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Brandi Carlile: How I got Joni Mitchell back on stage Print-ready version

The singer on the truth about Joni Mitchell’s return to the stage at Newport Folk Festival, the monthly ‘Joni Jams’ and their friendship

by Brandi Carlile
The Times
July 28, 2022

Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile at Newport Folk Festival. NINA WESTERVELT

It was euphoric being on stage with a friend I've grown to love like family over the past few years. It felt like she levitated. I turned to her at one point and said, "You're flying, Joni." I didn't know she was going to do that: she likes taking people by surprise.

On another level I had to suddenly remember that this is actually Joni Mitchell. You go over to her house and eat carrot soup and play solitaire and you talk about life or politics and you forget who she is. Then suddenly she's singing Big Yellow Taxi in front of 10,000 people and you are, like, "Fuck me."

I know Joni loved being on stage again. Absolutely loved it. She said to me after the show, "I was delighted and honoured. It gave me the bug for it."

Over recent years I've been organising monthly music evenings, "Joni Jams", at Joni's house in Bel-Air. During that time it has become clear that she has more to offer musically - and she realises that music has more to offer her too. The Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island is a fabulous, spiritual place for a lot of us. When we first met I was on my way there and she was telling me Newport stories . . . and I just got this feeling in the back of my mind that she would be back there.

I went with Joni to the Grammys in Las Vegas in April, when she attended the charity MusiCares's concert in her honour. It was becoming clear that the trips, such as that one, were life-giving and fun for her, they were only adding to her recovery from the aneurysm she suffered in 2015. She's ageing in reverse - it's crazy.

She loved that concert, and she liked getting up on stage and singing the last line of Big Yellow Taxi. She decided to do Newport after that. But the agreement was very much that we'll just sit around in a circle and play the songs, like we always do at the Joni Jams. Sometimes Joni sings and sometimes she doesn't want to.

As it happened she sang more and more as the set went along. The songs were all ones she has enjoyed singing and hearing at the jams. When those meetings started, Joni would just sing Summertime, in the most nonchalant way. People would jump in and sing with her, trade lines. And then, as we went on and people felt more comfortable doing her songs in front of her, every once in a while she would just lock eyes with you and suddenly land a line, her own line.

And so for Newport I chose songs I knew she did that on a lot. But never at a jam has there been the level of involvement that Joni treated us to on Sunday. It was incredible.

Almost everyone on that stage had been there a year earlier for a night that really shifted things. [The actress] Kathy Bates came around to a Joni Jam for the first time. She brought a gorgeous electric guitar. Before that, any time I would mention an instrument that Joni doesn't play any more she would end the conversation and say, "I don't do that. I don't play guitar." But Kathy brings a guitar and the first thing she does is put it on Joni's lap. My breath got caught in my chest. I just didn't know what would happen. And Joni just goes, "This is a beautiful guitar. Does anybody have a cord or an amp?"

I'm so embarrassed about this to this day, but the first thing I did was reach down to take the guitar because I thought I needed to tune it for her. And she gently swatted my hand, and said, "Hey, don't, I'm going to put this in one of my tunings." And I had to go, "Oh yeah, of course she knows what she's doing, she's Joni fucking Mitchell."

So she put the guitar in a tuning, which was an open D. And one of the guitarists, Taylor Goldsmith, recognised it as a tuning for Come in from the Cold [from her 1991 album Night Ride Home] and we started playing that. Joni started strumming along. And we knew that she had broken into new territory. She sang her 1966 song Both Sides Now that night too.

I think Joni has some pleasure in showing people she can still do it. But also in showing people she is still here. She doesn't want to be counted out. She has a hyperawareness of where the world is right now and how easily we can count people out. Particularly women, women of a certain age.

She always had the option to pull out of the show. There was a moment before we left for Newport when she had developed some apprehension. I think that was because she took it upon herself to play guitar again. She found some old tunings, found footage of herself online, started learning chord placements. And I think she found it frustrating to watch her ability on guitar before the aneurysm and then try and reach that ability in a short time. She got a little worried what the expectations were of her around Newport.

So I FaceTimed her. And we had one of the best conversations we've ever had. I said, "Joni, since we all met you, we've all started working together, we've become a family. You've created a community around you. All we want to do is just sit there in a circle and sing to show you what you've done for us. And if you sing along, fucking awesome; if you don't, we're just so happy to be with you. This is our way of thanking you. We don't want you to feel like there's something that you have to do."

And she said, "I get the spirit of it now. We will just sit there and look at the water and sing." And after that if she was apprehensive in any way, we didn't know it. I don't know if it will ever happen again. I just know that I will follow her everywhere she goes.

She has been a huge inspiration, but I didn't immediately take to Joni's music when I first heard it. I was in my twenties, and I think it comes down to my age and my battle with queerness and gender identity and not being able to connect to what I perceived as feminine women. She challenged me too much at that time in my life.

I'm 41 now. My wife, Catherine [Shepherd], introduced me properly to Joni's music when I was 30. Everyone freaks out when they turn 30 anyway but my Saturn's return [in astrology, when Saturn's 29-year orbit puts it back in the place it was in when you were born] was realising that I had spent too long equating vulnerability and weakness with femininity. It changed my whole outlook, not just on Joni or music but on myself and on women and what we put ourselves through.

I think A Case of You is probably one of the three greatest songs ever written. I think Blue is probably the greatest album ever made. But my favourite Joni album is Hejira. Everything got really groundbreaking around that time.

When I met Joni, it was at her 75th birthday tribute concert in Los Angeles, in 2018. Kris Kristofferson asked me to come and sing A Case of You with him. So I got to sing in front of Joni that night. But we didn't become friends until my wife and I went to dinner with her in LA a short while later.

I saw Joni walking into the restaurant and I was so amazed at her progress since the Joni 75 show. She sat down and ordered a meal for everybody, she held court and told stories. And then she started talking about how she doesn't play music any more. And that's not a problem, she said, that's not a sad thing, but in her living room were instruments that she wished would still get played.

She asked me if I wanted to put together some groups of people to come and play in the living room and drink wine and sing and hang out. And I said, "Yeah, absolutely." And then she put her hand on my arm - I'll never forget this - she looked at me and she went, "Really? Are you in?" I was, like, "Fuck yeah, I'm in." Two weeks later we had our first jam.

The pandemic interrupted them. But we Zoomed, we kept in touch, she was like a family member. And when Covid got under control Joni wanted the jams back. In three years she went from being a passive host and us serenading her and asking her to tell stories to all of us sitting cross-legged on the floor while she hosted these events. Her progress has been incredible.

Paul McCartney has been, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Harry Styles, Chaka Khan, Meryl Streep, Herbie Hancock. I hate to sound pretentious, because when you get there, nobody's famous. It's a living-room environment of vulnerability and nerves. It's a mix of trying out songs of Joni's or songs you have written. She's very supportive but guarded about what she says or doesn't say, she just "is". You get a nod or smile or a "well done". And it's so exciting when she joins in.

Everybody's revelling in shock and delight over what Joni just did in Newport, but there's so much about her that's just not out there in the world. It's like that laugh at the end of Big Yellow Taxi, that classic laugh, that cackle - that's Joni, that's who she is. She's a genius, she can say profound things, but also she's fucking funny.

Joni has influenced me as a musician and as a woman who has overcome extreme physical and emotional adversity. She has shown me that it's never too late. All the usual things about believing in yourself, mind over matter, all of that. But I want people to know that what happened at Newport happened because Joni decided to come back and play.

She decided to stand up and play the guitar. She decided to open her mouth and sing that way. Everything that she has overcome with her mind and her body belongs to her. And all we can do around her, the jammers and her close friends and me, is just love her and believe in her. We haven't done any more than that. She's done all the rest. It's about her.

As told to Dominic Maxwell

So, who is Brandi Carlile?

Carlile is a 41-year-old singer-songwriter, born in Washington state, who performed Joni Mitchell's album Blue at shows in Los Angeles and New York in 2019 and 2021. Her own work since her self-titled debut in 2005 includes three albums that have made the US Top Ten - one of which, By the Way, I Forgive You (2018), won a Grammy for best Americana album - and four albums that have topped the US folk charts. She and her bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth have their own charity, the Looking Out Foundation, to which they donate $1.50 from every concert ticket sold. Carlile also raises money for the foundation with her wine, XOBC Cellars, based in her home state of Washington, where she lives with her British wife, Catherine (a former co-ordinator for Paul McCartney's charity), and their daughters, Evangeline and Elijah. She has written a memoir, Broken Horses.

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Added to Library on July 29, 2022. (2262)


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