How Joni Mitchell Learned to Play Guitar Again After a 2015 Brain Aneurysm–and Made It Back to the Newport Folk Festival

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.

via NPR

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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.

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  • Cheryl says:

    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…

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