Joni Mitchell once described herself as "a painter derailed by circumstance." Well, all said and done, there are worse places to end up than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Recipient of eight Grammys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award at age 58. Songwriter, per- former, and producer of 1971's Blue, one of Time magazine's 100 All-Time Albums. "One of the greatest songwriters ever" according to Rolling Stone. Member of the Canadian Hall of Fame. Billboard 's Century Award. Polar Music Prize. The list goes on.
But all of these accolades, while impressive, don't begin to explain the artist that is Joni Mitchell. And one can only go so far with the usual terms affixed to her name - iconoclast, genre-melding songwriter, poet with a social conscience (often mentioned in the same breath as peers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen). Perhaps the phrase that captures Joni best, spoken by one observer after Mitchell proceeded to peel and eat a banana in the middle of her own tribute concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom in 2000: "That is one cool lady."
Defying conventions - politely declining to take herself or any of the above rigmarole too seriously - defines Mitchell not just personally, but as an artist and a songwriter. She was one of the first North American artists to incorporate world music into her work, and one of the first pop musicians to experiment with jazz. Her guitar tunings are famously uncon- ventional, partly due to a weakened left hand from childhood polio, but also because she had to invent new tunings to express the music she heard in her head. "Americans, they seem to like their tragedy minor and their happiness major, and the most they can handle is a seventh, and anything after that is weird," Mitchell commented in 1994. "Joni's weird chords" and her "twiddling the knobs" have resulted in 50 guitar tunings since her begin- nings as a songwriter in 1964, so many that she often has to consult her archivist to relearn old material. Critics have cited this musical inventiveness as particularly suited to jazz collaboration, and Mitchell has had fruitful relationships with Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Jaco Pastorius over the course of her career.
The influence of jazz and literature was apparent from the beginning. Joan Anderson's childhood reads like an Alice Munro short story: the only child of a trumpet-playing grocer and a mother who recited Shakespeare, the family lived at times without electricity or run- ning water on the plains of Northwest Saskatchewan. Often confined by illness, Joan lis- tened to Rachmaninoff, Edith Piaf, and Miles Davis, mail ordering records unavailable in Saskatoon. She left a Calgary art school after a year, fled to Toronto, and gave up a daugh- ter for adoption (to be reunited 32 years later). Soon after, Joni married folksinger Chuck Mitchell, moved to the U.S., left him, and kept his name.
Mitchell has lived in Southern California since the late '60s (following brief stints in Detroit and New York), the long skirts of her early performances encompassing a bohemian pre- sent as well as her prairie past. She wrote her first song, "Day by Day," while on a train en route to a Toronto folk festival. Anecdotally, a bulk of her work seems to have been composed while in motion - whether in a railcar, driving cross country, or in flight. Taking to the air both literally and metaphorically, she wrote her first hit, "Both Sides Now" (first made famous by Judy Collins), at 23, after reading a quote from Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King (paraphrased by Mitchell): "In an age when people could look up and down at clouds, they shouldn't be afraid to die." Mitchell, herself embodying the female adven- turer, later wrote a tribute to Amelia Earhart: "A ghost of aviation/She was swallowed by the sky/Or by the sea like me she had a dream to fly."
Music critic Ann Powers takes the flight metaphor one step further, saying images (and a lifestyle) of adventure helped Mitchell explore the world beyond conventional family; she "looked into empty sky, where women's stories have dissolved all too often." Joni's role as a female songwriter, especially one who emerged in the late '60s, has often defined the critical discussion of her career. Her confessional lyrics were unprecedented for a folksinger, and her music career paralleled the emergence of poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who brought private experience into the public sphere (to the great dis- comfort of certain male colleagues). Mitchell makes herself vulnerable, but it is through such unsettling lyrics - and unconventional musical accompaniment - that she derives her power as an artist. Her writing opened the path not only for subsequent female song- writers such as Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, and Liz Phair - as well as idiosyncratic pop artists like Prince - but also for the overly confessional, heart-on-sleeve (and almost exclusively male) emo bands of the 1980s and '90s. It is hard to conceive what American music would look like without Mitchell's participation and influence.
Ultimately, while her role as a female songwriter should not be discounted, Mitchell's music is powerful because she captures the complicated experience of being human, not just of being female. Whether writing about herself or the world around her, she is con- sistently unafraid to tell the truth as she sees it. This sentiment flows into the political sphere, through songs (most famously "Big Yellow Taxi") and even entire albums (such as 1985's Dog Eat Dog) laced with social commentary. Her last album, Shine (released in 2007 on the Starbucks label Hear Music, embodying Mitchell's perpetual irony as an out- spoken artist with commercial appeal), was inspired by the war on Iraq. Whether speak- ing out about the Pine Ridge Reservation, televangelists, environmental destruction, or even Canada's Council for the Arts, Mitchell doesn't mince her words, but is able to write with a poet's sense of transcending the personal or political moment to approach the uni- versal. "Blue songs are like tattoos," she sings on the first line of Blue's title track. Evoking the storied arms of a sailor traversing the ocean, always to arrive home again - or perhaps the scarred heart of an American dreamer lifting her eyes ever to the horizon - Mitchell's music circles back on itself and on us as listeners, leaving an indelible mark.
Ann Crews Melton is a writer and Programming Publications Editor at Lincoln Center.
- Copyright © 2014 by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.