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When this acclaimed music critic sat down to write a biography of Joni Mitchell, she had immediate regret. Eight years later, here’s what she learned Print-ready version

With her book “Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell,” Ann Powers said she wanted to “do the things that were necessary to write someone else’s life,” while leaning into music criticism and personal writing.

by David McPherson
Toronto Star
June 13, 2024

Joni Mitchell, the subject of Ann Powers’ new book, performing in 1967. Al Blixt

Ann Powers doesn't give herself enough credit. Chat with the celebrated pop music critic and acclaimed author ("Good Booty") for a while and you learn that she still suffers from doubt.

This diffidence initially caused Powers trepidation when someone suggested she write a biography of Joni Mitchell. Who could blame her? Mitchell is one of the most revered songwriters of our time. Plus, several books have already documented her life and times, so how much more could be said? After reading "Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell," Powers' exhaustively researched 448-page deep dive, one discovers there is plenty.

This is not your typical biography. Instead, "Traveling" is part social commentary, part critical analysis and part extended lyrical essay - a fascinating and enlightening journey into Mitchell's life.

In "Traveling," Ann Powers has combined biography with social commentary, critical analysis and an extended lyrical essay.

The Star spoke to Powers via Zoom, from her home office in Nashville, Tenn.

Why did you initially hesitate to take on this project?

I walked into this project with great enthusiasm and then, almost immediately, I felt the desire to turn around and run. This was partly because of my doubts about my own skills. I wasn't sure if I could fulfil the role of a traditional biographer.

I cringe when it comes to prying into people's lives. If I was going to write this book, I had to figure out how I could serve the form of biography and do the things that were necessary to write someone else's life, while also honouring my skills and leaning into what I love to do best: more criticism and personal writing. What I came up with was a combination of all of those things.

How do you even begin to approach a subject as lionized as Joni Mitchell?

It wasn't easy. She generates a strong aura and her fans reinforce that aura and make it more of a protective shell - this idea that she needs to be protected or always needs to be uplifted. This is true, but as I got more into the project, I discovered it is also counter to how she lived. Even though she was never hesitant about voicing her awareness of how she was being treated differently as a woman from other artists, she was also not seeking special status or a separate space. Joni always took chances and put herself in uncomfortable situations.

Once I figured out that that is who she was, and really immersed myself into her life, I realized that she was a person who always wanted to try different forms and different approaches to art. Following this realization, I felt more confident about my choice to make this a different kind of biography.

The word "Traveling" really captures her as an artist and a person - all the highways, byways and sojourns she took following her muse. Where did it come from?

Book titles are funny. You might work with a title for many years and then towards the end of the project, you find yourself workshopping titles with your editor. For many years, I was not sure what the title should be. The title in my head was just the phrase "Approaching Joni Mitchell," which is not a great title, but it's what I felt I was doing. I was constantly approaching her in different ways, from different directions and never quite arriving. She was always slightly ahead of me.

That is also how I was thinking about the writing process. One day, I was just singing "All I Want" and was like, "traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling." I really wanted the title to be the four "travelings" she sings, but my editor preferred just one. I'm happy that this is still reflected though in the cover design. Anyone who is a Joni fan, or a fan of (her album) "Blue," will immediately have that song in their head.

You make so many connections throughout the book between her life and career and the broader times in which she lived.

I did feel strongly that each chapter should be equally weighted between telling the story of her life and telling the story of the world that she was remaking through her music and that was making her. I really wanted to continually place her in the context of her time because it is such a gift to be able to look at an artist whose career spans so much time.

How did you make sure this search for connections did not take you too far away from your subject?

Thank goddess I had Joni to anchor me because that is the way my brain works - I'm always leaping. I'm the queen of making associations. That is what I really enjoy about criticism: thinking about an artist's work turns on the lights in my mind. My task was to keep coming back and asking myself questions like, "Are you sure this connects with Joni?" and "Is it intrinsic to her work?" I didn't want my flights of fancy to get so extreme that I strayed too far away from her.

Why did you choose to include your own personal anecdotes?

I wanted to stand in for the reader and the fan as they were reading. I was not a lifelong stan when I started this project, so in a way the book is also the story of me identifying with her and learning how - and why - certain aspects of her music and life story moved me in intense ways and others made me feel something completely different.

In doing that, hopefully I provided another layer, which is revealing how fans also create the stars they love and their versions of these stars through that interaction. I find that process of identification fascinating.

You interviewed many of her peers, like Judy Collins and David Crosby, but you never sat down with your subject. Why?

First, I felt like it had been done. David Yaffe's book ("Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell") was a thorough biography, so that already exists. I figured if I were to sit down with Joni, what could I try to get from her that all these other great interviewers hadn't gotten? Second, as a longtime journalist and critic, I knew that once you are in direct dialogue with that artist you surrender a bit of your own voice. Finally, I knew getting that interview wasn't going to come easy. When I started writing this book it was unclear whether Joni would ever speak again, so I had to move forward. I started down this other road and that is where I stayed.

All that said, do you hope she reads your book?

I welcome her input. Obviously, I don't want her to be out there denouncing me. But if she was, I would be joining an elite group, because Joni has always been absolutely uncensored when it comes to criticizing people with whom she doesn't agree with about her life and her work. I know people close to her have the book and we will just have to see what happens.

In many ways, her journey mirrors your own journey writing this book. After spending so many waking hours in her world - eight years immersed in her story - what realizations did you come away with?

Plenty. When I started the project I was a casual fan. This is something I hope comes across in the book. It's also the story of me learning her life and all these different time periods. A great example is the jazz-fusion chapter. I had a surface knowledge of that genre, but I really didn't know that much about this period of Joni's career. I fell so deep into that rabbit hole.

Initially this chapter was 27,000 words and had to be cut way down. Sometimes I think, "I wish my 5,000-word passage on Latin music and Brazilian music could have stayed in," but that is for another project!

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Added to Library on June 17, 2024. (185)

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