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Inside Joni Mitchell’s little-known New York City history Print-ready version

by Holly George-Warren
New York Post
June 15, 2024

A new biography of legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell's formative years in New York City has just been released. Getty Images

"What you are about to read is not a standard account of the life and work of Joni Mitchell," writes longtime music critic Ann Powers in the introduction to her new book, "Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell" (Dey Street Books), out on Tuesday. "Instead, it's a tale of long journeying through a life that changed popular music: of a homesick wanderer forging ahead on a route of her own invention, and of me on her trail, heading toward the ringing of her voice."

Mitchell's renegade spirit animates Powers' innovative biography, in which she intertwines her own story with that of the iconic 80-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, whose work includes such beloved songs as "Both Sides Now" and "The Circle Game" - along with landmark albums such as "Blue," "Court and Spark" and "Hejira."

The Canadian-born artist who began her career as a folksinger in Toronto helped launch the confessional singer-songwriter movement in the '70s.

Powers seemingly bleeds on the page as she describes her process trying to unravel the complexities of Mitchell and her ever-evolving vast body of work.

"She is a titan and a monument," Powers says of her subject, on which she spent the last seven years researching. "She's very prickly and complicated to write about. I wanted to get her unstuck from her own legend in a sense and contextualize Joni's work and life within historical moments and phases of her development as an artist."

Though some, like singer Judy Collins, think of Mitchell as the "Queen of Laurel Canyon," Mitchell, in fact, found her footing in 1967 in New York, where she met Collins, whose covers of her songs brought early acclaim.

"Joni was so inspired by the buzz and excitement of New York," Powers said to the Post from her Nashville home. "It's where she learned to build characters and scenes and write songs that weren't about emotions and predicaments."

In tracks like "Chelsea Morning" and "Tin Angel," Mitchell was "catching the buzz of the city," says Powers. "New York opened up rhythm for her. She heard it in the pulse of the city. You hear that in her music."

And it was in a New York City hotel room in August 1969 that Mitchell wrote what would become the anthem of the legendary Woodstock festival taking place in upstate New York. Booked to appear on "The Dick Cavett Show, she was talked into sitting out the three-day gathering, so instead she watched TV news coverage.

Her pals Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded her visceral "Woodstock" for the closing credits of the Oscar-winning documentary on the fest.

"I think her distance is key to what makes that song so great," says Powers. "Because Joni had been left out of this experience, she had a need to mythologize it, to make it a fable. And of course, its placement in the movie cemented its central role."

Mitchell's love affair with New York resurfaced in the late 1970s when she immersed herself in the city's jazz scene, collaborating with Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, Don Alias, and Jaco Pastorius, as well as Latin musicians.

"In her jazz years, she heard so many kinds of music, even while walking down the street. In a song like 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat' the lyrics she wrote for Mingus' song, she sings about encountering street musicians and the serendipitous magic of New York."

Throughout "Traveling," Powers takes Mitchell to task for certain artistic decisions she considers missteps and, in some cases, cultural appropriation.

"As a fan and critic and chronicler, I tried to understand how to respond to aspects of her history and herself that deserve to be challenged," reports Powers, who highlights the cover of the 1977 album "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," in which Mitchell appears as a black man, complete with makeup and an Afro wig.

"I reflected on how we tend to give a lot of space to our most-loved icons. You can find similar moments in the careers of Madonna or Bob Dylan - the choices they made that deserve to be called out."

At the same time, Powers' authorial goal was to "shine a light on Joni as a technical innovator in the studio, highlighting the fact from early on she was experimenting with tape loops and synthesizers: In the 1970s she was influenced by Stevie Wonder and R&B and interested in how she could bring new sounds into her music."

As for her subject's possible reaction to her assessment: "If Joni does read the book," Powers says, "I hope she recognizes that I so respect her unquenchable creativity. I'm in awe of her will and her drive and curiosity. I hope that by offering this very wide-ranging and varied portrait of her, in which her many journeys come to light, the takeaway is of Joni's determination to never rest in one version of herself - as she changed and grew, so did her music as part of her own personal evolution. I admire that so much."

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Added to Library on June 17, 2024. (211)

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