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Joni Mitchell tribute artist celebrates music icon's legacy

Sarasota musician Joni Adno had long been passionate about the work of Joni Mitchell before founding a tribute band in 2021.

Joni Adno performs at Fogartyville.
Joni Adno performs at Fogartyville.
Courtesy image
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Although it's just a coincidence that she shares a first name with the famous singer-songwriter, Joni Adno has long been passionate about the work of Joni Mitchell.

Adno discovered Mitchell in the 1970s, as a young girl growing up in the San Marco neighborhood in Jacksonville and never forgot the impact the music left on her life. 

Throughout the next decades, which she spent as an elementary music teacher in various locations including Philippi Shores Elementary in Sarasota from 2001-2002, a store owner, a real estate agent and, beginning in 2005, a professional musician, she had a project firmly in mind. 

In 2021, it finally came to fruition when she founded The Joni Project. In 2022, the band rebranded as Project:JONI. The band features Joe Bruno on bass, Bob Miner on saxophone, Paul Cartwright on drums, Andrew Chalaire on lead guitar and Adno on vocals, guitar and piano.

Mitchell, 80, is considered one of the most influential artists to emerge from the 1960s folk music scene. The Canadian American musician has received 11 Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

But how does one go about paying tribute to an icon?

What inspired you to create Project:JONI?

Joni Mitchell inspired me, obviously. 

I didn't find her until probably 1975. She came out with "Court and Spark," and that was the first album. I was driving, and I heard “Help Me,” and I got the album and just immediately fell in love.

I was probably 18-ish. Being a young person, it’s not easy. It's not easy today, but it wasn't even easy back then either.

She emotionally helped me as a young woman finding my place in the world, because the way she wrote just spoke to me, and I know it speaks to a lot of other people too. 

She has such a poignant way of putting things. She doesn’t just say, “I love you,” or “I’m sad.” Instead of saying “I’m sad,” she’ll say “I wish I had a river I could skate away on. I wish I had a river so long, I’d teach my feet to fly.”

How long had you been considering the idea of a tribute band?

It’s been something I wanted to do since I was 20. 

I guess the first song I learned was “A Case of You,” and I just fell in love with her way of songwriting. 

You're named after a singer but not Joni Mitchell?

My father was a drummer and vocalist, and so he loved jazz and the Great American Songbook.

When I was born, I was the third girl, and I was supposed to be a boy, and he wanted me to have his initials. I was going to be JPK (after John Pyram King).

Joe Bruno, Paul Cartwright, Joni Adno and Bob Miner perform at Fogartyville.
Courtesy image

Obviously I couldn’t be John, so he named me Joni after Joni James, who was a singer at the time, in the 1950s. And for my middle name, I needed a "P." So he named me after (actress and singer) Pearl Bailey, so my middle name is Pearl. 

So, I’m named after two singers, but not Joni Mitchell. 

How daunting was it to take on a project representing the work of such a well-loved artist?

Because I've been working on it my whole life and I know her music, it wasn't daunting for me to take on the project, but during our first gig at Fogartyville, I was terrified.

When you’re terrified and you're singing, it's not the best. We’re sounding a lot better these days, because we’re all getting more comfortable with the material. 

Thank goodness we have recordings; you can record and listen to yourself. I have been to shows before where people would do a Joni Mitchell song, and I'd be like, “Wow, I can do that better.” I never didn't have faith that I could do it. 

I don't try to reproduce her sound. I do it with my own personality and my own twist. But I do stay true to the structure, the music and the chordal progressions. I don't change the songs.

How do you manage the alternate guitar tunings of Mitchell’s work?
Seven of Joni Adno's eight guitars
Photo by Ian Swaby

You have to either keep tuning the guitar, which breaks the strings, or have a lot of guitars, so in my show, I use eight guitars. 

I’ve just collected them over the years. I have two long neck Ovations. The bottom note of a regular guitar tuning is E, and I have a couple of guitars that I have to tune down to a B, and so having the long neck allows a longer string which allows for the deeper tonations of the lower notes.

Some of the songs are in the same tuning, so it’s like, “I can use this guitar for four songs, I can use this guitar for one song."

Because I'm playing in tunings, I'm learning off of something called tablature. A lot of times, I'm just learning the tablature and I don't even know what chords I’m playing, so I can't tell my band.

My band might be a little frustrated sometimes with learning the song, but once you learn the song, it's not difficult to play.

How did you assemble a band that could pay a fitting tribute?

I found guys that they didn't know a lot of her music at the time, but they loved her and they were so committed to learning, so I was super fortunate in finding the band members that I have.

It's really hard to find good musicians who actually can play the music, because they're always busy with gigs. That's why this band is really special, because all of our musicians are playing other gigs, but they take the time to be a part of this. 

What has the response from audiences been?

They are so great. My audiences are really appreciative because Joni Mitchell has not performed a whole lot. The audience is very responsive and what I love best is that they sing along. Everybody knows the words. 

Joni Adno, lead vocalist of Latin and R&B band Big Night Out, sings while playing the keyboard on July 7, 2023, at Music on Main.
Photo by Liz Ramos
What do you hope Project:JONI will achieve?

I would like to continue her legacy. Certainly, there's good music today, but there's no reason to forget about the past either.

I hope that more people become familiar with her music and her poetry, and give her more kudos in the latter stages of her life, so she knows how much she's loved.

What is your favorite Joni Mitchell song?

I don't have one.

"Amelia" was a song that helped me through a big heartbreak, so I love that song, but her work is all so beautiful. It's like the next one is better than the last one, so you can't really have a favorite with Joni Mitchell, I don’t think.



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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