In the annals of contemporary songwriting, there may be no one more widely praised or thoroughly influential than Joni Mitchell.
Indeed, she is one of the 20th century’s most celebrated – and imitated – artists. The list of those who have either recorded one of her songs or cited her as an inspiration stretches from her Alberta birthplace to her long-time California home and beyond, cutting across gender lines and musical genres to include Prince, Diana Krall, George Michael and Björk, to name just four.
Her undeniable passion for creating beauty has always been thus. A lifelong interest in the arts, especially painting, and love of dancing to rock ‘n roll emerged early in Joni Mitchell’s childhood.
Mitchell began singing folk music in a local coffeehouse while attending Alberta College of Art in Calgary. In 1965, she married Chuck Mitchell and they settled in Detroit. Her songs began to circulate and, in 1967, famed American folk and blues singer/songwriter Tom Rush recorded “Tin Angel” and “The Circle Game.”
A year later Judy Collins followed suit by recording Mitchell’s “Michael from the Mountains” and “Both Sides Now,” the latter a major hit for Collins and the start of a venerable trend. Some 1,000 notable readings of “Both Sides Now” are said to be in circulation around the planet, including a perhaps unlikely one by rock maulers Hole (albeit renamed “Clouds.”)
Mitchell’s song, “Woodstock” written about the legendary 1969 Music and Art Festival and which was covered to commercial acclaim by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – became an anthem for a generation of youth. It remains the most enduring reminder of the famous festival that flipped the switch on the North American counterculture movement – even though Mitchell herself didn’t actually perform at the show.
Since those early days her music has undergone continuous, evolutionary growth and has changed in ways that have surprised some of her early fans but not without garnering new audiences with each plateau.
From “confessional poet,” as she described herself in albums such as Blue and For the Roses; to the fabulously named The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which was radically different with its jazz overtones, to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter which she made without concern for sales; to Mingus, a collaboration between Mitchell and double bassist, composer and bandleader and all-round jazz great Charles Mingus, just prior to his death, Joni Mitchell continues to place interest in what she calls “modern American music,” shedding light on how she sees her own music in relation to the world at large.
As might be expected, the list of awards and accolades bestowed on Mitchell is long and prestigious. Complementing her 1981 inclusion in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame: a total of four JUNO Awards and 18 nominations; eight Grammy wins plus a Lifetime Achievement Award; Companion of the Order of Canada; Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement; and an iron-clad spot at the tippy-top of critical lists across the globe. She has been the subject of numerous biographies (notably Sheila Weller’s exhaustively researched and terrific Girls Like Us in 2008) and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. And of course, Mitchell occupies a hallowed place in the hearts of millions who have turned to her music in times of joy and sorrow for an intimate and inimitable survey of life.
With regard to the future, Mitchell says she’s “still obsessed with pushing the perimeters of what entails a pop song. I can’t really let go of that impulse yet.
“I don’t know where I’m going. I never really do. My songs could come out any shape at this point. I am thinking about keeping it simpler… I feel myself returning more to basics and to my roots in folk music. But I don’t even know what that simplicity might turn out like.”
Relocates Stateside in 1965 where her songs (“Chelsea Morning,” “Both Sides, Now,” “The Circle Game”) galvanize the folk scene.
Her song “Woodstock” about the famous 1969 festival is a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and becomes a counterculture anthem.
1971’s landmark album Blue is rated the 30th best album ever by Rolling Stone.
“Help Me” is Mitchell’s biggest single and only Top 10 hit, peaking at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974.
1997 & 2002
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1997) and wins a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2002).