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It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan. Maybe devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning.

Hearing of Joni’s health in jeopardy earlier this week made me realize that the long-dreaded day that Joni is not in the world any longer is getting closer. It feels much like when I finally started realizing my maternal grandmother was not going to live forever: I understand it intellectually, that no one lives forever, but my heart seizes in objection nonetheless.

joni mitchell with guitarI still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, and from there I discovered altered tunings.

If not for Joni and her exotic tunings, I probably wouldn’t have become a guitarist, maybe wouldn’t have even kept going with music.

Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”

Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilities for a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.

Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums. It wasn’t only the musical aspect, of course; it was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics, which gave an intriguing glimpse into a grown woman’s love affairs, independence, politics, opinions, and struggles–not something that is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, even today.

Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe entirely; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.

As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities.

Today when I look back at those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses” (it’s too long a list)–I see how this entire musical vocabulary was internalized into my playing and my eventual songwriting. Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had.

Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant: her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then); her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture.

As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality.

Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.

Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015
Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015

Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved. Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that too often undermines authentic expression.

When I Opened For MADELEINE PEYROUX at the Aladdin Theater

It was definitely one of the highlights of my year,

The set list I scribbled on my arm before the show so I'd remember my set!
The set list I scribbled on my arm before the show so I’d remember my set!

or actually my performing life thus far, when I got to open for international singer Madeleine Peyroux at Portland’s Aladdin Theater. I found out about the show rather last minute (like, the day before).

I was having an altogether uneventful afternoon. Incidentally, I actually happened to be feeling a bit glum about how little time I had been finding for music in my life lately. I had just seen an amazing Y La Bamba show earlier that week, where Luz Elena’s performance was especially powerful. (A week later I found out that was actually their last show for a hiatus of a few years, and I’m so glad they’re back now!) Anyway, the show left me feeling inspired by music in general, but bummed about being rather musically inactive at that moment. It was a busy summer where I was commuting almost an hour to day job work and back each day, and physically and mentally exhausted. Though I found moments here and there to write songs and practice, it was tough to stay in the routine.

It was also suffocatingly humid that week, and I was sick with an annoying summer cold (the kind that is mild enough where you don’t need to stay in bed, but you feel consistently crappy no matter what you do). Everything–the weather, my life–felt like it was moving slow as molasses.

As I sat there in my car, getting ready to embark on a series of rathe tedious to-do’s that included car maintenance followed by pulling some gnarly weeds that were going to seed and threatening to take over the yard, my sickness and crankiness and the general malaise of feeling misaligned with my musical energy and the heat all got to me: I broke out in tears and just sat there in the stuffy car, crying and sniffling.

Then suddenly a text appeared. It was from Emily Overstreet of Great Wilderness and the Aladdin Theater:

“Can you open for Madeleine Peyroux tomorrow night?”

I re-swiped my tear-smudged phone, thinking I had misread the text. And then another text came through:



“I don’t know for sure yet, just need to see if we can find someone. Will let you know soon,” Emily wrote back. And then, “I feel that it will happen.” I sat there for the next few minutes, wiping my tears away, feeling gratitude, even though I didn’t know for sure if I had it. Just the possibility of having it was enough to turn my day around. A few seconds later the text confirmation came through. Screw pulling weeds and fixing the car!

I went home and figured out what I needed to do. First I called my drummer to see if he could join me, and he said honestly didn’t feel we were ready; we hadn’t been playing really at all lately, of course. But then I talked to the stage manager, who said a drummer wouldn’t be possible with the stage plot anyway:

“Her crew was very clear it needs to be a solo performer.”

So it was play alone, marginally prepared, or don’t play at all.

“Will that work for you?” he asked. I didn’t hesitate.

“YES!” What else do you say? You say yes and do it! (Too, pulling a show together solo without much rehearsal time is much easier than with a band).

I spent the rest of the day practicing; one of my long-neglected guitar strings broke (of COURSE), so I had to walk to the store to get strings. Luckily, my boss gave me half the day off–in fact, a big music fan, she told me she and another work friend would actually be there for the show that night because they already happened to have tickets.

I got to the theatre for sound check and saw why the crew wanted a solo performer; the stage was crammed with a grand piano, a drumkit, an upright bass, Madeleine’s vocal mic and guitar, and an elevated stage rise for five members of the Oregon Symphony who would be joining her.

Madeleine Peyroux.
Madeleine Peyroux.

Backstage, as the house was filling up, I felt weirdly calm but energized, that wakeful, alert type of nervous. That’s how you want to feel before a performance; not overwhelmed with nerves, but not like you’re chilling out on a Netflix binge, either. The set went well and I was told I did a great job and had a good stage presence. Who says you need to be prepared?

I mean sure, the Universe doesn’t always answer our wishes quite so promptly:

“I’m bummed because I haven’t played music enough lately.”

“Well, here’s an amazing gig out of the blue!”

But it is definitely magical when it happens.