Music / Joni Mitchell
"I want the full hyphen: folk-rock-country-jazz-classical, so finally when you get all the hyphens in, maybe they'll drop them all, and get down to just some American music."
A Canadian singer, song-writer and painter, Joni Mitchell was born in 1943 in Alberta, and began singing around the age of nine, after a case of polio. To get the biographical data out of the way: she made a short attempt to go to college, leaving after a year; in 1965, she gave birth to a girl, but not long after, she gave the girl up for adoption. She married Chuck Mitchell later that same year.
Now onto the important bits. She made her breakthrough in the mid 1960s, relocating to New York City and travelling up and down the Northeast coast, playing in cafes and bars. Many of the songs she had written and sung were covered
by other artists during this time, a trend that would continue as her popularity grew. Many of these covers allowed these artists to eclipse Mitchell's own career
, including Judy Collins' cover of "Both Sides, Now", which became a top ten hit in 1967.
It wasn't until 1970 that she reached mainstream success, under the guidance of producer David Crosby, of Crosby, Stills, and Nash
, winning Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance
for her album Clouds
. She continued to recieve critical and commercial success, incorporating more and more jazz-influenced songs
compared to her previous acoustic work. By the 1980s, her work failed to reach the same success as before, with 1979's Mingus
(a collaboration with Charles Mingus
) being her first album not to sell at least half a million copies.
This trend continued until the 1990s, particularly after the release of the Grammy-awards CD Turbulent Indigo
in 1994. This is largely thanks to a return to her original sound and playing style. Her newfound success would continue until her retirement in 2002, though she later released several new CDs since then. A memoir is also supposedly in the works.
Mitchell musical style consists of non-standard guitar tuning, elaborate orchestration (occasionally verging on Baroque Pop
territory), lush vocal harmonies, and borrowing elements from various genres (rock, jazz, New Wave
, folk and pop, for starters).
- Song to a Seagull (1968)
- Clouds (1969)
- Ladies of the Canyon (1970)
- Blue (1971)
- For the Roses (1972)
- Court and Spark (1974)
- Miles of Aisles (1974) (live album)
- The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)
- Hejira (1976)
- Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977)
- Mingus (1979)
- Shadows and Light (1980) (live album)
- Wild Things Run Fast (1982)
- Dog Eat Dog (1985)
- Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988)
- Night Ride Home (1991)
- Turbulent Indigo (1994)
- Taming the Tiger (1998)
- Both Sides Now (2000)
- Travelogue (2002)
- Shine (2007)
- Amchitka, The 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace (2009) (live album)
Tropes in her life and work include:
- Age Progression Song: "The Circle Game"
- Album Title Drop: "Blue", from, well, Blue.
- Amelia Earhart : "Amelia" isn't exactly about her, but Mitchell addresses it to her.
- Anti-Christmas Song : "River"
- Berserk Button:
- Never compare her to Bob Dylan. Never.
- Don't refer to her as a "folk singer" either.
- Celebrity Is Overrated: A stance she has stayed with from the beginning of her career. Word of God was that she arrived at this conclusion after seeing a tearful Sandra Dee being mistreated by the tabloid press during her divorce from Bobby Darin.
- The Chick: Rolling Stone considered her to be this to all the male rock stars in L.A. in the '70s. The magazine called Mitchell the "Old Lady of the Year" and the "Queen of El Lay".
- Contemplate Our Navels: "Refuge of the Roads" was partly inspired by the time Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche induced her into a temporary, three-day state where the concept of "I" was absent from her.
- Drunken Song: "Talk to Me", about begging for conversation from someone not willing to speak, gains entirely new context from its opening line:
There was a moon and a streetlamp
I didn't think I drank such a lot
Till I pissed a tequila anaconda the full length of the parking lot.
- Dual Meaning Chorus : "Big Yellow Taxi"
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Subverted with "Raised on Robbery", where the character in question tries to make herself out to be one of these, but instead comes off as an abrasive, obnoxious Lower-Class Lout who manages to drive off a prospective john (not that he intended to hire her in the first place, as it's made obvious that he simply wanted to enjoy his drink in peace).
- Lighter and Softer : Crosby, Stills and Nash's cover of Woodstock was quite different from her original slow, sparse work.
- Neo Classical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly:
- While Court and Spark included jazz-tinged songs, The Hissing of Summer Lawns really showed Joni's switch from folk rock to folk jazz and includes a song made from a Moog synthesizer and a looped recording of Burundi drumming. Joni's love for jazz climaxed on the Shadows and Light tour in 1979-80, which featured prominent members of both Weather Report and Pat Metheny Group, two leading jazz fusion bands. 1982's Wild Things Run Fast suddenly switched things on their head, showcasing an 80s pop sound.
- Don Juan's Reckless Daughter featured both a 16-minute song of improvised piano with orchestration and two songs (7 and 4 minutes each, back to back) of fiery Latin percussion, with Chaka Khan singing.
- New Sound Album: For the Roses introduced the jazzy textures that would dominate her later work.
- Nice Hat: A lot of photos from the '70s show her wearing a beret, including on the cover of Hejira.
- One Man Song: "Carey". The significant other the song concerns just happened to have an androgynous name.
- One Woman Song: "Amelia", which is (sort of, in a way) about Amelia Earhart.
- Orchestral Version: An entire album of these with Both Sides Now.
- Pieces of God: "Woodstock".
- Precision F-Strike: From "Woman of Heart and Mind"
Drive your bargains
Push your papers
Win your medals
Fuck your strangers
Don't it leave you on the empty side?
- Pretty Fly for a White Guy: Her flirtation with jazz could be an example. She also explained her appearance in Blackface on the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter as claiming that the character, dubbed "Art Nouveau," was a representation of her "black soul."
- Refrain from Assuming
- Self-Backing Vocalist: She uses the technique a lot on her recordings.
- Shout-Out: That Led Zeppelin song "Going to California" about a woman "with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair"? That's Joni. Robert Plant had a crush on her when he was writing the lyrics.
- Signature Style: Her open or non-standard guitar tunings, which she calls "Joni's weird chords". There are almost 50 different tunings.
- Smoking Is Cool : Joni began smoking at the age of 9, and it is reportedly one reason for her voice's decline in later years.
- Stage Names: Joni's real name is Roberta Joan Anderson.
- Terra Deforming: "Big Yellow Taxi".
- Unusual Euphemism:
- "Blue Motel Room": "I know that you've got all those pretty girls coming 'round, hanging on your boom-boom-pachyderm"
- "Court and Spark"
- Vocal Evolution: Her voice became deeper and lower as she aged and chain smoking took a toll on her vocal range.
- Wanderlust Song: Hejira, written on a road trip from New York to Los Angeles, has two of them: "Song for Sharon", where the protagonist concludes by telling Sharon, "You've still got your music / And I've got my eyes on the land and the sky / You sing for your friends and your family / I'll walk green pastures by and by"; and "Refuge of the Roads", based on Joni's road trip itself (as well as an episode of her life where her sense of ego was temporarily removed by a yogi.)
- With Lyrics: Mitchell added lyrics to Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" on Mingus.
- You Keep Using That Word: She's often referred to as a "folk singer," though her output is a lot more...eclectic.