Travelling by Ann Powers review – a dazzling life of Joni Mitchell

A sweeping study of Mitchell’s life and work that swerves familiar touchstones to create a vibrant, multi-faceted portrait

by Owen Myers
July 5, 2024

She felt like a cellophane wrapper on a packet of cigarettes. Every Joni Mitchell fan has heard this description before; it's how the mercurial artist summed up her naked emotional state while writing her 1971 album, Blue. "It's virtually impossible to find an account of Blue from the last 50 years that doesn't include that quote," writes music critic and author Ann Powers, whose new study of Mitchell doesn't have much interest in retreading well-beaten paths. "Resist the rush you get imagining Joni's pain," Powers instructs. "Where songs start is not that important."

Travelling is a sweeping study of Mitchell's life and work that swerves familiar touchstones to create a vibrant, multifaceted portrait of a music enigma. Powers didn't interview Mitchell. "In this way, I remain a witness, not a friend," she writes. Yet there are more than two dozen interviews with the artist's associates including David Crosby, Judy Collins, recent collaborator Brandi Carlile and Mitchell's ex-husband Larry Klein. With the exception of Mitchell, the book's most memorable character might be Powers herself, writing in the first person. She is an authoritative and witty companion as Travelling ranges through Mitchell's life from Saskatoon in Canada to the hills of Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, with stopovers in the beatnik bars of Coral Gables, Florida, and the roadtrip bars captured in the 1976's album Hejira.

Mitchell is currently enjoying a renaissance after a return to the stage at Newport folk festival in 2022. "The Joni being celebrated often struck me as more monumental than the one I'd come to value," writes Powers. "All legend, less bite." So, to quote Mitchell's famous couplet, Powers' book is as much about travelling as unravelling. In the book's 10 distinct chapters, the author picks at the threads that have, over time, become braided into a neat narrative about Mitchell.

In her search for deeper truths, Powers dives into sociology, politics and the music industry, as well as the feminist movement that Mitchell chafed against. Her childhood sickness from polio is nestled within an examination of a post-Nietzschean "cult of the child" that gripped songwriters from Neil Young to Janis Ian. Mitchell's early image as the queen of Laurel Canyon is linked to her refusal of domesticity in that supposed boho idyll, where peers such as Cass Elliot were boxed in as mothers first and musicians second. At other times, Powers' love for Mitchell's songwriting leaps off the page. "Put this book down for four minutes right now, and listen to River," she instructs, noting that it serves a "cultural need" by "giving the listener permission to openly mope".Powers' exhaustive knowledge of rock, folk and jazz genres, enriches lively retellings of how Mitchell's classic albums came to life. Interviews with key players are illuminating, and even nerding out over studio gear takes on a certain romance: one Court and & Spark guitar pedal, per Mitchell, "resembled the arc of a dolphin leaping within the ocean's waves". The artist's often maligned experiment Dog Eat Dog is reframed as a sonic sibling to Don DeLillo's White Noise, an emblem of the mid-80s' "large and loud milieu of blaring headlines and televisions constantly turned on".

Meanwhile, as an adoptive mother herself, Powers sensitively explores Mitchell's relationship with the daughter she gave up, showing how the pain of parting reverberates through songs from Blue's Little Green to Wild Things Run Fast's Chinese Café. It's flatly devastating to read the latter song's lyrics in the wake of this analysis: "My child's a stranger / I bore her, but I could not raise her."

Just as important to Powers' deconstruction of Mitchell as "Joni, the unimpeachable, the treasure so many feel compelled to protect" is the sharp consideration of her blunders. You might find yourself holding your breath through Travelling's early chapters as Powers hints at a discussion of Mitchell donning blackface for the cover of her 1977 album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, a moment for which the artist has never apologised. But the chapter For Art's Sake is neither a cancellation or coup de grace, and offers sharp insight into Mitchell's deep relationship with Black music while refusing to excuse the racist image as an unfortunate artefact from a different era.

Biographical studies can calcify dynamic artists, smoothing away unsightly wrinkles as stories become etched into stone. Travelling is a subtle counter to the idea that an artist's public-facing story is a key to unlocking hidden meanings within their work - a refreshing stance in an era of personality-driven pop. With its vivid narrative hopscotch, Powers does dazzling justice to an artist "who would not be pinned down by essentials". In the best way, you would struggle to pin down Travelling itself.

Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link:

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