Joni Mitchell was a "folk singer" for two years, but she has been an artistic badass for more than half a century since then. Her pioneering work and enduring influence over the decades are, however, often reduced to that early image of the twee folkie. Scott Schinder presents a persuasive case for Joni Mitchell as "one of her generation’s most formidable artists."
If Joni Mitchell - who turned 76 in November and released her last album of new songs in 2007 - had never evolved past her early persona as an earnest, introspective acoustic singer-songwriter, she’d still be one of her generation’s most formidable artists.
But Mitchell’s persistent folkie image belies the richness and complexity of her four-decade body of work. The first female artist in popular music to seize control of her creative destiny, Mitchell has spent most of her career relentlessly reinventing her music, instinctively rejecting the pre-defined roles that had been proscribed for female artists - and establishing her as a key role model for generations of artists, female and otherwise.
While Mitchell’s early albums fostered a deep feeling of connection in her fans, her more challenging later work resisted such easy emotional accessibility. Such pivotal Mitchell releases as The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus, released between 1975 and 1979, may have alienated fans and divided critics upon their original release, but in retrospect stand with the artist’s most enduring music.
“You have two options,” Mitchell told Cameron Crowe in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview. “You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They’re going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options, I’d rather be crucified for changing.”
Mitchell’s admirers generally point to her aforementioned string of ’70s releases as the point at which she lost interest in making crowd-pleasing albums like Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974) and writing catchy tunes like “Both Sides, Now” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” But a look back at the artist’s career makes it clear that her uncompromising iconoclasm was ingrained early on.
The archetype of the confessional female singer-songwriter is now so deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness that modern listeners may not realize that the idea of an intelligent, insightful woman documenting her inner life in song was once a radical concept. Mitchell pioneered this ideal in her early work. But her stubborn insistence on heeding her creative instincts, and her willingness to defy the expectations of her audience and the music industry, permanently changed the parameters of what a female recording artist could achieve.
Early in her career, Mitchell diverged from the folk community’s emphasis on traditional material and political commentary, to write deeply personal songs drawn from her own experience. As the cultural upheavals of the ’60s gave way to soul-searching introspection in the early ’70s, Mitchell’s example was followed by a massive wave of writer/performers of both genders, who turned inward for inspiration. Some, like Carole King and James Taylor, outsold Mitchell, but none matched her artistry or originality. Mitchell eventually achieved substantial commercial success of her own, but her restless creative instincts consistently took precedence over careerist concerns.
Roberta Joan Anderson was born on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, in the Canadian prairie province of Alberta, and at age nine moved with her family to the larger city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She began taking piano lessons at age seven, but became frustrated when her piano teacher discouraged her from attempting to play the melodies that she heard in her head. As she later explained, after writing her first song, her teacher “rapped me over the knuckles for playing by ear and killed my love for music for ten years. I stopped playing piano. I stopped going to church. Around that time, I broke with the school system. I broke with everything.”
She also showed an early talent for drawing and painting, interests that she would continue to pursue as her musical career progressed.
Stricken with polio at age nine, Joni endured an extended convalescence at a children’s hospital. She later credited the experience for helping her to develop her artistic sensitivity. Soon after recovery, she began smoking, a lifelong activity which would be reflected in the deepening of her singing voice.
“I guess I really started singing when I had polio,” she later told NPR. “I was nine, and they put me in a polio ward over Christmas. They said I might not walk again, and that I would not be able to go home for Christmas. I wouldn’t go for it. So I started to sing Christmas carols and I used to sing them real loud. When the nurse came into the room I would sing louder.”
In her teen years, Joni’s musical interests were energized by early rock ‘n’ roll. Once she’d acquired her first guitar, she began performing folk songs at coffeehouses in Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary. She tried to pursue a career as a painter, but only lasted a year at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary. Feeling stifled by the overly rigid courses, she found more satisfaction in music.
A few months after leaving college in June 1964, Joni Anderson moved to Toronto, home to a burgeoning folk scene. She was beginning to write her own material and also demonstrated a highly individual vocal style, as well as a distinctive guitar technique that set her apart from her contemporaries.
“I was only a folk singer for about two years, and that was several years before I ever made a record,” Mitchell told Cameron Crowe. “By that time, it wasn’t really folk music anymore. It was some new American phenomenon. Later, they called it singer-songwriters. Or art songs, which I liked best. Some people get nervous about that word. Art. They think it’s a pretentious word from the giddyap. To me, words are only symbols, and the word art has never lost its vitality. It still has meaning to me. Love lost its meaning to me. God lost its meaning to me. But art never lost its meaning.”
Mitchell’s idiosyncratic guitar style was partially determined by circumstance and necessity. Early on, she gravitated towards unconventional open tunings, to compensate for the fact her left hand had been weakened by her battle with polio. That approach resulted in chord structures that often bore a stronger connection to jazz than folk or rock. Her playing would evolve from the intricate picking heard on her early albums to the more rhythmic, percussive style she would employ as she explored more overt jazz influences.
After moving to Toronto, Joni married folk singer Chuck Mitchell. The couple moved to Detroit, where they performed together in that city’s folk clubs. They separated after a year and a half of marriage.
“In Detroit, we had a fifth-floor walkup apartment and it had some extra rooms,” Joni later recalled. “When Eric Anderson and David Blue and Tom Rush and people passed through Detroit, we billeted them there… Eric taught me a couple of open tunings. He taught me Open G and Drop D Modal tuning. Once I got the open tunings for some reason, I began to get the harmonic sophistication that I heard, that my musical fountain inside was excited by. Once I got some interesting chords to play with, my writing began to come.”
Early in 1967, Joni moved to New York, performing locally and touring East Coast folk clubs. At a show in Florida, she was seen by ex-Byrd David Crosby, who was so taken with her that he brought her to Los Angeles. There, Mitchell moved in with Crosby, who used his connections to help her get signed to Warner Bros. Records’ Reprise label. Crosby signed on as producer of her debut album, using his clout to get the company to allow her to record in a spare acoustic style, without the ornate arrangements that were then standard on singer/songwriters’ albums. Aside from Mitchell, the only musician to play on the sessions was Crosby’s bandmate Stephen Stills, who played bass.
Mitchell’s 1968 debut album - officially titled Joni Mitchell, but commonly referred to as Song to A Seagull - was a remarkably accomplished effort. With the LP’s sides subtitled “I Came to the City” and “Out of the City and Down to the Seaside,” such future fan favorites as “Michael from Mountains,” “Night in the City” and “Marcie” announced the arrival of a major talent.
Recording at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, Crosby had Mitchell sing into the studio’s grand piano, using extra microphones to catch her voice reverberating off the piano strings. But the unconventional set-up produced excessive ambient noise and tape hiss, which had to be removed in post-production, resulting in the loss of the high end of album’s sonic range.
Although the debut disc’s sales were relatively modest, Mitchell’s commercial stock received a substantial boost when Judy Collins scored a Top Ten single with a cover of her “Both Sides, Now” in late 1968. By this point, several of Mitchell’s songs had been covered by other artists, with Tom Rush cutting “Urge for Going” and “The Circle Game.” The latter tune was also a hit for Buffy Sainte Marie, with Judy Collins, Dave Van Ronk and Fairport Convention all covering “Chelsea Morning.” Pointedly, Mitchell chose not to include any of these well-known numbers on Joni Mitchell.
Even at this early stage, Mitchell was wary of being pigeonholed. In an interview with record executive Joe Smith for his 1988 book Off the Record, she recalled, “I did read my press. For the most part I found that initially they always lumped me in with the women. Whereas in fact what I was doing was not what most of the women were doing. My peer group was really Phil Ochs, and Dylan, and Eric, and David Blue. Basically that was my peer group.”
The Judy Collins hit helped build anticipation for Mitchell’s second LP, Clouds (1969), with such numbers as “I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” “That Song About the Midway” and “Roses Blue” vividly exploring the internal dynamics of romantic relationships and featuring spare arrangements built around Mitchell’s guitar and keyboards. Clouds also boasted some adventurous vocal arrangements, e.g. the haunting “Songs to Aging Children Come.”
The album also featured Mitchell’s own readings of the by-now-familiar “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides, Now.” Producer Paul Rothchild oversaw the opening track “Tin Angel,” but otherwise Mitchell handled the production herself, as she would continue to do for the remainder of her career.
With its cover graced by an iconic Mitchell self-portrait, Clouds proved to be a substantial leap forward, both artistically and commercially, reaching #31 in the United States. The album also won Mitchell a Grammy award for Best Folk Performance.
Mitchell’s third LP, 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, further broadened her appeal, thanks in part to “Big Yellow Taxi,” a playful environmental anthem that became her first Top 40 single. Both in sound and substance, the album finds Mitchell expanding her sophisticated songwriting vision, while evoking the sunny, free-spirited vibe of late-’60s California life on such tunes as the title track, which name checks the L.A. social hub of Laurel Canyon.
Ladies of the Canyon - on which Mitchell revisited “Circle Game” and introduced “Woodstock,” which Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young adapted into a hard-rocking hit - featured a more expansive lyrical approach to match its arrangements, which added cello, saxophone, clarinet and flute, with unconventional tunings and extended instrumental passages. While Ladies of the Canyon became Mitchell’s first "platinum" album, her growing fame became an increasing source of discomfort for the artist, as her new fans took pleasure in speculating about the real people who’d inspired her lyrics. She took a year off to concentrate on writing, painting and travel. On an extended retreat to the Greek island of Crete, she wrote a series of starkly reflective new songs inspired by her travels.
Those songs formed the core of 1971’s Blue. The album was a major creative watershed, stripping away whatever had been flowery or twee in Mitchell’s previous work, in favor of raw emotional insight. While the lyrics of “This Flight Tonight,” “River,” “A Case of You” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” delivered unflinching emotional truths, Blue replaced the acoustic folk stylings of Mitchell’s prior releases with more intricate arrangements that prominently featured dulcimer (which she had learned to play while traveling in Europe) and piano (a reflection of her admiration for the piano-based work of Laura Nyro). Blue‘s sublimely expressive song cycle explored loss and disillusionment with such disarming honesty that it would come to be regarded by many as the quintessential ’70s singer-songwriter album. It was also an instant critical and commercial hit, sealing Mitchell’s stature as one of the new decade’s cultural icons.
Interviewed years later by fellow cult icon Morrissey in 1997 for Rolling Stone, Joni offered, “I don’t think of myself as confessional. That’s a name that was put on me. The confessional poets like [Sylvia] Plath, whom I read later when they started calling me confessional, most of their stuff seemed contrived to me and not as greatly honest as it was touted to be.
“The point is not to confess,” she continued. “I’ve always used the songwriting process as a self-analysis of sorts. Like the Blue album - people were kind of shocked at the intimacy. It was peculiar in the pop arena at that time, because you were supposed to portray yourself as bigger than life. I remember thinking, ‘Well, if they’re going to worship me, they should know who they’re worshipping.'”
For the Roses (1972) was a transitional album, marking Mitchell’s move to Asylum Records, a new imprint run by David Geffen, who would play a prominent role in her career for years to come. For the Roses found Mitchell turning her introspection outward, with examinations of troubled relationships sharing space with observational lyrics that verged on social commentary, e.g. “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” a disturbing portrayal of former boyfriend James Taylor’s heroin addiction.
Some For the Roses tracks stuck to the spare acoustic sound of Mitchell’s earlier albums, but others marked the initial stirrings of the overt jazz and world-music influences and extended instrumental passages that would soon become prominent in her work. Along with friends Graham Nash and Stephen Stills, For the Roses‘ supporting cast included jazz bassist Wilton Felder and saxophonist/reeds player Tom Scott, who would soon emerge as a key Mitchell collaborator. For the Roses spawned Mitchell’s biggest single to date in the buoyant pop gem “You Turn Me On (I’m a Radio),” reportedly her response to Geffen’s request that she make an effort to write a hit. Although a playful lightweight trifle in comparison to the album’s headier material, the song’s central double entendre proved irresistible to disc jockeys, helping it reach #25 on the Billboard pop chart.
Having attained sufficient commercial clout to control her musical direction, Mitchell spent 1973 working on her next release, Court and Spark. Ironically, the album proved to be both her most adventurous effort to date and the most commercially successful album of her career, reaching #2 on Billboard‘s album chart.
While recording Court and Spark, Mitchell grew increasingly frustrated with the rock musicians she'd hired for the sessions. “There were grace notes and subtleties and things that I thought were getting kind of buried,” she later recalled. She turned to saxophonist Tom Scott and his L.A. Express - a jazz-fusion group whose members included guitarist Larry Carlton, bassist Max Bennett, keyboardist Joe Sample and drummer John Guerin, who was also Mitchell’s boyfriend at the time. Scott’s group provided backup on most of Court and Spark.
Court and Spark has been described as a concept album examining the need for honesty and trust in relationships, romantic and otherwise. Such tunes as “Down to You,” “People’s Parties” and “The Same Situation” wrestle with insecurity and self-doubt - feelings that were somehow complemented by the music’s smooth, effortless swing. The airy “Help Me” became Mitchell’s first and only Top Ten single.
To support Court and Spark, Mitchell mounted a lengthy tour, with the L.A. Express as her first-ever backup band. The performances reworked songs from her first five albums, with expanded arrangements. The shows saw Mitchell making the subtle, complex material work in some unlikely venues, including a run of summer stadium shows with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The tour spawned the two-LP Miles of Aisles, recorded mainly during a trio of shows at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheater. Like Court and Spark, Miles of Aisles reached #2 on the Billboard album chart.
Having achieved some significant creative milestones with Court and Spark and Miles of Aisles, Mitchell continued to challenge her audience’s expectations with 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Recorded with many of the same musicians as the two previous albums, Hissing marked her bravest artistic leap yet.
The breezy opener “In France They Kiss on Main Street” recalled the lush jazz-pop feel of Court and Spark, and the spare acoustic “Sweet Bird” marked a brief return to acoustic introspection. But Mitchell’s new compositions otherwise redrew the boundaries of her style, trading conventional song forms for a less structured fusion of pop, jazz and orchestral elements that had little precedent in contemporary music. The songs were propelled by exotic rhythms that presaged the multicultural consciousness that wouldn’t become commonplace in Western music for another decade.
Hissing‘s lyrics were equally radical, abandoning self-examination in favor of richly cinematic vignettes offering colorful tales of gangsters (“Edith and the Kingpin”), southern culture (“Shades of Scarlett Conquering”), feminist consciousness (“Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow”) and the lives of the idle rich (the title track). “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” quotes the jazz standard “Centerpiece” by Harry “Sweets” Edison and Jon Hendricks, while the closing track “Shadows and Light” matches multiple overdubs of Mitchell’s voice with orchestral textures provided by an ARP String Machine.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns‘ most striking departure was “The Jungle Line,” an insistently rhythmic epic that incorporated wailing synthesizer, unconventional vocal harmonies and the insistent tribal drumming of the Royal Drummers of the African nation of Burundi, sampled from a field recording. Burundi rhythms would subsequently be borrowed by numerous Western acts, but Joni was a decade ahead of the curve. “The Jungle Line” also marked Mitchell as an early exponent of sampling, which would also become commonplace in the future.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns confused fans and alienated critics expecting an accessible sequel to Court and Spark. Rolling Stone‘s Stephen Holden praised the album’s lyrics while assailing the music. “If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music,” Holden wrote. “The Hissing of Summer Lawns is ultimately a great collection of pop poems with a distracting soundtrack. Read it first. Then play it.”
Despite the often scathing reviews, The Hissing of Summer Lawns was a solid seller, peaking at Number Four in Billboard. But it would be the last Joni Mitchell album to reach the Top Ten, and the first of a string of uncompromising releases that would alienate a substantial chunk of her fan base while sealing her status as one of rock’s most fearless innovators. And regardless of the hostile critical reception, The Hissing of Summer Lawns is now widely regarded as a visionary classic, revered by fans, critics and musicians, including Prince, who cited it as one of his favorite albums.
“About the time that album came around I thought, ‘I’m not going to be your sin eater any longer,'” she said. “So I began to write social description as opposed to personal confession. I met with a tremendous amount of resentment. People thought suddenly that I was secure in my success, that I was being a snot and was attacking them.”
Mitchell’s next album, 1976’s Hejira, was largely influenced by a series of road trips, including a stint traveling with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and a cross-country drive in Mitchell’s car with a pair of friends. Returning to California on her own and without a driver’s license, Joni made it a habit to drive behind truckers, whose practice of signaling when police were nearby presumably saved her from tangling with the law.
Hejira's title is an Arabic word meaning a break from one’s past - or, as Joni later put it, “running away with honor.”
“Hejira was an obscure word, but it said exactly what I wanted,” Mitchell later explained. “It dealt with the leaving of a relationship, but without the sense of failure that accompanied the breakup of my previous relationships.”
Hejira‘s reflective songs, rife with imagery of highways, deserts and small towns, featured relatively spare arrangements built around Mitchell’s and Larry Carlton’s guitars, with metaphorical lyrics and sweeping melodic lines that often provide a complementary contrast to the tracks’ fluid jazz rhythms. “Song to Sharon” finds its title character wrestling with conflicting desires for commitment and freedom, while “Furry Sings the Blues” (with Neil Young on harmonica) was inspired by an encounter with elderly Delta bluesman Furry Lewis. “Amelia,” ostensibly an ode to ill-fated aviatrix Amelia Earhart, carries a haunting metaphorical resonance. The languid late-night vibe of “Blue Motel Room” was inspired by Mitchell’s breakup with John Guerin.
“I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs,” Mitchell later said. “But I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.”
Most of Hejira was already in the can when Mitchell decided that the recordings lacked a certain quality that she’d been looking for. She’d heard about a young fretless bassist, Jaco Pastorius, whose melodic, inventive playing had begun to cause a stir in the jazz world. Mitchell went to see the 23-year-old prodigy perform, and immediately connected with his style, in which she recognized elements of her own approach to guitar. She brought Pastorius in to overdub new bass parts on four Hejira tracks.
Unlike The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira won generally positive reviews, with critics praising Mitchell’s return to more personal songwriting. The album sold well enough to achieve Gold status three weeks after its release, but received limited airplay. In the years since its release, it has become one of Mitchell’s most beloved works.
In the summer of 1977, Mitchell began working on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, a double LP of loose, largely freeform pieces that would be her most formally unconventional effort to date. She later commented that she felt especially free because she was nearing the end of her Asylum Records contract. She embraced the jazz aesthetic more strongly than ever, with much of the music constructed via spontaneous improvisation with a group of notable jazz players that included Carlton, Guerin and percussionist Don Alias, as well as Weather Report members Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Manolo Badrena and Alex Acuña.
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter‘s opener, “Overture,” features six guitars playing together in various tunings. The satirical fantasia “Dreamland” is comprised entirely of percussion and multiple vocal overdubs. The seven-minute instrumental “The Tenth World” emphasized Latin percussion. The album’s centerpiece, as well as its most formally challenging creation, is the dreamlike 16-minute, side-long “Paprika Plains,” which featured a full orchestra and Mitchell’s improvised piano passages.
Released in December 1977, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter received mixed reviews, with some critics hailing it as a masterpiece and others dismissing it as a pretentious mess. The album also perplexed some observers with its flamboyant cover photographs, which featured Mitchell as a male pimp character whom she christened Art Nouveau. Don Juan sold well enough to go Gold and reach Number 25 on the Billboard chart, but the album’s abstract imagery and lack of catchy melodies alienated many of the longtime fans who hadn’t already been scared away by Mitchell’s recent releases.
“I knew people were fickle,” Mitchell later affirmed. “I knew that they were buying an illusion. I didn’t want there to be such a gulf between who I presented and who I was.
“I don’t know how to sell out,” she continued. “If I tried to sell out I don’t think I could. By that I mean to make an attempt to make a commercial record. I just make them and I think if I was a kid I would like this song. So you have to have a certain amount of grab-ability, initially, and then something that wears well, that you’ll love for years to come. That’s what anything fine is. It’s recognized in painting. It’s not recognized (in music). I’m just working in a toss-away industry. I’m a fine artist working in a commercial arena, so that’s my cross to bear.
One listener who did admire Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was bassist/composer Charles Mingus, who was so impressed that he invited Mitchell to collaborate with him on a planned musical interpretation of poet T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Mingus had proposed that he write a score for bass, guitar and orchestra around the Eliot pieces, with Mitchell editing Eliot’s verses into lyrics and singing the results.
Although Mitchell was intrigued by the idea of partnering with Mingus, she found the prospect of condensing Eliot’s work daunting. A few weeks after Mitchell bowed out of the proposed project, Mingus called to tell her that he’d written six original pieces for her to write lyrics to. Judging this to be a more practical assignment, Mitchell accepted, and in the spring of 1978 spent several weeks with Mingus in New York, working on the material for their collaboration. During that period, they cut some preliminary studio sessions backed by bassist Stanley Clarke, keyboardist Jan Hammer, guitarist John McLaughlin, saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and drummer Tony Williams. These recordings would not be released to the public, although some would eventually surface in underground collectors’ circles.
At the time, Mingus was battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Mitchell accompanied Mingus and his wife Sue to Mexico, where Mingus sought alternative treatments for his illness. After Mingus died on January 5, 1979, Mitchell refashioned the project as a tribute to the late musical giant. As completed by Mitchell and an all-star sextet including Pastorius, Shorter, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, drummer Peter Erskine and percussionists Don Alias and Emil Richards, the album was released that June as Mingus.
Mingus combined recordings of three Mitchell/Mingus collaborations, a heartfelt interpretation of the Mingus classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” with new Mitchell lyrics, and some new Mingus-inspired Mitchell compositions including two of her most memorable jazz-based compositions, “God Must Be a Boogie Man” and “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey.” The individual tracks were linked by bits of Mingus conversation, as well as a Mingus/Mitchell scat-singing interlude, that made the late musician a palpable presence on the album.
Mingus was released in July 1979 to a less-than-enthusiastic response from most critics. Although it managed to crack the Billboard Top 20, it received little airplay on rock or jazz stations, and was the first Joni Mitchell album in over a decade to fall short of Gold sales status. Mingus‘ stature has grown considerably over the years, and many supporters now regard it as a one-of-a-kind classic.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s increasing esteem within the jazz community was confirmed by several high-profile live performances, including a performance at the U.C. Jazz Festival in Berkeley as well as a headlining set at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
1980 saw the release of Mitchell’s second live double album, Shadows and Light. Unlike Miles of Aisles, Shadows and Light concentrated on songs from her recent jazz-inspired releases. The live band included Jaco Pastorius, guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonist Michael Brecker and keyboardist Lyle Mays, all of whom were given abundant room to stretch out. By this point, Mitchell had lost much of her mainstream pop audience, leaving her with a smaller but deeply devoted core of fans. Although she would never regain her former commercial stature, she would continue to create compelling, personally-charged music that affirmed her ongoing creative vitality.
“If I experience any frustration, it’s the frustration of being misunderstood,” she asserted. “But that’s what stardom is - a glamorous misunderstanding. All the way along, I know that some of these projects are eccentric. I know that there are parts that are experimental, and some of them are half-baked. I certainly have been pushing the limits and - even for myself - not all of my experiments are completely successful. But they lay the groundwork for further developments. Sooner or later, some of those experiments will come to fruition. So I have to lay out a certain amount of my growing pains in public...A lot of the humor in the music is missed. They insist on painting me as this tragic… well, not even a tragic, because in this town people don’t understand tragedy. All they understand is drama. You have to be moral to understand tragedy.”
During an extended trip to the Caribbean, Mitchell developed an affinity for Jamaica’s reggae rhythms, and that influence manifested itself in the polyrhythmic influences of her first Geffen Records release, 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast. The album otherwise found Mitchell returning to melodic pop songwriting and emotionally direct lyrics, while retaining an unmistakable jazz sensibility. She credited Steely Dan, Talking Heads and The Police for helping to rekindle her interest in contemporary pop-rock.
Her high-profile label change, combined with the fact that Wild Things Run Fast featured her most melodically accessible music since Court and Spark, temporarily put Mitchell back in the mainstream public eye. She even briefly returned to the pop charts, with a tongue-in-cheek cover of the Elvis Presley hit “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” narrowly scraping into the Top 50 to become her first charting single in eight years.
Wild Things Run Fast also yielded such catchy, upbeat originals as “Solid Love,” “You Dream Flat Tires” and “Underneath the Streetlights,” while “Chinese Cafe” demonstrated some left-field pop savvy by incorporating elements of the beloved pop standard “Unchained Melody.” Much of Mitchell’s new material was inspired by her relationship with bassist Larry Klein, who she married in November 1982, and who soon emerged as her chief collaborator.
Although Wild Things Run Fast won back some of Mitchell’s old fans, she had the misfortune of releasing her potential comeback just as the pop mainstream had begun to emphasize the slick, gimmicky acts being promoted through the new music-video cable channel MTV, pushing many veteran artists aside.
If Wild Things Run Fast didn’t quite restore Mitchell to her former level of popularity, it wasn’t for lack of trying. To support the album, she embarked on the most extensive concert tour of her career, running five months and encompassing Japan, Australia, Britain, Europe and the U.S.
By the end of 1984, Mitchell and Klein had taken an active interest in electronics, working with the Fairlight synthesizer, a state-of-the-art instrument capable of reproducing a vast array of sampled sounds. When Joni announced her intention to integrate their electronic experiments into her next recording project, David Geffen suggested that they work with Thomas Dolby, one of the most accomplished of the then-current crop of new British synth-pop stars. Although he’d scored an international hit in 1983 with his wacky techno-pop anthem “She Blinded Me with Science,” Dolby was also a serious songwriter and a longtime Mitchell admirer who’d recorded a cover of “The Jungle Line.”
With Dolby acting as player, programmer and co-producer, 1985’s Dog Eat Dog was an ambitious sonic departure, combining an assortment of sleek modern sounds and eccentric samples with some of the most uncompromisingly political songwriting of Mitchell’s career. “Dog Eat Dog,” “Fiction” and “The Three Great Stimulants” were sharp indictments of the callousness and materialism of Reagan-era America, even if their sometimes abstract lyrics obscured the messages.
Dog Eat Dog‘s extensive use of advanced recording technology made it Mitchell’s most expensive recording project to date, but the album’s lackluster sales hardly justified the expense. The album stalled at #63 - her poorest chart showing since her debut album. Like many of Mitchell’s most ambitious works, Dog Eat Dog has gained esteem with the passage of time, and its harsher visions have largely been vindicated by subsequent world events. At the time, though, the album’s sales were so disappointing that Mitchell cancelled a planned six-month tour, using the time to paint instead.
Mitchell continued to pursue electronic influences on 1988’s Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm. On paper, the album might have seemed like a savvy commercial move, since it teamed her with an all-star assortment of guest vocalists. Despite its roster of famous names, Chalk Mark was as idiosyncratic - and as out-of-step with the commercial mainstream - as its predecessor.
Beyond its resourceful use of multiple voices and its emphasis on spare, percussion-heavy instrumental tracks, Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm continued to explore many of the topical themes that Mitchell had written about on Dog Eat Dog. The songs encompassed the environment (“Lakota” and a rewrite of the old cowboy song “Cool Water”), war (“The Tea Leaf Prophecy,” “The Beat of Black Wings”) and the soullessness of contemporary American culture (“Number One,” “The Reoccurring Dream”).
Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm brought Mitchell her first Grammy nomination in over a decade, in the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance category. She ended up losing to newcomer Tracy Chapman. Ironically, Chapman was managed by Joni’s longtime manager Elliot Roberts, whom Mitchell had fired only a few months before.
Night Ride Home, Mitchell’s final Geffen release, was a strong return to her roots, dispensing with the technological frills and celebrity duets of her recent work in favor of spare, mostly acoustic arrangements built around her voice and guitar. “Night Ride Home,” “Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)” and “Come In from the Cold” echoed the reflective intimacy of her early work, while confronting mature, complex subject matter in a manner that reflected the viewpoint of a fiercely independent woman closing in on her 50s.
Night Ride Home won Mitchell the most enthusiastic reviews she’d received in years. Unfortunately, Geffen’s artist roster was now dominated by young hard-rock and heavy metal bands, and the soon-to-be-departing Mitchell was no longer much of a promotional priority for the label.
Mitchell and Larry Klein separated in 1994, but continued working together on that year’s Turbulent Indigo, which marked her return to Warner Bros./Reprise, and which largely embraced the sound and spirit of her beloved earlier work.
Turbulent Indigo‘s melodically accessible, lyrically direct songs seamlessly meshed the personal and the topical, looking outward at a troubled world while exploring the rocky terrain of the human heart. The album offered an incisive and sometimes disturbing panorama of contemporary life, all the more effective for its spare, understated sound. Although its sales were again underwhelming, Turbulent Indigo - whose front cover featured a Van Gogh-inspired Mitchell self-portrait - coincided with a growing sense of public acknowledgment of Mitchell’s importance and influence, an awareness affirmed when Turbulent Indigo won a Grammy as the year’s Best Pop Album.
Mitchell’s rising public profile was underlined by the simultaneous 1996 release of a pair of retrospective compilations, Hits and Misses, which collected her successful singles and some lesser-known gems, respectively. The latter disc was the idea of Mitchell, who had refused to give her blessing to the proposed best-of collection unless she was allowed to assemble a companion volume of lesser-known material.
In January 1996, in an article headlined Too Feminine for Rock? Or Is Rock Too Macho?, New York Times critic Stephen Holden took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - an institution that had yet to honor any female performers - to task for not having inducted Mitchell, who had become eligible for induction in 1993. Coincidentally or not, Mitchell would finally be voted into the Hall of Fame in May 1997, becoming the first woman to receive the honor.
Mitchell played an active role in a soundtrack project, director Allison Anders’s Grace of My Heart (1996), a film set in the pop-music scene of the 1960s. Larry Klein, the project’s music supervisor, asked Joni to write a song in the vein of her For the Roses period, to be performed by the film’s lead character. Although she initially balked at the idea, she reconsidered after viewing scenes from the film, and wrote the bittersweet “Man from Mars” for the occasion.
Mitchell revived “Man from Mars” for Taming the Tiger (1998), an album that continued the personally charged direction of her recent efforts, while recalling some of the fluid jazz textures of her Hejira era. The title track and “Stay In Touch” seemingly referred to the artist’s recent reconnection with her long-lost daughter - and her concurrent discovery that she was a grandmother - and family-related themes ran through the songs. Mitchell promoted Taming the Tiger with a long-awaited concert tour, playing numerous co-headlining shows with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.
Mitchell’s next two albums included no new Mitchell compositions, and she later claimed that she recorded them to fulfill contractual obligations. But both of those collections - 2000’s Both Sides Now and 2002’s Travelogue - carried a personal edge that transcended both albums’ ostensible retrograde focus. Both Sides Now was comprised largely of covers of jazz and pop standards of the ’30s and ’40s, with Mitchell backed by a 71-piece orchestra and a swinging big band. Both Sides Now also featured a pair of reworked Mitchell classics, the title song and the Blue-era favorite “A Case of You.” Both provided a compelling contrast between the middle-aged artist’s wise, dusky alto and the bright, eager voice of her early work.
The release of Both Sides Now was accompanied by an all-star tribute concert, broadcast as a special on the TNT cable network. Among the wide array of artists who performed at the tribute were Bryan Adams, Shawn Colvin, Elton John, Wynonna Judd, Diana Krall, k.d. lang, Cyndi Lauper, James Taylor and Richard Thompson, attesting to the breadth of Mitchell's influence.
In 2002, Mitchell abruptly announced that she was finished with the music industry, which she dismissed as a “cesspool.” She announced that that Travelogue would be her final album, and that she had no intention of signing another record deal. By the time Travelogue was released, though. she had apparently had a change of heart, acknowledging that her retirement plans may have been premature. If Mitchell had made good on her threat to quit music, Travelogue would have been an uncommonly graceful swan song. The two-CD set featured new readings of 22 Mitchell classics, with lush orchestral accompaniment as well as an assortment of jazz players.
The next few years saw the release of a series of retrospective collections that affirmed Mitchell’s artistic stature. 2003’s The Complete Geffen Recordings combined remastered editions of her four albums for the label with bonus rarities and Mitchell’s own pithy liner-notes observations. That set was followed by a trio of single-disc compilations. The Beginning of Survival was a collection of topically-themed material. Dreamland focused on her jazz-based compositions. Songs of A Prairie Girl consisted of songs inspired by her upbringing in Canada. The latter collection coincided with Mitchell’s appearance at a concert as part of Saskatchewan’s Centennial celebration, at which Mitchell performed for an audience that included Queen Elizabeth II.
Despite her pledge to retire from music, Mitchell surprised fans in 2007 by releasing Shine on Hear Music, Starbucks' music imprint. Shine features some of Mitchell’s most political and reflective songwriting, with biting lyrical insights driving such tunes as “This Place,” “If I Had a Heart” and “Strong and Wrong.” While fans rejoiced at Mitchell’s return, Shine is an uneasy and unsettling album, casting an unflinching eye on a troubled world. Shine surprised many observers by selling 40,000 copies in its first week of release, and debuting at #14 on Billboard‘s album chart - Mitchell’s highest chart placing since Hejira.
In the years since, Mitchell has dealt with a series of serious health issues. In 2016, she received her ninth Grammy, this time a Lifetime Achievement award. In 2018, Rhino released Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet Waiting to be Danced. a career-spanning box set encompassing her entire career. Regardless of her future musical ventures, if any, Joni Mitchell’s body of work speaks for itself, and continues to gain power and resonance with the passage of time.
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