Joni Mitchell 70th Birthday On The Morning Mix

Joni Mitchell is one of the most influential musicians of all-time. Mitchell has written ‘many songs that defined a generation and has is considered one of the most covered songwriters ever. Cindy Howes and Rosemary Welsch discuss the life and music of Joni Mitchell on The Morning Mix to mark her 70th birthday.

Born Roberta Joan Anderson, Joni Mitchell had an interesting childhood.  She contracted polio at 8 years old, and she was told she’d have to use an iron lung her whole life. She decided that she’d combat her polio by singing at every opportunity. A year after her diagnosis, she started smoking cigarettes. “A dedicated smoker, lets just put it that way,” Rosemary says.

In high school she fell in love with rock n’ roll music. In the 60s she started busking in Toronto, and moved to Detroit, and New York with a man with the last name Mitchell. She started breaking through in the late 60s, having performed with Johnny Cash.

Blue was the Joni Mitchell album that really caused her to get recognition. “Up till this point you had people like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. They were a bit more outward looking, what was happening in the world. But Joni took it in and said ‘what’s happening in my world.” Rosemary says. At this point she was having relationships with people like James Taylor and Steven Stills, and they appeared on the album with her.

Her first couple albums were in the style of folk artists. But later albums moved to different styles. “By the time she’s hitting Ladies of the Canyon, there’s pop and there’s rock starting to move into it. She’s using percussion, backing vocals, there’s layered production, and its starting to change.” She was heavily influenced by jazz, and eventually she introduces elements from world music into her songs. 

Joni found herself pregnant in 1964. She gave up her child for adoption, and that’s when she says she really began writing lyrics. She met her daughter in 1977, and her career slowed down after that. “She walked away from music as a full time thing at this point in time,” says Rosemary. 

Joni Mitchell, in addition to her incredible talent as a musician, was also a talented painter. It became more important to her as she grew older and more dissatisfied with the music industry. The cover to Joni’s album Cloud is actually a painting of hers.

“When people use open chords or alternate tunings, it really opens you up to improvisation, and I think that’s what Joni did.” Early on, Joni was very intricate with her keyboard work, but it was much more like rhythmic strumming at the end of her career.