There are some people whose lives read like a sensational tabloid magazine. Joni Mitchell is one of them. It’s very likely that the Canadian introvert turned American superstar didn’t ask for such a public and transparent life. But, hey, it comes with the package of fortune and fame. Still, even though her life was full of incredible highs as well as tragic lows, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a living, breathing human being behind the headlines.
The pop folk musician has been making people close their eyes and sway their heads to her music for about six decades. She’s been called “one of the greatest songwriters of the past half century.” That said, this article is dedicated to revealing the full life of Joni Mitchell, from her early beginnings to her later years (she’s now 77). After all, isn’t it always fascinating to get to know the personal side of a musical force of nature?
On October 21, 1964, a young woman named Joni Anderson was introduced on stage by the owner of the Half Beat Club in Toronto, Canada. “Tonight we have for your entertainment, Joni Anderson,” the club’s owner John McHugh told the small but lively crowd.
“Joni’s been appearing here for the last two weeks — and will be for the next three weeks, starting Monday.” He emphasizes the second half of that sentence, the part that covered his young, new performer’s immediate future. “We have her under contract. We hope she won’t — well, we know she will stay here. We know you’ll enjoy her as much as we have. Let’s give her a bit of a welcome.”
It might not have been clear to her, prior to her new gig at the Half Beat Club, that she would be making her way to stardom. Her beginnings were nothing short of humble. She was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, in a tiny town called Fort Macleod in Alberta, Canada. Like many talented artists, Joni faced hardship in her early years.
At the age of nine, she contracted polio and was hospitalized for weeks during an epidemic. She was initially bedridden, but once she was in the recovering stages, Joni discovered her love of entertaining. She was hospitalized during Christmas time and would sing carols for other recovering patients.
“They said I might not walk again and that I would not be able to go home for Christmas,” she told journalist and filmmaker Cameron Crowe. “I wouldn’t go for it,” she said. “So I started to sing Christmas carols, and I used to sing them real loud. When the nurse came into the room, I would sing louder… And I discovered I was a ham.”
Her bout with the crippling illness ended up influencing her music in unforeseen ways. The polio weakened her left hand, making it impossible for her to play conventional guitar chords. What she did then was experiment with alternate tunings – a method that has since become part of her signature sound.
Rolling Stone called Joni Mitchell one of the 100 best guitarists of all time, which only makes sense considering she has used up to 50 nonstandard tunings in her career. It’s allowed her to explore rhythm, harmony, and melody in some of the most unique and innovative ways.
Joni was always an artist and free-thinker. For a while there, she was just another teenage misfit. The young Joni found little of use in her high school, located in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She later told Rolling Stone, “The way I saw the educational system from an early age was that it taught you what to think, not how to think.”
To Joni, music, dance, and the visual arts were far more interesting and important than the classes her high school was offering. Although the budding artist hated every minute of it, high school did happen to introduce her to an ally. She was fortunate to have one “radical” teacher.
“He was a handsome, spirited man and a reverer of spirit.” She would write poems in his class, trying her best to impress him. She would get her poems back from it, and it was “circled in red with cliché, cliché.” She recalled that at the bottom of the poem, he wrote, “Write about what you know, it’s more interesting.” In the end, Joni flunked out of the 12th grade.
Her teen years also saw her hanging out with a rough crowd. Luckily, she had the wisdom and foresight to escape their influence. She called them “juvenile delinquents” who “suddenly became criminals.” While she did admit that “Crime is very romantic in your youth,” she was wise enough to understand that the romance ends, and she didn’t want to land in jail.
Joni did eventually earn her high school diploma after finishing her failed courses during summer school. Once she was free of academic constraints, she was ready to embark on her lifelong dream of becoming a painter.
She worked as a waitress in order to earn enough money to begin a formal education in the visual arts. She excelled in her classes at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, but a year into her studies, she found the attitude of art education was just as repressive as high school.
She didn’t appreciate how the school tended to corner students into becoming either commercial or fine artists, and so she finally dropped out. Years later, she still finds that art school had a negative effect on her painting. “Some of my art education has been something that I’ve had to undo,” she explained.
By the time she hit the stage at the Half Beat Club in Yorkville (a swanky neighborhood in downtown Toronto), she was a few weeks shy of her 21st birthday. The young singer was new in town, having come from North Battleford and Saskatoon through Calgary.
She couldn’t afford the $149 she needed to pay in annual dues to the musicians’ guild, so she was stuck working for less cash in non-union clubs (like the Half Beat), which didn’t even have a liquor license. Working for less money wasn’t ideal, but she didn’t really have a choice, considering she was five months pregnant.
The father of her unborn child, Brad MacMath, had left her three months earlier. They met at the Alberta College of Art while she was working as a department store model. During her studies, she taught herself to play guitar and earned extra cash performing in Alberta coffeehouses.
It was around then that she met and had a fling with her handsome fellow artist. Joni soon discovered that she was pregnant, and when he found out, he abandoned her and left for California. Practically penniless and fearing the scorn of her parents, she fled too. She headed for Toronto.
In Toronto, she gave birth to the daughter she chose to name Kelly Dale Anderson. As incredibly hard as it was, Joni was forced to give her up for adoption because she was unable to provide for her child. It was, understandably, a decision that has haunted her and influenced her music for the rest of her life. She also kept it a secret until she was forced to face it publically.
At the age of 73, she looked back at the circumstances of her pregnancy. “I was the only virgin in art school,” she said. “I had been holding on to this precious thing, and I kind of stupidly let it go.” Joni also chose to clear up a commonly reported and hurtful misconception…
Joni made it clear to everyone and anyone who cruelly assumed that she gave up her daughter to further her career that it is simply not true. “This is so wrong. There was no career.” She was young, struggling to make ends meet, and knew she wouldn’t be able to give her daughter the life she deserved.
The deck of life was stacked against her, but as she was on that Yorkville club stage, she accepted the distracted applause of the audience. When the moment came for her to express herself musically (as can be heard on the Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years), it’s clear that she was in no way going to play the victim.
“It’s sure refreshing to have a mike for a change,” she said into the microphone. It was obvious from the moment that she started to sing why the club chose to extend her initial two-week agreement. She launched into a Scottish folk song, Nancy Whiskey, and gave it her all.
Singing in her soprano voice until the end of the night, she played two sets of standards and other artists’ music. She didn’t even get to her own music. But still, it was clear that this new girl, Joan Anderson, had just become the most powerful voice in Yorkville.
Those two sets on that October night form a story that her Early Years album tells. The set began with her first known recordings, which were made sin 1963 in a studio at CFQC AM Radio in Saskatoon by Barry Bowman, a DJ who had a bit of a crush on her.
The tapes were meant to be demos to help Joni get gigs. She played nine folk songs, including Fare Thee Well, Molly Malone, and House of the Rising Sun, on a big baritone ukulele, as she was still not well acquainted with the guitar.
Bowman wrote in the notes of the eventually published box set: “A beautiful honeyed lilt… that sounded like it came from another time.” There was no question – Joni had the voice. The confidence came later. The third ingredient – individuality – didn’t take long to follow.
From Toronto, she moved to Detroit in 1965. Joni Anderson recorded a few songs of her own that she planned to send to her mother back home as a birthday gift. “I’ve written a couple of new songs since you were out here,” she wrote, “and I think you’ll like this one especially, Mom.”
The song she gave her mother Myrtle was Urge for Going, the first original song in the collection. The song, for those who don’t know, is about drab Saskatoon winters, and its narrator wasn’t able to work up the courage to do what Joni did and leave.
“When the sun turns traitor cold/ And all the trees are shivering in a naked row/ I get the urge for going/ But I never seem to go.” Two other songs on the tape were for Myrtle’s birthday as well: one about lost love called Here Today and Gone Tomorrow and another about wanderlust, Born to Take the Highway.
Joni was telling a story – about a familiar urge – a yearning to leave where you’re from and move forward to where you’re going. She was doing what her teacher told her to do – to write about what she knew (she dedicated her first album to him). The Early Years covers the period in her life between her home and her destination.
By the time the Early Years ends, it’s October 1967, three years after her beginning in Yorkville. By then, she was Joni Mitchell, married and divorced. But she was also Joni Mitchell, the in-demand singer up and down the East Coast.
Joni met folk musician Chuck Mitchell in the spring of 1965, while she was still in Toronto. In fact, a mere 36 hours following their introduction at Toronto’s Penny Farthing Coffee House, the pair got married. It didn’t take long before the two started performing as a duo in Detroit, singing in folk music venues like Chess Mate and The Raven Gallery.
It comes as no surprise that their hasty marriage was built on shaky ground from the beginning. Joni has since described her relationship with Chuck as a “marriage of convenience.”
To Joni, her brief and hurried marriage to Chuck was merely to serve the purpose of gaining custody of her daughter (now the 36 hours between introduction and ceremony makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it?). In 1997, she revealed to The Los Angeles Times that “One month into the marriage, he chickened out, I chickened out.”
“The marriage had no basis, except to provide a home for the baby.” However, Chuck’s chickening out meant that he failed to follow through with helping his wife reunite with her baby. He was a well-educated man, older than Joni, and often made her feel intellectually inadequate.
In David Yaffe’s (no relation to me) 2017 biography, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, the singer once grieved over what she thought was a fact – that she was “illiterate” compared to Chuck. “My husband’s given me a complex that I haven’t read anything,” she once said.
But it doesn’t take a seasoned psychologist to see that Chuck’s condescending attitude toward his young wife was based on his own insecurity. It was evident that his “illiterate” wife was both outshining and outgrowing him as an artist. By 1968, their marriage was over.
Her marriage was over, but her career was just beginning. The young woman who was appearing at dates and broadcast recordings throughout the mid-‘60s was quietly and methodically working on creating music that would transcend genres and time.
By the end of the ‘60s, her star was on the rise, and her power as an artist was growing. She was also making a name for herself as a liberated woman. “I was in my mid-20s when I started to realize — with absolute exhilaration and a little fear — that my life was not going to play out on the same traditional feminine timeline as my mother and grandmother’s.”
Joni was in the right place (or wrong – depending on how you look at it) at the right time, joining in on the free love movement of the era. With it, Joni left a string of famous lovers in her wake. In 1967, just before her divorce from Chuck Mitchell, she moved to L.A.’s Laurel Canyon.
But she was in Miami’s Coconut Grove when she ran into David Crosby, who by then was already a famous singer. To Joni, Crosby’s handlebar moustache looked like Bugs Bunny’s arch enemy Yosemite Sam. To Crosby, she was like some kind of miracle.
The two became a fast couple, and he repeatedly showed her off to his bandmates and fellow Canyon crew, as though she was a novelty item. But she got tired of Crosby showing her off. Their romance cooled, but he still produced her first album.
By that point, she was fully entrenched in the heart of late – ‘60s California culture. And soon enough, she fell in love with Crosby’s bandmate Graham Nash (free love, remember?), whom she seriously contemplated marrying. There were others, including James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, and Jackson Browne.
You’ve probably noticed that while she would have fit in perfectly, Joni Mitchell wasn’t at Woodstock, despite the fact that she created the festival’s anthem, Woodstock. The reason she didn’t show up was because of David Geffen, the record mogul, who was more concerned about her appearance on The Dick Cavett Show the following day.
He urged her to stay in New York. The two were in a tumultuous professional relationship, involving screaming matches in which she begged him to let her out of her contract. Geffen later told his biographer, “If I didn’t talk to her for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t miss her for a minute.” Ouch.
“I’m just a fool for love,” she once said. Whereas Joni was a fool for love, her lovers were fools for her. And the fact that she was a finer musician than many of them only added to the appeal. Her love life was complicated, but her career hit its stride in L.A. when she won her first Grammy in 1970.
Her first six albums sold 4.6 million copies, including her fifth and formative 1971 album, Blue, which has been hailed as a masterpiece and one of the best of the past five decades. It was the album in which she bared her soul.
Blue, her painfully personal album, marked a turning point in Joni’s career. It was, after all, rooted in her depression, laying bare her stormy life with songs that detailed pretty much everything, from her fractured relationships to the child she was forced to give up.
While recording the album, Joni was instilled with an almost unbearable sense of empathy and insight. “I could see painfully — things about people I didn’t want to know,” she explained to her biographer. “And because everything was becoming transparent, I felt I must be transparent, and I cried.”
She felt like her “guts were on the outside,” as she wrote Blue. You would think that such a confessional album would be somewhat cathartic for the artist. But it proved to be anything but. Writing, recording, and relentlessly performing the songs night after night in front of sold-out audiences took a toll on her.
“Some people would call it a nervous breakdown,” she revealed. But to her, it was something that everyone does “at some point in their journey through their lives.” She likened it to more of an identity crisis. And with that crisis came unprecedented fame.
Having to give up her daughter in 1965 was something that haunted Joni for her entire life. In 1971, she memorialized her heartbreak in the song Little Green from her album Blue. She told The Los Angeles Times in 1997 that she “constantly worried” about her daughter.
Though she kept the secret for decades, a former art school classmate who knew of the adoption sold the story of her first pregnancy to the tabloids. As painful as it was to face, it actually proved to be something of a blessing.
Joni had secretly searched for her long-lost daughter for years without success. But the betrayal by a one-time friend led to Joni’s reunion with her daughter. In a matter of happenstance, it was around the same time that Kelly Dale Anderson, who came to be known as Kilauren Gibb, was also searching for her birth parents.
Her research led her to the unmistakable conclusion that she was the daughter of Joni Mitchell. The mother and daughter met for the first time ever in 1997, and they got to enjoy a few years of happiness together. But, their relationship soured.
In 2001, a physical altercation occurred in which Joni allegedly slapped Gibb, which led to their estrangement. However, by the next decade, the two seemed to be on the road to reconciliation.
In 2013, in an interview with The Toronto Star, Joni spoke about her relationship with her daughter. “She was pretty rough on me and conscripted my granddaughter, but we’ve worked through all of that. We reminisced about all the little tricks we pulled and the ways we can hurt each other. That’s over.”
But let’s rewind a bit to her Blue fame…
Overnight, Joni’s fame eclipsed the careers of other popular female singers of the day, such as Aretha Franklin, Carole King, and Janis Joplin. Two of the greatest performers of all time, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, asked if they could cover her songs.
She was both criticized and praised for her emotional honesty. “I was being told that people were horrified by the intimacy of Blue,” she explained. Within a few years, Joni chose to change musical directions and try something new. But first, in 1974, she released the album Court and Spark.
The album was an instant hit, with songs like Help Me becoming her only Top 10 Billboard single. Court and Spark was the peak of Joni Mitchell’s commercial success. Her next album, 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, marked a transition in her music.
She was experimenting with a jazz-influenced sound. What it did was alienate her longtime fans and confuse the critics. Rolling Stone called it “a great collection of pop poems with a distracting soundtrack.” At that point, Joni was fearful for her career. She even contemplated putting the brakes on her record-making.
“If they had just said they’d hated it, I could have taken it,” she recalled. “When other publications picked up the same attitude, I thought, ‘I’ll finish up this contract and quit making records.'” Joni didn’t quit, though. What she did, unfortunately, was pick up an addiction.
Joni’s massive success exposed her to other excesses. In 1975, as she was touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, Joni became addicted to cocaine. Her 1976 album, Hejira, was mainly written under the influence and was inspired mostly be a certain road trip…
In 1976, after her Hissing of Summer Lawns tour was canceled, she left L.A. on a road trip with two guys: an Australian ex-lover and a young flight attendant who inspired her song A Strange Boy. The road trip idea was conceived on the beach at Neil Young’s house.
The destination: Damariscotta, Maine. The purpose: to save her ex-boyfriend’s daughter from his in-laws. She was high most of the time those days, but when she wasn’t having a breakdown, according to her biographer David Yaffe, she was a blast to be with.
They crashed at her guitarist Robben Ford’s place. He shared with her an advance copy of the bass player Jaco Pastorius’s debut album. At the time of the 1976 release, most people in the industry hadn’t even heard of Pastorius, but they did know of the other musicians playing with him – Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, and Sam and Dave.
Pastorius, with his electric bass and insane range, had what Joni yearned for. When Robben played Pastorius’s solo bass ballad Portrait of Tracy Joni said he sounded like she had dreamed him up.
Joni had always wanted a bass player who could go all the way up to her soprano range. She learned that this guitar maestro was in Miami, playing gigs with Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller. She knew exactly what she needed to do: bring Pastorius to her.
The problem was that she hadn’t yet written all the songs for her next album. So, in those wandering months, instead of being escorted around in limos and private jets, with an entourage and paying customers, she spent her time with whoever she felt like being around. It all served as a form of inspiration.
She had escaped her tour, and now she would continue escaping. Cocaine kept her energy and confidence packed, which kept the songs coming. Just go listen to Song for Sharon – a track that has 10 verses with no chorus or bridge.
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and the chatty tune Talk to Me were also written when she was high. When she was under the influence of the drug, she took chances – more so than she normally did. Her ambition was magnified. The folksinger of her past was pushed aside, at least for the meantime.
Joni later said that cocaine destroys the heart, adding that it’s the greatest source of what’s wrong with pop music. Soon enough, she chose to get sober. And so, she drove to Maine, went solo, went to New York City, then to Florida, traveled secretly in the Deep South, and then through the desert.
When she got home, she was ready to record Hejira. Cocaine fueled that album, but it couldn’t last. It caused her bouts of insomnia. It would take her years to completely overcome the addiction. “I realized you couldn’t stay on that thing straight — you’d be the only one,” she told The Ottawa Citizen in 2006.
The ‘80s rolled around, and Joni wasn’t a wanderer anymore. Her days of experimenting with drugs were over. 1982 proved to be a notable year for her, as she entered her third decade in the music business. She took a break from jazz to explore pop music for her 11th album, Wild Things Run Fast.
It was while recording the album that she met bassist Larry Klein, her soon-to-be husband. Klein helped shape the album, and the two were a creative powerhouse. The pair soon became romantically involved and married the same year.
Once 1985 came around, Joni was about to find herself amidst another personal pain. She was 42 and pregnant, sadly miscarrying in her first trimester. Klein, choosing to focus on his professional commitment rather than his marital one, left his wife to deal with the aftermath alone.
It was this choice to prioritize business over her well-being that became a contributing factor in their divorce in 1994. The two remained amicable through their breakup. And while their marriage was officially over, their creative partnership was still in full bloom. He went on to produce her Grammy Award-winning album Turbulent Indigo.
For years, Joni has said that she’s been suffering from a little-understood malady called Morgellons Disease. The Mayo Clinic calls it a controversial, unexplained skin condition that is “characterized by small fibers or other particles emerging from skin sores.”
Medical experts are still in disagreement about the nature of the condition and whether or not it even exists. Joni opened up about it to The Los Angeles Times in 2010. “I have this weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space,” she explained. “Fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm: They cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable, or mineral.”
Joni is alive and well, but in March 2015, she faced a real scare. She was found unconscious in her L.A. home and committed to intensive care. It was revealed that she had suffered a crippling brain aneurysm. An early report from David Crosby indicated that she couldn’t speak, but Joni’s representatives denied this.
They stated that she “was speaking and speaking well.” She wasn’t able to walk, though, and needed extensive therapy. She took a step, of course, out of the public eye for a few years. In 2018, she was seen at a concert given by her ex-beau, James Taylor. Taylor said in early 2020, “She’s coming back — which is an amazing thing to be able to do — and I wonder what she has to tell us about that.”