The iconic '60s singer had a tumultuous road to fame, but now we're learning what was going on behind the scenes of Joni Mitchell's celebrated career. Joni was one of the first artists to soar in various genres — that is, when she wasn’t combining them. Be it folk, pop, rock, or jazz, Joni’s influence draws from and informs just about every style under the sun. Of course, her upbringing was just as eclectic.
Just another military brat
For some songwriters, the music industry can be divided into two eras: BJ ("before Joni") and AF ("after Joni"). It's true that songwriters were forced to up their game the moment Joni hit the ground running with her first album Song to a Seagull. But before she was dazzling audiences with her unique singing voice and lyrics, she led a rather unusual childhood in Canada.
Never settling down
Joni’s mother was Scottish and Irish, and her dad was both white and indigenous Norwegian. In any case, Joni’s family was mostly just Canadian, and her dad proved his dedication to Canada as a flight lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Air Force. William’s job took the family to several bases in western Canada, which meant Joni never stayed in any one place for too long.
Finally leaving roots
After 1945, Joni — who was born Roberta Joan Anderson — moved with her family to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which is where the family finally settled down. Joni got her first taste of an "ordinary" family life, but she had a hard time getting through classes at school. She was talented and smart, but it didn’t translate to the required courses. There was one thing she was great at, though — painting.
"A painter derailed by circumstance"
You can see Joni's lifelong love for painting by taking an extra look at some of her album covers, which the star painted herself. She called herself a "painter derailed by circumstance," the "circumstance" being her undeniable talent for singing and songwriting. The first time she put pen to paper, it was thanks to a particularly supportive teacher, Arthur Kratzmann.
Always spoke her mind
Not all of Joni's teachers were so supportive. A piano teacher once rapped her across the knuckles with a ruler and said, 'Why would you want to play by ear when you could have the masters under your fingers?’” Mitchell once recalled. “So I said to her, 'Look, the masters had to play by ear to come up with that stuff.' And she just treated me like a bad child, and I quit piano lessons then."
A powerful strain of polio
Kratzmann, though, encouraged Joni to express her pent-up emotions on paper. And she had some complicated emotions to work through: in addition to moving around so much due to her father's career, Joni had also contended with a debilitating case of polio. Young Joni was hospitalized for weeks as she fought against the powerful strain of polio that infected her body. It was then that she decided to focus on what truly mattered to her.
Trying to make ends meet
As she grew, Joni became more enamored with music. She started out by performing in nightclubs in her late teens, which is where she was first introduced to genres such as folk and jazz. She wanted to make it big, but the trip to the top wasn't an easy climb; for years, Joni performed solely in clubs, church basements, and on sidewalks to make ends meet.
A life-changing decision
The years Joni spent as a struggling musician are the subject of many of Joni's songs, but it's the story behind the song "Little Green" that caught many fans off guard decades after she first wrote it. Written in the mid-'60s, the inspiration behind the song was Joni's experience putting her baby daughter up for adoption. Up until that point, hardly anyone knew that Joni had ever been pregnant.
A chance meeting
Joni knew what she wanted, and it wasn't motherhood. And although performing in smoky nightclubs and busy coffeeshops wasn't ideal, it gave Joni the chance to test out some of her new material. Her songwriting was raw, personal, and unique; one man in particular was struck by Joni's unusual talents.
She didn't want to be a duo
When Chuck Mitchell first heard Joni perform at a folk club in Toronto, he knew he was witnessing something special. He was also a folk singer, and before long, he and Joni were scouring the U.S. together in search of gigs, first as partners and then as husband and wife. But Joni's star was on the rise, and she wasn't satisfied being part of a duo.
Chuck and Joni got divorced, and Joni decided to keep the name "Mitchell." Or maybe she just didn't have time to change it: not long after her divorce, Joni was performing at another club when another man walked in. It would be the chance encounter that officially put Joni on the map.
His first big breaks
The man was successful musician and songwriter David Crosby from Crosby, Stills & Nash. Putting his connections in the music industry to good use, he helped Joni put together her first album, Song to a Seagull. This was quickly followed by the 1969 album Clouds, for which Joni painted the self-portrait that became the album cover.
Behind "Both Sides, Now"
"Both Sides, Now", one of Joni's most famous songs, appeared on Clouds. She later explained the inspiration behind the song, saying, "I was up in a plane. I was reading a book (by Saul Bellow) called Henderson the Rain King, and in the book, he was up on a plane flying to Africa, and he mused that he'd looked up at clouds, but he'd never looked down on them before. So that was where the germ of the idea for the song came from."
Running towards the horizon
For Clouds, Joni earned her first Grammy Award. After Clouds came Ladies of the Canyon and then Blue, the album many consider to be Joni's best. "By the time she did Blue, she was past me and running towards the horizon," Crosby said of Joni's talent. By the mid-'70s, Joni's songs "The Circle Game", "Big Yellow Taxi", and "River" had already taken the world by storm. But her success came at a price.
"I had absolutely no secrets"
"At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses," Joni once said. "I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong." Blue was, indeed, an incredibly vulnerable collection of music from Joni, as it detailed the end of her passionate relationship with Graham Nash.
Breaking up with Graham Nash
"I thought with Graham and I, our relationship was very strong. I thought that it was the last one I'd have, and so I disappointed myself when that wasn't so, and that's why I was so sad at that time," Joni once told filmmaker Cameron Crowe in an interview. Joni may have struggled to be vulnerable, but her music touched the lives of countless people. One group in particular saw something special in Joni.
She gained a strong female following
Although folk artists like Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens were beloved by many, women in particular felt pulled to Joni's music. Her vulnerable lyrics and passionate vocals struck a chord with female music lovers who hadn't felt represented by the stereotypical "male rock star." Best of all, Joni made it a priority early on in her career to exert control over her own music.
"I'm not a feminist"
Joni stills owns all of her music, which is a feat considering how often her songs have been covered by other artists, especially at the beginning of her career. But even though Joni has made it a priority to have independence and control as a female artist, she ruffled feathers when she strongly claimed that she wasn't actually a feminist.
A controversial statement
In 2013, Joni controversially stated that she didn't "want to get a posse against men. I'd rather go toe-to-toe; work it out." Although some people claimed that Joni's definition of feminism was based on stereotypes, others noted how it came from a career spent battling for recognition in a male-dominated industry.
Her differences weren't praised
"When I started scraping my own soul more and getting more humanity in it, it scared the singer-songwriters around me. The men seemed to be nervous about it,” Mitchell said. She joked, “like Dylan plugging in and going electric. Like, 'Does this mean we have to do this now?'" Mitchell recognized that the personal nature of her work left a large impact, but it took a while for her to see it. It helped that Joni was always willing to explore new genres and musical styles in order to grow as an artist, even if her experimentations didn't always pay off.
Her experimentations didn't always pan out with fans
Although Joni's next few albums — which included For the Roses, Court and Spark, and Hejira — were successful, her experimentations with jazz fusion didn't always go over well with critics or fans. It didn't help when the album cover of her experimental album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter showed Joni in blackface as a self-created character Art Nouveau, whom she based off of a pimp she once encountered in L.A.
A prolific songwriter
To make matters worse, her next album, Mingus, became her worst-performing album since her career began in the 1960s. Although Joni's fans respected her for her ability to grow and change as an artist, the jazz album was too strong a departure from the folk sensibilities her fans originally fell in love with. But Joni refused to back down, and by the late 1980s, she'd created three more albums, all of which deftly combined folk, jazz, and pop.
Didn't consider herself a folk singer
Still, Joni resented the lasting dislike people had for her more experimental albums. “I always thought that folk music wasn't a good title for me, except it was a girl with a guitar, and therefore a folk singer, right? The only people that could play my music were jazz musicians because it was so strange. And they could write it out and look at the strangeness and get in on it," Mitchell later told Clive Davis in an interview.
Her voice started to change
By the '90s, Joni's music had somewhat returned to its original folk roots with the album Turbulent Indigo. But by that point, fans started to notice a change in Joni's style that had nothing to do with jazz or pop music. Her once bird-like singing voice, which could hit notes some singers could only dream of, started to sound deep and gravelly.
Joni's shocking health issue
"I'd go to hit a note, and there was nothing there," Joni once said of the change in her voice. Some people blamed Joni's lifelong cigarette habit for the change, but Joni herself suggested that vocal nodes were the culprit. Regardless, by the 2010s, Joni had more pressing health issues to contend with. Although she'd announced her retirement back in 2002, she'd still spent the 2000s writing music. So when news broke of a major health issue in 2015, her fans were understandably shocked.
Her miraculous survival
In 2015, Joni had a brain aneurysm. She miraculously survived the ordeal, but she retreated from the spotlight in order to recover. And according to friends, Joni's recovery wasn't instantaneous; David Crosby said that Joni even had to learn how to walk again. Of course, fans couldn't help but wonder if Joni would ever be able to pick up a guitar or write a lyric ever again.
A surprise to everyone
So imagine people's surprise when Joni arrived as a surprise guest and performer at the Newport Folk Festival in 2022. It was her first time back at the festival since 1969, and fans waited eagerly to see if the legendary singer-songwriter would — or could — pick up a guitar. To their delight, she sat down with an electric guitar and started to play.
"The spirit moved me"
"I wasn't sure I would be able to sing. I have no soprano left, just a low alto. The spirit moved me. I forgave myself for my lack of talent," Joni later said, as published by Rolling Stone. A hush fell over the audience as Joni started to perform live for the first time in nine years. The audience knew they were witnessing something special, not to mention incredibly rare.
An incredibly rare moment
Little did they know, the performance was years in the making; Joni had been hosting 'Joni Jams' at her home for years where musicians like Elton John, Paul McCartney, Brandi Carlile, and Harry Styles would join Joni in a jam session. The Newport performance left Joni feeling exhilarated.
"It gave me the bug for it"
"I was delighted and honored. It gave me the bug for it," Joni said of her Newport performance, and she later told Brandi Carlile, "I want to do another show. I want to play again." After decades of staying true to herself despite doubt from critics and fans, Joni was welcomed back with open arms — a fitting response to a music legend who finally found her way back home.