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Marcus Mumford on Performing for Joni Mitchell’s PBS Special — and Why He Thinks She’s Singing Better Than Ever in 2023 Print-ready version

by Chris Willman
Variety
March 31, 2023

When an all-star cast of musicians came together to rehearse their salute to Joni Mitchell for a Washington, D.C. tribute concert in February, in honor of her being the latest annual recipient of the Gershwin Prize for songwriting, executive producer Ken Ehrlich had an early epiphany about where Marcus Mumford's cover of "Carey" should go. "During the rehearsal, it was obvious to me: that was the opening number."

As you watch the remainder of "Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song," though - as it premieres on PBS tonight, and is available thereafter for streaming on PBS.org and the PBS app - you won't see Mumford disappearing from the stage for very many extended periods. Mumford has been part of the parties at Mitchell's home the last couple of years, and participated in the "Joni jam" at the Newport Folk Festival last summer, so he is well familiar with her and her catalog at this point. And so, as Ehrlich explains it, "When I reached out to him, it probably wasn't a half hour before he got back to me and said, 'Of course I'd love to do this.' And then he quickly followed with: 'Can I play with the band?' And he became the resident percussionist, which I didn't have.

"With Brandi (Carlile), the two of them kind of ... I don't want to say they took ownership, but they became a part of the fabric of the show, very quietly and unassumingly. It had nothing to do with ego at all. It was just kind of that they kept kind of asking if we wanted more, and of course we did. You kind of hope that you can have that kind of participation, especially on a show like this where, whether Joni purposefully wanted the show to be more like a Joni Jam or not, it was kind of a byproduct. It wasn't just them - Cyndi (Lauper) wound up jumping in on other things and Angelique (Kidjo) was ready for anything - but it really kind of started with Marcus and Brandi."

Variety spoke with Mumford about his participation and how he developed the love that led to his going above the call of duty on a special that also includes Annie Lennox, James Taylor, Graham Nash and other celebrants.

Ken Ehrlich said you not only were eager to sing a number, you wanted to be a side man, basically, too, in the show, apart from being a frontman.

I'd call it a backman, probably, more than a sideman. I basically somehow convinced him and Greg (Phillinganes, the show's musical director) to let me be in the house band because when I saw that Greg, Larry (Klein), Brian Blade were all in it, I said, "Can I just sit under Brian Blade's wings?" Because he is one of my favorite drummers of all time. I grew up as a jazz drummer. And so that guy's playing has had a massive impact on my life. And getting to play even just a shaker for Herbie Hancock, when "Cantaloupe Island" [a 1964 Hancock standard] was the first song I learned on any instrument, when I landed on the drums when I was about 11 years old, it was a big deal for me. Let alone, besides all of that, backing the one and only Joni Mitchell just felt like I was sort of pinching myself the whole time. So Ken basically called me up and said, "Will you sing a song? - you can choose." And I said, "I will. Can I also play in the house band?" He said, "Let me ask Greg." And he did, and they said yes. I was thrilled.

Was it you that ended up choosing "Carey" in the end?

Yeah, I did choose it. Initially I was thinking of doing "Come in From the Cold" or "Amelia," but I think "Carey" was the right vibe for this show.

What is it about that song? Obviously it's off one of her most popular albums, but it's not on top of people's hits list, necessarily, though fans certainly know it and are affectionate about it.

I think that had been the song at the "Joni jams" that I had most enjoyed singing along with, honestly, since I started going to those things at her house, And then at Newport... I just knew it's that song and "Big Yellow Taxi" that are like party jams, or at least they're the ones that go down best at the jams where we all finish and laugh. I felt like I could try and do justice to that vibe. I could never do justice to the version of the song as recorded by her or the way she sings it, but as a vibe, I felt like I could give it a go. And thankfully, the house band and then the Lucius girls and Brandi really helped that happen.

You have been part of the Joni jams at her house in California, and then of course played with her at the Newport Folk Festival last summer. What was it like first meeting her?

Intimidating. But with the jams, you walk into her house and she's pretty open and welcoming. It's all very relational, even more than it is professional, I'd say. If you're a friend of Brandi's, effectively, you are welcome. I don't think she'd heard my music, and so it wasn't about that at all. She was just really open and friendly, straight away, and very welcoming - and then sort of pricks up her ears when you start singing.

I think the first song I sang in front of her was "My Funny Valentine," because Brandi was like, "Sing a song!," on the spot. And I was like, Shit! So I sang "My Funny Valentine" and forgot the words. Chaka Khan was there, and leaned down to Joni and, in quite a loud stage whisper, said, "He really fucked that up! Do you want me to sing it instead?" [Laughs.] And Joni's got her frozen margarita and she's laughing and is like, "No, no, no, it's fine. It was great."

She's just such a kind spirit and so welcoming to relatively young whippersnappers like us, or at least upstarts probably would be the right description of us. It seems like she's just enjoyed having music in filling the halls of her house again, and it seems like she's really thriving as a result of it. That's testament to her friends, Marcy, Cameron Crowe and Brandi, to create this atmosphere of creativity and performance and fun and community now, which is also not a kind of closed, super-elitist community. Obviously it's best that it stays small. But then I guess they felt like that wasn't the case for Newport; they wanted to go public and invite more people in. So Newport really felt like an elaborate Joni jam, and we set up in a semi-circle like we do at the house. Then we're doing the Gorge as well (in June, as part of a multi-night Carlile engagement). It seems like Joni's enjoying it, or she wouldn't do it.

Obviously you've had a chance to hear her at the house and everything, but the general public really hadn't until the little bit she sang at Newport - which was not much. Then at the Gershwin honor in Washington, she sang "Summertime," and it was amazing how good she sounded. Because those of us out here in the public weren't really sure what her voice would be like at any length after her health issues.

Totally, totally. I've been shocked at the resonance of her tone, in private. I think people got a taste of it in Newport. But I think that the way she sang "Summertime" that night (in D.C.) was representative of the tone that we've got to hear (in her home) quite a lot. Her tone has changed quite a lot, because her career has spanned so many decades now. You know, her tone on some of the early stuff is so different even to her tone on, like, "Hejira," let alone the later stuff - and I think it's developed again. She says, "I'm an alto now. I'm not a soprano." But her tone and her pitch, it's just unlike anyone else, ever. She's still Joni, but her tone has evolved and changed, as it would with the natural instrument of the voice. And I think it's my favorite-ever Joni tone, honestly.

So, "Summertime" represents that. I think people will hear more of it at the Gorge. I think it was just the beginning at Newport. And every time we go to a Joni jam, she sings more and more confidently, which is amazing considering what she's been through and the recovery she's been through in the past few years - with the work she's put in, with effectively what has been like vocal physiotherapy. I think the jams have been part of that, which Marcy and Brandi seemed to notice early and therefore facilitated in a really beautiful way.

Are you able to figure out that she had a real influence in what you do? And at what stage of your life...

Oh, massively. And I can trace that DNA very easily, actually, because I started - after my failed jazz drumming career... [Laughs.] I played folk drums, which are much easier, and that's how I started out. I was in college when Laura Marling offered me a job playing drums for her. The two of us toured, just the two of us; I played accordion and mandolin and ukulele and percussion for her on the road. We'd have this really simple setup that meant that we could fly economy everywhere, with the tour manager, and we'd play the two of us. And her biggest influence was Joni Mitchell, as she would have said on the record many times.

So, honestly, I leaned more into Joni's music as a result of being around Laura than I had even as a teenager. The influence that Joni had on my career is because Laura was so influential on the beginnings of my songwriting. I started writing songs that first year I was playing for her. The whole time I was playing for Laura - that was like 2006, the year before we started Mumford & Sons, and then I was still playing with her till like 2008, 2009, maybe a bit more than that. That whole time when I was writing my first songs, it was really under the influence of Laura Marling, and she was heavily under the influence of Joni Mitchell. So I can trace that DNA quite clearly. And so it felt pretty amazing to be able to then play percussion for Joni Mitchell as well as Laura Marling. It's a cool part of my story.

It's amazing how many people are able to recognize later in life that they got Joni Mitchell secondhand before they got it firsthand.

Totally. And that's the beauty of music. There's so many examples of that in my life with music. You are often excited about music that your friends are excited about, and that's how you discover things. Mostly I started loving music because my brother, who was six years older than me, would sit me down and make me listen to "Blood on the Tracks," or make me listen to the Animals' version of "House of the Rising Sun," or Radiohead particularly. That's just what I love about music. It's the ultimately sharable thing.

Just as a personal, non-Joni aside, about another modern great... You sang "Cowboy Like Me" with Taylor Swift in Las Vegas. That's one of the best, most underrated songs of the recent part of her career. Then people looked it up and saw that you had done it in at least one show during your solo tour last year - which marked the live premiere of anyone ever doing that song live.

That's right - I played it live before she did, somehow. I fucking love that song. I think it's an exquisitely well-written song, and a really good example as to why she's one of the powerhouse songwriters of our generation. And it certainly felt like a sort of bit of relief in my solo set to play it. And then, when she asked me to play in Vegas, that was an easy yes. ... Before I first played it in my show, I think I asked her, actually, "I said, "I'm gonna play this - is that all right?" It's her song, not mine, but I love the very small part I played in it.

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