Artist Spotlight: Joni Mitchell

Roberta Joan Anderson (b. November 7, 1943) overcame a lifetime’s worth of hardship — disease, heartbreak, and childbearing at an early age — and channeled her pain, frustration, joy and sense of wonder into one of the most extraordinary artistic legacies of the modern age. As Joni Mitchell, she established a brand-new, entirely singular performer archetype while recording a string of classic albums that sound every bit as vital and necessary going on 40 years later. It hardly courts controversy to suggest she is the single most revered and accomplished female musician of the 20th century. But her work transcended her gender as much as exemplified it, and her achievements destroyed the boundaries of what a woman in the recording industry could accomplish, attaining an unprecedented level of success and respect among audiences, critics and peers.And yet, during a period of monumental social change and barrier-smashing revolution, she offered one of the era’s most vivid and timely perspectives by remaining resolutely personal, and fiercely independent. Any trace of advocacy or activism in her songwriting came through the prism of the emotions she explored and the devastating losses she experienced firsthand. Her revolution was in the baring of her soul through her art. It was an approach that would come to be termed the “confessional singer-songwriter” and be emulated by countless others. As she puts it in 1975’s “Song For Sharon”:

Well there’s a wide world of noble causes
And lovely landscapes to discover
But all I really want to do right now
Is find another lover

Growing up in Saskatchewan, all young Joni wanted to do was become an artist. It wasn’t until polio confined her to hospital beds and stole her ability to paint that she discovered a love for singing. Soon she took to the guitar, the instrument on which she would become known for composing in open tunings to accommodate her polio-stricken fingers. These alternate tuning styles resulted in some of her biggest hit songs (like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio”) and further developed her unique playing and writing style.Following an abortive stint at art school, Joni turned her full attention to music, debuting in Toronto’s folk scene at the age of 20. Already slow to gain traction, her career faced its first major setback in 1964, when she found out she was pregnant. With few options available to Canadian women at the time, Joni resolved to bear the child and put her up for adoption. She describes the ordeal in the heartrending Little Green”:

Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers
In the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed
Oh, Little Green — have a happy ending.

Only a few months into resuming her career in earnest, Joni met and wed the American folk singer Chuck Mitchell, taking on the name that would far eclipse recognition of the man it came from. The two performed as a husband-and-wife folk duo around Chuck’s hometown Detroit, earning a steady diet of regular coffeehouse gigs and a handful of television appearances.In 1967, Joni divorced Chuck (see track 1 of the debut, “I Had A King”, for more details) and left Detroit for New York, where Joni began to reinvent herself as a songwriter. Her songs would be recorded and performed by the likes of Tom Hunt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Judy Collins during this period. A gig in Florida led to a connection with David Crosby, who would assist in the production and release of her debut album.

Song To A Seagull turned out to be quite unrepresentative not just of earlier artist’s versions of Joni songs up to this point, but also of anything Joni would go on to record. The mood is mostly icy and stark — only “Night In The City” and “Cactus Tree” have the warmth and intimacy of Joni’s best work. And yet certain features define her signature style almost immediately, starting with her unmistakable voice. A striking soprano, its regal bearing delivered with the assured poise of a classic jazz singer, the distancing effect of Crosby’s unwieldy production was unable to strip it entirely of its power. Coupled with vivid lyrical imagery and thoughtful arrangements, it lays a foundation for the emergence of a major new artist right away.

Clouds marks the first real phase of Joni’s true musical/artistic identity. After the perfect transitional feel of leftover STAS track “Tin Angel”, we get her final version of the popularly-recorded “Chelsea Morning”. It’s a new, more playful Joni, full of hope and promises, ready to greet the new day and make it her own. Elsewhere, “That Song About The Midway” and “The Gallery” outline the devastating effects of misbegotten affairs, precursors to the storytelling style she’d perfect in 1971, while “The Fiddle And The Drum” marks her bluntest political message yet. But the real statement of purpose here is “Both Sides, Now” — the kind of song which would have easily made the entire career of your average mere mortal garden-variety songwriter. Clouds, love, life — she was here to announce she really knew nothing about them, at all. It was in the struggling to understand that ultimately she found her most powerful voice.

Ladies Of The Canyon, inspired by her time in the Laurel Canyon folk scene, brought her a new level of success as a singer and solo artist in her own right, and it is here where she began to crawl out of the shadow of her songwriting past, never looking back. The title track and “Morning Morgantown” described the idiosyncrasies of everyday life from this period, while “The Priest” evoked a near-blasphemous level of sexual tension you could cut with a knife. And with a closing triad of “Big Yellow Taxi”, “Woodstock”, and “The Circle Game”, Joni was just hitting her artistic and commercial stride. She also began to display a flair for piano, which would be used to devastating effect on the next album.

Something happened in 1971. Whether it was from breaking up with Graham Nash, months spent traipsing around Europe, or just pressure from newfound success and ordinary artistic growing pains, Joni suddenly found herself going through a tremendous amount of emotional turmoil. The product of this emotional event horizon was Blue, her signature accomplishment and THE universally definitive statement on heartbreak and yearning from the rock ‘n roll era. The level of intimacy on display is almost obscene; over and over again she takes you through the depths of her most unbearable pain, her most exquisite pleasure, and the idle pondering that fills the time in between. “Carey” is the most joyously ecstatic song I’ve ever heard; I can’t properly describe the effect it has on me. But then to listen to “A Case Of You” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is to hear a woman’s entire sense of self shattering, and the looming certainty of heartbreak is never far from even the most upbeat material (“This Flight Tonight”).Blue is too perfect. She tapped into everything right and wrong about love and set it to 40 minutes of flat-out brilliant songwriting.

For The Roses is the most overlooked album from this period, but it’s just as strong as anything that came before or after. Joni is still well on top of her game here, reviving old sounds (“Electricity” is the first song since “Tin Angel” that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on her debut) and continuing to expand and deepen her identity as the lost soul par excellence (“See You Sometime”, “Woman Of Heart And Mind”) and flaunting her pop genius when it suited her (“You Turn Me On I’m A Radio”).

An avid jazz fan from her early days as a songwriter, Joni finally allowed some of that influence to shine through on 1973’s Court And Spark. The smooth sexy exhortations of “Help Me” (“Didn’t it feel good? Didn’t it feel good“) revealed yet another new side to this multifaceted character, while “Raised On Robbery” sees her indulging a driving, soulful rocker seemingly just to prove she can. But the beauty in her work is never lost, just augmented with woodwinds and quirkier arrangements.

Lest these forays into more adventurous sounds be mistaken for a lark, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns seems determined to make the next phase of her career into a full-on jazz-folk renaissance. “The Jungle Line” introduces African pop sampling to Western audiences, while “Edith And The Kingpin” and “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” stand as some of her most sophisticated jazzy recordings yet. Finally, she drops a vintage swing cover right in the middle of “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” just in case you missed the point.

By this point, you wouldn’t be out of line to question whether Joni had another Blue in her. Enter Hejira, easily the most agonizingly personal thing she’s made since, a sort of update on the travails of the “prairie girl” who accomplished everything she ever dreamed yet still finds herself searching, restless, and yes, yearning. By now heartbreak is a mere matter of course, “Amelia” taking rejection as a foregone conclusion, “Coyote” not buying into the seduction dance for a moment. The title track contains her most poignant moment of resignation:

I know no one’s going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

As rumbling, deeply melodic bass work from Jaco Pistorious fills the songs with a stately anxiety, Joni makes her holy journey through the limits of her emotional distress and arrives at an uneasy sort of peace. This time, maybe, the lesson would last.

Joni’s classic period essentially ends here. The remainder of the 70s were filled out with an unfortunate blackface-covered double album (Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter) and a wobbly collaboration with a bona fide Jazz legend (Mingus) both providing an illusion of growth without quite the same level of inspiration to back them up. Her early 80s and 90s peaks (Wild Things Run Fast and Night Ride Home) find her embracing a more pop-rock and adult contemporary approach, respectively, both occasionally finding brief flashes of her former inventiveness and brutal honesty, but mostly operating from a place of comfort and contentment.

In 2007 she released Shine through multinational coffee overlords Starbucks and has been essentially retired since. In 2015, she was rumored to be at death’s door following a brain aneurysm, but as of this day she remains with us, refusing to be another casualty of our seemingly endless ongoing wave of beloved celebrity deaths. The world is a much brighter place with her in it. Thank you, Joni. We could all drink a case of you. Love you, girl.
– J.M.

Essentials: Blue, Hejira, Ladies Of The Canyon
Special favorites: The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, For The Roses, Night Ride Home
Don’t sleep on: Wild Things Run Fast, Court And Spark, Clouds