Joni Mitchell watched online videos to relearn guitar after brain aneurysm

Joni Mitchell performing live
(Image credit: Newport Folk Festival/YouTube)

Last weekend, Joni Mitchell took part in a surprise “Joni Jam” at the Newport Folk Festival – a 13-song set that marked the legendary songwriter’s first public performance since she suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, and her first full set since 2002.

Mitchell spent most of her time singing while seated, but took to her feet and picked up a super-lightweight Parker Fly electric guitar for a rendition of her 1974 track Just Like This Train. That was no small feat for Mitchell, whose aneurysm robbed her of the ability to play the instrument.

Speaking to CBS Mornings, Mitchell opened up about her journey to relearn the guitar, saying she watched videos online to “see where I put my fingers”.

When asked about how she taught herself to play again, Mitchell responded, “I’m learning. I’m looking at videos that are on the net to see where I put my fingers. It’s amazing what an aneurysm knocks out… how to get out of a chair, you don’t know how to get out of bed.

“You have to learn all these things again,” she continued. “I was into water ballet as a kid, and I forgot how to do the breaststroke. You’re going back to infancy almost, you have to relearn everything.”

It’s amazing what an aneurysm knocks out… You’re going back to infancy almost, you have to relearn everything

Joni Mitchell

Mitchell’s return to the Newport Folk Festival – an event she first played as a 23-year-old in 1967 – was something that her close friend and fellow songwriter Brandi Carlile always knew would happen. 

Joining Mitchell for the interview, Carlile said she had been dreaming of her friend’s return ever since her recovery. “The first time she opened her mouth and sang Summertime, I saw Herbie Hancock burst into tears and everybody in the room catch their breath – because she had decided to sing – I knew she’d do it at Newport.

“I can’t really say how I knew it,” she continued. “I just pictured her out there, I pictured the water and the boats.”

During the festival, while Mitchell got comfortable with her guitar, Carlile told the crowd, “Joni’s going to get situated for a second. She’s spent some time working on something just for you here at the Newport Folk Festival that she hasn’t done since her aneurysm. She’s doing something very, very brave right now for you guys.”

You can watch that performance in the video above.

Mitchell's appearance wasn't the only surprise at this year's Newport Folk Festival. Elsewhere at the Rhode Island event, Paul Simon came out of retirement to take part in a surprise set, performing some of his biggest hits, including The Boxer, Sound of Silence and Graceland.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.