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How Brandi Carlile, an avowed nonbeliever, learned to love Joni Mitchell

Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile will perform Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album in its entirety on Monday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Early on when triple Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile was getting to know British music industry veteran Catherine Shepherd, they hit a roadblock that looked like it might derail their budding romance: Joni Mitchell.

“One of the biggest trials and tribulations we ever faced was when I told her I didn’t like Joni Mitchell. I was met with a deafening silence that you can’t imagine,” Carlile, 38, said during a chocolate chip cookie break last week at her West Hollywood hotel the afternoon after she taped an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” with her new all-female supergroup, the Highwomen.

For the record:
2:10 PM, Oct. 14, 2019 An earlier edition of this post said Joni Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2016. It was in 2015.

“Catherine literally stopped there and then in the 1995 Jeep we were driving to the doughnut shop, with her [copy of Mitchell’s album] ‘Blue’ CD in the player, and she said, ‘I actually don’t think I know you. I don’t think we can continue dating if you can’t at least understand “Blue,”’" an album that ranked No. 30 on Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of the greatest albums of all time and which the publication said “may be the ultimate breakup album.” Among the album’s best-known tracks are “Carey,” “California,” and the song that has become a melancholy holiday standard, “River.”

Joni Mitchell
A record company promotional photo for Joni Mitchell shows the Canadian singer and songwriter in 1971 shortly before her acclaimed album “Blue” was released.
(Reprise Records)

“And I was like, ‘Well, hear me out on this: I hate the lyric, “I want to renew you. I want to shampoo you” [in the song ‘All I Want’]. I actually can’t forgive Joni for that lyric,’” Carlile said. “‘I don’t like it. It’s so heterosexual. It’s really hard for me to really sink my teeth into that. She doesn’t sound very tough.’ And Catherine says, ’You want to hear tough? You want to know what tough is? You know what ‘Little Green’ is about?’” she said in reference to Mitchell’s rumination on the daughter she placed for adoption in 1965 when she was a starving 22-year-old musician in Toronto and unprepared for motherhood.

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“She played it for me and it was great and I sat there in that Jeep and cried my eyes out,” Carlile said. “I’ve been a Joni Mitchell fanatic ever since, and deeply ashamed of my earlier aversion to Joni Mitchell. Now I’ve made up for lost time.”

So much so that come Monday, Carlile will demonstrate her deep admiration for Mitchell’s music and legacy at Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., where she’ll perform Mitchell’s 1971 album “Blue” in its entirety during a program titled “Songs Are Like Tattoos,” a line from the album’s title track.

She chose “Blue” both because it became the cement for her relationship with Shepherd, whom she married in 2012, and because she now considers it to be “the great gateway drug, to show people how revolutionary Joni’s music is.

“I want to do just two things,” said Carlile. “One, play an album for people that they can no longer hear live, without an ego attached to it. I’m not trying to reinvent that wheel. I’m going to do it exactly like it was done” on Mitchell’s album.

“The other thing is to give people fodder to meditate on the continuation of Joni’s evolution as an artist and the influence that it’s had on men and women, and on music in every genre,” she said. On Monday, Carlile will screen a video she’s assembled featuring different artists discussing Mitchell’s influence on their music.

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Carlile’s friendship with one of the most acclaimed singers and songwriters of the 20th century began last year when she took part in a 75th-birthday tribute concert at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. That show, subsequently released theatrically and on home video, featured Mitchell friends and disciples such as Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Norah Jones, Chaka Khan, Rufus Wainwright and Los Lobos.

As Carlile tells it, she sneaked onto the bill through a side door: Her band had been playing shows with, and supporting, Kristofferson, and he tapped them to perform with him at the tribute to Mitchell, his longtime friend who attended the concert."The love she had for everyone there was so evident,” Carlile said. “She’s so much more joyful and peaceful than I had even heard she was.”

While she was in L.A. last week taping “Ellen,” Carlile called Mitchell’s house in Bel-Air, expecting to speak to her assistant who usually handles incoming calls.

“Joni actually answered the phone,” she said. “She’s like, ‘Oh, hi. What are you ladies doing? How was ‘Ellen’? Do you want to come up for a glass of wine?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there in an hour and a half, because this is L.A., right?”

Mitchell has rebounded remarkably from the brain aneurysm that hospitalized her in 2015, Carlile said, although she has been seen using a cane in recent public outings, having needed to relearn how to walk. Mitchell also gave up the chain-smoking habit for which she was infamous and which progressively lowered her singing voice.

The Highwomen Perform Live On SiriusXM’s The Highway Channel At The SiriusXM Studios In New York City
Amanda Shires, left, Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby of the Highwomen perform on SiriusXM’s Highway Channel at the SiriusXM Studios in New York City back in July.
(Cindy Ord / Getty Images for SiriusXM)

“She’s been singing a bit and it’s beautiful — really beautiful,” Carlile said. “She’s been doing some jazz standards and it’s like I get to sit next to her and sing harmony. That’s incredible. It’s mind-blowing that the vibrato is still there. She’s actually risen vocally to a place I think that she probably hasn’t been in 20 years.

“She says she feels like more of a painter right now, though,” she said. “She’s just very serene, really peaceful. And not a sour word to say about anyone.”

Originally Carlile had considered saluting Mitchell at Carnegie Hall in New York.

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“I told my managers, and they were like, ‘Well, nobody’s going to make any money, but let’s do this.’ So they started looking at Carnegie Hall. Then I got those Grammy nominations,” she said, referring to her six nominations and three wins earlier this year stemming from her album “By the Way, I Forgive You” and the hit single “The Joke.”

“That put me in a place where I could play Madison Square Garden,” she said. “My managers said, ‘You can play Madison Square Garden, or you can play ‘Blue’ at Carnegie Hall,’ and I was like ‘Blue.’ I’m not even going to think about it.”

Shepherd, however, overheard Carlile’s half of the phone conversation.

“She said, ‘What if you play ‘Blue’ in L.A.? Joni might come.’”

Mitchell is, in fact, expected to attend Monday’s performance, said Carlile, adding that after finishing her renditions of the “Blue” songs, “I’m going to come out and do something that’s a surprise for Joni, and then I am going to honor her by closing the show with one of my own songs that’s influenced by her.

“Her most legendary quote, I think — and I’ll probably butcher it — but it’s along the lines of ‘If you see me in my music, I haven’t done my job; If you see yourself, I’ve done my job’,” Carlile said. “I want to show her that she’s done that.”


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