At 56, Mitchell is a doting grandmother and proud of it. This week her 21st album, Both Sides Now, a collection of love songs made famous by the likes of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, as well as two of Mitchell's own signature tunes, hits stores amid loud acclaim from critics who compare her tobacco-cured voice to Holiday's. "Billie," Mitchell says between drags on an ever-present cigarette, "knocks my socks off."
Mitchell, of course, has her own army of adoring fans, including singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin, who considers Joni a guiding inspiration. A teenager when she first heard Mitchell, Colvin, 44, says she was "awestruck" by her: "She sang like I'd never heard anybody sing and wrote songs that were completely original and unique and very feminine."
But hardly girlish. Mitchell says her new album (co-produced by her ex-husband and enduring friend Larry Klein, from whom she split in 1992 after 10 years of marriage) traces "the rise and fall of a romantic relationship." Just don't expect the sort of "doormat songs" Mitchell says she grew up with. "The woman was always waiting for that day when 'my prince will come and we'll move into a nice little house with a picket fence.' " It's a vision of marital bliss she never embraced. "Being a traveling woman and meeting traveling men," says Mitchell, whose past romances include David Crosby, Graham Nash and James Taylor, "there was too much temptation. Do you think I could expect fidelity from a rock star? Come on!"
Born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod, Alta., Mitchell grew up in Saskatoon, Sask., where her parents, Myrtle and Bill Anderson, then a schoolteacher and a grocery chain manager respectively and now in their 80s, settled when their only child was 6. Though she showed an early talent for music and painting, a life-threatening bout with polio at age 9 "made an artist out of me," says Mitchell. "Staring into the eyes of death as a young person deepens you a lot."
Another life-altering experience occurred at Calgary's Alberta College of Art & Design when she met fellow student Brad MacMath. "I lost my virginity and got pregnant in the same moment," says Mitchell, who quit school and headed for Toronto with MacMath. The couple split, however, before their baby, Kelly Dale Anderson, was born on Feb. 19, 1965. There was "nothing more disgraceful" than having a child out of wedlock in those days, Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. Alone and unable to support Kelly on her meager earnings as a folk singer, Joni placed her in foster care. A friend, American singer Chuck Mitchell, offered to marry Joni to help her "get my daughter out of hock." But the short-lived marriage didn't take, and reluctantly the destitute mother signed adoption papers.
Soon afterward, Kelly was adopted by Toronto schoolteachers David and Ida Gibb, who named her Kilauren. Mitchell, meanwhile, grieved the loss in her music, with profound consequences. When Judy Collins recorded Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," it became an instant classic. "I was reeled up into celebrity land," Mitchell recalls. Still, even as her career soared following the release of her debut album in 1968, she was plagued by guilt and periods of deep depression. "It was very traumatic and painful for her," says ex-husband Klein. "Not knowing whether her daughter was alive or what had become of her was something she thought about a lot. From time to time she'd say, 'God, maybe I should look for her.' And it would creep its way into her songs." "Little Green," from her 1971 masterpiece album, Blue, was written "as a message in a bottle [to Gibb]," says Mitchell. But it was a message that required decades to find its destination. "God, it's so cryptic, Joan," Mitchell recalls Gibb telling her later. "I never would have known it was for me."
A Toronto fashion model turned photographer, Gibb began searching for her birth parents in the early '90s, when she applied for her adoption records. When she finally received them several years later, they identified her mother only as an aspiring folk singer from Saskatchewan. By then, Mitchell had launched her own search for her long-lost daughter. In March 1997, after a friend convinced Gibb (who, ironically, was unfamiliar with Mitchell's career) that the singer might be her mother, a reunion was arranged. Later, Gibb, who is divorced and raising her children as a single mother, met her biological father, MacMath. "He has a daughter by one marriage and a son by another," says Mitchell of MacMath, a Toronto photographer. "We all go out together as a dysfunctional family."
A free-living soul, Mitchell has been dating Donald Freed, a Canadian musician six years her junior who teaches song-writing to Native American children. After six years she has developed a distinctly Mitchellesque take on the relationship. "It's great," she says. "We meet a couple of times a year." Her relationship with her new family, though, is a bit more encompassing. Having missed the joy of watching her own daughter grow up, Mitchell treasures her time with her grandchildren. "I saw Daisy when she was born," she says. "And I love my grandson. I just adore him." When her Sundays are free, she often invites friends over to shoot pool in her living room. "There's a lot of laughter," she says with a smile of contentment. "And I feel loved by a lot of people."
Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles
- Lyndon Stambler.
Have you seen my family tree?" says Joni Mitchell, chuckling as she hands a visitor a framed photo in her home—a pink 1929 Spanish-style villa in the canyons of tony Bel Air, Calif. The joke is that Mitchell, daughter Kilauren Gibb, 35, and grandson Marlin, 7, are pictured dangling from the branches of a tree, while Mitchell's 8-month-old granddaughter, Daisy, sits in a car seat below. As might be expected from Mitchell, an icon of the Woodstock generation who sang her darkly confessional songs in a lovely, soaring soprano, there is a waterfall of emotions behind that laugh. Until three years ago, when she was reunited with her daughter after a 32-year separation, she didn't know if Gibb, whom she put up for adoption as an infant in 1965, was even alive. "It left a hole in me," says Mitchell, "that I didn't fill until the day I saw her again."