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Joni Mitchell is not only a musical legend, she is a force of resilience, creativity and positive change. Ever since she was almost paralyzed at 9 years old, she’s been teaching the world how to turn struggle into joy!
Carianne Brinkman is the manager of the band Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, a film producer, and the President of the Blackheart record label. In this episode, Carianne tells us all about her connection to her musical heroes, Joan Jett and Joni Mitchell!
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Mary Bergstrom and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Carianne Brinkman. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!
It was standing room only near the front of the stage. Even the sailboats that polka dotted the harbor seemed to lean in to get a good look. Amidst the smell of sweat and sunblock, rumors circulated. It was July of 2022 and on this, the final day of the iconic Newport Folk Festival, a surprise guest was scheduled to make an appearance.
Who could it be??
As the afternoon sun beat down, a woman dressed in a billowy silk outfit and big sunglasses made her way to the center of the stage. Her signature blond hair was in two long pigtails and her blue beret tipped to one side as she smiled out at the crowd. She settled into a large pink chair, looking like a queen about to address her people. No one could believe their eyes. Sitting before them was the Joni Mitchell!
It felt like a miracle, especially after all that Joni had been through. There was a time when no one knew if she’d be able to walk or talk again. But here she was! Her songs have shaped so much of the music that’s made today. And now, at 78 years old, decades after she last performed at this very festival, Joni was here to sing live again!
I’m Carianne Brinkman. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us. On this episode, one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, Joni Mitchell.
It felt like a miracle, especially after all that Joni had been through. There was a time when no one knew if she’d be able to walk or talk again. But here she was!
Behind her, the band started playing. The audience watched in awe as Joni began to sing. Her voice was different now – deep and rich. There was no denying the impact of her presence on that stage. The audience sang along with tears in their eyes, as awe and admiration swelled through the crowd.
Joni meant so much to these people. And not just because of her music. She’d come to represent fierce resilience. No matter what life threw at her, Joni found a way to make her art and it inspired everyone around her.
In fact, it had been this way her entire life…..
Born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943 in Alberta, Canada, Joni was the only child of a grocer and a school teacher. Growing up in a quiet prairie town, Joni learned to observe details and appreciate nature’s many rhythms.
When Joni was 9, her family made the move to the city of Saskatoon. Not long after they settled, disaster struck.
Joni was diagnosed with Polio. Back then, Polio was a serious disease that could paralyze people. Joni was sent immediately to a hospital!
There, one day turned into many months. The polio was in her spine, so she wasn’t able to walk. Joni did a lot of physical therapy with her doctors, trying to rebuild her strength and get her limbs to move. It was painful and exhausting, but Joni did her best to stay hopeful.
One day in the hospital, Joni started to sing. As the words flowed out of her, she felt as if her body was coming back to life. She let her voice discover new melodies, and the more she sang, the stronger she felt. After months of rehabilitation and music-making, Joni was well enough to go home!
When she returned home from the hospital on a cold winter day, Joni looked up at her twinkling Christmas tree. She knew she’d never be the same again — and she didn’t want to be.
Joni enrolled in art school after high school. She had loved painting all her life, and planned to pursue it professionally. But as Joni began playing folk songs around town, she soon realized she wanted to leave art school and become a folk singer full time.
A beloved teacher had once told her, “If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words.” She was about to begin a lifetime of doing just that.
The places she performed were often dim and crowded, but Joni’s bright smile caught the spotlight. She filled up the audience, and people swayed and swooned to her music.
Joni headed south to the United States, where the hippie movement was catching on. The Vietnam War had young people feeling frustrated and eager for change. Instead of war, Joni’s generation wanted to make peace and love. It was an incredible time to be making art. Everything was changing, from styles of music to the way people dressed. With her flowing blonde hair parted in the middle and her cotton dresses skimming the ground, Joni fit right in.
Joni had written a lot of songs for other artists, but with the help of a friend who was also a musician, she released the first album of her own and her career began to take off.
She found a little cottage in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, a place where many musicians and artists lived. At night, it was so quiet that all she could hear was the sound of cats and mockingbirds. Until all her musician friends poured in, that is. Perched on the couch or lounging near the fireplace, they sang and played music together for hours. Strumming her guitar, Joni sounded out new ideas about how she saw the world. Her friends added on and sang their own tunes as well. Music became a way to have a conversation. It was so much fun!
1969 was a huge year for music in the U.S. In upstate New York, there was a three-day music festival called Woodstock that everyone was talking about. Thirty-two musicians played in front of 400,000 people! Joni really wanted to be a part of it too, but she had to make a TV appearance on the other side of the country!
She refused to get stuck in her frustration about missing out on the festival. Instead, she wrote a song about what she imagined it was like there. She named the song “Woodstock” and it became a hit.
People all over the world loved her honest lyrics and soothing voice. And she found ways to combine her artwork and music throughout her career. Many of her album covers were designed and painted by Joni herself.
Joni shared so much of herself, giving words to feelings like no other had done before her. She once explained, “I had absolutely no secrets from the world.”
Joni was at the peak of her music career when she decided to try an entirely new kind of sound – jazz. In the mid 1970’s, Joni experimented with all kinds of rhythms and instruments, sending her songs in exciting directions.
Lots of people who loved her did not love her jazz. They wanted her to stick to folk.
But Joni wasn’t creating music to be popular. She had never strayed from her own vision of what her art and music should be. And she wasn’t afraid to fail.
Joni said, “If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing, but staying the same is boring. So, of the two options I’d rather be crucified for changing.”
The funny thing is that opinions change over time. Joni’s old fans eventually came around to liking her jazz music, and a lot of new fans did, too! Most of all, people respected her for listening to the rhythms in her heart and forging her own artistic path.
In 2015, when Joni was seventy-one years old, she suffered a brain aneurysm. Sitting with a guitar on her lap not remembering how to play, she must have worried that her music was gone for good. But it wasn’t. She started watching guitar tutorials online, and she invited friends back to her living room to play. Note by note; breath by breath, she put her songs back together again. Joni never gave up on herself or her art. She did what she always does — and found joy through life’s challenges.
Joni never stopped evolving her sound and herself. She is so influential, that she has shaped how musicians from all over the globe write lyrics and music.
When she walked onto that folk festival stage in 2022, she glowed with strength and possibility; her presence shimmering in the air. Her voice was different now – deep and rich. The audience sang along with tears in their eyes, as awe and admiration swelled through the crowd.
Joni’s impact is bigger than her songs. Her ability to spin life’s challenges into honest, beautiful words is a lesson in perseverance.
In that moment, Joni Mitchell unleashed her voice, and once again showed the world the incredible power within us all.