Brandi Carlile is offering a behind-the-scenes account of Joni Mitchell's surprise appearance at the Newport Folk Festival on Saturday, which was her first full-length live set in more than 20 years and her first performance at that event since 1969. Carlile was one of the many who joined Mitchell for her performance of "Both Sides Now," "Big Yellow Taxi" and more.
"I know Joni loved being on stage again. Absolutely loved it," Carlile wrote in a first-person piece for London's The Times. "She said to me after the show, 'I was delighted and honored. It gave me the bug for it.'"
Carlile explained that she met Michell at the iconic folk singer's 75th birthday tribute concert in Los Angeles in 2018, after Kris Kristofferson had invited her to sing the woman of the hour's "A Case of You." Afterward, Carlile and her wife, Catherine Shepherd, went out to dinner with Mitchell, where they became friends. Mitchell also brought up the idea of making music together.
"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,'" she wrote. "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, 'F*** yeah, I'm in.' Two weeks later we had our first jam."
Carlile noted that she was impressed to see how much progress Mitchell had made since that first meeting; She had suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, which required her to teach herself even how to walk again.
Over the next few years, the so-called Joni Jams were held monthly at Mitchell's home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles. Paul McCartney, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Harry Styles, Chaka Khan, Meryl Streep and Herbie Hancock all popped in. Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates is the one who put a guitar back in Mitchell's hands on one such occasion.
Carlile said that a MusicCares concert tribute to Mitchell in April, further sparked the folk music legend's interest in returning to the stage.
"She loved that concert, and she liked getting up on stage and singing the last line of 'Big Yellow Taxi,'" Carlile wrote. "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."
Despite almost pulling out of the event, Mitchell sang more and more over the course of her set, Carlile noted. She said that she had chosen songs Mitchell seemed to particularly enjoy at their jam sessions.
"It was euphoric being on stage with a friend I've grown to love like family over the past few years," she wrote.
While Carlile admitted that she hadn't connected with Mitchell's music at first — "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" — but she truly discovered her catalog in her next decade. In January 2019, Carlile told Yahoo Entertainment that her now wife re-introduced the album, with the caveat that she couldn't be with her until she understood Mitchell's 1971 album Blue. And she was serious!
Now 41, Carlile called Mitchell "a huge inspiration" and hailed Blue as "probably the greatest album ever made."
The Highwomen singer summarized just what the festival meant to her friend: "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."