For Brandi Carlile, Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' Holds A Mirror To The Self : All Songs Considered Brandi Carlile has become one of Joni Mitchell's greatest interpreters. NPR Music's Ann Powers talks with the singer-songwriter about her life with Blue, conversations with James Taylor and the gift Joni gave her.

Brandi Carlile On The Radical Vulnerability Of Joni Mitchell's 'Blue'

Brandi Carlile On The Radical Vulnerability Of Joni Mitchell's 'Blue'

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At Joni Mitchell's 75th birthday celebration in 2019, where Brandi Carlile performed two songs. Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

At Joni Mitchell's 75th birthday celebration in 2019, where Brandi Carlile performed two songs.

Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

On this edition of All Songs Considered, NPR Music's Ann Powers hosts a conversation with Brandi Carlile about Joni Mitchell's Blue for the album's 50th anniversary. Listen the podcast above, read Ann Powers' essay.


When two Joni Mitchell admirers gather, big feelings inevitably show up, too – gushing enthusiasm for the woman many consider the greatest living singer-songwriter; earnest opinion about what her lyrics mean and how her music works; and a cavalcade of memories, some quite personal, about living in/through/around/inspired by Mitchell's art. Brandi Carlile and I met up for a Listening Party via YouTube on June 22 – the 50th anniversary of Blue's release – and things got both deep and hilarious.

Brandi and I both became Joni believers (Jonians? Jonilytes? Jonatics?) later than we should have – me, while working on a forthcoming book about her music and its many meanings; Brandi, through her wife, Catherine Shepherd, who insisted that, after decades of resistance, she immerse in Mitchell's acknowledged masterwork, Blue. When they were first dating, Brandi told Catherine that she thought Mitchell was too soft, too "girly."

"She sat me down and refused to talk to me," Brandi says. "We listened to the whole [album] in silence. She wanted me to sit with it. And in that moment... I realized I needed to reconsider what 'tough' is."

Brandi's devoted fans know this story. She tells it beautifully in her best-selling memoir, Broken Horses, and she shared it onstage at LA's Disney Hall in the fall of 2019, when she performed Blue in its entirety for a VIP audience that included Mitchell herself. Taking on a monumental work like Blue is no easy task; Brandi was meticulous, studying every note and vocal nuance until they became second nature.

"I thought about Blue and what it was to me and to so many people," she says during our conversation. "It's like holding up a mirror in front of themselves and coming to terms with themselves, and I thought, 'Man, maybe I could just do this as a gift. Just learn Blue and not try to reinvent the wheel,' and obviously not be Joni either because that's not physically possible, but get as close as I could." Through this process, Brandi became one of Mitchell's greatest interpreters, and learned many lessons she's brought back to her own songwriting.

Immersing in Blue with someone who knows the album so well is a privilege and a challenge. We talked about Brandi's life with the album, her conversations with James Taylor and recent jam sessions at Joni's house with Elton John and other luminaries – and the time she's been spending with Joni herself, writing liner notes for an upcoming archival project that will include songs from Blue. And Brandi revealed what Joni gave her for her 40th birthday. Hint: it's bigger than a dulcimer.