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Travels with Joni: Renowned critic Ann Powers' takes a fresh look at Joni Mitchell in new book Print-ready version

by Eric Volmers
Calgary Herald
June 14, 2024

Ann Powers. Photo by Emily April Allen. cal

Ann Powers doesn't consider herself a biographer.

It may not seem the best admission to make while on publicity rounds for her latest book, Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell.

But she seems eager to stress that the book, while covering the iconic singer-songwriter's life, is not meant to be seen as a linear biography. For one, thing, it's been done. There are plenty of books, interviews, anthologies and musicological studies about the artist. In her introduction to the book, Powers writes: "Devotees and scholars, mostly inseparable from one another, have documented her every guitar tuning, road trip and close encounter." Mitchell's private life included well-publicized relationships with Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Sam Shepard, and Larry Klein and has also been well-documented.

Besides, Powers admits she has the "heebie jeebies" about prying. Her impressive career - she is currently a music critic and correspondent for NPR but has worked for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Village Voice - has mostly centred on criticism rather than delving into celebrities' personal lives.

"That's one reason why I don't consider myself a, quote unquote, good biographer," Powers says. "I feel a bit uncomfortable. I also think in order to really be effective as a biographer, you have to violate your subject in a sense. It's the same reason why back in the '90s when I was working in New York and worked for places like The New York Times, I always preferred criticism to writing profiles. It felt like a very artificial situation to write a profile. I enjoy talking about ideas with artists, I just don't care about their personal life."

Still, by necessity, Powers became more of a biographer during the writing process of Traveling. While Mitchell's artistry is certainly fertile ground for discussion, it is also hard to separate from the details of her life and loves.

"With an artist like Joni Mitchell, she is writing very personal songs but has also lived this very public life that in itself is exemplary and is its own story and is kind of a work of art," Powers says. "You have to explore who the characters are. As it happens, she almost exclusively has partnered with other musicians and not only that but musicians she was working with. So how can you talk about Blue and not talk about James Taylor? Not because he's the subject of the songs but because he is on the record."

Traveling has biographical tidbits, with Powers tracing Mitchell's early life and evolution as an artist. That includes her early days in the Calgary folk scene, where she would play coffee houses while a student at Alberta College of Art and Design before heading to Toronto and later Los Angeles. She does touch on personal matters, including Mitchell's health problems such as a devastating 2015 aneurysm and drama involving her decision in 1965 to give up a child for adoption, something that didn't go public until the two met in 1997.

But Powers dedicates more time to unravelling the work itself, from classic albums to more obscure material from the 1980s and 1990s that she thinks is under-appreciated. She also interviews several of Mitchell's peers and a few of her lovers, including Crosby, Klein, Graham Nash and Taylor.

"Some people like Crosby or Graham Nash are very, very happy to talk about Joni, you might even say dine out somewhat on the story," says Powers. "But that's fair, it's their lives as well as hers. Some people are very eager to talk about it. Others are more private. Larry Klein, who was married to Joni for a long time and arguably her most important collaborator, didn't really want to talk about their personal life at all and only when I asked him about more technical, musical questions did he really want to respond. That was fine, because I had enough information about the personal stuff and what I really needed to know, and wanted to know, from him was 'Which synthesizers did you use on this song?' 'Why did you make that production decision?' That's what I was interested in. Most people appreciate that. The gossip is out there, everybody knows it. Really understanding the music, I think, is where there is still some ground to cover."

The one person she did not interview was Joni Mitchell. This was not because Powers was turned down. She never asked.

"I've had a lot of experience interviewing artists and interviewing celebrities and I know what happens when you engage personally with a famous person," she says. "It's very easy to get sucked into their wake and kind of lose your own thread. The most talented biographers and profilers don't necessarily do that, but I felt I wanted to maintain this kind of distance and feel free to say something that she wouldn't like."

This is not to say that Traveling is overly critical. Like most discerning listeners, Powers was already a fan. But, if anything, doing a deep dive into Mitchell's life and art only increased her admiration. Still, when she was first approached about writing a book about Mitchell she was not convinced. As she writes in Traveling, Powers says she had grown tired over the years of hearing and reading not only about Mitchell's genius but also that it had never been properly acknowledged.

"As I saw it, she'd had more advantages than most. Her inestimable talent, of course, but also her prom queen looks, her close connections to powerful men ... I preferred underdogs," Powers writes.

While Powers is a feminist, she had always assumed that Mitchell's experiences with sexism in the industry had been overstated. After doing the research, she changed her mind. The book paints Mitchell as a figure who fought for her vision, particularly in the studio.

"Everyone in the music industry is affected by sexism, but I didn't think she was a particular victim of it," Powers says. "As I write in certain sections, I still think in certain cases maybe putting her at the centre of the story is a bit of an over-exaggeration. Definitely, it affected other people more than her. But I found many cases where it did affect her and I do think she suffered from a double-standard. That was something I had to adjust. I had to adjust my thinking. It's something I had to change my mind about."

In the end, Powers acknowledges Mitchell as a genius who set high standards that were rarely met by others in lyrics, guitar-playing, composition, and studio wizardry.

"I went into the book with the attitude 'Oh God, is she really that great?'" Powers says. "I came out very strongly feeling that, yes, she probably is that great. One thing that makes her so great is that the songs are so meticulously constructed. Even on the level of the lyrics, no one rivals her. I'm not the first to call Joni a genius and she herself would be happy to claim that title. But what I came around to saying was one meaning of the word genius is someone who captures the spirit of their times. One extraordinary thing about Joni Mitchell is that she managed to do that throughout several periods in North America."

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Added to Library on June 17, 2024. (198)

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