Follow TV Tropes


Music / Joni Mitchell

Go To

"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."

Roberta Joan "Joni" Mitchell (née Anderson, born November 7, 1943) CC is a Canadian singer, songwriter and painter. She was born 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 gave her up for adoption not long after. She married Chuck Mitchell later that same year.

Now on to the important bits. Mitchell made her breakthrough in the mid-1960s, relocating to New York City and traveling 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 Mitchell reached mainstream success under the guidance of producer David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills, and Nash), winning the Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance for her album Clouds. She continued to receive critical and commercial success, and incorporated 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 CD Turbulent Indigo in 1994. This is largely thanks to a return to her original sound and playing style. Mitchell's 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. She suffered an aneurysm in 2015 that caused her to take a step back from the spotlight, as she still has trouble talking.

Mitchell was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1981. She also received a Companion of the Order of Canada citation and the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.

Mitchell's 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:

  • A Cappella: The song "The Fiddle and the Drum" from the album Clouds dispenses with instrumental backing altogether.
  • Affair Hair: "Off Night Backstreet":
    Who left her long black hair in our bathtub drain?
  • Age-Progression Song: "The Circle Game" - this is also an Answer Song to her friend Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain".
  • Album Closure: "Both Sides, Now," which looks back on a life and reflects on the embodiment of multiple perspectives, appears as the last track on Clouds (whose title it drops).
  • Animal Motifs: Repeated references to snakes and serpents are a common lyrical theme.
  • Anti-Christmas Song: "River"
  • Artsy Beret: A lot of photos from the '70s show her wearing one, including on the cover of Hejira.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Never compare her to Bob Dylan. Never.
    • Don't refer to her as a "folk singer" either.
  • Blackface: Joni created an Afro-American male character called Art Nouveau and carefully dressed and made up as him on a few occasions. (That's her being Art on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.) At the time, it was seen as audacious, but not offensive. Black jazz artist Charles Mingus asked her to collaborate with him after seeing this and hearing her jazz pieces. It was the last recording he ever made.
  • 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.
  • Conlang: Mitchell created a mythological world with its own language. Naming is based on initial letters of important sayings: a race of tiny men are called Mosalm (Maybe Our Souls Are Little Men), and the tiny women are called Posall (Perhaps Our Souls Are Little Ladies). The queen, Siquomb, gets her name from the phrase "She Is Queen Undisputedly of Mind Beauty", and lends her name to Joni's official music publishing company. The song "Sisotowbell Lane" uses this language as well: "Somehow, In Spite Of Troubles, Ours Will Be Ever Lasting Love".
  • 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.
  • Domestic Abuse: "Not to Blame" is about a serial abuser who never takes responsibility for all of his failed relationships, some of which drove his partners to suicide. It's been alleged that the song's subject is Mitchell's ex-boyfriend Jackson Browne, who was facing down allegations that he physically abused his ex-girlfriend Daryl Hannahnote  at the time Turbulent Indigo was released. Mitchell has denied this, but the similarities between the song's lyrics and known events in Browne's personal life has allowed the rumors to persist.
  • 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"
  • Granola Girl: The Bohemian, creative women in "Ladies of the Canyon" could be this.
  • Greatest Hits Album: Mitchell declined to issue one of these for most of her career, but relented in 1996 with the release of Hits. One of the conditions for Reprise releasing that album was that Mitchell was also allowed to compile a second compilation, Misses, containing lesser known tracks (plus "A Case of You", which was left off Hits) that she considered to be personal favorites.
  • Green Aesop: "Big Yellow Taxi", again.
  • The Heart: 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"note  and the "Queen of El Lay".
  • 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).
  • Lampshade Wearing: "People's Parties":
    Photo Beauty gets attention
    Then her eye paint's running down
    She's got a rose in her teeth
    And a lampshade crown
  • Lighter and Softer: Crosby, Stills and Nash's cover of Woodstock was quite different from her original slow, sparse work.
  • New Sound Album: For the Roses introduced the jazzy textures that would dominate her later work.
  • One-Man Song: "Carey". The significant other the song concerns just happened to have an androgynous name.note 
  • 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.
  • Painful Rhyme: exaggerated with "For Free". The opening lines rhyme "jewels" with "schools," which is fine, but veer into trope territory when Mitchell insists on pronouncing them "jew-ells" and "skew-ells."
  • 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 mid-70s albums drew heavy influence from jazz. She also claimed her Blackface character on the cover of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, "Art Nouveau," was a representation of her "black soul."note 
  • Radio Song: "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," which she wrote after being asked for a catchy love song to play on the radio.
  • Really Gets Around: The narrator of "Just Like This Train" is the sexually dysfunctional version of this trope, dealing with a breakup by going on a relentless sex spree.
  • Religion Rant Song: "Tax Free" is her Type 3 rant against televangelists preaching like Church Militants while living, well, tax-free.
  • 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. (More obvious on the live version of the song from the Led Zeppelin live album How the West Was Won, in which Plant can be heard shouting "Joni!")
  • 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 birth name is Roberta Joan Anderson. "Joni Mitchell" is not really a stage name, though — she always went by Joni, a variation of her middle name, and she took the last name Mitchell when she married fellow musician Chuck Mitchell. She got famous as Joni Mitchell, and subsequently kept the name even though the marriage to Chuck dissolved fairly quickly.
  • Terra Deforming: "Big Yellow Taxi".
  • Title Track: "Blue", from, well, Blue.
    • Ladies of the Canyon, For The Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira also each have their own title track.
  • 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" itself
  • 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
      • "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.)
    • "Urge for Going"
  • With Lyrics: Mitchell added lyrics to Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" on Mingus.