Guitar Aficionado

Shadows and Light: A New Biography of Joni Mitchell Captures Her Many Shades

Image placeholder title

By Christopher Scapelliti

Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell

By David Yaffe

Sarah Crichton Books (448 pages, $28)

Folk music was always about the historical and social. In Bob Dylan’s hands it became confessional, but Joni Mitchell took the form further still, making it psychoanalytic and nakedly revealing of her—and our—struggles with love. As a female songwriter in pre-feminist America, Mitchell was notable for composing her own material and singing about her emotions in all their messy complexity. With age, she mirrored the depth and dissonance of her subject matter with harmonically ambiguous jazz chords that cloaked her vulnerability in a weary sophistication.

Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Armstrong in Alberta, Canada, in 1943. Drawn to painting and music, teenage Joni took up guitar during the Sixties folk boom and discovered her vocation. Though her hands had been weakened in childhood by polio, she compensated by creating open and alternate tunings on her guitar that made fretting easier. By the middle Sixties, she’d launched her music career, birthed a child and given it up for adoption, and pulled out of a marriage that left her with a new last name and a shot at self-reinvention.

Mitchell headed to New York City and saw early glints of success when her songs “The Circle Game” and “Both Sides Now” were covered by reigning folkies. Her career took off in 1967 after David Crosby—the first of her many musical lovers—stole her back to Los Angeles and set about launching her recording career. She had success with lighthearted hits like “Chelsea Morning” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” but the wistful heartaches of her early albums soon gave way to the morning-after recriminations of 1971’s Blue, where she was at her most exposed.

Leaving behind folk, Mitchell dove into jazz-tinged pop with 1974’s Court and Spark, the first of her many albums to feature guitarist Larry Carlton. She moved deeper into fusion as the decade progressed, working with Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius, soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Charles Mingus. As the Eighties rang in, Mitchell returned to pop, but by the following decade her declining health and growing disinterest in music slowed her output to a trickle. She released Shine, her most recent album, in 2007, but since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015, she may not ever record again.

Culled from dozens of in-person interviews, David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell offers the fullest picture yet of this most complex musical treasure. Mitchell reveals the backstories of her best-known songs and opens up about her early marriage, the child she gave up and the loves that shaped her life and music.