Joni Mitchell almost quit the music industry in 1996, two years after releasing what critics called her best album since the 70s, 1994’s Turbulent Indigo. “I was in a losing fight with a business that basically, you know, was treating me like an also-ran or a has-been, even though I was still doing good work,” she told an interviewer at the time. “Everything about the business disgusted me.”
But show business has never really been about the show or the business for Mitchell. From her deeply personal songwriting to her vocal vulnerability, she imbues her music with the deepest parts of herself. Then there’s her brilliantly idiosyncratic guitar playing. “Her guitar doesn’t really sound like a guitar,” Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers writes at Acoustic Guitar. “The treble strings become a cool-jazz horn section; the bass snaps out of syncopations like a snare drum; the notes ring out in clusters that simply don’t come out of a normal six-string.”
Mitchell “mastered the idea that she could tune the guitar any way she wanted,” says David Crosby. She tuned to “the numbers in a date… a piece of music that I liked on the radio,” she says. “I’d tune to birdsongs and the landscape I was sitting in.” Trying to duplicate Mitchell’s tunings is typically a fool’s errand; even she forgets them. But “Joni’s weird chords,” as she says, are indispensable to her sound. (She also says she’s only written two songs — one of them her first — in standard tuning.)
In 1996, a digital guitar pedal that emulated her tunings and allowed a greater range of symphonic tones brought her back to the stage. Or, to put it another way — what brought her back to music was the guitar, which is exactly what brought her back to the stage at this year’s Newport Folk Festival — playing her first live set in 20 years after suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015. (She last played Newport 53 years ago in 1969.) Nothing keeps Joni down for long.
In this case, however, Mitchell didn’t just forget her tunings after her illness. She forgot how to play the guitar altogether. She had to teach herself again by watching videos of her playing online. “I’m learning,” she says in the CBS interview at the top. “I’m looking at videos that are on the net, to see where to put my fingers. It’s amazing… when you have an aneurysm, you don’t know how to get into a chair. You don’t know how to get out of bed. You have to learn all these things again. You’re going back to infancy, almost.”
She’s come a long way since 2015, when she could neither speak nor walk, “much less play the guitar,” notes NPR. “To be able to recover to the point of being able to perform as a musician is really incredible,” says Dr. Anthony Wang, a neurosurgeon at Ronald Regan UCLA Hospital. “Playing an instrument and vocal cord coordination, those sort of things are really, super complex fine movements that would take a long time to relearn.” Mitchell’s commitment to mastering her instrument again was unflagging.
See her above pluck out “Joni’s weird chords” on one of her Parker Fly guitars in a solo section from the song “Just Like This Train” from Court & Spark. As we noted in an earlier post, she was joined at Newport by a host of celebrity friends, including Brandi Carlile, who sits with her in the CBS interview and confirms the amount of “will and grit” she applied to her recovery. She’s survived polio, personal tragedy, the 60s, chain smoking, and a debilitating aneurysm: the 78-year-old living legend won’t be with us forever, but we might expect she’ll have a guitar in her hand when she finally makes her exit from the music business for the last time.
Joni Mitchell Sings “Both Sides Now” at the Newport Folk Festival: Watch Clips from Her First Full Concert Since 2002
Hear Demos & Outtakes of Joni Mitchell’s Blue on the 50th Anniversary of the Classic Album
How Joni Mitchell Wrote “Woodstock,” the Song that Defined the Legendary Music Festival, Even Though She Wasn’t There (1969)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
It’s Carlile. I firmly believe Joni’s intelligence (along with her will) is the key to her ability to overcome. What a treat her appearance at the NFF was! A once in a lifetime…