Joni Mitchell is getting the all-star-salute treatment in L.A. this week with two sold-out nights billed as “JONI 75: A Birthday Celebration Live at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.” There are no lightweights in the lineup; everyone in the cast has earned a place at the table, from contemporaries like James Taylor and Graham Nash to next-generation artists like Rufus Wainwright and Norah Jones. But probably no one on the bill has spent as much of 2018 making public reference to Mitchell as Brandi Carlile, whose “By the Way, I Forgive You” is easily one of the year’s best albums, and who hasn’t been shy about saying that she lived on a steady diet of Mitchell in the run-up to making the record.
Variety got on the phone with Carlile to ask just how Mitchell impacted her songwriting — and to discuss what traps await any of the singers imagining they can easily make their way through the beautiful minefields that are Mitchell songs.
VARIETY: Were you a lifelong fan, or did you get into Joni much later in life?
CARLILE: Well, I was introduced to Joni Mitchell by T Bone Burnett when I was making my album “The Story,” and I have one of those moments in my life I wish I could go back and do again, because it didn’t land right at the time. He played me a couple of tracks from “Blue,” and I think I was just so young and geared towards a tougher, grittier, angst-ier type of artist that it didn’t initially get ahold of me. And then when I had lived a little bit more life and gained a little more wisdom, I met my wife, who’s from London, and she played “Blue” for me and said, “Now, you need to sit down and understand this.” And that’s when it really got ahold of me. It totally redefined me as a songwriter. I was actually never the same after that.
What impacted your writing so much?
Well, as I kind of graduated from “Blue” into “For the Roses” and “Court and Spark,” my songwriting became a lot more freeform. I started to feel a lot less adherence to a template of any kind musically, particularly in things like the bassline, or to the lyrics needing to always contain the right amount of syllables for the melody. Everything I was saying became more important than how it was said.
You have been known to cite a quote of Mitchell’s that goes, “If you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, now you’re getting something out of it.” There is a way in which that makes sense, but at the same time, we’re all curious about what we hear about her in her songs, just as we are about you and yours. What about that struck a chord with you?
That particular quote really resonated with me, and that was a big change moment in my songwriting. It wasn’t like it made me feel like I needed to be intentionally more ambiguous or more relatable. It wasn’t simple like that. But there is humility in the concept of shared humanity. Knowing that you’re not the only person whose heart’s ever been broken, that you’re not the only person that’s afraid in the world right now, is comforting and, I think, necessary in music. I think it might actually be fundamentally what we look to music for. So when I write a song about something specific that’s happened to me now, I’ll use specific words and terms like “I am the mother of Evangeline” [in her recent song “The Mother”]. You know, not everybody has a daughter called Evangeline, and not everybody’s a mother, even. But a lot of different people — men, women, gay, straight, daughters, mothers — have all seen themselves in that song, and that made me feel like I had done my job as an artist. But I didn’t evade specificity. I was specific… “A Case of You” is like that. Nobody listens to “A Case of You” and goes, “Oh my God! I’ma painter, too!” [Laughs.] Nobody feels that way. But they know what it means to be at risk of loving and not being loved back, and feeling like your love for a person is insatiable.
And you felt that most about “A Case of You,” specifically?
Oh, I felt that way about “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” I felt that way about “Blue,” I felt that way about “Woodstock.” I felt that way about “Other People’s Parties,” and about “Down to You.” And “River.”
“River” was a song you covered a lot over the years before you ever did “A Case of You.” It’s funny how that song was a semi-obscure deep album track but at some point became everyone’s go-to dark holiday perennial.
It’s interesting because it influenced me to write a holiday perennial from the perspective of the fact that Christmas is not a joyful time for everyone. That season and that holiday brings a lot of people a lot of pain, and I think that we look to those kind of heartbreak songs during that time because it’s really important to represent, or to be represented, if that holiday brings back hard memories, or if you have lost someone that you think about in a concentrated way during that time. So “River” was the first time I gained perspective on how other people might look at that season.
Which was the Christmas song you were inspired to write by “River”?
A couple of ‘em, actually: “Christmas 1984” and “The Heartache Can Wait.” “Christmas 1984” is about materialism and being poor around Christmas time. And “The Heartache Can Wait” is about knowing that something is going to end, whether it’s a life or a marriage or some kind of relationship, and knowing that you have to wait — believing that you should wait — until the end of the season, because the season is supposed to be joyful.
We heard you sing “A Case of You” recently at your show at the Greek. Is that a standard feature of your set now, or do you just pull it out on occasion?
It’s so funny, because I started to get brave about it, because I got a vocal teacher. And I didn’t think I could ever cover anything off “Blue” and do it any justice, until I started training. And then I got to a point where I was like, all right, if I can sing “A Case of You,” then I’m learning something. So I started covering it just to be brave vocally. And on nights that I feel particularly good, I break it out and sing it. But unless I feel 125 percent, I don’t even mess with it.
Which song will you be doing at the Music Center tribute?
I’m going to do “Down to You” from “Court and Spark,” and I’m also going to sing with Kris Kristofferson on “A Case of You.”
Is there anybody at the show that you’re especially excited to hear and see do Joni?
I’m excited to hear Kris, obviously, and Emmylou (Harris), and I love Rufus Wainwright, and James Taylor, obviously. I think they did an amazing job putting together the group of folks for the tribute. There’s not one person on that that I’m not super excited to see.
It’ll be interesting to hear that many artists take on Joni Mitchell in one evening, because she’s not the most cover-able artist in the world.
The tunings are challenging and the expanse of lyrics is not something you can just pull out at a hootenanny. So how difficult are Joni’s songs to cover?
As far as the cover-ability of Joni’s songs, it’s incredibly difficult, especially when it comes to things like time signatures. With “River,” every time I cover it, I have to re-learn it, let’s put it that way. Because I am unaware of where to land in the timing, and obviously Joni always knew what she was going to do… The same thing with “A Case of You.” The timing isn’t really written out in stone, especially if you want to play it on a different instrument than the one that she played it on. Nothing is a no-brainer when you’re covering Joni Mitchell. The length of the verses is always different than the verse prior to it. A chorus doesn’t always feel like the chorus. She never sings the same melody the same time twice. So when you get to the chorus on “A Case of You,” it’s different variations of notes every time. There’s no painting by numbers, really.
People don’t always think of her this way, but as anyone who’s ever interviewed her or paid any attention to her interviews knows, even if they haven’t picked it up from a surface listen to the early records, she’s kind of the original tough chick in rock.
That’s the thing. She is kind of the original tough chick in rock and roll. And that’s why I didn’t get her in 2003 when T Bone Burnett played me “Blue” for the first time, because I didn’t hear her that way. Like, I didn’t hear wisdom as tough yet. I only heard angst and protest as tough. And then when I got older and I started to reflect on what wisdom actually sounds like, that’s when I realized she is the original tough chick, and she didn’t have to have a masculine voice or be cursing in her music or covered in tattoos for me to recognize that at that point. And so my perspective on what tough was started to change drastically because of rediscovering Joni Mitchell. I mean, you want to talk about tough, “Little Green” is one of the toughest statements that I’ve ever read or listened to written into music.
We shouldn’t let you go without asking about your fandom for another great but very different vocalist, Roy Orbison. You’ve done his songs over the years, too, but now you’re known as a Roy super-fan because of the scene in “A Star Is Born” where you’re saluting him at the faux Grammys.
I’m a massive Roy Orbison fan, and I had just sung that song with Chris Isaak at a tribute to Roy when he was inducted into the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. I met his family — all his boys, they’re called. And I’ve just had such a reverence for Roy Orbison actually since my youth. I was always struck by the honesty in his voice, and also just the ability. That floor-to-ceiling thing that he cultivated is something that I butter my bread with every single day. My ability to start on the floor and end the song on the ceiling — that all comes from Roy.