JONI MITCHELL (Roberta Joan Anderson)

MITCHELL, JONI (Roberta Joan Anderson) (1943– ) Singer, Musician, Songwriter

Revered as one of the greatest popular singer-song-writers, Joni Mitchell created a seamless melding of folk, rock, and jazz in her classic albums Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974). Born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, she grew up in poverty in rural Alberta, Canada. Living in a shack without indoor plumbing, she endured a series of ailments as a child. She suffered from a burst appendix and a near-fatal case of measles before contracting polio at age nine. Paralyzed by the illness, she endured a year of painful rehabilitation to recover her ability to walk. Mitchell later maintained the experience made her an artist, explaining, “Staring into the eyes of death as a young person deepens you a lot.”

Moving with her family to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Joan Anderson developed a passion for music and painting in her teens. At 13, she started calling herself Joni, largely because she liked the look of it when she signed her artwork. Working as a model, she earned enough money to enroll in the Alberta College of Art in Calgary. Her studies were halted, however, when at 20 she became pregnant by a fellow student. Together, they moved to Toronto but soon separated. An unwed mother with no income, Anderson hastily married folk singer Chuck Mitchell. Moving to Detroit, the couple stayed together for only two years. After they separated, Joni Mitchell gave up her daughter for adoption.

Hoping to become a folk singer, Mitchell headed for Manhattan and tried to break into the music scene. Although the folk movement of the early 1960s was by then dying out, other singers encouraged her. Soon artists such as BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE and Judy Collins were regularly performing covers of her songs. Through the help of a friend, singer David Crosby, Mitchell secured a contract with Reprise Records. Her first album,  Joni Mitchell: Song to a Seagull (1968), did moderately well. It was followed with Clouds (1969), which like many of her albums to come featured a painting by Mitchell on the cover. The album was a critical and popular success, buoyed by Judy Collins’s hit cover of Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now.” Collins’s recording became the eighth best-selling single of 1968. Mitchell’s reputation grew with Ladies of the Canyon (1970). It included the songs “Big Yellow Taxi, ”which later became a hit for Mitchell, and “Woodstock,” a hippie anthem successfully covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Mitchell won her greatest acclaim yet for her album Blue (1971). The lyrics recounted her failed love affairs, including romances with rock artists Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and Graham Nash.

The intimacy of her confessional songs jolted her audience. As Mitchell once said, “At the time of Blue, our pop stars never admitted these things.”After Blue, Mitchell took a hiatus from performing, though she continued to record on the Asylum label. In 1972, Mitchell’s weariness with the music business revealed itself in  For the Roses, which she thought might be her farewell album. Instead, she returned to the studio to produce Court and Spark (1974). Backed by Tom Scott and the L.A. Express, the album had a jazz sound then rarely heard in popular rock. With this band, she also recorded a successful live album, Miles of Aisles (1974).

Throughout the rest of 1970s, she continued adding jazz elements into her work in such albums as Hejira (1976) and  Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977). Not all of Mitchell’s fans appreciated her new sound. Her experiments also confounded critics who had previously championed her work. Rolling Stone magazine went as far as naming her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns the worst record of 1975. Her musical courage, however, won the admiration of one of her idols, jazz great Charles Mingus. Mingus and Mitchell began collaborating on an album, but he died before it was completed. Mitchell released Mingus (1979) as a tribute to her friend. Too jazz-infiuenced for rock fans and too rock-infiuenced for jazz enthusiasts, the album was a critical and commercial disappointment.

Mitchell once contended that Mingus “pretty much cost me my airplay, my radio presence.” Certainly, her albums of the 1980s—such as Wild Things Run Fast (1982) and Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988)—were largely ignored by critics and record buyers alike. For Mitchell, the decline in her popularity proved liberating. “Once I realized that I had fallen out of favor, I decided to stretch out,” she later explained. Encouraging her musical experiments was Larry Klein, a record producer she had married in 1982.

By the 1990s, record buyers who had grown up with her music from the 1970s were coming into power in the music industry. Largely because of their support,  Night Ride Home (1991) was her most well-received recording in a decade. Her next album, Turbulent Indigo (1994), won even broader acclaim. Once shunned by music insiders, Mitchell was awarded the Grammy for the best album of the year.

Mitchell’s career upswing coincided with a period of personal turmoil. In 1992, Mitchell and Klein divorced. By the middle of the decade, she was beginning to suffer from post-polio syndrome, leaving her with muscle and joint aches that made performing increasingly difficult. After beginning a search for the daughter she had put up for adoption, Mitchell had a well-publicized reunion with her child, now named Kilauren Gibb.

Mitchell has since returned to the studio, releasing Taming the Tiger (1998) and Both Sides Now (2000), the latter an album mostly of standards from the 1940s and 1950s. Through her music, both old and new, Mitchell continues to inspire new artists with her emotional honesty and fearless experimentation.

Further Reading
Fleischer, Leonore.  Joni Mitchell. New York: Flash Books, 1976.
Luftig, Stacey, ed. The Joni Mitchell Companion. New York: Schirmer Books, 2000.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances

Blue (1971). Warner Brothers, CD, 1987.
Court and Spark (1974). Elektra Entertainment, CD, 1987.
Joni Mitchell: Painting with Words and Music (1998). Image Entertainment, DVD/VHS, 1999.
Mingus (1979). Elektra Entertainment, CD, 1987.
Turbulent Indigo.Warner Brothers, CD, 1994.