Joni Mitchell has stood out as one of the most distinctive voices in Canadian music for over half a century. She has been showered awards and honors from Grammys to the Order of Canada as well as a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She has been hailed by Rolling Stone as “one of the greatest songwriters ever.” Her songs have been covered by dozens of musicians like CeeLo Green, k.d. lang, Tori Amos and Sarah MacLachlan. To celebrate the one and only Joni, here are a few things you might not know about her:
She loved to play poker
This one might surprise you, but Mitchell enjoyed spending time playing poker and would frequent The Eagles’ singer Glenn Frey’s home for rounds of poker every Monday night, after football. They would play poker until the early hours of Tuesday morning. The Frey’s house was often referred to as the Kirkwood casino due to the Monday night tradition. Mitchell’s affinity to the game of poker is reflected in the song Taming the Tiger where she sings about “every disc being a poker chip.”
She had humble beginnings
Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod, Alta., on the 7th of November 1943. Her father was a former Royal Canadian Air Force officer who managed a grocery store and her mother was a school teacher. “She raised me on Shakespeare as other parents quoted from the Bible. She encouraged me in old-fashioned things. I kept pressed-flower scrapbooks.” Mitchell was particularly close to her maternal grandmother, Sadie McKee, and that is why she dedicated her first album to her, describing Mckee as a lady who “loved Robbie Burns and minor-key music and married a farmer who didn’t understand.”
She fought Polio
When she was eight years old, Mitchell contracted polio during an epidemic in Canada in 1951 (as did Neil Young). Joni was bedridden for weeks and was faced with the very scary reality of having to live in an iron lung for the remainder of her days. Mitchell reportedly said later that it was during this dreadful time in hospital during a bleak winter that she became interested in singing. She had been told that she would not be able to go home for Christmas and made the conscious decision to start belting out Christmas carols to deal with the disappointment.
She’s in good Canadian company
Joni Mitchell is one of only three Canadian songwriters to be given the Order of Canada. She’s a recipient of Canada’s second-highest honor of merit in the system of orders, decorations, and medals of the country, along with Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen.
Mitchell and Cohen have also both been inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, cementing their place as two of Canada’s cultural front runners.
She was inspired by her English teacher
Initially interested in painting, (Mitchell is also a gifted visual artist with her works featured on her album covers) it would take Mitchell’s English teacher from her high school in Saskatoon to ignite her musical passion. She has described herself as a “painter derailed by circumstance.” Mitchell would go on to dedicate her debut album Song to a Seagull to her English teacher, Mr. Kratzman.
She produced most of her work
Mitchell has always tried to be as hands-on as possible when it comes to her albums, expressing discontent at times with the music industry and her desire to be in control of her work and life. She is credited as the sole producer on the majority of her releases, including Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, and Court and Spark. These albums were pivotal for her to branch out from the acoustic folk genre of her youth towards jazz and jazz-fusion. She’s grown with her music and her music progressed towards a more rock and even pop sound, which was by far considered as Mitchell’s most popular musical era.
She worked with musician legends
Mitchell has an impressive repertoire of musical legends that she has played with. Her first touring band consisted of some members of Tom Scott’s LA Express (a well-respected fusion act at the time) which included the influential guitarist, Robben Ford.
David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash is credited as the producer for Mitchell’s 1968 debut album: Song to a Seagull. Crosby had apparently caught one of Mitchell’s shows and was immediately taken by her, deciding right there to help sign her at Reprise Records.
She had her fair share of love and heartache
While dating ex-boyfriend Brad MacMath at age 21, Mitchell fell pregnant but because she was unable to provide for her child, she had no option but to give her daughter up for adoption. This was an experience that saw her tapping into her own personal feelings about romance and disillusionment.
Mitchell got her name when she married Chuck Mitchell in June 1965, a singer and cabaret performer who was another regular on the Toronto folk circuit from Detroit. It’s reported that they tied the knot after only 36 hours since the meeting. They moved to Detroit, where they often performed together, but after a year, the marriage ended, and Joni Mitchell moved to New York, pursuing her solo artist career with no intentions of remarrying. She did find romance with other high-profile musicians, among them David Crosby, James Taylor, Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen and Jackson Browne.
Joni Mitchell is a legend. And even though she hasn’t released any new material in the past decade, we still celebrate her contributions to art, music and culture to this day. One thing is for certain Joni Mitchell set the bar for all who followed and turned the notion of songwriting inside out, embodying everything a true artist should be.