Joni Mitchell: The Young Folk Icon, Then And Now
Portrait of Canadian musician Joni Mitchell, November 1968, from a shoot for the fashion magazine Vogue. Photo by Jack Robinson/Getty Images
Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell is one of the unmistakable voices of the Woodstock generation, with numerous classics to her name, among them "Both Sides, Now," "Chelsea Morning," and "Big Yellow Taxi." She is notable for her constant evolution, from folk to rock to jazz. She's known for her beautiful soprano voice that made those haunting songs of love and loss even more haunting. Even though her voice has deepened due to her four pack-a-day habit, the lyrics of her songs remain universal and potent today.
Joni Mitchell grew up in rural Canada. As a teenager, she taught herself to play ukulele and eventually taught herself to play piano and guitar. She performed folk songs to earn some pocket money, but she was not interested in being a musician; she wanted to be an artist and spent a year at the Alberta College of Art and Design. She had her first club performance in 1962. In 1964, she moved to Toronto, where she met her first husband, the American singer, Chuck Mitchell. Collins was a single mother at the time, and her marriage was a marriage of convenience. At first, it seemed she and Chuck would raise her daughter, but they ended upi putting her up for adoption. The couple began to perform as a duet, though Joni continued to pursue a solo career.
Love And Suffering Provides The Fuel For Her Songs
By 21, Mitchell had survived childhood polio and given up her daughter, providing some of the creative impetus behind her songs. But her love affairs were also a significant source of material. While she was performing in Philadelphia in 1966, she met a singer named Michael from Colorado, the inspiration for her song “Michael from the Mountains.” She had an affair with Michael, spelling an end to her marriage, though she and Chuck performed together through 1967.
After the end of her marriage, Mitchell moved to New York and had a brief romance with another musician, Steve Katz of the Blues Project, who introduced her to the drummer for the Blues Project, Roy Blumenfeld, with whom she also had a short-lived relationship. Blumenfeld would inspire part of the song “Tin Angel.”
Mitchell Quickly Became A Fixture In The Folk Scene
She also became friends with another member of the Blues Project, Al Kooper, who introduced her to Judy Collins. Judy Collins invited Mitchell to the 1967 Newport Blues Festival, where she performed alongside musicians such as Joan Baez and Phil Ochs. Judy Collins introduced Mitchell to Leonard Cohen at Collins’ songwriters’ workshop at the festival. They started a relationship which did not last very long. Despite its brevity, Mitchell did write and record several songs that were inspired by Cohen including “Rainy Night House” and “A Case of You.”
Musical Breakthrough With 'Clouds'
Mitchell's first album, Song To A Seagull (1968), failed to make an impact. Clouds, released in 1969, was a different story, reaching the top 30 of the Canadian album chart and the top 40 in the U.S. It contained two of Mitchell's signature songs, "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides, Now" (sometimes called "Clouds") -- the latter was written when she was 21, and had been a hit for Judy Collins prior to its inclusion on Mitchell's album. Clouds won Mitchell her first Grammy, for folk performance of the year. Over the course of her career, Mitchell has won nine Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award.
Relationship With Crosby, Stills & Nash
David Crosby, who was with The Byrds at the time, fell for Joni Mitchell when he heard her sing. "Guinnevere," written by Crosby and appearing on Crosby, Stills & Nash's 1969 debut album, is partly about her. They began dating in 1967, though the relationship didn't last. Mitchell did reference him in some of her songs, including “Cactus Tree.”
Mitchell met Graham Nash after a Hollies show in Ottawa in 1968, and they began a romantic relationship. By August 1968, Nash was in the process of leaving the Hollies and he was in the midst of the dissolution of his marriage as well. Mitchell invited him to stay with her at her Laurel Canyon home in Los Angeles. This would lead to a fateful encounter; Nash would meet two other bandless musicians, David Crosby and Stephen Stills (formerly of Buffalo Springfield). CSN’s “Our House,” from 1970, was about Nash’s relationship with Joni Mitchell. Though this relationship was serious, it also did not last, though the music that emerged from it did.
In 1970, Mitchell released Ladies Of The Canyon, an album riddled with references to her relationships with Crosby, Stills & Nash. The album also contains what might be Mitchell's most rollicking folk-pop song, "Big Yellow Taxi."
She Created The Iconic Song For A Festival She Didn't Attend
One other song that had roots in the connection between Mitchell and CSN was “Woodstock,” which seemed to sum up the feelings evoked by the August 1969 music festival. Interestingly, Mitchell didn't attend Woodstock -- she had to choose between the fest and appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, and picked the latter. She heard about the festival from Graham Nash and wrote the song in reaction to the things he told her. The song appeared on 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, but the best known version of the song is the one performed by CSNY. David Crosby praised her song, stating that she captured the experience better than anyone who had been there.
The Triumph Of 'Blue'
By 1970, she decided to take some time off and that year, she met James Taylor. They were together when she worked on Blue. They wrote songs for and about each other at this and Blue, released to critical acclaim in 1971, included several songs inspired by their relationship, including "Blue." The album also features the song “River,” one of her-best known and frequently covered songs. Blue is considered one of those magic albums by an artist at the perfect moment, and consistently ranks high on "all-time greatest album" lists compiled by magazines and websites. If a person owns just one Joni Mitchell album, odds are it's Blue.
The Jazz Rock Maverick
The 1974 album Court And Spark was her greatest critical and commercial success, reaching #2 on the US album chart. It also presaged a change of direction into jazz-rock. Since the mid-70s, her releases have been consistently praised by critics and fans, but sales and chart success saw a long but steady decline. Nobody can ever accuse Mitchell of ignoring her creative muse or resting on her laurels -- albums like Hejira (1976) and Mingus (1979) found her taking risks that few of her late-'60s contemporaries would dare. In the ‘80s, she got even more experimental, sometimes exploring more of a rock sound, and collaborating frequently with a wide variety of artists. From 1982-1992, her personal life also changed, as she married bassist Larry Klein.
Mitchell continued to release albums throughout the '80s, '90s and 2000s. Shine, released in 2007, may be her last.
In February 2015, she appeared on the cover of New York magazine's fashion issue looking every bit the stylish rock icon. Unfortunately, just months later, she suffered an aneurysm which left her unable to speak. She has since retreated to her home, and the precise state of her health has been the subject of rumors, although former flame David Crosby revealed that she is learning to walk again.
In late 2018, she made an appearance at a concert honoring her 75th birthday. Various musicians spoke warmly of her lasting influence.
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