Joni Mitchell – circa 1970
“And the seasons, they go round and round / And the painted ponies go up and down” – ‘The Circle Game’ (Joni Mitchell)
“I paint my joy and sing my sorrow,” offers Joni Mitchell. This is a neat encapsulation of the twin forces driving the life and career of the Canadian-born singer-songwriter. More so than just about any other performer in the rock industry, Mitchell is an artist. That is, she is a painter and has painted the covers for almost all her album releases. Yet Joni Mitchell is also an artist in the sense that she puts an equivalent amount of thought, creativity and craft into her music too. Both her art and music feed off her personal life. Thus art equals music equals life equals art…in a circle.
The singer who becomes known as Joni Mitchell is born Roberta Joan Anderson on 7 November 1943 in Fort McLeod, Alberta, Canada. Her father, Bill Anderson, is a flight lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Air Force. He trains new pilots. Joni’s mother, Myrtle Anderson (nee McKee), is a teacher.
Joni’s interest in art comes early in life when she draws a doghouse in class and, looking about at the work of her peers, is convinced that she has done the best job. “In the second grade…I forged an image of myself as an artist and…kind of slept through the rest of the curriculum,” she says.
In 1951, when she is 8, young Joni contracts polio in an epidemic that sweeps through Canada. “They said I might not walk again,” Joni recalls of her stay in hospital. “…I would not be able to go home for Christmas. I wouldn’t go for it. So I started singing Christmas carols and I used to sing them really loud…The boy In the bed next to me used to complain. And I discovered I was a ham.” Joni recovers from polio.
The future recording artist attends school in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan. She helps organise dances and socials at her school. “In my teenage years when rock ‘n’ roll was being first born, I loved to dance,” Joni declares. “Rock ‘n’ roll was only on the radio [for an hour each week day and two hours on Saturday]. I hung around two cafes that had juke-boxes…”
Folk music becomes very popular around the turn of the 1960s. Joni first learns to play the ukulele for her own amusement and to play along with the records of The Kingston Trio. This folk music act has a big hit with the song ‘Tom Dooley’ in January 1959. With the aid of an instruction book written by Pete Seeger, a famous folk music performer, Joni teaches herself to play guitar.
Joni sets off to the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, ‘intending to take up a career as a commercial artist.’ However, she gets distracted by folk music and is soon playing gigs at ‘The Depression’, a local coffee-bar. “I was a folk singer in 1964. I sang folk songs,” Joni confirms. She loved dancing as a teenager but, “by my 20s I became a stationary folk singer,” Joni notes, laughing.
Staying still isn’t really on the cards for Roberta Joan Anderson. In 1964 she performs at the Manitoba Folk Festival in Canada. She doesn’t return to Calgary. Instead, Joni moves to Toronto and begins playing in that city’s coffee-bars. The days as an art student are over.
Around this time, Joni writes a song for the first time. It is called ‘Day After Day’. “The moment I began to write my own songs, I was a composer,” Joni insists. “I came in mimicking the music at that particular time, which is folk music [but] I am not a folk musician.” The point the singer is making is that, generally, folk music traffics in keeping alive songs from the distant past. For instance, ‘Tom Dooley’ – the song that was a big hit for The Kingston Trio – was a song that originated in the years just after the American Civil War. Yet not all folk music is non-original. By contrast, Pete Seeger, the man who (indirectly) taught Joni to play guitar, wrote original new folk songs like ‘If I Had A Hammer’ as well as popularising the songs of the past. Yet, in Joni’s estimation, becoming a songwriter changes her into something more than ‘just’ a folk singer.
In 1965 Roberta Joan Anderson gives birth to a daughter, Kelly Dale Anderson. The child’s father is Joni’s ex-boyfriend, Brad MacMath. The single mother puts the child up for adoption. Kelly is raised as Kilauren Gibb.
In Toronto, Joni meets American folk singer Chuck Mitchell. Thirty-six hours after their first encounter, the couple wed in June 1965. It is at this time that Roberta Joan Anderson begins performing under her married name as Joni Mitchell (Joni is pronounced ‘Joanie’, not ‘Johnny’).
In 1966 Chuck and Joni Mitchell relocate to this native country, settling in Detroit, Michigan. They split soon after and divorce later in 1966. Joni Mitchell remains in the U.S.A. She plays gigs around Detroit and this leads to an invitation to play in New York. The performer’s reputation is further enhanced in New York.
In autumn 1967 Joni Mitchell meets Elliott Roberts, who becomes her manager. He secures a recording contract for her with Reprise Records.
it is difficult to describe Joni Mitchell’s early recordings as anything other than folk music, despite her declaration that “I am not a folk musician.” They may not be songs from the distant past – they are original compositions – but they contain all the stylistic markers of folk music. The songs are spare and unadorned. If anyone other than Joni Mitchell appears on the recording, their role is minimal and strictly supportive. Gentle acoustic songs are the life’s blood of folk.
Joni Mitchell is one of the first artists to be placed under a new classification: singer-songwriters. Rock has always had performers who sing their own songs from the early days of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. The singer-songwriters though keep their musical backing plain, soft and simple. The chief characteristic of their sound is its confessional nature. It is intensely personal; a sort of musical version of a diary. Folk music was more political and concerned with social issues. The singer-songwriters turn their gaze inward like some form of psychological therapy. They don’t just wear their hearts on their sleeves; their thoughts, opinions, personal history and self-esteem are all on display. The more raw and unfiltered their work is made, the better it fulfils the purpose.
Aside from her songwriting, Joni Mitchell’s greatest weapon is her voice. “My grandmother was an alto, my mother was an alto. I started in the business as a soprano,” she explains. “I have a three octave range.” Joni Mitchell’s voice is startling and piercing. Many female folk singers – and female singer-songwriters – cultivate a warm, welcoming tone. That’s not for Joni. She is described as having a ‘cold water’ voice. That’s not necessarily a criticism. Yes, a splash of cold water can be shocking or at least bracing. But on a hot day, cold water is a delight, a refreshing corrective. In the same way, Joni Mitchell’s voice can be a welcome antidote to overheated pop music.
Usually, Joni Mitchell’s musical accompaniment is her own acoustic guitar. As with her voice, this too offers unexpected qualities. The standard gentle strumming of more reserved artists has no place here. Mitchell either picks out notes as sharp as icicles or provides a surprisingly forceful, percussive rhythm on those nylon strings. On some songs she favours a piano rather than a guitar, but this instrument is also given a sturdy bite at her hands. Despite the vibrant colours of her music, the overall effect is still calm and gentle, a consequence of the limited palette in use.
To complete the picture, Joni Mitchell usually acts as the producer of her own recordings as well as the singer, songwriter and performer.
Elliott Roberts, Joni Mitchell’s manager, is also the manager of folk harmony trio Crosby, Stills And Nash. Thus it is Dave Crosby who offers to act as the producer for the singer-songwriter’s first album. Stephen Stills plays bass on this set. ‘Joni Mitchell’ (a.k.a. ‘Song To A Seagull’) (1968) (US no. 189) is her debut, released in March. This set includes ‘I Had A King’, a song chronicling the disintegration of the singer’s relationship with Chuck Mitchell.
Joni Mitchell first comes to general notice through other folk-based artists recording her songs. Judy Collins’ album ‘Wildflowers’ (1967) includes two Joni Mitchell compositions, ‘Michael From Mountains’ and ‘Both Sides Now’, the latter becoming a hit for Collins in 1968. Tom Rush’s ‘The Circle Game’ (1968) uses Mitchell’s song of the same name as the title track. In the U.K., Fairport Convention tackles ‘Eastern Rain’. Johnny Cash and Gordon Lightfoot are two more artists who record Joni Mitchell’s songs in this period.
Also around this time, Joni Mitchell is briefly romantically linked with another aspiring singer-songwriter, Jackson Browne.
‘Clouds’ (1969) (US no. 31), Joni Mitchells’ second album, features her own version of ‘Both Sides Now’. In successive verses, she looks at clouds [giving the album its title], love, and life from ‘Both Sides Now’. This kind of repetitive construction is a trait borrowed from folk music. However, rather than seeming immature, this formal structure lends the song a simple, moving beauty: “But now old friends are acting strange / They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed / Well something’s lost, but something’s gained / In living ev’ry day.” ‘Chelsea Morning’ is as sunny as breakfast cereal: “There was milk and toast and honey and a bowl of oranges, too / And the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses.”
On 15-17 August 1969 the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is held in upstate New York. Joni Mitchell does not perform on the all-star bill for the concert. Her friends, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young appear – now augmented by Neil Young, another Canadian-born singer-songwriter. Despite not playing at Woodstock, Joni Mitchell writes a song memorialising the event.
On 17 February 1970, after a shown at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England, Joni Mitchell announces her retirement from live performance. It is short-lived. She is putting on shows again within a year. However it is evidence of her unease with the celebrity of her role. Despite having described herself as ‘a ham’, there is an inbuilt shyness to Joni Mitchell as well, perhaps due to the reliance on autobiography in her work.
‘Ladies Of The Canyon’ (1970) (US no. 27, UK no. 8, AUS no. 22) in April, is Joni Mitchell’s third album. The title refers to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, California, a hippie enclave for the young, wealthy, trendy and artistic. Of course it is where Joni Mitchell now spends most of her time. This album contains her version of ‘The Circle Game’, a gentle, pastel picture of childhood and life. It is made all the more charming by the rather disorganised male backing vocals of the Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir. ‘The Circle Game’ is Joni Mitchell’s finest song. One of her signature pieces is ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (US no. 67, AUS no. 6), a hard-strummed ode to her (and our) inability to recognise the value in what you have at the time: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” Echoing the folk-based structure of ‘Both Sides Now’, in successive verses Joni mourns the loss of paradise, trees, pesticide-free farm produce, and her “old man” – who leaves in the titular ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Actually, ‘mourns’ may not be the right word since she giggles through the song. “I do write jolly songs from time to time,” asserts the author. Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’, an account of the previous year’s rock festival, is present on this set: “By the time we got to Woodstock / We were half a million strong / And everywhere there was song and celebration.” Joni’s reading is harsh and disorienting, and based on a strident electric piano. By this time, Joni Mitchell has a new boyfriend, Graham Nash, the British-born member of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young. The song ‘Willy’ is a tribute to him, using Nash’s nickname.
The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album ‘Déjà Vu’ (1970), released the same month as ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’, allows Graham Nash to portray his side of the relationship in the cosy domesticity of ‘Our House’. This album also includes the quartet’s version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’. A radically different hard rock arrangement makes this superior to Mitchell’s own rendering which is much harder to warm to. (Ian) Matthews’ Southern Comfort is a U.K. outfit fronted by a former member of Fairport Convention that has a hit with their version of ‘Woodstock’.
Joni Mitchell performs at the Isle of Wight Pop Festival held in England on 26-31 December 1970. Hundreds of non-paying fans crash the concert leading to some overcrowding. During Joni Mitchell’s set, one concert-goer leaps on stage, grabs the microphone and cries, “This is just a hippie concentration camp!” ‘Mitchell bursts into tears.’
Joni Mitchell’s ‘brief affair’ with Graham Nash is over by this point.
“I think that I began to write intimately about my feelings at the time of my fourth album,” Joni Mitchell reflects, “and that those emotions found fertile ground in other people’s unexpressed feelings.” With a titter, she adds, “It could be said that I expressed the inexpressible.” That fourth album is ‘Blue’ (1971) (US no. 15, UK no. 3), Joni Mitchell’s masterwork. In a more sombre mood, she says, “At that period of my life, I had no personal defences. 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. Or to be happy.” This is perhaps most apparent in ‘River’, a cold solo piano piece. “It’s coming on Christmas,” she sings as the melody strays toward ‘Jingle Bells’. But Joni’s thoughts are far from festive. “I made my baby cry,” she notes, and “He tried hard to help me.” Her ambivalence towards show business also surfaces here in the lines, “I’m going to make a lot of money / Then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.” This album is ‘written primarily during a European vacation’ and ‘California’ finds her feeling homesick. “It’s too old and cold and settled in its ways here,” she sings of Paris, France. Yet, when she speaks of California, there is only a weary resignation in the tone of her voice and the wandering musical arrangement. ‘Carey’ (US no. 93) has an ocean breeze melody but, again, “You know it sure is hard to leave here / But it’s really not my home.” ‘This Flight Tonight’ is achingly lonely, while ‘All I Want’ and ‘A Case Of You’ have ‘the intimacy and heat of anguished private love letters.’ By ‘turning the sadness into tender art’, ‘Blue’ is ‘an incomparable album.’
Two of the musicians appearing on ‘Blue’ are Stephen Stills and another singer-songwriter, James Taylor. The latter is described as one of Joni Mitchell’s lovers. Hollywood movie star Warren Beatty is also said to be romantically linked to the fair-haired folk goddess in 1971.
‘For The Roses’ (1972) (US no. 11, AUS no. 19) sees Joni Mitchell making some changes. Firstly, this is released by Asylum Records, rather than Reprise. Mitchell’s manager, Elliott Roberts, co-owns Asylum with David Geffen, so it makes sense for his charge to be on his own label. Secondly, her music shifts away from spare folk arrangements towards glossy pop with some jazz inflections. The album’s best known track, ‘You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio’ (US no. 25, AUS no. 37), shows more of a country influence with old flame Graham Nash supplying some harmonica playing. In the flirty lyrics, Joni Mitchell observes, “I know you don’t like weak women / You get bored so quick / And you don’t like strong women / ‘Cause they’re hip to your tricks.” This ‘underrated’ album is ‘a set of harmonically and lyrically complex songs.’
In 1972 Joni Mitchell is briefly romantically linked to another Hollywood actor, Jack Nicholson.
January’s ‘Court And Spark’ (1974) (US no. 2, UK no. 14, AUS no. 34) is Joni Mitchell’s sixth album and ‘her most commercially successful outing.’ Mitchells’ interest in jazz takes on greater weight as she begins working with horn player Tom Scott and his group, L.A. Express. Their drummer, John Guerin, has ‘an affair’ with Joni Mitchell. Tom Scott provides a lot of the musical arrangements on this disc so his influence is quite pronounced. Despite the clever jazz touches, this is a ‘smoother and more straight-ahead’ recording than its predecessor. This may be manifested most obviously on the cool poise of ‘Help Me’ (US no. 7). Backed by a small band, Joni Mitchell points out “We love our lovin’ / But not like we love our freedom.” The much busier ‘Raised On Robbery’ (US no. 65) is also more blustery and amusing. Robbie Robertson, of roots-rockers The Band, contributes electric guitar to this track. Graham Nash resurfaces among the backing vocalists for ‘Free Man In Paris’ (US no. 22). This hymn to artistic independence contains Mitchell’s most pointed attempt to bite the hand that feeds her, decrying her plight in “Stoking the star maker machinery / Behind the popular song.” This album is also host to ‘The Same Situation’; the ‘miniature pop-jazz suite’ titled ‘Down To You’; and a cover version of ‘Twisted’ by ‘scat-jazz vocal group Lambert, Hendricks And Ross.’ The last-named piece is written by Annie Ross. This marks the first time Joni Mitchell has recorded the work of another composer and it shows her trying to establish her credibility as a jazz artist.
The live album, ‘Miles Of Aisles’ (1974) (US no. 2, UK no. 34, AUS no. 46), is issued in November.
‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ (1975) (US no. 4, UK no. 14, AUS no. 62) continues the ‘glistening pop-jazz arrangements’, but pushes into ‘bold, almost avant-garde’ territory. The lyrics are ‘more distanced’ and less personal. Not only does Joni Mitchell play guitar and piano on this set, she also experiments with the electronic textures of synthesisers. At the other extreme, ‘The Jungle Line’ features African Burundi drums. Joni Mitchell’s cover painting for this album, utilising a photograph by Norman Seef, may be her best piece of graphic imagery. A row of African warriors carry a large serpent past an industrialised urban landscape. This, of course, symbolises the contrast between the disparate musical elements like Burundi drums and synthesisers.
‘Hejira’ (1976) (US no. 13, UK no. 11, AUS no. 38), ‘a collection of travel songs’, balances opposing impulses. It’s a more lean and spare sound, accurately described as ‘ghostly’, yet it is also ‘abstract [and] experimental’. Jaco Pastorius, the bassist from jazz rock ensemble Weather Report, plays on this album, but Joni Mitchell’s own guitar remains central. Lyrically, while using travel as a unifying theme (e.g. ‘Hejira’ and ‘Refuge Of The Roads’), Mitchell also bends it back into her own personal disquiet (e.g. ‘Coyote’ and ‘Song For Sharon’).
On ‘Don Juan’s Restless Daughter’ (1977) (US no. 25, UK no. 20, AUS no. 39) the songs are mostly ‘long, largely improvisational pieces.’ ‘Paprika Plains’ is called ‘a quasi-symphonic dream song.’ Another member of Weather Report, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, shows up on this disc.
Joni Mitchells’ jazz fixation reaches some sort of climax in a collaboration with legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus. The idea is to create a musical interpretation of poet T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ with Mitchell providing lyrics to Mingus’ musical ideas. However, Mingus passes away on 4 January 1979 before the project is completed. Joni Mitchell is left to bring the ambitious enterprise to fruition alone. It is issued as ‘Mingus’ (1979) (US no. 17, UK no. 24, AUS no. 44) in June. The set also includes a cover version of one of the late jazz giant’s more famous songs, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’.
After cleansing the palate with another live album, ‘Shadows And Light’ (1980) (US no. 38, UK no. 63, AUS no. 70), Joni Mitchell takes stock and reorients herself.
David Geffen, the former head of Asylum Records, strikes out on his own with his upmarket prestige label, Geffen Records. Joni Mitchell joins this stable and ‘Wild Things Run Fast’ (1982) (US no. 25, UK no. 32, AUS no. 51) is issued on Geffen in October. The opening track, ‘Chinese Café / Unchained Melody’, is a nostalgic look back at the singer’s own youth. It interweaves a cover of Roy Hamilton’s 1955 hit ‘Unchained Melody’ with Mitchell’s own reflections such as “My child’s a stranger / I bore her / But I could not raise her.” Such sepia tones are not representative of the album as a whole. There are still some light jazz-pop passages and jazz great Miles Davis plays trumpet on ‘Moon At My Window’, but, surprisingly, most of this record is straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. There is a cover version of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s ‘(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care’ (US no. 47), a song first recorded by Elvis Presley in 1957. It’s quite startling to hear Joni romp through such ebullient originals as ‘Solid Love’, ‘You Dream Flat Tires’ and ‘Underneath The Streetlight’. Part of the reason for her new mood is she is in love again. Larry Klein, who plays bass on the album, is the new man in her life.
Larry Klein becomes Joni Mitchell’s second husband on 21 November 1982. The ceremony takes place at the Malibu, California, home of Joni’s manager, Elliott Roberts.
Synthesiser whiz-kid Thomas Dolby co-produces ‘Dog Eat Dog’ (1985) (US no. 63, UK no. 57, AUS no. 86) and, unsurprisingly, this album is ‘synth driven’. Electronics also dominate on ‘Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm’ (1988) (US no. 45, UK no. 26, AUS no. 44). Lyrically, these sets target, respectively, right wing politics and shallow materialism.
‘Night Ride Home’ (1991) (US no. 41, UK no. 25, AUS no. 55), co-produced by Larry Klein, returns Joni Mitchell to a more basic musical setting. This is used to good advantage on ‘Come In From The Cold’, another glimpse of Joni’s youth, set in 1957.
Joni Mitchell and Larry Klein separate before her next album, though he sticks around to co-produce ‘Turbulent Indigo’ (1994) (US no. 47, UK no. 53) in October. From this album, Joni Mitchell returns to her original record label, Reprise. Mitchell and Klein divorce in 1994.
In 1996 Joni Mitchell meets Kilauren Gibb again, the daughter she gave up for adoption when the child was born.
‘Taming The Tiger’ (1998) (US no. 75, UK no. 57) is Joni Mitchell’s next album. ‘Both Sides Now’ (2000) (US no. 66, UK no. 50) attempts to tell the story of a relationship via old jazz standards such as ‘You’re My Thrill’ and ‘Stormy Weather’. Two of Mitchell’s own compositions, ‘A Case Of You’ and ‘Both Sides Now’, are reinterpreted for the project. Similarly, ‘Travelogue’ (2002) on Nonesuch, features orchestral versions of Joni Mitchell’s past glories. In October 2002, Joni Mitchell formally announces her retirement…until ‘Shine’ (2007) (US no. 14, UK no. 36, AUS no. 71) is issued on Hear Music.
“My talent would have burned out a long time ago as a writer and musician if it wasn’t for the painting,” Joni Mitchell once said. Certainly the two creative outlets give her a chance to recharge herself by changing her focus. Yet, inevitably, both draw on her life and experiences, so there is a common thread despite them being different disciplines. Perhaps it is this reliance on the personal side of her life that makes Joni Mitchell’s earlier folk-infused albums her most satisfying. In these intimate sketches, the true Joni Mitchell is most clearly visible. Beyond the ambition, the shyness, the many loves, the unease with the commercial side of the recording industry, the rock, jazz and electronics, it Is the small flame of her own personality, her core, which shines brightest in the simplest settings. ‘Joni Mitchell…brought an unprecedented candour and poetic aspiration to her confessional lyrics…’ ‘When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late twentieth century.’
- ‘Charlie Rose’s Green Room’ (U.S. television program) – Joni Mitchell interview conducted by Charlie Rose (2003)
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 146
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 146
- wikipedia.org as at 29 July 2013
- You Tube – Joni Mitchell video interview (12 September 2012)
- ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 186, 188
- Canadian (?) television interview with Joni Mitchell (1991)
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 13, 44, 161, 169, 175, 263, 294, 319, 346
- jonimitchell.com as at 26 August 2013
- allmusic.com, ‘Joni Mitchell’ by Jason Ankeny as at 14 May 2003
- ‘The Andrew Mark Show’ (AM – Artist and Musician) – Joni Mitchell interview (12 February 2007)
- whosdatedwho.com as at 26 August 2013
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 41, 49
- ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘The Evolution of the Singer-Songwriter’ by Stephen Holden (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 483, 484
- German (?) television interview with Joni Mitchell (1980s?) [Note: 1, 7, 11 & 15 are bundled together as ‘Reluctant Superstar: Joni Mitchell Interviews Compilation Pt. 4’ – posted on You Tube 4 August 2012.]
Song lyrics copyright Crazy Crow Music (BMI) with the exceptions of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and ‘Woodstock’ (both Siquomb Publishing Corp. (BMI); and ‘Carey’, ‘California’ and ‘River’ (all three Joni Mitchell Publishing Corp. (BMI))
Last revised 19 November 2013