Born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada; daughter of William A. (a grocery store manager) and Myrtle M. (a teacher; maiden name, McKee) Anderson; married Chuck Mitchell (a musician), 1965; divorced, c. 1967; married Larry Klein (a musician and producer), 1982; divorced, 1992; children: Kilauren Gibb (with Brad McMath). Education: Attended Alberta College of Art, Calgary, Alberta. Addresses: Record company--Reprise Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510. Website--Joni Mitchell Official Website: http://www.jonimitchell.com.
"The pop arena is a harsh world, really," mused Joni Mitchell in an interview with Nicholas Jennings for Maclean's. "It moves you up and down arbitrarily, regardless of the quality of your work." Mitchell's comments reflect the sometimes bittersweet nature of her long and varied musical career. Hailed by the New Rolling Stone Record Guide as "the most significant of the confessional singer/songwriters" after the release of her first few albums, Mitchell saw her critical and popular audience trickle away during the mid-1970s and 1980s. Yet by the mid-1990s she had come full circle, boosted by the strength of acclaimed new albums and a critical reevaluation of much of her '70s output.
Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in a remote town on the cold, windswept plains of northwestern Canada. The artist remembers where her family lived in the hardscrabble hamlets of Alberta, bereft of creature comforts. Mitchell's childhood was a troubled one, for she was beset by a series of ailments that battered her small body. "At three my appendix burst, and they rushed me to the hospital," she told White. "Then I had German measles and red measles, one of which nearly killed me. At eight I had chicken pox and scarlet fever, plus the arbitrary tonsillitis." The darkest shadow that fell over her childhood, though, was polio, and as she indicated to Vogue writer Charles Gandee in 1995, the specter of that disease continues to haunt her. "I had polio at the age of nine. My spine was twisted up like a train wreck. I couldn't walk. I was paralyzed. Forty years later it comes back with a vengeance. It's like multiple sclerosis. It means your electrical system burns out and your muscles begin to atrophy. It means impending paraplegia."
Faced Difficult Recovery from Polio
After an excruciatingly painful recovery, Mitchell attended high school. Her mediocre academic performance was offset to some degree by her blossoming passion for music, painting, and art. "I was always the school artist," she told People contributor Michael Small. "I did the backdrops for plays [and] illustrated the yearbook and the school newspaper." After graduating from high school, she enrolled at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary. She left Calgary a year later and headed east, eventually landing in Toronto. Shortly after Mitchell made her first tentative appearances on the city's fledgling folk music circuit, an unplanned pregnancy proved to be a jarring interruption in her life. "I was twenty," she told White, "and it was a crush with a fellow painter, and I got pregnant immediately. To be pregnant and unmarried in 1964 was like you killed somebody." She subsequently met Chuck Mitchell, an older folksinger, who said he would "take us on," she said in her interview with Gandee. "I was kind of railroaded.... We were never suitable. I went down the aisle saying, 'I can get out of this.'"
The couple, who married a month after they met, subsequently took up residence in Detroit, but the marriage disintegrated within about two years. Emotionally drained and financially bare, Mitchell also gave up her daughter for adoption. "For years I didn't talk about this because of my parents, although I did leak little things, little messages into my songs for the child, just to let her know I was thinking about her," she told White.
Mitchell moved to Manhattan, where she threw herself into establishing a place on the local music scene. Her reputation grew, but work was still sometimes elusive. "The year Dylan went electric (1965) the folk clubs started closing all over the country," she told Susan Gordon Lydon in the New York Times. "It was like an epidemic.... In those days, if you only played acoustical guitar, club owners treated you as though you were a dinosaur."
She persevered, though, and with the help of Byrds vocalist David Crosby she eventually signed with Reprise Records. Her debut album, 1968's Joni Mitchell, was produced by Crosby, although Mitchell concedes that his influence was actually fairly minimal. The album, a simple affair that featured Mitchell's soaring singing voice and skillful acoustic guitar work, garnered immediate attention. Clouds, her second album, explored the same terrain as her first work: romanticism, emotional confusion, and other affairs of the heart.
Banging on Stardom's Door
"A major impetus for Mitchell's work at this time," contended Dave Laing and Phil Hardy in the Encyclopedia of Rock, "was the struggle to make sense of a personal failure to find lasting satisfaction in any of her well-publicized relationships." Mitchell's 1970 release, Ladies of the Canyon, showed that she was continuing to develop musically. While her daring vocals and crisp acoustic guitar playing continued to anchor her sound, additional instrumentation effectively complemented several of the album's songs.
With 1971's Blue, Mitchell's already shining critical reputation took another giant step forward. The album featured such classics as "The Last Time I Saw Richard," "California," "This Flight Tonight," and the title track, and stunned reviewers marveled at the honesty, longing, and intelligence that underpinned the entire effort. Rolling Stone reviewer Timothy Crouse wrote that on Blue, Mitchell has "matched her popular music skills with the purity and honesty of what was once called folk music and through the blend she has given us some of the most beautiful moments in recent popular music." White later commented that "the resoundingly intimate Blue stretched the tape measure for unfathomed personal inquiry until it snapped free of the spool. The deeper Mitchell delved, the higher her untethered singing flew, trembling with tortured liberty."
The subject matter of Mitchell's songs, though--and their inevitable coupling to her romantic relationships with such well-known artists as Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and Graham Nash--led some magazines to pay greater attention to her personal life than her musical output. Mitchell began to explore different musical directions and less introspective subjects for her songs, only to find her visibility in the entertainment world slowly ebb away. Albums such as For the Roses (1972); Court and Spark (1974), which included Mitchell's only Top 20 hit "Help Me"; and Hejira (1976) received hearty words of appreciation, but others were treated less kindly. Rolling Stone even called Mitchell's 1975 release, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, the worst record of the year.
Bold and creative experiments, such as her tribute to dying jazz great Charles Mingus on Mingus (1979), met with indifference or critical barbs from many quarters, and by the early 1980s Mitchell's popularity had fallen significantly. "I lost some people when I went from singing 'I' to singing 'you.' I lost some people when I added a band," she explained to Gandee. Ironically, though, her fading in the public eye served to liberate Mitchell. "Once I realized that I had fallen from favor, I decided to stretch out.... I can't pander to public opinion. Besides, the fact is no matter how talented you are, you fall out of favor." Indeed, Mitchell never appeared to question the value of her output; as she told Gandee, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are "my real peers. We're the poets of that generation."
In 1982 Mitchell married record producer Larry Klein, and over the course of the decade she released three fine albums on Geffen Records--Wild Things Run Fast, Dog Eat Dog, and Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm--that were largely ignored. Undeterred by the tepid reception of each album, Mitchell continued to explore new musical avenues while also indulging her lifelong passion for painting. (A number of Mitchell's albums feature her own artwork on covers or inner sleeves.)
Night Ride Home, Mitchell's 1991 release, received warm reviews. The album seemed to spark a slow stir in the music community as some people questioned the songwriter's long exile in the musical wilderness. Three years later, Mitchell unveiled Turbulent Indigo, the seventeenth album in her long and varied career. Entertainment Weekly contributor Linda Sanders echoed the sentiments of many when she called the album "the distilled essence of everything she's done before." As critics raved about the musical and lyrical depth of the album, Mitchell assumed a visibility in the industry she had not seen since the mid-1970s.
Recognition in the 1990s
In retrospect, critics returned to Mitchell's earlier albums, and some began to give greater thought to her place in pop music history. Sanders, for example, conceded that "all she's really managed to deliver in the course of sixteen albums is one of the most vivid and delicious chronicles of a woman's life that's ever been produced in any medium anytime, anyplace." In Guitar Player, Martin Simpson called her "perhaps the most influential female guitarist of the century," and a huge influx of young female singer/songwriters cited the impact of Mitchell's music on their lives.
The early 1990s were transitional years for Mitchell in many ways. While recognition of her talent ascended once again, her personal life was rocked by several blows. She divorced Klein in 1992, though she noted in her interview with Gandee that their relationship endures, albeit in a different form. "We've come through this thing. It's poignant sometimes. We went out the other night. He was playing with Shawn Colvin, and they invited me to come down and sit in. You have to readjust. I imagine that it will be a lifetime friendship."
Mitchell's childhood bout with polio also returned to haunt her. She admitted to White in 1995 that she suffers from post-polio syndrome, a malady wherein "the wiring in my central nervous system is overtaxed, and when I don't conserve my energy, the disease manifests itself in loss of animation. Last year and the year before I was experiencing a lot of muscle aches, joint aches, and extreme sensitivity to temperature changes."
Despite her physical difficulties, however, Mitchell has launched a cautious return to concert performing. In 1994 she performed at the Edmonton Folk Festival, playing her first full-length set in six years before an appreciative audience of fans and relatives. "It had a homecoming kind of feeling," remarked Mitchell in Guitar Player. She has turned to a variety of medical treatments to stave off her illness, and she remained defiant about her chances in the mid-1990s. "The polio survivor is a stubborn creature. I'm in good spirits, and high spirits is how I beat it before," she told Gandee.
In the mid-1990s Mitchell received several notable awards, further indication that she had come full circle in the eyes of the music community. Late in 1995, Mitchell was named the recipient of Billboard magazine's Century Award, and she won the Royal Swedish Academy of Music's Polar Music Prize in 1996. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, securing her place in the annals of music history.
Another major event occurred in 1997--Mitchell, for the first time in over 30 years, was reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption. Kilauren Gibb, a former model and mother of two who bears a striking resemblance to Mitchell, discovered who her birth mother was while surfing the Internet. "We're more like sisters," she said of her daughter to W magazine. "Our relationship is beautiful--since I didn't raise her, we don't have the scar tissue that's frequently built up between mother and daughter."
Following her successful comeback in the mid-1990s, Mitchell continued to steadily release material, both new and reworked. In 1996, she released the albums Hits and Misses, and Taming the Tiger in 1998, which received a lukewarm reception. She took a break from songwriting following Taming the Tiger, concentrating solely on her vocals on 2000's Both Sides Now. Accompanied for the first time by a orchestra made of 71 people at times, Mitchell's voice confidently soared over the music. She described the experience to Down Beat's Jason Koransky, "The best analogy that I can come up with is surfing. The difference between this and other beautiful experiences that I've had is the grand scale of it, the enormous power of the orchestra."
Travelogue appeared in 2002, a collection of Mitchell's songs reworked, expanded on, and rerecorded. She contemplated, once again, retiring from the music industry, which she had grown to disdain, but didn't commit to anything. "When the dust settles," wrote All Music Guide reviewer Jason Ankeny, "Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential recording artist of the late 20th century. Uncompromising and iconoclastic, Mitchell confounded expectations at every turn." Mitchell won a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2002.
by Kevin Hillstrom
Joni Mitchell's Career
Worked as a singer in folk clubs while living in Toronto, Detroit, and New York City, 1964-69; released first album, Joni Mitchell, 1968; first chart single, "Big Yellow Taxi," released in 1970 on Ladies of the Canyon; released Blue, 1971; turned increasingly to jazz-influenced work, late 1970s; returned to public performance after six years, 1994; released Travelogue, 2002.
Joni Mitchell's Awards
Grammy Award, Best Folk Performance for Clouds, 1970; Orville H. Gibson Award, 1995; Billboard Century Award, 1995; Royal Swedish Academy of Music, Polar Music Prize, 1996; induction, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1997; Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, 2002.
- Selected discography
- Joni Mitchell , Reprise, 1968.
- Clouds , Reprise, 1969.
- Ladies of the Canyon , Reprise, 1970.
- Blue , Reprise, 1971.
- For the Roses , Asylum, 1972.
- Court and Spark , Asylum, 1974.
- Miles of Aisles , Asylum, 1974.
- The Hissing of Summer Lawns , Asylum, 1975.
- Hejira , Asylum, 1976.
- Don Juan's Reckless Daughter , Asylum, 1977.
- Mingus , Asylum, 1979.
- Shadows and Light , Asylum, 1980.
- Wild Things Run Fast , Geffen, 1982.
- Dog Eat Dog , Geffen, 1985.
- Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm , Geffen, 1988.
- Night Ride Home , Geffen, 1991.
- Turbulent Indigo , Reprise, 1994.
- Hits , Reprise, 1996.
- Misses , Reprise, 1996.
- Taming the Tiger , Reprise, 1998.
- Both Sides Now , Reprise, 2000.
- Travelogue , Warner, 2002.
- Hardy, Phil, and Dave Laing, Encyclopedia of Rock, Schirmer Books, 1988.
- Marsh, Dave, and John Swenson, New Rolling Stone Record Guide, Random House, 1983.
- Billboard, December 9, 1995; December 16, 1995; September 8, 2001.
- Down Beat, May 2000.
- Entertainment Weekly, March 1, 1991.
- Guitar Player, February 1995, p. 55.
- Maclean's, June 1974; October 31, 1994.
- New York Times, April 20, 1969; November 7, 1982.
- People, December 16, 1985.
- Record World, March 6, 1976.
- Rolling Stone, August 5, 1971; October 15, 1992; December 15, 1994.
- Time, November 28, 1994.
- Toronto Star, March 2, 2003.
- Vogue, April 1995, p. 191.
- W, December 2002.
- "Joni Mitchell," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (April 22, 2003).
- Joni Mitchell Official Website, http://www.jonimitchell.com (April 23, 2003).