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Sankofa Music Series – Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

Project Rhythm Seed
September 17, 2011

The concept of Sankofa is derived from King Adinkera of the Akan people of West Afrika."Sankofa" teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone or been stripped of, can be reclaimed, revived, preserved and perpetuated. Thus, Sankofa Music Series will examine our modern roots and the early influences of rock music in the hope that we can carry them forward in the creation of something new. Today's subject is Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada. Her mother was a teacher, and her father an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. At the age of eight, Joni contracted polio during a Canadian epidemic, but she recovered after a stay in hospital. This was the same polio epidemic (1951) in which singer Neil Young, then aged five, also contracted the virus. During the war years, she moved with her parents to a number of bases in western Canada. After the war, her father began working as a grocer, and his work took the family to Saskatchewan. When she was eleven years old, the family settled in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which Joni considers her hometown.

As a teenager, Joni taught herself ukulele and, later, guitar. She began performing at parties and bonfires, which eventually led to gigs playing in coffeehouses and other venues in Saskatoon. After finishing high school she attended the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary for a year, during which she made the acquaintance of another budding singer-songwriter, Harry Chapin.

After leaving art college in June 1964, Joni left her home in Saskatoon to relocate to Toronto. She found out that she was pregnant by her college ex-boyfriend, and in February 1965 she gave birth to a baby girl. A few weeks after the birth, Joni Anderson married folk-singer Chuck Mitchell, and took his surname. A few weeks later she gave her daughter, Kelly Dale Anderson, up for adoption.

In the summer of 1965, Chuck Mitchell took Joni with him to the United States. While living in Detroit, Chuck & Joni were regular performers at area coffee houses as well as The Alcove bar and the Rathskelter, a restaurant on the campus of the University of Detroit. The marriage and partnership dissolved in early 1967, and Joni moved to New York City to pursue her musical dreams as a solo artist. She played venues up and down the East Coast and, by this time creating her own material, became well known for her unique songwriting and her innovative guitar style.

While she was playing one night in a club in Coconut Grove, Florida, David Crosby walked in and was immediately struck by her ability and her appeal as an artist. He took her back to Los Angeles, where he set about introducing her and her music to his friends. Crosby convinced a record company to agree to let Joni record a solo acoustic album without all the folk-rock overdubs that were in vogue at the time, and his clout earned him a producer's credit in March 1968, when Reprise Records released her debut album, alternately known as Joni Mitchell or Song to a Seagull.

Joni continued touring steadily to promote the LP. The tour helped create eager anticipation for her second LP, Clouds, which was released in April 1969. In March 1970 Clouds won Joni Mitchell her first Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. The following month, Reprise released her third album, Ladies of the Canyon. Mitchell's sound, still under the guidance of producer Crosby, was already beginning to expand beyond the confines of acoustic folk music and toward pop and rock, with more overdubs, percussion, and backing vocals, and for the first time, many songs composed on piano, which would become a hallmark of her style in her most popular era.

Ladies of the Canyon was an instant smash and eventually becoming Joni's first gold album. She made the decision to stop touring for a year and just write and paint, yet she was still voted "Top Female Performer" for 1970 by Melody Maker. The songs she wrote during the months she took off for travel and life experience would appear on her next album, Blue, released in June 1971. Joni made the decision to return to the live stage after the great success of Blue, and she presented many new songs on tour which would appear on her next album. Her fifth album, For the Roses, was released in October 1972 and immediately zoomed up the charts.

Court and Spark, released in January 1974, would see Joni begin the flirtation with jazz and jazz fusion that marked her experimental period ahead, but it was also her most commercially successful recording, and among her most critically acclaimed. Court and Spark went to #1 on the Cashbox Album Charts. The Hissing of Summer Lawns was released in 1975. The album was initially a big seller, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Album Charts, but it received mixed reviews at the time of its release. During 1975, Joni also participated in several concerts in the Rolling Thunder Revue tours featuring Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and in 1976 she performed as part of The Last Waltz by The Band.

In early 1976, Joni traveled with friends who were driving cross country to Maine. Afterwards, she drove back to California alone and composed several songs during her journey which would feature on her next album, 1976′s Hejira. The album climbed to No. 13 on the Billboard Charts, reaching gold status three weeks after release, and received airplay from album oriented FM rock stations. While Hejira was greeted by many fans and critics as a "return to form", by the time she recorded it her days as a huge pop star were over.

In the summer of 1977, Joni began work on new recordings, what would become her first double studio album. Close to completing her contract with Asylum Records, she felt that this album could be looser in feel than any album she'd done in the past. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter was released in December 1977. The album received mixed reviews but still sold relatively well, peaking at No. 25 in the US and going gold within three months. A few months after the release of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Joni was contacted by jazz great Charles Mingus, who had heard the orchestrated song, "Paprika Plains", and wanted her to work with him. Sheh began collaborating with Mingus, who died before the project was completed in 1979. Joni finished the tracks (most were her own Mingus-inspired compositions, though "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is a Mingus instrumental standard to which she composed lyrics) and the resulting album, Mingus, was released in June 1979, though it was poorly received in the press.

For a year and a half, Joni worked on the tracks for her next album. During this period Mitchell recorded with bassist Larry Klein, eventually marrying him in 1982. While the album was being readied for release, her friend David Geffen, founder of Asylum Records, decided to start a new label, Geffen Records. Still distributed by Warner Bros., (who controlled Asylum Records), Geffen was able to negate the remaining contractual obligations Joni had with Asylum and signed her to his new label. 1982′s Wild Things Run Fast marked a return to pop songwriting. The album, however, peaked on the Billboard Charts in its fifth week at only No. 25.

Dog Eat Dog, released in October 1985, received a mostly negative critical response. It turned out to be only a moderate seller, peaking at No. 63 on Billboard's Top Albums Chart, Joni's lowest chart position since her first album peaked at No. 189 almost eighteen years before. For 1988′s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm she collaborated with artists including Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Wendy & Lisa, Tom Petty, Don Henley and Peter Gabriel. The album's first official single, "My Secret Place", was in fact a duet with Gabriel, and just missed the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

Throughout the first half of 1990, Joni recorded songs that would appear on her next album. She delivered the final mixes for the new album to Geffen just before Christmas, after trying nearly a hundred different sequences for the songs. The album Night Ride Home was released in March 1991.

To wider audiences, the real return to form for Joni came with the 1994′s Grammy-winning Turbulent Indigo. While the recording period also saw the divorce of Joni and bassist Larry Klein, their marriage having lasted almost 12 years, Indigo was seen as her most accessible set of songs in years. Songs such as "Sex Kills", "Sunny Sunday", "Borderline" and "The Magdalene Laundries" mixed social commentary and guitar-focused melodies. The album won two Grammy awards, including Best Pop Album, and it coincided with a much-publicized resurgence in interest in Joni's work by a younger generation of singer-songwriters.. While the recording period also saw the divorce of Joni and bassist Larry Klein, their marriage having lasted almost 12 years, Indigo was seen as her most accessible set of songs in years.

In 1996, Joni agreed to release a greatest Hits collection when label Reprise also allowed her a second Misses album to include some of the lesser known songs from her career. Hits charted at No. 161 in the US, but made No. 6 in the UK. Joni's daughter, renamed Kilauren Gibb, began a search for her as an adult. In 1997 Gibb mentioned her search to the girlfriend of a man with whom she had grown up. By coincidence, this woman knew a third person who had once told her that he knew Joni Mitchell years earlier "when she was pregnant." Joni and her daughter were reunited shortly thereafter.

1998′s Taming the Tiger was promoted with a return to regular concert appearances, most notably a co-headlining tour with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. Both Sides, Now (2000) was an album composed mostly of covers of jazz standards, performed with an orchestra. It received mostly strong reviews and spawned a short national tour, with Joni accompanied by a core band featuring Larry Klein on bass plus a local orchestra on each tour stop. Its success led to 2002′s Travelogue, a collection of re-workings of her previous songs with lush orchestral accompaniments. Joni stated at the time that this would be her final album.

In summer 2007, Joni's official fan-run site confirmed speculation that she had signed a two-record deal with Starbucks' Hear Music label. Shine was released by the label on September 25, 2007. Although Joni stated that she would no longer tour or give concerts, she has made occasional public appearances to speak on environmental issues. Joni divides her time between her longtime home in Los Angeles, and the 80-acre property in Sechelt, British Columbia that she has owned since the early 1970s. "L.A. is my workplace", she said in 2006, "B.C. is my heartbeat." According to interviews, today she focuses mainly on her visual art, which she does not sell and which she displays only on rare occasions.

Joni is currently receiving treatment for the controversial condition called Morgellons syndrome.She spoke to the Los Angeles Times on April 22, 2010 about the disease, saying, "I have this weird, incurable disease that seems like it's from outer space, but my health's the best it's been in a while." She described Morgellons as a "slow, unpredictable killer" but said she is determined to fight the disease. "I have a tremendous will to live: I've been through another pandemic - I'm a polio survivor, so I know how conservative the medical body can be."

Joni Mitchell has influenced so many artists. Over the course of the past couple of years we have interviewed many new and well established artists. So many of them have commented that Joni Mitchell was the main reason that they wanted to write music and become professional musicians. Her influence can be heard in everyone from Peter Gabriel to James Blake. Rock on Joni! We could drink a case of you!

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