When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century. Uncompromising and iconoclastic, Mitchell confounded expectations at every turn; restlessly innovative, her music evolved from deeply personal folk stylings into pop, jazz, avant-garde, and even world music, presaging the multicultural experimentation of the 1980s and 1990s by over a decade. Fiercely independent, her work steadfastly resisted the whims of both mainstream audiences and the male-dominated recording industry. While Mitchell’s records never sold in the same numbers enjoyed by contemporaries like Carole King, Janis Joplin, or Aretha Franklin, none experimented so recklessly with their artistic identities or so bravely explored territory outside of the accepted confines of pop music, resulting in a creative legacy which paved the way for performers ranging from Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde to Madonna and Courtney Love.
Born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort McLeod, Alberta, Canada, on November 7, 1943, she was stricken with polio at the age of nine; while recovering in a children’s hospital, she began her performing career by singing to the other patients. After later teaching herself to play guitar with the aid of a Pete Seeger instruction book, she went off to art college, and became a fixture on the folk music scene around Alberta. After relocating to Toronto, she married folksinger Chuck Mitchell in 1965, and began performing under the name Joni Mitchell.
A year later the couple moved to Detroit, MI, but separated soon after; Joni remained in the Motor City, however, and won significant press acclaim for her burgeoning songwriting skills and smoky, distinctive vocals, leading to a string of high-profile performances in New York City. There she became a cause célèbre among the media and other performers; after she signed to Reprise in 1967, David Crosby offered to produce her debut record, a self-titled acoustic effort that appeared the following year. Her songs also found great success with other singers: in 1968, Judy Collins scored a major hit with the Mitchell-penned “Both Sides Now,” while Fairport Convention covered “Eastern Rain” and Tom Rush recorded “The Circle Game.”
Thanks to all of the outside exposure, Mitchell began to earn a strong cult following; her 1969 sophomore effort, Clouds, reached the Top 40, while 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon sold even better on the strength of the single “Big Yellow Taxi.” It also included her anthemic composition “Woodstock,” a major hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Still, the commercial and critical approval awarded her landmark 1971 record Blue was unprecedented: a luminous, starkly confessional set written primarily during a European vacation, the album firmly established Mitchell as one of pop music’s most remarkable and insightful talents.
Predictably, she turned away from Blue’s incandescent folk with 1972’s For the Roses, the first of the many major stylistic turns she would take over the course of her daring career. Backed by rock-jazz performer Tom Scott, Mitchell’s music began moving into more pop-oriented territory, a change typified by the single “You Turn Me On (I’m a Radio),” her first significant hit. The follow-up, 1974’s classic Court and Spark, was her most commercially successful outing: a sparkling, jazz-accented set, it reached the number two spot on the U.S. album charts and launched three hit singles — “Help Me,” “Free Man in Paris,” and “Raised on Robbery.”
After the 1974 live collection Miles of Aisles, Mitchell emerged in 1975 with The Hissing of Summer Lawns, a bold, almost avant-garde record that housed her increasingly complex songs in experimental, jazz-inspired settings; “The Jungle Line” introduced the rhythms of African Burundi drums, placing her far ahead of the pop world’s mid-’80s fascination with world music. 1976’s Hejira, recorded with Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius, smoothed out the music’s more difficult edges while employing minimalist techniques; Mitchell later performed the album’s first single, “Coyote,” at the Band’s Last Waltz concert that Thanksgiving.
Her next effort, 1977’s two-record set Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, was another ambitious move, a collection of long, largely improvisational pieces recorded with jazz players Larry Carlton and Wayne Shorter, Chaka Khan, and a battery of Latin percussionists. Shortly after the record’s release, Mitchell was contacted by the legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus, who invited her to work with him on a musical interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Mingus, who was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, sketched out a series of melodies to which Mitchell added lyrics; however, Mingus died on January 5, 1979, before the record was completed. After Mitchell finished their collaboration on her own, she recorded the songs under the title Mingus, which was released the summer after the jazz titan’s passing.
Following her second live collection, 1980’s Shadows and Light, Mitchell returned to pop territory for 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast; the first single, a cover of the Elvis Presley hit “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” became her first chart single in eight years. Shortly after the album’s release, she married bassist/sound engineer Larry Klein, who became a frequent collaborator on much of her subsequent material, including 1985’s synth-driven Dog Eat Dog, co-produced by Thomas Dolby. Mitchell’s move into electronics continued with 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, featuring guests Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, and Billy Idol.
Mitchell returned to her roots with 1991’s Night Ride Home, a spare, stripped-down collection spotlighting little more than her voice and acoustic guitar. Prior to recording 1994’s Turbulent Indigo, she and Klein separated, although he still co-produced the record, which was her most acclaimed work in years. In 1996, she compiled a pair of anthologies, Hits and Misses, which collected her chart successes as well as underappreciated favorites. A new studio album, Taming the Tiger, followed in 1998. Both Sides Now, a collection of standards, followed in early 2000.
Two years later, Mitchell resurfaced with the double-disc release Travelogue. She announced in October 2002 that this would be her last album ever, for she’d grown tired of the industry. She told W magazine that she intended to retire. She also claimed she would never sign another corporate label deal and in Rolling Stone blasted the recording industry for being “a cesspool.” By the time Travelogue appeared a month later, Mitchell had simmered down and her plans to call it quits had been axed. Numerous compilations and remasters appeared between 2002 and 2006, culminating in the release of the independent Shine in 2007.