It's tempting to herald Joni Mitchell as the finest, most influential singer-songwriter in folk music history. Tempting, but inaccurate; for pigeonholing her within a single music genre is a devaluation of Mitchell's tremendous stylistic diversity. From the incandescent purity of her 1960s paeans to love and peace to the smoky world-weariness of her recent collection of classic ballads, Both Sides Now, Mitchell has defied classification for nearly four decades. Equally at ease, and equally adventurous, in the worlds of rock, pop, jazz and blues, she has always painted on the broadest of canvases.
Born November 7, 1943, in Fort McLeod, Alberta, Roberta Joan Anderson discovered her musical gifts in a rather unusual way. Hospitalized with polio at age nine, she filled her long days of convalescence by singing for the other patients and taught herself to play guitar with the help of an instruction book by American folksinger and political activist Pete Seeger.
After attending art college in Calgary and becoming a fixture of the local folk music scene, Mitchell travelled to Toronto, where, in 1965, she wed folk singer Chuck Mitchell. The marriage didn't stick, but the new last name did. Moving to New York in 1967, Mitchell landed a recording contract with Reprise Records and an offer from David Crosby to produce her self-titled debut album. Despite a growing cult following, Mitchell earned her greatest fame during the late '60s as a songwriter, thanks in large part to Judy Collins' hit version of Both Sides Now and Tom Rush's superb interpretation of The Circle Game.
Mitchell finally earned international recognition as a recording artist with 1970's Ladies Of The Canyon, and strengthened both her commercial and critical standing with the luminous 1971 follow-up, Blue. The following year marked the first of Mitchell's many stylistic changes with the release of the pop-oriented For The Roses and, in 1974, both the classic Court And Spark and the magical Miles Of Aisles, which still ranks as one of the all-time great "live" albums.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Mitchell stayed several steps ahead of music trends by experimenting with world music, jazz-fusion, and synthesizer-driven electronics. In 1991, she returned to her acoustic roots with the spare, haunting Night Ride Home, followed in 1994 by the acclaimed Turbulent Indigo. Earlier this year, at age 56, Mitchell took another new, dynamic tack with Both Sides Now, a project inspired by her participation in a big-band benefit organized by rock performer Don Henley, former frontman of the Eagles.
Refreshingly outspoken in her criticism of the recording industry's cut-throat tactics, Mitchell has never allowed commercial success to compromise her exploration of unpaved musical paths. Nor has she ever let music overshadow her passion for art. As gifted a painter as she is a singer and songwriter, Mitchell's superb portraits and watercolours are treasured by collectors and have enhanced many of her album covers.
Trying to summarize the iconoclastic allure of Joni Mitchell in a single sentence is a fool's gambit. There is, however, a moment on the Miles Of Aisles album that comes close to capturing her firefly essence. Teasing the California audience about fans' strange insistence that every performance of a song sound precisely like the original recording, she chides, "Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, "Hey, man, paint A Starry Night again!'" Typically spare and precise, they're the words of a rebel, a fighter, a lover, and a poet who has enriched our lives by always valuing originality and spontaneity above all else.
While some of Mitchell's most popular songs were written on piano, almost every song she composed on the guitar uses an open, or non-standard, tuning; she has written songs in some 50 different tunings, which she has referred to as "Joni's weird chords."
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