This is an artist whose talent as a performer and songwriter is legendary. It would be beyond the scope of this article to fully examine the life and music of her. There is much written about her and I would encourage everyone to search out the story of her life and music, as it is truly worth the interest.
Let’s look at a small glimpse into the remarkable lady. One of her first songs that brought her to the larger public’s attention was “Both Sides Now”. She had recorded her first album a year earlier, known either as “Joni Mitchell” or “Song to a Seagull”, which was well received but only whetted the appetite for what was to come.
Written in March 1967, but not released by Joni until 1969 on her “Clouds” album, it was inspired by a passage in “Henderson the Rain King”, a 1959 novel by Saul Bellow.
I was reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He’s on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.
However, shortly after Mitchell wrote the song, Judy Collins recorded the first commercially released version for her 1967 “Wildflowers” album. Mitchell disliked Collins’ recording of the song, despite the publicity that its success generated for Mitchell’s own career. However, they do remain friends to this day.
Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943 in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada. As her father was a Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant, she moved frequently around Canada as a child. At school Mitchell struggled; her main interest was painting. During this time she briefly studied classical piano. 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”.
At age nine, Mitchell contracted polio in an epidemic, and was hospitalised for weeks. Due to the illness, Mitchell played guitar in different tunings to compensate for the fact her left hand had been weakened by her childhood bout with polio. As a result, her chord shapes, combined with the meandering meters of her more fanciful compositions, tend to resemble jazz more than standard folk or rock. She became heavily involved and recorded several albums with some of the best known Jazz artists throughout her extensive career.
In 1970 she followed up “Clouds” by releasing “Ladies of the Canyon”. That album went platinum and included “Big Yellow Taxi,” an “anti-progress” ditty that stands as one of Mitchell’s signature tunes.
Her fourth album, 1971’s “Blue”, was a stunning suite of songs about romantic disillusionment that stands as a classic in the confessional singer/songwriter mode. It included the songs “Carey,” “My Old Man” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” and “River” (reported to reflect the breakup of her relationship with Graham Nash). Nash had written the hit “Our House”, recorded by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, which told the story of a day he and Joni had shared. The album “Blue” featured guest appearances by James Taylor, another artist she had a relationship with, and other artists.
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… 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.
Starting in 1974 with the release of her next album “Court and Spark”, Mitchell begin the flirtation with jazz and jazz fusion that marked her experimental period ahead and tried to make a clean break with her earlier folk sound. She recorded several albums in this newer style until around 1980.
Joni then started on a new direction to include her previous pop and jazz work and adding an electronic flavor. Mitchell continued experimenting with synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers for the recordings of her next few albums. This phase of her work continued through several albums and collaborations with artists such as Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Wendy & Lisa, Tom Petty, Don Henley, Peter Gabriel, and Benjamin Orr of the Cars. In 1990, Mitchell, who by then rarely performed live anymore, participated in Roger Waters’ “The Wall Concert” in Berlin.
To wider audiences, the real “return to form” for Mitchell came with 1994’s Grammy-winning “Turbulent Indigo”. That was followed by the release of several “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” collections and some new material. This coincided with a much-publicized resurgence in interest in Mitchell’s work by a younger generation of singer-songwriters. She continued to record up to 2007.
In 2009, she began to have health problems. 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. Some feared mental issues were becoming apparent.
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.
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.
On November 7, 2018, she will be seventy-five years old. She doesn’t make public appearances any more.
In 2000, Joni Mitchell recorded the album Both Sides Now. The album was comprised of some standards and some reworkings of some of Joni’s own compositions. Her voice deeper, more haunting, more revealing. Reflections of a life lived. Written at 26 and now sung at age 57 – a woman who has seen more love, more sadness, more joy and more heartbreak than the younger composer. When I first heard this version I was amazed by the whole new feeling and even new meaning the song was given.
Her influence cannot be understated. She has created, inspired, and played with some of the most notable artists of the last fifty years. The official recognition of awards has indicated that.
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 2008, Mitchell was ranked 42nd on Rolling Stone’s “100 greatest singers” list and in 2015 she was ranked ninth on their list of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time. 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. As well, the walkway along Spadina Crescent between Second and Third Avenues was formally named the Joni Mitchell Promenade.
And as I said in the beginning, this is a shortened glimpse into this amazing artist. Her music and story is much more involved and worth the time to investigate, in my opinion.