Joni Mitchell facts: Age, songs, albums, retirement and stunning comeback of the folk legend
30 January 2024, 16:16
Joni 75- A Birthday Celebration – official Joni Mitchell trailer
Joni Mitchell has made the most remarkable comeback after years in recovery.
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Joni Mitchell is simply one of the finest singers, songwriters and musicians in the history of popular music.
After struggling with health issues for several years, Joni retired from public performance in 2009, a decision seemingly made permanent by a brain aneurysm rupture she suffered in 2015.
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But after years of physical therapy and rehab, Joni shocked the world with her live comeback in 2022, and followed it with a headline show the following year.
Rightly everyone is taking a moment to appreciate just how magnificent Joni Mitchell was and still is.
So we're taking a closer look at the life and times of one of the greatest.
How old is Joni Mitchell and where was she born?
Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943 at Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, celebrating her 80th birthday in November 2023.
Her mum was teacher Myrtle Marguerite and her dad William Andrew Anderson a Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant, who became a grocer after World War II ended.
After spending her youngest years moving around various air force bases in Western Canada after the war she lived in Maidstone and North Battleford in Saskatchewan.
Joni contracted polio at the age of nine, and told the Daily Telegraph that she started smoking that same year.
"It's one of life's great pleasures," she said, and when quizzed on it affecting her speaking and singing voice, she added: "I have smoked since I was nine, so obviously it didn't affect my early work that much."
Joni added: "I would grab my tobacco and get on my bike, looking for a beautiful place, a grove of trees or a field, and go amongst the bushes and smoke and that always gave me a sense of well-being."
How did Joni Mitchell get into music?
Before considering music, Joni was very interested in painting (she ran a parallel career as a visual artist), and a dozen of her 19 studio albums feature paintings by Mitchell, most of which are self-portraits.
In 1976, she told Co-Evolution Quarterly of her early school years: "I wasn't into music. It's interesting, I wanted to play the piano but I didn't want to take lessons. I wanted to do what I do now, which is to lay my hand on it and to memorize what comes off of it and to create with it.
"But my music teacher told me I played by ear which was a sin, you know, and that I would never be able to read these pieces because I memorized things. So again there was a misunderstanding. In my drive to play the piano I didn't fall into the norm for that system, so I dropped that."
Joni Mitchell - Urge for Going
Instead, she considered the guitar, but was banned from the "hillbilly" instrument by her mum, and instead taught herself Pete Seeger's songs on a ukulele, coming up with her own tunings to make up for her weak left hand caused by her polio.
She sang with pals and absorbed jazzy influences like Edith Piaf and Miles Davis.
Joni continued to paint and took art classes at Saskatoon Technical Collegiate after high school at Aden Bowman Collegiate, but despite being a top student at Alberta College of Art, she was uninspired by their approach.
"So I quit there and went to Toronto to become a musician," Joni explained, eventually finding work in a non-union club when she was around 20.
Joni went on to busk and play small shows, and after having other folkies take issue with the idea of her singing her version of "their" standards, resolved to write her own songs.
Joni Mitchell - Big Yellow Taxi (Official Lyric Video)
She then moved to the US where she continued to play coffeehouses and club shows and in the 1960s, and caught the attention of Tom Rush in Toronto, who recorded her 'Urge for Going'.
Many of her other songs were picked up by other artists, and when David Crosby saw her playing at the Gaslight South in Florida, and took her to LA helping her get a management and record deal.
She released her debut album Song to a Seagull (also sometimes known simply as Joni Mitchell) and as she toured built up a bigger and bigger profile, leading up to the release of Clouds in 1969, which went to number 31 in the charts, and Joni had most definitely arrived.
What are Joni Mitchell's biggest songs and albums?
Joni Mitchell - The Circle Game
Joni Mitchell has released 19 studio albums across her career, and her best-loved LPs are probably Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, Hejira, and Both Sides Now, though it's fair to say all are essential.
She's released loads of compilations, including the1996 pair of Hits, which boasted all her best-known songs, and the excellently-titled Misses, featuring some of her quirkier or under-exposed work.
Her biggest songs include:
- Urge For Going
- Both Sides Now
- Chelsea Morning
- Big Yellow Taxi
- The Circle Game
- A Case of You
- You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio
- Both Sides Now
- Raised on Robbery
- Help Me
- Free Man in Paris
- In France They Kiss on Main Street
- My Secret Place
- Come in From the Cold
- How Do You Stop
- Sex Kills
Did Joni Mitchell play at Woodstock?
Joni Mitchell ~ Woodstock
One of Joni Mitchell's very greatest songs is 'Woodstock', which she debuted in 1969 a month after the festival, before releasing it on her masterpiece Ladies of the Canyon the following year.
While her version is a favourite of many, it was also memorably covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with their take on m Déjà Vu actually coming out before Joni's and being a bigger hit.
CSNY were one of the biggest hits of the Woodstock festival itself, playing a 75-minute acoustic and electric set.
But Joni herself wasn't actually at the festival at all, having been told by her manager that she should instead appear on The Dick Cavett Show.
Joni Mitchell, Jefferson Airplane and David Crosby Discuss Woodstock Festival | The Dick Cavett Show
"We got to the airport and I saw the TV report – 400,000 people sitting in mud – and I turned to Joni and said, 'Let's not go'," Geffen recalled.
Mitchell has changed her mind on exactly how she felt about all this, either claiming to be distraught or not really thinking she missed that much.
Hilariously (though not for poor Joni probably), Crosby, Stills and Nash jumped into a helicopter after their performance and actually gatecrashed Joni on Dick Cavett, waxing lyrical about how amazing it all was.
CROSBY, STILLS, NASH Woodstock 1971
But on the plus side, Joni missing out and learning about what went down from TV reports and her then-boyfriend Graham Nash is what led Joni to write Woodstock.
"The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock," she admitted soon after, so something incredibly good did come out of her absence.
Has Joni Mitchell ever been marrried and does she have any children?
Joni Mitchell - Little Green (Live NYC 1967)
Joni Mitchell has a personal and family life as layered and complex as some of her songwriting.
She married fellow folkie Chuck Mitchell back in 1965, and while they divorced just two years later she held on to the name "Mitchell" for good.
Before then though, she had a relationship with a fellow art student named Brad MacMath. Joni became pregnant, and after a few months, Brad left her.
Joni moved in with pal and fellow singer Vicky Taylor and on February 19, 1965, gave birth to a daughter she named Kelly Dale Anderson.
It was not long after that she met Chuck, but despite their initial commitment to raise her daughter together, it was decided that it would be better for all – the child included – were she given up for adoption.
The fact of Joni's daughter was kept private for decades, though her 'Little Green' from Blue clearly alludes to the adoption ("So you sign all the papers in the family name / You're sad and you're sorry, but you're not ashamed / Little Green, have a happy ending").
Joni Mitchell - Chinese Café / Unchained Melody
Even less ambiguous was the lyric in 1982's Chinese Cafe ("And my child's a stranger / I bore her/ But I could not raise her").
Meanwhile, Kelly Dale had been renamed Kilauren Gibb and had begun to search for her biological parents by the time when one of Mitchell's old art school "friends" sold a story to a tabloid about Joni's daughter in 1993.
Joni and Kilauren reunited in 1997.
"I didn't come into this thing with expectations. I just wanted to find my mom," Kilaruen said. "I wasn't expecting her to be a celebrity - in fact, I was probably hoping she wasn't, and would turn out to be someone living in a basement somewhere, keeping herself occupied with her knitting."
Over the years, Joni was reported to have had romances with a number of fellow artists, including the likes of Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Sam Shephard, and she married her bass player Larry Klein in 1982.
They divorced in 1994, but did work together after the split, including on her massive 2000 album Both Sides Now.
Why did Joni Mitchell retire and when did she have her comeback?
Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now (Live at the Newport Folk Festival 2022) [Official Video]
In 2009, Joni revealed that she suffered from the controversial skin condition Morgellons, and announced her retirement from the music industry, focusing instead on publicising the condition and also her painting.
She made rare public appearances, and then suffered a brain aneurysm rupture in 2015.
After that, she gave her blessing to an extensive Joni Mitchell Archives, which made previously unreleased demo and studio material and live albums available for the first time, as well as reissues and remasters of her classic albums.
An enthused and recovering Joni slowly started to join in, and on July 24, 2022, returned to the live stage as an unannounced guest for the Brandie Carlile and Friends closing set at that year's Newport Folk Festival.
She followed that up with her own headline set on June 10 at t at Washington State's Gorge Amphitheatre, and she was later confirmed to perform at the 2024 Grammy Awards.