The vibe surrounding Joni Mitchell being bestowed with the Gershwin Prize in Washington, D.C. earlier this month - as seen in a new PBS special - couldn't have been more harmonious, from all accounts. And that's a good thing, because under less loving circumstances, there could have been a turf war over who would get to sing "Both Sides Now," the song that was Mitchell's first hit in 1967 and might still stand as her signature song, if someone had to pick one with a gun to their head.
The victor, in this quiet, bloodless battle: the inimitable Annie Lennox, who performed at the tribute to Mitchell just months after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Eurythmics.
The way executive producer Ken Ehrlich tells it, it might not even have been that close a call. "I've always been taken by her," says the longtime former producer of the Grammys, who had her on that show on numerous occasions. "I can tell you this now because I don't think people will get pissed off at me," Ehrlich says. "Everybody wanted to do 'Both Sides' - everybody. I don't want to go name by name, but the truth of the matter is, everybody wanted to do it. And I held it - and I wasn't in the beginning, honestly, even sure that I was going to give it to Annie. But she called and she had done some sort of a breakdown of it, and as soon as I got that, I knew that was it."
He continues, "When this song goes into the recesses of my mind and it gets dragged back out at some point, I know I will be referencing it not just as a performance but almost like performance art. Cyndi Lauper's 'Blue' is like that, and Brandi (Carlile) and Lucius' 'Shine' - in the editing room it struck me that there are four or five like that on the show. Every bit of what Annie did, every movement, was drama."
Variety spoke with Lennox about her love for Mitchell, what knocked her out among the performances, and why she added a bit of "Why" at the end of her own. (Following Friday night's TV premiere, the Gershwin Prize special is available for streaming on PBS.org and on the PBS app.)
In performing "Both Sides Now" for this tribute and telecast, did you have to rehearse the song a lot, or did it come somewhat naturally to you from all the years of listening?
It's both, actually. I did a lot of preparation, because it's a funny thing when you're singing someone else's song, and someone whose work and artistry you've just simply adored for such a long time. You have to make it yours, and the only way to do that is to kind of imbibe it over and over and over. So I did a lot of practicing and a lot of thinking about it every day for a long time. Joni's songs, to really learn them, you have to dig deep.
The Gershwin Prize looks to the influence that the artist that they're honoring has had. And when you think about Joni Mitchell's influence, it runs so far and so deep, and I think it's really pretty untouchable. I don't think there's any other female artist - or even male artist, let's face it; let's take gender out of it - that has had such a body of work that is so profound, so exquisite, so poetic, so lyrical, so evocative, philosophical, painful, melodic. There's just so many aspects to it, and there's no end to it. The deeper in you go, the more there is to discover.
"Both Sides Now" is a song that was written very youthfully, but also had this sort of prescience about how someone might feel later in life. She remade it herself on record, decades after it first came out in the '60s, with a very different feeling. Did you think, as you interpreted it, about how the song differs coming from a person with some experience versus the tender age she was - just 23 - when she wrote it?
Yes, absolutely. The span of a lifetime means so many experiences, and hopefully there might be some maturation or different sensibility from that. When she was so young, in that early stage, her voice was so fresh. There was a kind of purity in it, and that comes from that kind of wide-eyed, doe-y innocence that she had. Yet Joni was always very clued in. She was just so bright that nothing escaped her. But, definitely, there is that thing about a lifetime and hopefully some kind of wisdom or hindsight that could be drawn into it somehow. That's the thing about that song: I think everybody can identify with it. It's the human experience, the positive and the negative, the ups and the downs and the darkness and the light, all of that.
At the end of the song, in the "Gershwin Prize" special, I noticed you were ad-libbing a little bit. The last line you sang is not part of Joni's original lyric.
Yeah. "Do you know how I feel?" That's the last line of "Why," the song I wrote [the biggest hit from Lennox's post-Eurythmics solo career]. It came to me. I was ad libbing. I was very intent on being in a zone, not just singing a song, but entering into the song. So I came to the end, and I had no intention of singing it. That was not something that I predicted I was gonna do, but it just came out of my mouth [laughs], which can happen sometimes. In retrospect, I don't know if it's appropriate or not, but that's what happened.
But I think what it was is that, if it hadn't been for Joni, and I'm being really serious, I really feel that if Joni didn't exist, if there were had been no Joni - and I feel like this about all the musicians and the songwriters that I've loved - if they hadn't existed, our lives would be very, very different. Our internal worlds would be different. Music is a very, very extraordinary thing. It's life-affirming, it's life-changing. So I think that line came to me because, in a way, if I add it on at the end, it's honoring her. Because if I hadn't known her as a songwriter, I don't know whether I would've become a songwriter. I'm adding that on just to say: Part of you is part of me. Part of me is you, if that makes sense.
Is there anything that can be encapsulated about what makes her brilliant?
I just feel so genuinely grateful that Joni is so brilliant and is so exceptional and has done these pieces of work that are visual and take you on these journeys. She is a storyteller, of note, and you think about the observational skills that she has about what is happening in the environment around her, and at the same time, that merging of observation about what's happening on the inside as well. So you get the merging of two landscapes, really - you go in and out between the two.
Brandi Carlile is another one. Brandi years ago met up with Joni and has been a huge part of her reemergence into the world, and Joni getting this applauses and she's being acknowledged in the right way now. And it's so appropriate because to me, the weight of Joni's work, it's like Walt Whitman or something.
Do you have any memories of the night of the Gershwin Prize event that stand out? Were you able to hang around and see what other people were doing?
Ken (Ehrlich) did prepare us. He wanted us to sing "Big Yellow Taxi" (collectively). That's a really joyful thing, because sometimes singers come in and they don't get to meet each other and it's like ships passing in the night, very brief encounters. But to perform with musicians ... The one really sort of strong theme that was going through the whole thing, all the rehearsals backstage, here was just this feeling of joy, tremendous joy, and this connected feeling of loving Joni, just loving her, and how special it was for everybody to be part of this. Because this is a historic moment. This is not just any old thing. There's a significance in it. And to have Joni there, as she was - and she's coming up for her 80th birthday...
Unbeknown to us, she was gonna sing "Summertime," and she didn't want to sit down, she wanted to stand. And she just looked magnificent, absolutely magnificent, standing there singing. And then she went on to sing "Circle Game" with everybody. You can't imagine how much joy that created.
It was just beautiful. Everybody's performance is utterly heartfelt. I mean, to see Graham Nash singing "A Case of You" to Joni, everybody was in tears. I know what it takes to do these things. Cyndi Lauper singing "Blue" was so touching. Cyndi's a feisty, feisty girl - feisty woman. She's small in stature but mighty in power. So Cyndi singing "Blue" from this fragility that she has, too, was so moving just because you knew that Cyndi had immersed herself in the song, and she actually interpreted it in a way that was her fragile self, coming through Joni's song. And then Angelique Kidjo, singing "Help Me," and Angelique is from Benin, but just doing it in her way. Oh God, I mean, every single artist that performed. James Taylor: oh my God. Oh my God, Diana Krall - absolutely sublime. I think every single artist poured their heart and soul into it. It was a historic moment, really. I see it like that. In the pantheon of greatness in music, Joni reigns supreme.
You don't seem easily intimidated, but was there anything intimidating about singing with her there in the front row?
That's a good question. Um, I'm not so intimidated by her. My encounters with Joni have only ever been so warm, and I love her so much. I just wanted to do my very best - and to work not to be intimidated, if you see what I mean. Not to be intimidated, because as she says in the song, "You're in my blood like holy wine; you taste so bitter and so sweet." She's in my blood.
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