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Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame
January 2007


(b. Fort MacLeod, Alberta, 7 November, 1943)

MODERN ERA, 1956 to 1981

Raw truth, pointed irony and unsettling beauty are words that describe both the artist and her art. Joni Mitchell - an accomplished singer, painter, poet and photographer -- is one of the most prolific, influential female recording artists of the twentieth century. A brilliant surrealist and gifted poet, Mitchell blends musical complexity with intellectually astute lyrics, creating a sound that is quintessentially her own.

Driven by her passionate intensity and unbending free spirit, Joni Mitchell has succeeded in breaking pop boundaries and continually refusing to abide by the rules of the recording industry. From the earliest stages of her versatile career, Mitchell has garnered respect and admiration from both her musical peers and her expansive and expectant fan base.

Throughout her artistic journey, she has seamlessly evolved her raw self-expression through folk music to jazz to rock n roll, world music and avant-garde styles. She accomplished this at a time when other artists dared not step out of the confines of pop music in such a bold fashion. Her deeply personal and colorful lyrics and innovative sounds have touched millions of people for over four decades and the creative legacy she has bestowed through her genius is unsurpassed.

Born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943 in Fort MacLeod, Alberta, Mitchell experienced her artistic calling from the age of seven when she convinced her parents to give her piano lessons so she could release the melodies she heard in her head. She also discovered her drawing skills early in life and recalls her first creative outbursts, inspired by events such as watching the movie Bambi, which disturbed her so much that she felt compelled to draw out her emotions.

Like many children of her era, Mitchell contracted Polio at the age of nine, another incident that she tributes as a starting point of her true identity as an artist. As a teenager, Mitchell was a self-taught ukulele player, which she bought to entertain at parties, not being able to afford a guitar.

In 1965, Roberta Joan Anderson enrolled in the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, but soon dismissed her classes as not creative enough for her standards. She sang Judy Collins songs in Calgary pubs and later that same year moved to Toronto with the aspiration of becoming a folk singer.

Struggling to get into the music business and sustaining herself through low-paying department store jobs, Mitchell soon decided to marry Chuck Mitchell, whom she had met in Calgary. The pair moved to Detroit where they both performed as folk singers in various clubs. The marriage and partnership of Joan and Chuck Mitchell dissolved within a year and a half and she then moved to New York City to pursue her dreams of becoming a recording artist.

A relative unknown, Mitchell quickly cultivated a cult following as a live performer and talented songwriter. This distinction was owed in part to the fact that her songs were being performed and recorded by well-established folk and country artists, such as Tom Rush, George Hamilton IV, Canadian born Buffy Sainte-Marie and Judy Collins, whose cover of Both Sides Now in 1968 became Joni's first hit song.

In 1967, David Crosby stumbled upon a Joni Mitchell performance in Florida, and was so awestruck by what he heard and saw that he became one of the steering wheels of Mitchell's first recording contract on Reprise Records.

Mitchell was scheduled to perform at Woodstock in 1969 but was advised by her manager not to appear in case the well-publicized traffic jams preventing artists from leaving the concert area would jeopardize her scheduled appearance on the Dick Cavett Show the following Monday. Her frustration and regret at not having been able to participate in this life-changing musical event led her to write the song Woodstock, which ironically went on to become an anthem for her generation. The song was a success for Crosby, Stills & Nash later that year.

Following on the mild success of her album Ladies of the Canyon, Mitchell took a year off from the recording industry to travel and seek creative inspiration. From that period of spiritual introspection in 1971, came Mitchell's intense and magical album Blue, which became an instant classic and critically acclaimed, firmly establishing Mitchell as one of the most important songwriters of her time.

Since her early folk roots, Mitchell has ventured her talents in jazz music, experimental and synth-pop, working with greats and pioneers of various music genres, such as Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Willie Nelson, Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, Weather Report and Chaka Khan. Her poetry set to music has been performed the world over, by such diverse artists as Frank Sinatra, Chet Atkins, Glenn Campbell, Neil Diamond, Crosby, Stills & Nash, James Taylor, Bing Crosby, Willie Nelson, The Byrds, and countless others.

Mitchell has been the recipient of many Gold and Platinum albums, two Juno Awards and five Grammy Awards. In 1981, Joni Mitchell was inducted in the Canadian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with a personal presentation by ex-Prime Minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau. In October 1988 she was awarded the Premio Tenco during the San Remo Song Festival in Italy, received the Billboard Century Award in 1995, and on May 6, 1996 Joni received the coveted Polar Music Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. Joni was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2004, Joni Mitchell was made companion of Order of Canada. Mitchell recently re-released her album Hejira, which is seen by many as one of the moodiest of her albums, in celebration of its 30th anniversary. She is also currently at work on her first new album in nearly a decade.

A mature artist of great courage and integrity, Joni Mitchell's compelling art forms have entrenched her within the Canadian and international music scene as a sensitive and vital contributor. She lends a painter's vision to all of her work and, with a painter's ability to be self-adjudicating; she refused to work with a producer, allowing her work to develop naturally and in a most original way. Having only recorded two songs in her career in standard tuning, the bulk of her repertoire comes from a palate of nearly sixty original open tunings. This produced some very fresh chordal movements, which are currently being studied in American music schools today. The strength and uncompromising manner she brings to each of her artistic explorations continues to fascinate and amaze both industry members and music fans alike.

MODERN ERA, 1956 to 1981
YEAR: 1967

(b. Fort Macleod, Alberta, 7 November 1943)

Both Sides Now, also known as Clouds, is a classic recorded by countless artists looking to share a piece of Mitchell's songwriting genius.

Written in 1967 and inspired by a passage from the book Henderson The Rain King by Saul Bellow, Both Sides Now was an international hit for Judy Collins, who recorded the song in 1968 and won a Grammy Award later the same year for Best Female Folk Performance.'

With its soul-searching, Zen-like lyricism and gentle melody, Both Sides Now is a meditation on fantasy and reality, each verse being divided into both a naive and an experienced way of looking at clouds, love and life.

The song is about childhood's end. It's about shedding the fairytales of Disney and facing the world as a realist. It isn't the voice of hope nor is it the voice of resignation. It is an attempt to find a way of conducting oneself in a world becoming increasingly violent and perverse.

Judy Collins has said, "Joni came down from Canada to add the poetic lustre of her songs to our musical lives. Joni's songs are delicate and feminine and strong&like she is. Collins told Mitchell, "You can break my heart anytime you like. Just open your mouth and sing."

Cover artists include: Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Tori Amos, Claudine Longet, Pete Seeger, Frank Sinatra, Anne Murray, Neil Diamond, Robert Goulet, Willie Nelson, Paul Young and Clannad, Chet Atkins, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespy, Gabor Szabo, Uncle Seth, and many more.

MODERN ERA, 1956 to 1981
YEAR: 1970

(b. Fort Macleod, Alberta, 7 November 1943)

Joni Mitchell's Woodstock was composed on the weekend of the infamous Woodstock festival in 1969 and became a hit for Mitchell's close friends, Crosby, Stills & Nash in 1970.

Disappointed because her management refused her permission to enter the Woodstock festival site due to an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show the following Monday, Mitchell resigned herself to watching the festival on television in New York City.

Saddened by missing the event of her generation, Joni was inspired to write the song by imagining she was there. Mitchell recalls: "It hurt&it was like I was the grounded daughter, but the boys get to go. Most of the song was written on the last night of the [festival], out of frustration of being disallowed to go. Crosby, Stills and Nash heard it later and asked permission to record it."

Crosby, Stills & Nash flew back from the festival on Monday night and made a surprise appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, on the night of Mitchell's appearance. Her heart sank as the band described Woodstock for the audience.

Woodstock soon became referred to as an anthem for a generation and for the late 1960's. It was also noted in Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems where she said it was one of the greatest poems of our generation.

Cover artists include: the Matthews Southern Comfort Band, Stevie Wonder, Big Country, Steve Fisk, Barry Miles, Bonnie Raitt, Spin Doctors, Led Zeppelin, Dread Zeppelin, Fairport Convention, John Williams, David Lahm, George Kahn, Richie Havens, and many more.

MODERN ERA. 1956 to 1981
YEAR: 1975

(b. Fort Macleod, Alberta, 7 November 1943)

Big Yellow Taxi is Joni Mitchell's most recognized song despite having only reached number 24 on the Billboard charts upon its release in 1975 from her album Ladies of the Canyon. Admired for Mitchell's unique melody and soothing vocal work, the song currently ranks as number nine on CBC Radio's Top 50: The Canadian Version.

Big Yellow Taxi was written in 1973 after Mitchell was in Hawaii peering out of her hotel window hoping to glimpse the breathtaking scenery, only to see an enormous parking lot. The song is about taking nature for granted.

Although the parking lot in Hawaii was the point of inspiration for the song, it was written for people everywhere surrounded by natural beauty and not aware what a gift it is.

Big Yellow Taxi was written as a nursery rhyme, like London Bridges Falling Down and Ring Around the Rosy. This seemingly naive lyric was about great atrocity and Joni hoped that children would sing it in order to wake up adults. This was her greatest hope for this song.

Cover artists include: Green Day, Bob Dylan, Amy Grant, Sarah McLachlan, Cher, Percy Faith, James Taylor, Counting Crows, Joe Dassin, Vanessa Carlton, Big Country, Dick Hyman, Chris Thomas King, Sara Hamman, Monty Alexander, and many others. Samples have been used in Janet Jackson's 1997 single Got Till It's Gone.

MODERN ERA, 1956 to 1981
YEAR: 1973

(b. Fort Macleod, Alberta, 7 November 1943)

Joni Mitchell's best selling single to date, Help Me succeeded in reaching number seven on the Billboard charts in 1973 and stayed there for 19 weeks. From her album Court and Spark, the beautiful love ballad reflects Mitchell's love of jazz, blended with her unique folk touch.

Under pressure from her record company to produce a hit, Joni attempted to play her music with existing session players. Unfortunately, it was in vogue at the time for rhythm sections to have the bass played with dead strings and the drummer would play with a pillow in his kit drum to keep the bottom end in the background. When Joni insisted that she wanted a more full bodied and resonant bottom end, she ran up against nothing but resistance from the musicians, who were insistent on conforming to the current trend. At the same time Stevie Wonder was also craving and achieving a more prominent bottom sound so Joni took her engineer, Henry Louie, over to one of his sessions to show him that it was technically possible.

In Help Me, Mitchell sings about one's loss of strength when faced with feelings of love for another. How one feels threatened by love and the weaknesses and insecurities it brings us, rather than surrendering ourselves to feelings of joy and happiness.

Cover artists include: k.d. lang, Wynonna Judd, Divine Brown, Michelle Williams, Guv'ner, Nicole Kramer, John Hart, Mandy Moore and Ginger Mackenzie

MODERN ERA, 1956 to 1981
YEAR: 1972

(b. Fort Macleod, Alberta, 7 November 1943)

You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio was Joni Mitchell's first hit single from her 1972 album For the Roses, reaching the Billboard top 20 in January 1973. The country-inspired song about the struggle to maintain one's innocence and vision in the recording industry was a lighter step away from Mitchell's usually introspective lyrics.

Featuring seductive lyrics peppered with sexual innuendos and humorous touches, You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio was written as a joke for David Geffen who was prodding her to write a hit single

Graham Nash took part in sessions for the song, and his harmonica part was used on the final release. The song also features a beautifully orchestrated chorus.

Cover artists include: Wynonna Judd, Iris Koch, Little Miss Higgins, Jane Hall, Beth Nielsen Chapman, The Cantrells, Carmina, Steve Goldberger, Gail Davies, and many more.

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Added to Library on January 30, 2007. (8123)


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