Initially branded as a Folk singer, Joni Mitchell came to prominence as part of the wave of introspective Singer Songwriters who emerged in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. A restless creative spirit, she soon moved beyond those labels, embracing Jazz, Pop, and African and Latin rhythms, and turning out an idiosyncratic body of work that earned her critical plaudits and a legion of devoted fans. Her 1971 album Blue was particularly hailed as a masterwork, and is often ranked among the 20th century’s best and most influential albums.
Growing up in Alberta, Canada, Mitchell was drawn to painting and writing poetry as well as music. Picking up the guitar as a teen, she initially learned the basics from a Pete Seeger songbook, but a mild childhood bout with polio had left her with slightly limited use of her left hand and she devised her own ways of tuning the guitar that made it easier to play chords. She soon graduated from playing casually with friends to playing in local coffeehouses.
After a short stay at art college Mitchell decided to pursue music and moved to Toronto, but she felt shut out of the Folk scene there, finding it insular and unwelcoming. Mitchell was scraping by, working a day job and taking what gigs she could get, when she discovered she was pregnant. She put the baby up for adoption, an event that in later years she would pinpoint as her initial motivation to begin writing songs. A few months later she met her first husband, an American Folk singer, and the two moved to Detroit. The marriage was short-lived, however, and in 1967 Mitchell moved to New York City, where she played Folk clubs and coffeehouses, and began attracting notice with her personal songs, inventive guitar style, and elastic singing voice.
Soon other artists began recording her songs, most notably Judy Collins, who had a major hit with Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Mitchell was taken under the wing of David Crosby, who after hearing a performance brought her out to Los Angeles and connected her with manager Elliot Roberts, leading to a record deal with Reprise. Her debut album came out in 1968; the follow-up, Clouds, was released the following year.
While both records sold respectably, it was 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, with the hit single “Big Yellow Taxi,” that broke Mitchell commercially. Her next release, Blue, was a watershed moment in Mitchell’s career, lauded for its starkly emotional songs, reflecting recent break-ups with boyfriends Graham Nash and James Taylor. Mitchell’s next few records leaned in a Jazz-Pop direction; 1974's Court and Spark became her best seller, sending three songs — "Help Me," "Free Man in Paris," and "Raised on Robbery" — to the singles chart.
For the rest of the 1970s Mitchell experimented with avant-garde, Fusion and Jazz, including a collaboration with legendary Jazz bassist Charles Mingus. She continued to defy expectations in the 1980s with synthesizer-driven music. In 2002 Mitchell announced her retirement with harsh words for the current state of the music business, however in 2007 she released Shine on the Starbucks-owned Hear Music label.
Mitchell, who created many of her own album covers, spends much of her time painting and is an outspoken advocate of political, social, and environmental causes. The list of artists who cite her as a major influence is long and diverse, ranging from Natalie Merchant to Prince to Madonna.