A painter who had also dabbled in piano, guitar and ukulele since childhood, Mitchell took her surname from a brief marriage to folksinger Chuck Mitchell in 1965. She performed frequently in coffee houses and folk clubs and became well know for her unique style of songwriting -- often using guitar tunings of her own invention. Her first songwriting credit to hit the charts, Urge for Going was a success for country singer George Hamilton IV. The songs on her first releases Song to a Seagull (1968) and Clouds (1969) were archetypes of the nascent singer-songwriter movement of the time. Personal and often self-consciously "poetic", they were strengthened by Mitchell's extraordinary wide-ranging voice and unique guitar playing, tuning the instrument in unorthodox manners to produce a distinctive rhythmic, driving sound that carries the songs. Clouds represented a commercial breakthrough, containing her first two songs widely adopted by other artists, "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides Now".
By her third album, Ladies of the Canyon (1970), maturity brought a record infused with the spirit of California life (the canyon of the title is Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles) as well as containing her first major hit single, the environmental "Big Yellow Taxi", and her song "Woodstock", about the music festival, which was later a hit for both Crosby, Stills and Nash and Matthew's Southern Comfort. Also of interest, "For Free" is the first of Mitchell's many songs focusing on the dichotomy between the benefits of her stardom and its costs, both in terms of its pressure and of the loss of privacy and freedom it entails.
This more mature, confessional approach was continued on Blue (1971), widely considered the best of this period. From exploring the various facets of relationships: from infatuation on "A Case Of You" to insecurity on "This Flight Tonight," the songs, featured increasing use of piano and appalachian dulcimer on "Carey" and "All I Want". Others were piano led, some exhibiting the rhythms associated with rock music. The rock influence was still strong on her next two albums made for her new label Asylum. For The Roses (1972), whose title track continued her exploration of the themes of "For Free", sold well, supported by the hit single "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio" and 1974's Court and Spark, was a huge success, producing the international hit "Free Man In Paris" and remaining her best selling work to this day.
Court & Spark was also notable for the first echoes of the influence of jazz on Mitchell's work and despite the commercial success of the more mainstream tracks, she would spend the rest of the decade producing largely jazz inflected music. The first such album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975) was also a lyrical departure, with the confessional style replaced by a series of vignettes of 1970s women, from nightclub dancers ("Edith and the Kingpin") to the bored wives of the wealthy ("The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" and "Harry's House"). Musically it was stylistically diverse, with complex vocal harmonies set alongside African drumming (the Warrior Drums of Burundi making up the foundation of "The Jungle Line"). Hejira (1976) continued the trend, with many of the tracks led by (jazz musician) Jaco Pastorius' fretless bass guitar. The songs themselves, however, were more similar to earlier work, dense poetic lyrics (whose precise meaning is frequently unclear) whose swooping vocal melodies provide contrast to the jazz rhythms of the arrangements. To some, however, it lacked the conciseness that the pop influence had given its predecessor. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) was a further move away from pop towards the freedom and abstraction of jazz, a wordy double album dominated by the lengthy part-improvised "Paprika Plain". The album received mixed reviews: some enjoyed its experimentation and originality but many found it unengaging.
Continuing her interest in jazz composition, Mitchell's next work was to be a collaboration with legendary bassist Charles Mingus, who died before the project was completed. Mitchell finished the tracks with a band featuring Pastorius, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and the resulting free-form, arrhythmic music, while well received in some quarters, again found her appeal becoming more selective.
The 1980s saw Mitchell's lowest recorded output since the start of her career. Only three albums of new material appeared, none terribly well reviewed. Seeming to reject the jazz influence, 1982's Wild Things Run Fast was an attempt to return to pop songwriting, including cover versions of "Unchained Melody" and "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" but, like its successor Dog Eat Dog (1985), it may have failed to overcome the smothering production values, and the synthesizer and drum machine-led arrangements have dated far quicker than the acoustic music of her earlier work. Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm (1988) saw Mitchell collaborating with a wealth of talent, including Willie Nelson, Tom Petty and Don Henley, but the material was again patchy and the record did not sell well, although it's doubtful that the sale has ever been more important to the artist than the art.
1991's Night Ride Home, an album of self-described "Middle-aged love songs", was better received, but to many, the real return to form came with the Grammy winning Turbulent Indigo (1994) and Taming The Tiger (1998).
Recently, Joni Mitchell has voiced her discontent with the current state of the music industry, describing it as a "cesspool". She stated her dislike of the record industry's dominance, and her desire to control her own destiny, possibly through releasing her own music over the Internet. In 2002 she released Travelogue, a collection of reworkings of her previous songs with orchestral accompaniment, stating that it would be her final album.
Mitchell was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1981 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. She received a Grammy award for Lifetime Achievement in 2002, with a citation describing her as "one of the most important female recording artists of the rock era" and "a powerful influence on all artists who embrace diversity, imagination and integrity."