canada. In her early teens she was drawn to the arts and popular music of the day, teaching herself guitar with the help of a Pete Seeger instruction book. After high school she moved to Calgary and enrolled in the Alberta College of Art and Design.
In Calgary she began playing small gigs around town for extra cash, before dropping out of school and moving to Toronto to pursue her musical career. She started performing at the Penny Farthing, a folk music club in Toronto. There she met Chuck Mitchell, an American folk music singer.
Destined for big things
Joni and Chuck Mitchell moved to Detroit, Michigan, where they began performing together. They eventually separated, and Joni Mitchell moved to New York City to pursue her solo career. She played gigs up and down the East Coast and became known for her songwriting skills and smoky, distinctive vocals. After seeing her play live at a gig in Florida, David Crosby invited Mitchell to Los Angeles and produced her self-titled debut album which was released in 1968.
Continued touring and extra exposure through a multitude of artists covering her songs gained Mitchell an ever-growing fan base. In 1969 she followed up her debut album with Clouds, a contemplative folk rock album that charted in the Top 40 in both Canada and the United States and won Mitchell a Grammy for Best Folk Performance in 1970.
Shortly after winning the Grammy, Mitchell released her third album Ladies of the Canyon. The album was a hit and charted in Australia, Canada, the UK and the United States. The album also featured the songs “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi” which have lived on through the years in numerous cover versions.
In 1971 Mitchell released Blue, an almost instant critical and commercial success and an album that is often seen as the high point of her folk rock career. At the same time the album showed a new depth to Mitchell’s songwriting, moving away from some of her earlier sounds and the constraints of acoustic folk into more intricate and diverse compositions, a move that set the stage for the experimentation of her later work.
Experimenting with new sounds
After Blue, Mitchell began to depart from her folk rock roots and explore new musical styles. This exploration first manifested itself on 1972’s more pop-oriented For the Roses which included the hit single “You Turn Me On (I’m a Radio).” She followed this with Court and Spark in 1974.
The record contained hints of jazz and became her most commercially successful album, reaching #2 on the U.S. album charts and launching three hit singles – “Help Me,” “Free Man in Paris,” and “Raised on Robbery.” Mitchell’s next studio album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), took the earlier hints at jazz even further, with song arrangements that were increasingly avant-garde, experimental and laced with jazz influences.
The earlier experiments with jazz eventually manifested themselves in the ambitious double record Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. The 1977 album featured a collection of long and largely improvisational pieces that she recorded with jazz musicians Jaco Pastorius, Don Alias, Wayne Shorter, and Chaka Khan, among others. Not long after the record’s release, Mitchell was contacted by jazz legend Charles Mingus, who invited her to work with him on a project. In the middle of the collaboration Mingus passed away, and Mitchell was left to finish the tracks on her own, which she released under the title Mingus in 1979.
“(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” an Elvis Presley cover from the album Wild Things Run Fast, signaled Mitchell’s return to pop territory and was her first chart single in eight years. Shortly after the album’s release, she married bassist Larry Klein who went on to become a frequent collaborator on much of her subsequent material, including the more synth-inspired “Dog Eat Dog”. Mitchell’s move into electronics continued with 1988s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, which featured guest appearances by Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and Billy Idol.
The nineties and onwards
The 1990s marked another productive decade in Mitchell’s career. Her first release of the decade, Night Ride Home, was an album that went back to the stripped-down voice and guitar combination of her beginnings. In 1996, she compiled a pair of anthologies: Hits and Misses, which collected both her past hits as well as lesser known darlings. She then went on to release a studio album, Taming the Tiger, and a collection of standards, Both Sides Now, before the end of the century.
In October 2002, Mitchell announced that the album Travelogue would be her last, and that she would retire from the recording industry. The album was a fitting send-off, re-interpreting her repertoire with a London-based symphony orchestra. Mitchell was not completely done recording however, and another new album, Shine, was released in 2007.