TORONTO -- Joni Mitchell's music has always been difficult to classify.
In an extraordinary career that's spanned more than 40 years, she's dazzled audiences with forays into folk, pop, rock and jazz. But when asked to categorize herself, Mitchell has said she's simply a painter who sings.
On Sunday, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame will recognize Mitchell as one of Canada's exceptional songwriters, and a luminous lineup of contemporaries will testify to a lasting resonance.
Singer/songwriter James Taylor, jazz innovator Herbie Hancock, soprano Measha Brueggergosman and funk legend Chaka Khan are among those set to honour the reclusive artist and five of her songs.
It is Mitchell's unique guitar style and stark poetic honesty that has endeared her to fans around the world, says music industry critic Bob Lefsetz, a Santa Monica-based writer who will be at the Toronto fete.
"Joni Mitchell was such a paragon of excellence," says Lefsetz, whose biting online "Lefsetz Letter" routinely rankles for its frank look at the music business.
"There hasn't really been anybody like that since. She was someone who had all the traditional talents of good voice and melody, but she could wrap them up in a way where she revealed both truth in general and her personal truth, such that you could literally believe and your life could be affected by her music."
Lefsetz can't help but recite some of his favourite Mitchell lines, her evocative words proving to serve as touchstones for his own emotional history - soon they intermingle with vague accounts of his own ex-loves.
That's the power of her music, he says.
"Big Yellow Taxi," "Both Sides Now," "Help Me," "Woodstock," and "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio" are among 25 Canadian-penned songs that will enter the hall of fame this year.
Songs by other artists include David Clayton-Thomas's barroom rock staple "Spinning Wheel," jazz standard "How About You," by Ralph Freed and Burton Lane, and Sylvia Fricker (Tyson)'s "You Were On My Mind."
In addition to Mitchell, the black-tie ceremony will also induct country pioneer Wilf Carter, Quebec chanteur Jean-Pierre Ferland and Broadway lyricist Raymond B. Egan.
Mitchell will be serenaded by her own songs, with Taylor performing "Woodstock," Khan and Hancock singing "Help Me" and Brueggergosman taking on "Both Sides Now."
Taylor says Mitchell, with whom he was romantically linked for about a year in the early '70s, remains "an abiding friend" and "great creative force."
"She invented herself and really had just a unique voice," Taylor says recently by phone from his home in western Massachusetts.
"You could say that other people were sort of precursors to it - there were other women in the folk field - but she definitely jumped out of that mould early and became just her own thing."
Born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod, Alta., in 1943, Mitchell emerged as among the most unique voices to come out of New York coffee houses and a vibrant folk-rock scene in her adopted home of California - her confessional songwriting and unconventional guitar tunings winning over fans and critics.
Mitchell's early colleagues included folk and rock icons such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Band and Neil Young but later grew to include jazz greats like Charles Mingus and Don Alias as she experimented with new sounds.
In recent years, Mitchell has retreated from the music business to concentrate on her painting, complaining openly about a music industry she considers corrupt, exploitive and shallow.
Taylor notes that when he first met the flaxen-haired singer-songwriter at the Mariposa festival in Orillia, Ont., in 1969, it was a time of idealism and promise.
"I was intrigued and fascinated and loved seeing her and meeting her, we hit it off immediately," says Taylor, whose own folk-rock classics include "Fire and Rain" and "Carolina In My Mind."
"It was an exciting time.... it was just wide open, things were really quite free and the music was everywhere, constantly happening. People were performing together and taking up with each other artistically and romantically, it was sort of constant."
They've remained close over the years, he adds.
Thomas says he's been smitten with Mitchell since they both played small Toronto clubs in the '60s, describing "a west-coast flower child, a spirit from heaven."
"I used to stand in the kitchen and catch her show and she'd come off stage and walk past me but I was a greasy-haired, black leather jacketed motorcycle thug," recalls Thomas, the former Blood, Sweat & Tears front man.
"My love remained unrequited."
Thomas will take the stage Sunday to perform his infectious tune, "Spinning Wheel," a rock classic that's been covered hundreds of times all over the world.
"Some of them I hope I never hear again," Thomas says of the covers. "It doesn't sound quite the same in (the Filipino language of) Tagalog. It loses something in the translation."
Meanwhile, those hoping for Mitchell's return to the spotlight may not have to wait long.
Despite her apparent disdain for the industry, she's said to be working on new music. Mitchell - who was refusing media interviews in advance of Sunday's gala - told an Ottawa newspaper late last year that she is writing again for what could be her first new album in five years.
She is also planning a collaboration wtih the Alberta Ballet Company set to debut next month.
She has contributed nine songs and artwork to a 48-minute piece entitled, "The Fiddle and The Drum," focused on environmental issues and world violence.
It is to be performed over five dates between Calgary and Edmonton.
The songwriters' gala will be broadcast on CBC radio Monday and aired on CBC-TV in March.
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