Joni Mitchell: The legendary singer-songwriter is back
Ten years ago, it looked like Joni Mitchell's life had gone full circle. This most archetypal of singer-songwriters was inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame along with her old friends Crosby, Stills and Nash.
But, more importantly, she was reunited with the daughter she'd given away for adoption after becoming pregnant in the mid-Sixties, and her musical and personal journey – which had taken her from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Laurel Canyon, California via Greenwich Village, New York – seemed complete.
"In some ways, my gift for music and writing was born out of tragedy and loss," she told the documentary-maker Susan Lacy. "When my daughter returned to me, the gift kind of went with it. The songwriting was almost like something I did while I was waiting for my daughter to come back."
In 1998, Mitchell released Taming The Tiger, her last album of new material, and toured the US and Canada that year, and again in 2000. After that, as she explained during a two-part Radio 2 documentary broadcast earlier this year, she spent most of her time painting, watching old movies and listening to talk radio. "I came to hate music," she admitted to her friend the British songwriter Amanda Ghost.
Indeed, in 2002, as she issued Travelogue, a double CD on which she revisited her repertoire with orchestral backing, Mitchell announced she'd had enough of "the corrupt cesspool, the pornographic pigs" of the music industry and would be a recording artist no more. "Nothing sounded genuine or original. Truth and beauty were passé. I got the picture. I quit the business," she said. And, despite working with Rhino, the reissue arm of Warners, on a couple of thematic compilations of her oeuvre, she was as good as her word.
Until last year, that is, when Jean Grand-Maître, the artistic director of the Alberta Ballet, contacted Mitchell for permission to use her compositions in a ballet. Rather than simply let him choose songs to fit what would have been a "somewhat autobiographical" piece called Dancing Joni, she helped the project evolve into The Fiddle and the Drum, which premiered in Calgary, Canada, in February. She contributed some of her politically charged paintings to the set design and also delivered a couple of new songs she'd been working on, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's "If" – her favourite poem – and "If I Had A Heart".
These compositions are now two of the pivotal tracks on Shine, Mitchell's new album to be released via Hear Music, the Starbucks-owned label, in the US and Canada, and the Concord Music Group/ Universal in the UK and the rest of Europe at the end of September.
A listen to the 10 tracks last week confirmed that Shine lives up to Mitchell's assertion that it's "as serious a work as I've ever done". In fact, I'll go further: aside from the accordion-driven reinterpretation of "Big Yellow Taxi", her only British hit single and her second most-covered song (190-plus versions and counting but still way behind "Both Sides Now"), which is obviously aimed at radio programmers, this is the best album by an artist of her generation since Bob Dylan's Modern Times.
As she had barely picked up a guitar in 10 years, Mitchell started at the piano with "One Week Last Summer", a dreamy, chill-out instrumental reminiscent of her beloved Debussy, as well as Brian Eno's ambient music. What she calls "the piano-dominant songs" form the core of Shine, the most bare album she has made since the early Seventies. The jazzy feel of "This Place", "Hana" and the anti-war "Strong is Wrong" is deceptive and all the more effective as the stark lyrics sink in, while the haunting "If I Had a Heart" and "Bad Dreams are Good" sound like laments for planet Earth.
Starbucks customers caught unawares might gulp on their lattes, but what should they expect from the woman who presciently wrote, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot" in 1970? In fact, in the context of what is a mission-statement album, the reinterpretation of "Big Yellow Taxi" makes perfect sense. "Shine", the floating, ethereal title track, and "If", the album closer adapted from Kipling's poem, feel like hopeful elegies and chinks of light at the end of the tunnel.
Even if Ken Lombard, the Hear Music supremo and president of Starbucks Entertainment, used the Radiohead rumours as a smokescreen on his recent visit to the UK, the announcement that Mitchell had followed in the footsteps of Sir Paul McCartney and signed to the Starbucks-owned label shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Getting involved with the Starbucks Hear Music project in 2005 had already helped change her gloomy outlook. Mitchell allowed the coffee company to issue a Selected Songs compilation of her catalogue, cherry-picked by the likes of Elvis Costello, Dylan and Chaka Khan, and also assembled her own favourite music – tracks by Debussy, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, Steely Dan, Deep Forest, Edith Piaf, Etta James, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Dylan, Leonard Cohen and The New Radicals – for their Artist's Choice series. "I reviewed the songs and compositions that, over the course of my life, really got to me. I needed to remember what it was that I had once loved about music," she reflected.
Having badmouthed the majors and US radio, this iconic artist also knew she had to figure out a way of getting her new music to her original Sixties' and Seventies' fanbase and possibly reach out to a younger demographic. The Starbucks tie-up couldn't be more timely, since singer-songwriters of both genders currently dominate radio formats around the world.
Mitchell's eagerly awaited comeback could also help put in perspective her unique achievements and demonstrate how much she has inspired and influenced everyone from Suzanne Vega and Beth Orton to KT Tunstall via Morrissey and Prince – who swears that The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mitchell's 1975 album, is "the greatest record ever made". Even Madonna is a fan. "I worshipped her when I was in high school. I knew every word to Court and Spark," Madonna has said. "Blue is amazing. I would have to say that, of all the women I've heard, she had the most profound effect on me from a lyrical point of view."
Born Roberta Joan Anderson on 7 November 1943 in Fort McLeod, Alberta, the girl who began calling herself Joni in her early teens is the only child of William Anderson, who managed a grocery store after he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, and Myrtle "Mickey" McKee, a schoolteacher. Looking out of the window at the wheat fields, the wide open landscape, the railtracks and the highway outside the homes they lived in first in Maidstone, then in North Battleford and finally in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, she already felt a "permanent longing to set off and go somewhere."
She took piano lessons for a year and a half but got her knuckles wrapped for improvising her own tunes. When she contracted polio aged nine, she spent weeks in hospital, but made it home by Christmas, defying the nuns' expectations and the doctor's diagnosis. "I walked. So polio, in a way, germinated an inner life and a sense of the mystic. It was mystical to come back from that disease," she later recalled.
At 13, she joined the local choir. Arthur Kratzman, her English teacher, encouraged her painting and writing to such an extent that she subsequently dedicated her debut album to him. The teenage Joni used all the money she'd made modelling for a department store to buy a $36 ukulele because the acoustic guitar she really wanted was too expensive. With the help of a Pete Seeger method, she taught herself a few chords and started singing in coffee houses while studying at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.
"In the beginning, I thought of myself as confident mimic of Joan Baez and Judy Collins," she said. "As a painter, I had the need to innovate. As a musician... at that time, it was just a hobby. I didn't think I had the gift to take it any further."
Losing her virginity and becoming pregnant in 1964 by fellow student Brad McGrath set off a chain of events as the couple first moved to Toronto to hide her pregnancy and then split. She still played the occasional gig while working in a department store and gave birth to Kelly Dale Anderson on 19 February 1965. A month later, she met folk musician Chuck Mitchell and they married because she hoped to create a family unit for the daughter she had put in a foster home, but he went back on his promise and she gave Kelly up for adoption.
They moved to Detroit, though the ill-matched acoustic duo they formed didn't last, her husband unable to understand that the guilt Mitchell suffered had made her wise beyond her years. "I started writing to develop my own private world and also because I was disturbed," she admitted. "I feel grateful for every bit of trouble I went through. Bad fortune changed the course of my destiny. I became a musician."
Tom Rush stopped by the couple's Detroit apartment, instantly understood where "Day After Day", "Both Sides, Now" and "Little Green" came from, and recorded Joni's composition "Urge For Going". "Tom would say, 'Do you have any new songs?' I'd play him a batch and he'd say, 'Any more?' I always held out the ones that I felt were too sensitive, or too feminine, and those would always be the ones he chose. Because of Tom, I began to get noticed," she remembered.
As Dave Van Ronk and Buffy Sainte-Marie also began performing her songs, Mitchell left her husband in 1967 and moved to New York. She found herself more at home in Greenwich Village and made her first visit to the UK where the American producer and guru of the underground scene Joe Boyd introduced her to the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention, who recorded her composition "Chelsea Morning" in 1968.
With Judy Collins including a definitive rendition of "Both Sides Now" on her Wildflowers album, Mitchell became the most talked-about singer-songwriter without a recording contract. This was rectified when she met manager Elliot Roberts, who secured her a deal with Reprise Records as she hooked up with David Crosby. The former member of The Byrds had seen her in a club in Florida and produced her eponymous debut, the one most fans call Song to a Seagull.
Mitchell was the muse of Laurel Canyon, the poster girl of the hippie generation. She wrote the era-defining "Woodstock", anticipated green concerns with "Big Yellow Taxi", her breakthrough hit, in 1970, and recorded the must-have albums Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses and Court and Spark. Over the next two decades, she refused to be pigeonholed as the folkie with the sweet soprano voice and flaxen hair, and moved into pop, rock, jazz, and what wasn't yet called world music and electronica.
From the mid-Seventies, Mitchell's back story seemed to affect people's perception of her, yet she kept moving into more challenging territory, recording with the jazz stalwarts Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Charles Mingus, who made the most of her unusual chord structures.
"For years everybody said, 'Joni's weird chords, Joni's weird chords'," she has said, "and I thought, 'how can chords be weird?' Chords are depictions of your emotions, they feel like my feelings. I called them Chords of Inquiry, they had a question mark in them," she explained. "There were so many unresolved things in me that those suspended chords I found by twisting the knobs on my guitar, they just suited me."
But Mitchell always had a hard time coming to terms with fame, and first talked about quitting live performances during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1970. "I never liked the roar of the big crowd. I could never adjust to the sound of people gasping at the mere mention of my name. It horrified me," she confessed. "And I also knew how fickle people could be. I knew that they were buying an illusion, and I thought maybe they should know a little more about who I am. I didn't want there to be such a gulf between who I presented and who I was. David Geffen [her agent, her roommate and her label boss in the Seventies and Eighties] used to tell me that I was the only star he ever met who wanted to be ordinary. I never wanted to be a star. I didn't like entering a room with all eyes on me."
She disappeared to the wilds of Canada at regular intervals and kept questioning the mendacious workings of the music business, as far back as the For the Roses album with "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" in 1972. Having announced her retirement in 2002, Mitchell enjoyed her new role as mother and grandmother and really thought she wouldn't go back to making music. All this has changed now with this unexpected burst of creativity and a renewed sense of urgency and concern about the state of the world. As she told The Word magazine earlier this year: "I'm not interested in escapist entertainment when the planet is at red alert. We're busy wasting our time on this fairy-tale war when nobody's fighting for God's creation. I realised I wasn't ready for retirement."
With a mixed media exhibition due to open in New York in the autumn and Shine, Joni Mitchell is back. What a long strange trip it's been.
'Shine' is out on Concord/Universal on 24 September