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BBC Online
July 12, 2001

JONI MITCHELL (b. 1943)

  • The archetype of all female singer-song writers
  • From Canada
  • Looks good in a beret
  • Built bridges between folk, rock and jazz
  • Her Court And Spark album features both Robbie Robertson and Cheech and Chong
  • Used Burundi drummers on 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, at least five years before Adam Ant
  • Taught herself guitar with the "Pete Seeger Guitar Book"
  • Wrote the hit "Woodstock" for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – though she herself, never made it to the festival

  • PROFILE

    Consistently experimenting with the popular song form at every turn, Joni Mitchell has twisted folk into pop, jazz into rock, and world music into electronics, with little time for the traditional expectations of a woman's role in the music industry. In so doing, she has achieved commercial success without ever courting it, remaining true to her own instincts for artistic success, and has inspired an entire generation of female recording artists through her determined pursuit of new artistic challenges. Moreover, she's influenced modern music immeasurably, setting new standards for the art of songwriting itself.

    Born in Canada, Joni Mitchell played around the small Alberta and Toronto folk scenes, before moving to Detroit in 1966. Her already captivating performances, particularly in a fervent post-Dylan New York, caught the ear of folk-rock superstar David Crosby, who offered to produce her debut Songs To A Seagull (1968). As with Dylan, her songs initially became hits for other singers, and it was not until 1970 that her first great record appeared.Ladies Of The Canyon subtly fused elements of folk and jazz with a confident mix of political and personal issues (including one song, "Willy", written about her relationship with Graham Nash), and spawning a minor hit in the early eco-anthem "Big Yellow Taxi", subsequently regarded as one of the era's defining moments. Her timely anthem for "Woodstock" also became a hit for both Matthews Southern Comfort and her friends Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

    1971's Blue was the real breakthrough, however, bringing a new sophistication to the folk sound, and a new maturity to the sometimes painfully honest confessional lyrics. Stephen Stills and James Taylor were among the four sidemen, and the sparse arrangements barely seem able to carry even Mitchell's delicate voice. A hauntingly lovely album, it placed her squarely in the vanguard of the popular singer-songwriter scene. 1972's For The Rosespossesses a poppier sound, but ups the jazz-rock element too, securing her first big hit single with "You Turn Me On (I'm A Radio)".

    1974's Court And Spark, her best-selling album, was a near-perfect confection of rock, jazz, and pop, with numerous great songs: "Car On A Hill", as sophisticated as any Steely Dan tune; the pithy yet poignant "Free Man In Paris" (allegedly written about David Geffen); the insight and self-doubt of "People's Parties"; and the smirking "Twisted" (briefly featuring "head" comedy duo Cheech and Chong on, er, "background voices"!). Wonderfully economical performances from the likes of Larry Carlton, Joe Sample and The Band's Robbie Robertson benefit from Mitchell's skilled arrangements, and once again, she achieves a beguiling combination of personally revealing lyrics with broader appeal, within a richly rewarding musical framework.

    Following the live double-album Miles Of Aisles (1975), she then embarked on a series of albums which addressed in more fulsome manner the jazz sound that had become increasingly evident in her work. Her previously sing-song voice had developed a jazz-influenced delivery, spinning lines out across the rhythms of the song, darting in and out of melodies at will.

    With The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975),Hejira(1976), Don Juan's Reckless Daughter(1977) and Mingus (1979) she embarked upon a new music, where the folk-song form was left way behind, as almost avant-garde techniques and improvisations with the leading players of the period (including Weather Report's Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius, and - shortly before his death - the legendary Charlie Mingus) provided fertile new ground for her writing and singing.

    1980's live album Shadows And Light offers a good summary of the period. Surrounded by players of the calibre of Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker and Don Alias, it's clear that Joni Mitchell is also one of the great jazz singers of recent years - often fragile, yet with delightful phrasing, her supremely agile voice confidently leading the band through the tight angles and sharp turns in her songs. Around the focal point provided by her singing, Mitchell's arrangements serve to showcase the musicians and the music brilliantly, leaving no room for aimless self-indulgence: as a result, these albums are amongst the best examples of the '70s fusion sound - complex yet accessible, sophisticated yet warm, intelligent without being too clever. In the midst of all this, Mitchell also introduced what would later become known as "world music" influences into her music, predating Paul Simon's Graceland and David Byrne & Brian Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by several years.

    The eighties saw Mitchell marry her long-time collaborator Larry Klein, whilst returning to the charts with a series of smart, pop-oriented releases such as 1985's Dog Eat Dog, recorded with electronic wunderkind Thomas Dolby. But as with many explorative musicians surviving the '80s, she then touched base again with her singer-songwriter roots, with early '90s albums like Night Ride Home (1991) and Turbulent Indigo (1994) framed around her voice, guitar, and a small supporting group. After separating with Klein - who would continue to co-produce her records - Mitchell effected a critically-acclaimed return to Summer Lawns territory with Taming The Tiger (1998), and a set of torch-song standards accompanied by a 70-piece orchestra, Both Sides Now (2000). Though this latest album consists entirely of covers, Joni Mitchell has proven time and again her ability to produce timeless new music. Given her ability to identify and follow the road not taken, her future direction is anyone's guess, but will undoubtedly result in yet more beautiful, remarkable music.

    This article has been viewed 1,561 times since being added on October 27, 2001.

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