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by Alex Duval Smith
The Guardian
April 7, 1997

Joni Mitchell will always be remembered as the flaxen-haired folk chick of the sixties with the haunting voice and cheekbones sharp enough to cut. Last week, however, she emerged in a different role  that of mother. After months of searching, the outspoken Canadian was reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption more than 30 years ago. Alex Duval Smith reports&

She has written the soundtrack to every episode of our lives, capturing love, loss, passing observations and strongly felt opinions. Because she is an artist, and a publicity-shy one at that, she loathes the thought of people reading biography through her lyrics.

Yet in the last few days, fans who learnt that Joni Mitchell had been reunited with a daughter they never knew she had, must have been re-reading the words to her songs. Were there any clues on old albums like Ladies Of The Canyon or Clouds that, only a few years earlier, Joni had given birth to her only child and put the baby up for adoption? It is painful to discover that the singer who put your emotions to music has been keeping something from you.

But then Mitchell, now aged 53, always maintains that it is her talent, not her personal experience, which has brought us lyrics like "I've looked at love from both sides now / From give and take, and still somehow / It's love's illusion I recall / I really don't know love at all"; or snippets of wisdom such as "Anyone will tell you just how hard it is to keep a friend / Maybe they'll short-sell you or maybe they'll turn Judas in the end."

Cunningly, Mitchell has produced such an extensive and eclectic body of work  19 albums in 20 years  that her own story has been camouflaged by her lyrics. She was known by some to have had polio as a child and to have got through two husbands. But until she was honoured last year by the Governor-General of Ontario, half of Canada did not realize she was a native and the other half thought she had emigrated to the United States long ago.

Similarly, despite being cited as a formative influence by such stars as Madonna, Prince, Chrissie Hynde and k d lang, she has only recently received recognition from the music industry for her talent. After winning Billboard magazine's 1995 Century Award, she told the Canadian Globe & Mail newspaper: "I won the award for the most undervalued artist of the century. Once that happened, everyone wanted to honour me. But don't mistake the fact. This happens to all great artists in some place in their careers. People get sick of you. The public is trained to crave the new  all these new Joni Mitchells like Ricki Lee Jones and Suzanne Vega."

She is pretty disparaging of the new Joni Mitchells, and does not mind saying so. When she was told recently that she was to be admitted, next month, to the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, she was cautious. It turned out that the organisers planned to ask Alanis Morisette, another Canadian, to introduce Mitchell at the ceremony. They had to rethink when Mitchell told them she was not a big fan of Morissette and had already said so in a magazine interview.

"I have forced myself to listen to hours of contemporary rock music. For me black music has a good beat, and some of the poets are quite articulate but I'm sick of the 'hood and I wish there was more diversity of message. As for the white aspect, the Northwest grunge is a lot of whiny, disinherited white boys, " she said.

While saying that her favourite music of the moment is "some Stravinsky I've overlooked", she does not have much time for literary classics. "The only poets who influenced me were Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. What always bugged me about the poetry in school was the artifice of it.

"When Dylan wrote 'You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend' as an opening line, the language was direct and undeniable. As for [Sylvia] Plath and the likes, there was a lot of posturing in the work and there was that suicide-chic aspect," she told the New York Times. Her progression from the flaxen-haired folk chick who sang "Woodstock" and "Big Yellow Taxi", into rock legend who likes experimenting with jazz, has meant periods of obscurity. Even though Turbulent Indigo won a Grammy last year, Mitchell has not had a platinum album since Court And Spark in 1974. "Artists like Madonna spend a lot of money to get themselves on the radio. It's sickening," she told the Globe & Mail.

Certainly the smarmy, ego-massages of showbiz are not for Mitchell, born Roberta Joan Anderson, the only daughter of a grocer and his wife from Alberta. She tried Los Angeles, for a bit, in the mid 1970s but describes those years as her "descent". She told the New York Times: "I found myself in the public eye, and I felt transparent. I could see through myself and through everybody else, and it was too much for the nervous system to take."

Now installed on 40 acres of land, 120 miles north of Vancouver, she says she can be herself; a chain-smoker who is convinced that the habit gives quality to her voice ("Billie Holiday only had a range of seven notes"), living with a local musician who also grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Despite recent warnings from her to the contrary she now says she will continue to write music. But if it stops coming to her, she will concentrate on painting  a hobby which has already demanded three retrospectives and provided all her album covers. She is also rumoured to be writing an autobiography and a coffee-table book which will be illustrated with her paintings.

Her decision, last December, to search for Kelly, the daughter she had with an art college boyfriend in 1965, is part of being "clean now" and having "no skeletons", as she said last week, in an echo of the statement with which Clare Short introduced her long-lost son to the public last October: "This completes my life."

The media as yet knows little of Kelly  indeed that may not be the first name used by Mitchell's 31 year-old daughter  except that she has worked as a model. Mitchell's publicist, Bill Bentley, said the singer would not make a statement for several days, because she wanted her rediscovered daughter to meet all her family. One of Mitchell's reasons for seeking out her daughter is what she calls "genetic information"; in 1952, a year before the vaccine was released, the nine-year-old grocer's daughter developed polio.

"It really has an effect on you," she told the Globe & Mail. "The polio ward is depressing with its whine of iron lungs. The disease rampages for two weeks and then you're left with disaster. I was unable to walk or stand. My spine looked like the freeway after an earthquake." The New York Post recently hinted at a recurrence of the disease, but her agent poo-poohed the story, saying the polio was nothing like as big a problem as her smoking.

Mitchell was always determined not to be handicapped by the illness. "Polio survivors  Neil Young is another one  are a really stubborn bunch of people," she said.

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Added to Library on February 18, 2009. (1127)

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