When my friend sent me a link from the Newport Folk Festival of Joni Mitchell singing Both Sides Now with Brandi Carlile, I was terribly jealous of Brandi. Much like my mother, Kate McGarrigle, was jealous of Joni 50 years ago.
My mother, another great Canadian songwriter, was incredibly envious of Joni's talent, and kind of annoyed by it, because she wished that she could have been famous. That was similar to what I felt when I was starting out: making music, playing acoustic guitar, having blonde hair, singing in a folk style and writing songs. When I was younger I was afraid of the comparison, especially being from Canada. And so I was pushed away from delving into Joni's catalogue and went with other, edgier singers such as Chrissie Hynde and Marianne Faithfull, in the hope that I could be edgy myself.
It was only when I came to my senses and felt comfortable with myself and in my own music that I was able to really appreciate Joni's incredible talent, especially as a songwriter. She's primarily known as a singer, someone you're compared to if you have a high voice, and I think her songwriting has been seen as secondary. But it's really quite the reverse. When I discovered Joni later - after my mother died, out of respect for her - it was jaw-dropping. The beautiful voice and the incredible range were the veneer, but the freaky edge was there in the songwriting, the intensity and the rawness of it. I fell in love.
I have a small music venue, Ursa, in Montreal, and last year we did a tribute show for the 50th anniversary of Joni's Blue album. That's such an incredible record. And for the past year I've been singing Both Sides Now, which I discovered when my brother Rufus sang it in 2017 for Northern Stars, his show celebrating Canada's 150th birthday. I was going through a difficult divorce and I was really quite freaked out and scared. And I remember being backstage listening to Rufus sing that song and just being completely taken by the lyrics. I ended up in tears.
When I first heard the Newport clip of Joni and Brandi singing Both Sides Now I couldn't get through it. I had done the song the night before with a piano player - I was so annoyed! Then of course I decided in a quieter moment to go ahead and listen to it. Brandi doesn't actually have to sing it: Joni is completely able to sing it herself, beautifully. Yes, she sings lower and more slowly now, but I don't want to hear her trying to sound like she did. That low register is almost as famous at this point as the high register that she was known for in her youth. She has been singing low for 20 years or more, and it has become really intense and amazing.
She's just absolutely reigning in the clips from Newport - I'm sure that people have compared her to a queen sitting in that chair. It was clear that everyone was moved: the country singer Wynonna Judd was crying behind her. I recognise that feeling, especially with Both Sides Now, when some time has passed and you've seen things from different sides. It was overwhelming and shockingly pertinent.
I met Joni about ten years ago, several years before her aneurysm, with Rufus and his husband, Jörn. I was afraid to go at first, because I thought that she would be difficult, but she was nicer than I thought. We went to a restaurant in Los Angeles for three hours and she held court. We just listened to her and we all went out and smoked a cigarette every ten minutes. What did she talk about? Songwriting, and whatever the heck she wanted to talk about. She was on incredibly good form. She looked like a lion - her hair was pinned up, her face was tanned, her voice was strong and she just kind of flowed.
I admitted to having covered a couple of Joni's songs on stage, including Big Yellow Taxi. I have a tendency when I cover songs to change them slightly, and she said that she hated it when people did that. When someone was going to cover her song, she wanted it to be done to the letter. I don't think she was angry with me, she was just letting me know how she felt. For her, her musical choices were the perfect ones to make, and ones that she had worked very hard on. I don't know if that changed my approach, but it definitely made me be aware not to f*** with people's songs for the sake of f***ing with them.
As well as singing Both Sides Now at Newport, Joni did Carey, Come in from the Cold, A Case of You, Big Yellow Taxi and The Circle Game, so it sounds as if she chose the ones that people wanted to hear the most. Maybe that's indicative of how she is softening in her old age. In her career, she has often fought to push the boundaries and make records that not everybody loves, but it is very telling that in Newport she gave the audience what they wanted.
I wouldn't be surprised if we see her perform live again. She seems well enough, she looks as if she could do it again and she will probably be energised by the experience. Newport is a place where boundaries are pushed and where people do famous concerts, so it's very appropriate. I would love to see her play again and to be in her presence. It's a wonderful thing she has done.
As told to Ed Potton
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Added to Library on July 29, 2022. (1926)
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