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Joni Mitchell

Roberta Joan Anderson was born on 7 November 1943, in Fort Macleod in the prairie province of Alberta, Canada. She was the only child of William Anderson, a flight lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and his wife Myrtle “Mickey” McGee, a teacher.

When the war was over, Anderson moved his family between rented rooms in some of the satellite towns of Saskatoon, along Highway 16: Maidstone (population 400) where his daughter used to wave at the daily train as it passed her window, and North Battleford, where Bill managed one of the OK Economy chain of grocery stores and Mickey taught at a local school.

Joni was prone to illness as a child and yet proved curiously robust, surviving appendicitis and bouts of measles, chicken pox and scarlet fever.

Then, at the age of nine, she contracted polio, a usually crippling illness which, instead of taking her mobility, she claims gave her the sensitivities of an artist.

In her later years at Aden Bowman High School, she bought a $36 ukulele (because she didn’t have quite enough money for a guitar) and taught herself a few chords from a Pete Seeger songbook. She was soon singing folk songs in coffee houses and even appeared on local TV.

She left high school at 17 without having distinguished herself academically and began attending the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, with ambitions to become an illustrator.

Whilst at college, she took a shine to fellow student Brad McMath. In fact, she lost her virginity to him – and immediately fell pregnant.

Joni and Brad left Calgary and moved to Toronto, ostensibly to bring up the child together. But in the winter of 1964, McMath decamped to California.

Joni moved to a Victorian rooming house and worked in a local department store until she gave birth to Kelly Dale Anderson on 19 February 1965 in a charity hospital.

Two weeks later Kelly was taken into foster care and Joni eventually reluctantly gave the child up for adoption. It haunted her for the next three decades and surfaced occasionally in her songs, most openly in Little Green from the 1971 album, Blue.

jonimitchell_6733Joni Anderson met Chuck Mitchell only a month after Kelly was born when she was performing at a Toronto club called The Penny Farthing. Chuck was a singer (several years her senior) who told her he could get her work in the US.

They began dating and married on 19 June 1965. Three days later they performed as a duo at a club in Michigan called The Folk Cellar.

Joni and Chuck moved to Detroit and throughout 1966 gained a strong reputation in the folk clubs on the Philly-Detroit-Toronto circuit, and further into the US, including Florida and a show at the Gaslight in New York where Joan Baez saw them play and told Joni she reminded her of Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Joni eventually left Chuck, obtained a green card to work and reside in the US, and moved to New York.

During that first summer, she booked herself gigs at an impressive string of festivals and played for the first time at the Newport Folk Festival. Her growing reputation was also sufficient to secure her a few shows in England that same summer. Joni Mitchell was becoming famous.

In October 1967, at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, an excitable young man named Elliot Roberts was transfixed by Joni’s performance. He said “I’m a personal manager and I’d kill to work with you”. She said “I’m going on the road tomorrow for three weeks”. He went along, paying for his own flight to Ann Arbor and smoking joints with Joni at their hotel. He was hired.


The new partnership worked fast. Within five months Joni released her self-titled debut album through Reprise Records, and people started taking notice of the slim, pale-skinned Canadian girl.

The album was “produced” by another new partner, David Crosby, who had also been mesmerised by Joni’s singing in a club in Coconut Grove, Florida. In reality, Joni produced 13 albums herself (in conjunction with her engineer Henry Lewy) while Crosby protected her from the record company.

Ladies Of The Canyon (1970) offered the right-on environmentalism of Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock – a much-covered paean to the festival (which she did not attend); the painstaking Blue (1971) followed and was so raw and personal that it felt like a confession. The result was an album of almost painful beauty.

joni_01Court And Spark (1974) delivered a loose, sun-soaked sound which could only have come from California, while on The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Joni painted nuanced portraits of suburban America with a cool, objective eye and confirmed her position as the “songwriter’s songwriter”.

Composed on the road, Hejira (1976) is the only Joni Mitchell album on which every tune was written on and for the guitar. The album also marks the beginning of Joni’s profound relationship with the pioneering electric bassist Jaco Pastorius.

In 2002, as she released Travelogue, a two-disc reappraisal of songs from various points in her career, Joni announced her retirement from a music business she declared “repugnant” and “a cesspool”. These days she concentrates on her paintings, which she occasionally exhibits but doesn’t sell.

She returned to music in 2007 with her first collection of new songs since 1998’s Taming The Tiger. The new album, Shine, was released on the same Starbucks-owned label that became home to Paul McCartney.