Inductee: Joni Mitchell (vocals, guitar; born November 7, 1943)
A consummate artist, Joni Mitchell is an accomplished musician, songwriter, poet and painter. Hailing from Canada, where she performed as a folksinger as far back as 1962, she found her niche on the same Southern California singer/songwriter scene of the late Sixties and early Seventies that germinated such kindred spirits as Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Mitchell’s artistry goes well beyond folksinging to incorporate elements of jazz and classical music. In her own words, “I looked like a folksinger, even though the moment I began to write, my music was not folk music. It was something else that had elements of romantic classicism to it.” Impossible to categorize, Mitchell has doggedly pursued avenues of self-expression, heedless of commercial outcomes. Nonetheless, she managed to connect with a mass audience in the mid-Seventies when a series of albums-Court and Spark (1974, #2), Miles of Aisles (1974, #2), The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975, #4) and Hejira (1976, #13)-established her as one of that decade’s pre-eminent artists.
Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson in remote northwest Canada. She was raised in the city of Saskatoon, where she took up painting and music at an early age. Her first song, “Day by Day,” was written in 1964 while she was en route to a folk festival in Toronto. She moved to Toronto a year later, where she got caught up in the city’s flourishing club scene. In 1965, she married folksinger Chuck Mitchell, keeping his last name after they divorced. Mitchell’s songs were discovered, performed and recorded by such established folk musicians as Tom Rush, Ian and Sylvia, Judy Collins (whose version of “Both Sides Now” went to #8 in 1968), Dave Van Ronk and Buffy Saint-Marie. British folk-rockers Fairport Convention cut some of her earliest material as well.
Mitchell was signed to Reprise Records in 1967, and her untitled first album appeared a year later. It was followed by Clouds, which included Mitchell’s versions of “Both Sides Now” and “Chelsea Morning,” and Ladies of the Canyon, which contained “Big Yellow Taxi,” an anti-"progress" ditty that stands as one of Mitchell’s signature tunes. Her fourth album, 1971’s Blue, was a stunning a suite of songs about romantic disillusionment that stands as a classic in the confessional singer/songwriter mode. Mitchell’s popular breakthrough came two albums later with Court and Spark, a sprightly and intelligent jazz-pop album made with musical support from the jazz-fusion ensemble Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. Both experimental and accessible, Mitchell’s mid-Seventies output won her a large following. Hejira, which appeared in 1976, is regarded as Mitchell’s masterpiece. The title is an Arabic word meaning “flight from the dream,” and the album was a uniquely textured and exploratory song cycle that traced one woman’s mystical “hejira” through this world.
From the beginning, Mitchell played guitar in different tunings to compensate for the fact her left hand had been left weakened by a childhood bout with polio. As a result, her chord shapes, combined with the meandering meters of her more fanciful compositions, tend to resemble jazz more than standard folk or rock. Her associations with the likes of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tom Scott, Jaco Pastorius and Charles Mingus have resulted in some of her most ambitious work. Mitchell continued to record allusive, jazz-tinged material, studded with personal revelations and socio-political commentary, throughout the Eighties and Nineties. At the same time she’s pursued painting with nearly the same commitment. Mitchell’s artwork adorns some of her album covers, such as the Van Gogh-inspired self-portrait on 1994’s Turbulent Indigo.
Mitchell kicked off the new millennium with Both Sides Now, an orchestrated album of torch songs by other songwriters and herself. In a sense, it brought her career full circle, since the title song was one of the very first she wrote while still a fledgling musician back in the mid-Sixties.