Joni Mitchell came from the open prairie and changed the way we think about the singer-songwriter; indeed, Painting With Words And Music is the apt title for her concert film. That’s what she does. Never in a hurry, it seems, she still manages to inhabit the persona of the ultimate troubadour.
She has been a muse for many – Graham Nash, James Taylor, Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan and Robert Plant spring to mind – but she doesn’t owe them. Her key albums are dotted across six decades, from 1968’s Song To A Seagull to 2007’s Shine, which she said would be her last foray into a business with which she shares a love-hate relationship.
If so, she has gifted us enough classic songs: ‘Chelsea Morning’, ‘Both Sides, Now’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, ‘You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio’, ‘Free Man in Paris’ – all tell a story, and Mitchell’s narrative skills are as famous for their grace as the artist herself. Leaving Canada for New York – and, later, the West Coast – she developed from a coffeehouse hopeful into a musician who has worked with Jackson Browne, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Larry Carlton, Willie Nelson, and the jazz giant who inform her later work, notably Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Charles Mingus, and Weather Report’s Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius. Mitchell’s albums have won her nine Grammy Awards, Companion Of The Order Of Canada and induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame (she didn’t attend). When she was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, in 2002, the citation pointed out she is “one of the most important female recording artists of the rock era” and “a powerful influence on all artists who embrace diversity, imagination and integrity”. She, however, describes herself as “a painter derailed by circumstance”.
Roberta Joan Anderson comes from Norwegian and Celtic stock, but was born in Alberta, in 1943 – though she claimed Saskatoon as her hometown. Mixing passions for music and art, she dropped out of college to pursue a folk career. Seeing Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1964 convinced her to follow the folk path to Toronto, then Detroit, New York City and, eventually, California – travels that informed her first album, 1968’s Song To A Seagull.
Produced by David Crosby, the album made some surprising omissions of songs Mitchell had already written, notably ‘Both Sides, Now’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’ (hits for Judy Collins and Dave Van Ronk), ‘The Circle Game’ (Tom Rush) and ‘Eastern Rain’ (Fairport Convention). The following year’s Clouds was a more assured affair, with Doors producer Paul A Rothchild at the board and Stephen Stills playing bass and guitar. This time the immaculate ‘Both Sides, Now’ and her paean to New York City, ‘Chelsea Morning’, were included, and helped develop a cult following that turned Joni into a star once Ladies Of The Canyon emerged. One of the most important albums of 1970, if only for ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and ‘Woodstock’, this is where the rock and jazz crowd began to take notice.
1971’s Blue was the turning point. Ever expanding her palette, Mitchell used an Appalachian dulcimer and was backed by Stills (again), James Taylor, “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow and Russ Kunkel. This time around her lyrics became more personal and intense, and she experimented with alternative tuning – and detuning – on her acoustic as a means of forcing her vocals to fly into territory not usually associated with standard pop. The most poignant example is ‘Little Green’, about the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1965.
The following year’s For The Roses gave Mitchell a first hit in ‘You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio’, a backhanded allusion to a company request to write more commercial material, but it’s ‘See You Sometime’ that nails the wars of love on the head. Elsewhere, love songs and social commentary abound.
Released in 1974, Court And Spark remains her most successful album. With Joni backed by The Crusaders, Robbie Robertson, Cheech And Chong, Wayne Perkins and Jose Feliciano, it elevated her to the status of a West Coast jazz-folk-pop goddess. ‘Help Me’, ‘Free Man In Paris’ and the meandering melodic structure of ‘Down To You’ stood out and helped the album go double platinum.
The live 2LP Miles Of Aisles was further evidence of her moving closer to jazz, performing live with Tom Scott and Robben Ford from LA Express, and then she went further out for The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, an album that has been compared to Blood On The Tracks for its importance, and been widely praised. Prince was such a fan of the album that he sent Mitchell love letters (and he would go on to reference ‘Help Me’ in ‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’ and cover ‘A Case Of You’ many times on stage throughout his career). The masterpieces on … Summer Lawns are ‘In France They Kiss On Main Street’ and ‘Shades Of Scarlett Conquering’, but everything has a widescreen cinematic impact with resonations and ruminations on art, the drug world, the music business and the modern metropolis.
Hejira, featuring Jaco Pastorius, Larry Carlton and Neil Young, repeats the trick and includes the wry ‘Coyote’, on which Bob Dylan’s 1975’s Rolling Thunder Revue (which, for a brief moment, picked Mitchell up) gets a none-too-favourable mention.
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus are where Mitchell really parts company with the mainstream world of rock. While the former features JD Souther, Glenn Frey and Chaka Khan, it can’t disguise Mitchell’s diva status. Mingus, meanwhile, was a collaboration with the great composer and jazz musician, recorded shortly before his death. Taking on ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, ‘A Chair In The Sky’ and ‘The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines’, it sees Joni become something of a grande dame in waiting, but sales were better than expected.
Moving to Geffen for her next four albums – Wild Things Run Fast, Dog Eat Dog, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm and Night Ride Home – she worked up more pop-orientated material which featured her producer and soon-to-be-husband and producer Larry Klein. Nodding to the likes of Talking Heads, The Police and Steely Dan, Mitchell began to concentrate on her rhythm section but also hung with a different crowd. Guests in this era include Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and Peter Gabriel.
Returning to Reprise for Turbulent Indigo (marked by its artwork, a self-portrait homage to Van Gogh), Mitchell’s fortunes enjoyed an upturn which the compilations Hits And Misses capitalised upon. Though towards the end of the 90s she would start hinting at retirement, Taming The Tiger emerged in 1998 and Mitchell set out on a co-headlining tour with Dylan and Van Morrison. It reignited her love for performance and, in 2000, she released the ambitious concept disc Both Sides Now. Featuring orchestral reinterpretations of evergreen classics from Rube Bloom, Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen and Sidney Clare (‘You’re My Thrill’ set the standard), it won her two Grammy Awards and glowing praise.
In a similar vein, 2002’s Travelogue reworked her catalogue to great effect and even includes a newly minted ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’, a song which originally featured on Blue and was about her brief marriage to Richard Mitchell.
A series of compilations of Mitchell’s latter-day career – The Beginning Of Survival, Dreamland and Songs Of A Prairie Girl – coincided with an onset of bad health. In 2006, she announced that her next album, the following year’s Shine, would be her last. She’s in fine form on it, however, and the song ‘One Week Last Summer’ won her the 2008 Grammy Awards for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
In 2015, Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm, but appears to be on the mend. Allaying fans’ fears, her old friend, peer and ally Judy Collins, reported, “Joni is walking, talking, painting some, doing much rehab every day.”
Many singer-songwriters have been said to have changed the music business, but few with the impact that Joni Mitchell has had. She’s lived an epic life. The 4CD box set she compiled, Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced, pays testimony to a remarkable person. Her hejira – her journey – is not yet over.
Joni Mitchell's debut release is a concept album. Side one, subtitled "I Came to the City," generally exhibits songs about urban subjects that are often dour or repressed in some way. "Out of the City and Down to the Seaside," by contrast, is a celebration of nature and countryside, mostly containing selections of a charming, positive, or more outgoing nature. What sets this release apart from those of other confession-style singer/songwriters of the time is the craft, subtlety, and evocative power of Mitchell's lyrics and harmonic style. Numbers such as "Marcie," "Michael From Mountains," "The Dawntreader," and "The Pirate of Penance" effectively utilize sophisticated chord progressions rarely found in this genre. Verses are substantive and highly charged, exhibiting careful workmanship. "Song to a Seagull" has graceful and vivid lyrics about the joys of freedom set to a haunting, wide-ranging vocal line. Conversely, "Cactus Tree" explores the downside of a no-strings-attached approach to life, the fear of committing to a relationship (ironically wedding these words to a hopeful melody and pulsating guitar texture). "Marcie" utilizes poignant, twisting music set to desolately lonely lyrics about a jilted woman; the recurrent use of red and green imagery in the verses is especially clever. Character studies such as "I Had a King" and "Nathan la Franeer" are painfully bleak in contrast to the lithe domestic scene of "Sisotowbell Lane" and the winsomely reserved love song "Michael From Mountains." Unusual in her oeuvre are the overlapping dialogue prose manner of "The Pirate of Penance" and the jaunty honky tonk stylings of "Night in the City." Mitchell sings in a light, gossamer, at times diffident manner; vocal harmony is sparingly employed here. David Crosby's production is simple and effective. This excellent debut is well worth hearing. Words: David Cleary
Clouds is a stark stunner, a great leap forward for Joni Mitchell. Vocals here are more forthright and assured than on her debut and exhibit a remarkable level of subtle expressiveness. Guitar alone is used in accompaniment, and the variety of playing approaches and sounds gotten here is most impressive. "The Fiddle and the Drum," a protest song that imaginatively compares the Vietnam-era warmongering U.S. government to a bitter friend, dispenses with instrumental accompaniment altogether. The sketches presented of lovers by turns depressive ("Tin Angel"), roguish ("That Song About the Midway"), and faithless ("The Gallery") are vividly memorable. Forthright lyrics about the unsureness of new love ("I Don't Know Where I Stand"), misuse of the occult ("Roses Blue"), and mental illness ("I Think I Understand") are very striking. Mitchell's classic singer/songwriter standards "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides Now" respectively receive energetically vibrant and warmly thoughtful performances. Imaginatively unusual and subtle harmonies abound here, never more so in her body of work than on the remarkable "Songs to Aging Children Come," which sets floridly impressionistic lyrics to a lovely tune that is supported by perhaps the most remarkably sophisticated chord sequence in all of pop music. Mitchell's riveting self-portrait on the album's cover is a further asset. This essential release is a must-listen. Words: David Cleary
This wonderfully varied release shows a number of new tendencies in Joni Mitchell's work, some of which would come to fuller fruition on subsequent albums. "The Arrangement," "Rainy Night House," and "Woodstock" contain lengthy instrumental sections, presaging the extensive non-vocal stretches in later selections such as "Down to You" from Court and Spark. Jazz elements are noticeable in the wind solos of "For Free" and "Conversation," exhibiting an important influence that would extend as late as Mingus. The unusually poignant desolation of "The Arrangement" would surface more strongly in Blue. A number of the selections here ("Willy" and "Blue Boy") use piano rather than guitar accompaniment; arrangements here are often more colorful and complex than before, utilizing cello, clarinet, flute, saxophone, and percussion. Mitchell sings more clearly and expressively than on prior albums, most strikingly so on "Woodstock," her celebration of the pivotal 1960s New York rock festival. This number, given a haunting electric piano accompaniment, is sung in a gutsy, raw, soulful manner; the selection proves amply that pop music anthems don't all have to be loud production numbers. Songs here take many moods, ranging from the sunny, easygoing "Morning Morgantown" (a charming small-town portrait) to the nervously energetic "Conversation" (about a love triangle in the making) to the cryptically spooky "The Priest" (presenting the speaker's love for a Spartan man) to the sweetly sentimental classic "The Circle Game" (denoting the passage of time in touching terms) to the bouncy and vibrant single "Big Yellow Taxi" (with humorous lyrics on ecological matters) to the plummy, sumptuous title track (a celebration of creativity in all its manifestations). This album is yet another essential listen in Mitchell's recorded canon. Words: David Cleary
Sad, spare, and beautiful, Blue is the quintessential confessional singer/songwriter album. Forthright and poetic, Joni Mitchell's songs are raw nerves, tales of love and loss (two words with relative meaning here) etched with stunning complexity; even tracks like "All I Want," "My Old Man," and "Carey" -- the brightest, most hopeful moments on the record -- are darkened by bittersweet moments of sorrow and loneliness. At the same time that songs like "Little Green" (about a child given up for adoption) and the title cut (a hymn to salvation supposedly penned for James Taylor) raise the stakes of confessional folk-pop to new levels of honesty and openness, Mitchell's music moves beyond the constraints of acoustic folk into more intricate and diverse territory, setting the stage for the experimentation of her later work. Unrivaled in its intensity and insight, Blue remains a watershed. Words: Jason Ankeny
On her first new studio album of original material in five years and her debut for Geffen Records, Joni Mitchell achieved more of a balance between her pop abilities and her jazz aspirations, meanwhile rediscovering a more direct, emotional lyric approach. The result was her best album since the mid-'70s. Words: William Ruhlmann
Joni Mitchell here turned to guests like Michael McDonald, Thomas Dolby, Don Henley, James Taylor, and Wayne Shorter, continuing to straddle the worlds of California folk/pop and jazz fusion. Words: William Ruhlmann
Long before Frank Sinatra made his Duets album, Joni Mitchell cast a variety of name singers in prominent roles for the songs on Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. Peter Gabriel sings with her on the leadoff track, "My Secret Place," and Don Henley is heard on "Lakota" and "Snakes and Ladders," Billy Idol and Tom Petty have roles in "Dancin' Clown," and Willie Nelson brings his dry phrasing to "Cool Water," while ex-Cars singer Benjamin Orr and ex-Prince associates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman also have backup parts. Mitchell uses the vocal firepower over spare tracks heavy on percussion (by Manu Katche) and programming to tell stories and comment on social issues. "Lakota" deals with Native American and environmental matters, "Cool Water" (a Mitchell rewrite of the Bob Nolan original) discusses water pollution, "The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)" and "The Beat of Black Wings" tell war-related tales. But Mitchell's main theme, which encompasses those topics, concerns the evils of contemporary culture in which one struggles to be "Number One," rises and falls like a game of "Snakes and Ladders," and suffers "The Reoccurring Dream" brought on by advertising. Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm rarely makes these points personally enough to stir the listener, and the trendy percussion sound (popular with artists like Gabriel and Kate Bush in the '80s) is already beginning to sound dated. But the songwriting and Mitchell's voice remain impressive, especially when she recalls her past with a revised version of "Corrina, Corrina" at the end. Words: William Ruhlmann
Cutting back on the guest musicians of her previous effort and paring down to a basic small group of musicians helps add immediacy to Night Ride Home. While this release features several of Joni Mitchell's favorites, nothing here would become a hit, as Joni tended to buck trends and follow her own beat. Very involved and a rather tough listen, but well worth the attention, this would be her last for Geffen, where she languished unnoticed while the label went heavy metal crazy. Words: JAmes Chrispell
Shine, recorded and released in 2007, is the sign from the heavens that Joni Mitchell has come out of retirement. She left in the early part of the century, railing against a music industry that only cared about "golf and rappers," accusing it of virtually every artistic crime under the sun. So the irony that she signed to Hear Music, Starbucks' music imprint, is pronounced. The company has been embroiled in controversy over its labor and trade practices, and has been accused of union-busting and spying on its employees and union members. It's especially ironic given the nature of the music on this set, which is political, environmental, and social in its commentary. Hear Music has also issued recordings by Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, so she's in great company. But it's music that we're after here, and Mitchell doesn't disappoint on this score. She doesn't have the same reach vocally that she used to. A lifetime of cigarette smoking will do that to you. But given the deeply reflective and uncomfortably contemplative nature of some of these songs, it hardly matters. Mitchell produced this set herself, and with the exception of guest performances -- saxophones by Bob Sheppard, steel guitar by Greg Leisz, some drum spots by Brian Blade, and bass by Larry Klein, all selectively featured -- Mitchell plays piano, guitar, and does all the other instrumentation and arrangements herself. The drum machine she uses is so antiquated that it's corny, but it's also charming in the way she employs it. The songs carry the same weight they always have. Her off-kilter acoustic guitar playing is as rhythmically complex as ever, and her commentary is biting, sardonic, and poetic. Words: Thom Jurek