Joni Mitchell


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Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell, CC (born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada), is a musician and painter.

Initially working and busking in Western Canada and Toronto, she became associated with the burgeoning folk music scene of the mid-1960s in New York City. She achieved her greatest fame in the early 1970s and was considered a key part of the Southern Californian folk-rock scene. Throughout the 1970s she expanded her musical horizons to include pop and jazz and became one of the most highly respected singer-songwriters of the late 20th century. Retrospective appraisals of Joni's work have often commented that her quality and influence render her the "female Bob Dylan", although Mitchell herself rejects that label.

Mitchell is also an accomplished artist; she has, through photography or painting, created the artwork for each of her albums, and has described herself as a "painter derailed by circumstance." A blunt critic of the music industry, Mitchell has stopped recording and now focuses mainly on her visual art.

Early life

The child of a grocer and a schoolteacher, the young Anderson grew up in Fort Macleod until the age of 9, when the family moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which Joni considers her hometown. She began taking piano lessons at age 7, and immediately felt the creative instinct to write her own music. Meanwhile, she excelled at art in school.

At the age of 9, she contracted polio but recovered after a stay in hospital. Her first performances were to other patients there. She also took up cigarette smoking at the same age, which may explain the unique texture to her voice, especially on her later albums. She claims to have fallen in love with smoking directly upon taking her first puffs, stating that other children in her proximity who were also smoking broke out in fits of coughing. She says it felt right to her from the very beginning.

As a teenager she taught herself guitar and ukulele and began performing at parties. This grew into busking and playing in coffeehouses and other venues in Saskatoon. After finishing high school she attended the Alberta College of Art for a year, but then left and returned to the coffeehouse scene.

Around the time when she left her home in Saskatoon to relocate to Toronto, she became pregnant. Seeing no other alternatives, she gave her daughter up for adoption. This remained a private part of her life during the bulk of her early/progressing career. She wrote the song "Little Green", however, for her daughter, with whom she was reunited in 1997.

1960s folk singer

Joni took her surname from a brief marriage to folksinger Chuck Mitchell in 1965. She performed frequently in coffee houses and folk clubs and, now creating her own material, became well known for her unique style of songwriting and her innovative guitar style. Personal and often self-consciously poetic, her songs were strengthened by her extraordinarily wide-ranging voice (with a range in pitch at one time covering over four octaves) and her unique style of guitar playing, which makes extensive use of alternative tunings.

While playing one night in a New York establishment, a young David Crosby witnessed her perform and was immediately struck by her ability and her draw as an artist. He took her under his wing and, as cited by Crosby himself, when making someone aware who had previously been unaware of Mitchell's allure, he would simply "roll them a joint", and ask that they enjoy the experience.

Much of her initial acclaim was as a result of other artists covering her songs. Her first songwriting credit to hit the charts, "Urge for Going", was a success for country singer George Hamilton IV and for folk singer Tom Rush, then many years later featured as a b-side by the Scottish band Travis. Irish singer Luka Bloom has also since recorded the song to great effect. Mitchell's own 1967 recording of the song was released on the flip side of the 1972 single "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio", but was not released on an album until the Hits compilation in 1996. In any version, "Urge for Going" was an audacious piece of songwriting, painting an extremely evocative picture of the oncoming of dread winter. Not surprisingly for someone from the Canadian plains, Mitchell had a finely developed sense for the passings of seasons and comings of age, themes that would appear on her "The Circle Game", which Tom Rush recorded a well-received take of in 1968.

Mitchell's songwriting reached its highest visibility when Judy Collins had a top-ten hit in early 1968 with "Both Sides Now". British folk rock group Fairport Convention included "Chelsea Morning" and "I Don't Know Where I Stand" on their debut album, recorded in late 1967, and the otherwise unreleased "Eastern Rain" on their second album the following year.

The songs on Mitchell's first two solo albums, Joni Mitchell (Song to a Seagull) (1968) and Clouds (1969), were archetypes of the nascent singer-songwriter movement of the time.

Early-mid 1970s success

Mitchell had already moved to California in late 1967. Now by her third album, Ladies of the Canyon (1970), maturity brought a record infused with the spirit of California life (the canyon of the title is perhaps both Topanga Canyon and Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles) as well as containing her first major hit single, the environmental "Big Yellow Taxi", and "Woodstock", about the music festival, which was later a hit for both Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Matthews Southern Comfort. Mitchell wrote the song after missing and then hearing glorified tales about Woodstock. She had cancelled her appearance at the festival on the advice of her manager for fear that she would miss a scheduled appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. She has since said the decision to miss the concert was one of the biggest regrets of her life. "For Free" is the first of Mitchell's many songs that underscore the dichotomy between the benefits of her stardom and its costs, both in terms of its pressure and of the loss of privacy and freedom it entails.

Mitchell's confessional approach deepened on Blue (1971), widely considered the best of this period. Exploring the various facets of relationships, from infatuation on "A Case of You" to insecurity on "This Flight Tonight", the songs featured an increasing use of piano (due in part to her admiration for Laura Nyro's work) and Appalachian dulcimer on "Carey" , "California", "All I Want", and "A Case of You". Others were piano led, some exhibiting the rhythms associated with rock music. Yet still her Canadian past had not been left fully behind: "River" found herself in warm climes at Christmas time, only to say, "I wish I had a river / I could skate away on." In the 2000s "River" would be rediscovered by the plethora of all-Christmas-music holiday programming radio stations.

The more straightforward "rock" influence was still strong on her next two albums, recorded for new label Asylum. For the Roses (1972), whose title track continued her exploration of the themes of "For Free", sold well, supported by the country-influenced hit single "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio". But it was Court and Spark (1974), a hybrid of pop, rock, and folk with a jazzy sheen, that proved to be a huge success, producing such classic songs as "Free Man in Paris" (inspired by stories told by her producer and then-friend David Geffen), "Car On A Hill" and, most notably, "Help Me", which, to this day, remains her best selling single (it reached the Top Ten).

Court and Spark was also notable for the first echoes of the influence of jazz on Mitchell's work, and despite the commercial success of that album and the subsequent live record Miles of Aisles, backed by the 70s pop-jazz outfit L.A. Express, she would spend the rest of the decade following that muse and creating more free-form, jazz-inflected music.

Mid-late 1970s jazz period

The first such album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), was also a lyrical departure, with the confessional style replaced by a series of vignettes, from nightclub dancers ("Edith and the Kingpin") to the bored wives of the wealthy ("The Hissing of Summer Lawns" and "Harry's House/Centerpiece"). The album was stylistically diverse, with complex vocal harmonies set with African drumming (the Warrior Drums of Burundi making up the foundation of "The Jungle Line"). Although many fans and other artists often cite Hissing as their favorite Mitchell work, it was not well received at the time of its release. A common legend holds it that Rolling Stone magazine accorded it the "Worst Album of The Year"; in actuality it was called only the worst album title. (Mitchell and Rolling Stone have had a contentious relationship, initiated years earlier when RS featured a "tree" illustrating all of Mitchell's alleged romantic partners, primarily other musicians.)

During 1975 Mitchell also participated in several concerts in the Rolling Thunder Revue tours headlined by Bob Dylan, and in 1976, she performed as part of "The Last Waltz" by The Band.

Hejira (1976) continued Mitchell's trend toward jazz. The instrumentation is very intimate, consisting only of Mitchell's acoustic guitar, the electric guitar of Larry Carlton, and Jaco Pastorius's fretless bass guitar (on one track, Mitchell and Carlton reverse roles.) The songs themselves, however, featured densely metaphorical lyrics and swooping vocal melodies providing contrast and counterpoint to the jazz rhythms of the arrangements. This album also highlighted as never before the unusual "open" guitar tunings that Mitchell used.

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) was a further move away from pop toward the freedom and abstraction of jazz, a wordy double album dominated by the lengthy part-improvised "Paprika Plains". The album received mixed reviews: some enjoyed its experimentation and originality, which at the time was not expected of such a celebrated music star. Some argue this style of music was ahead of its time, citing the fact that numerous "jam bands" play today to the delight of college students both in similar style and often times with similar conviction. The cover of the album created its own controversy; Mitchell was featured in several photographs on the cover, including one where she was disguised as a black man.

Mitchell's next work was to be a collaboration with legendary bassist Charles Mingus, who died before the project was completed in 1979. Mitchell finished the tracks with a band featuring Pastorius, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and the resulting free-form, sometimes arhythmic music was daring and eclectic. Mingus was poorly received; rock audiences were not receptive, and jazz purists were unimpressed. However, appreciation for this work has grown considerably over the years.

1980s Geffen era

The 1980s saw Mitchell's lowest recorded output since the beginning of her career. Only three albums of new material appeared, and none of them made an impression. 1982's Wild Things Run Fast was an attempt to return to pop songwriting, including a song "Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody" that incorporated the chorus and parts of the melody the famous Righteous Brothers hit, and "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care". It was influenced largely by Mitchell's marriage to producer Larry Klein - Mitchell complained that critics reduced the new music to a batch of "I love Larry" songs. Although the songwriting was solid, the set was released at a time where multi-layered, darker music in the New Wave and New Romantic genres prevailed.

British synth-pop performer and producer Thomas Dolby was brought on board for Dog Eat Dog (1985), but the synthesizer and drum machine-led arrangements, coupled with some of Mitchell's most strident and angry lyrics, have dated far quicker than Mitchell's earlier work.

Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm (1988) saw Mitchell collaborating with a wealth of talent, including Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Wendy and Lisa, Tom Petty and Don Henley. The songs spanned several genres, including a duet with Peter Gabriel on "My Secret Place" that harkened back to "classic" Mitchell material. Although there are some jarring transitions in genre ("Dancing Clown" and "Cool Water"), the multi-layered synthesized sounds on "My Secret Place", "Beat of Black Wings" and "Tea Leaf Prophecy" were a better marriage of Mitchell's voice to electronica.

After the release of Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, Mitchell participated in Roger Waters' massive performance of The Wall in Berlin.

Turbulent 1990s

1991's Night Ride Home, an album Mitchell described as "middle-aged love songs," was better received and signaled another move closer to her acoustic beginnings. But to many, the real return to form came with the Grammy winning Turbulent Indigo (1994). "Indigo" was Mitchell's most solid set of songs in years. Mitchell released her last set of 'original' new work with Taming the Tiger (1998).

"I hate music": the 2000s

Both Sides Now (2000) was an album composed mostly of covers of jazz standards, performed with an orchestra. It received rave reviews by critics and remains a strong seller. The album contained reappraisals of "A Case of You" and the title track "Both Sides Now", two early hits transposed down to Mitchell's now-dusky, soulful alto range. Its success led to 2002's Travelogue, a collection of re-workings of her previous songs with lush orchestral accompaniments. Mitchell has stated that this would be her final album.

Recently, Joni Mitchell has voiced her discontent with the current state of the music industry, describing it as a "cesspool", and stating that she "hates music" and "would like to remember what [she] ever liked about it." She has expressed her dislike of the record industry's dominance, and her desire to control her own destiny, possibly through releasing her own music over the Internet.

A series of themed compilations of songs from earlier albums were also released: The Beginning of Survival (2004), Dreamland (2004), and Songs of a Prairie Girl (2005), the last of which collected the threads of her Canadian upbringing and which she released after accepting an invitation to be a featured performer at a Saskatchewan Centennial concert in Saskatoon before the Queen. In Prairie Girl liner notes, she writes that the collection is "my contribution to Saskatchewan's Centennial celebrations."

Although Mitchell has stated she will no longer tour or give concerts, she has made occasional public appearances to speak (for example) on environmental issues. Currently, Mitchell divides her time between her longtime home in Los Angeles and a cabin in Sechelt, BC, and is said to be focused mainly on her visual art, which she does not sell and which she displays only on rare occasions.

Guitar style

Almost every song she composed on the guitar uses an open, or non-standard tuning; she has written songs in some 50 different tunings. The use of alternative tunings allows more varied and complex harmonies to be produced on the guitar, without the need for difficult chord shapes. Indeed, many of Joni's guitar songs use very simple chord shapes, but her use of alternative tunings and a highly rhythmic picking/strumming style creates a rich and unique guitar sound. Her right-hand picking/strumming technique has evolved over the years from an initially intricate picking style, typified by the guitar songs on her first album, to a looser and more rhythmic style, sometimes incorporating percussive "slaps", that have been featured on later albums.

In 2003 Rolling Stone named her the 72nd greatest guitarist of all time; she was the highest-ranked woman on the list. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

I selected Joni Mitchell because of her extensive use of alternate guitar tunings in her songwriting and guitar playing. David Crosby claims that "She's the best singer/songwriter there is." To learn more about this great artist, visit the web sites below, two of which include extensive tabs of Joni's songs.


Alternate Tunings (MoneyChords)


Joni Mitchell Web Resources
Tablature (FretPlay)

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