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Ann Powers was writing Joni Mitchell’s life story. She found her own. Print-ready version

by Stephen Humphries
Christian Science Monitor
June 10, 2024

Ann Powers, music critic for NPR, is renowned for writing about female artists such as Kate Bush and Tori Amos. Their songs have given voice to her feminist awakening. But due to a generational gap, Ms. Powers had resisted writing about another icon: Joni Mitchell. That changed when a publisher commissioned her to write a biography.

"I didn't know that I needed Joni," Ms. Powers says during a video call. "She really did set the bar and set the template for what so many others have done."

With her new biography about Joni Mitchell, NPR music critic Ann Powers says she wanted to challenge the idea that there's only one definitive story of a life.

Ms. Powers' book "Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell," available June 11, is about as conventional as her subject's alternate guitar tunings. It not only retraces the seldom-explored paths of the musician's travelogue, but also detours into Ms. Powers' own experiences. The project offered a chance to explore Ms. Mitchell's career - and rethink the form of biography.

"She's the perfect subject to make this argument that biography needs to be even more fluid," the author says. "That we need to look in surprising places for parts of the story."

Early on, Ann Powers wasn't a fan of Joni Mitchell. The music critic for NPR is renowned for writing about female artists such as Kate Bush and Tori Amos. Their songs had given voice to her feminist awakening. But due to a generational gap, Ms. Powers had resisted the iconic songwriter who once called Bob Dylan her pace runner. That all changed when a publisher commissioned her to write a biography.

"I didn't know that I needed Joni," Ms. Powers says during a video call. "She really did set the bar and set the template for what so many others have done."

Ms. Powers' book "Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell," available June 11, is about as conventional as her subject's alternate guitar tunings. It not only retraces the seldom-explored paths of the musician's travelogue, but also detours into Ms. Powers' own experiences. In a conversation with the Monitor, the author explains that music takes on additional meaning when we filter it through our own subjective perspectives. Ms. Powers' autobiographical stories illustrate the universality of Ms. Mitchell's songs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With her new biography about Joni Mitchell, NPR music critic Ann Powers says she wanted to challenge the idea that there's only one definitive story of a life.

What makes Joni Mitchell extraordinary?

It's not that often that you have the combination of this restless mind that endlessly wants to move to a new place and this hyperbrilliant sui generis talent. She is both. Oftentimes, when you look at long careers, whether they're musicians or painters or filmmakers, many great artists kind of do one thing or maybe two things very well and offer variations on that. But with Joni, there's these distinct loops within loops within loops. As I say in the book, quoting Dan Wilson the songwriter, there's just this way she moves and changes and it's never unrecognizable, but is always requiring us to go somewhere maybe we don't want to go with her.

I think another thing that's very rare about Joni Mitchell is that her musicality and her skill at writing lyrics and her physical vocal talent are all at this pinnacle. Here's someone who's the whole package.

What's your pitch for why "Traveling" isn't a run-of-the-mill biography?

I really tried to confront the edifice of biography, in a sense. Now is a great time for people experimenting with biography. You see books like "My Autobiography of Carson McCullers" [by Jenn Shapland], which won the National Book Award. So it's not like it was unprecedented, what I was doing. But I welcomed the chance to challenge the idea that there's any definitive story of a life.

I had great help in that from my subject. Joni Mitchell is an artist who has told us her life story in many ways, from many perspectives, and ... constantly challenged her fans' perceptions of what she can be as an artist and what her life means. I realized she's the perfect subject to make this argument that biography needs to be even more fluid. That we need to look in surprising places for parts of the story. That we do need to recount the official story, but we also have to recognize both the kind of minor moments in people's lives and the way that our lives as listeners intersect with and kind of help build the meaning of the story of the artist's work.

"Traveling" isn't just about Joni Mitchell. It's also about you. Does that exemplify how Ms. Mitchell's music perhaps invites listeners to see themselves in her songs?

One of her most famous early quotes is her saying, Don't look for me in my songs. Look for yourself.

I guess my reflecting on how I interact with her work and life are wanting to be open about that. Yeah, it's a little maverick as far as doing a biography. But I think we're living in a time when the idea of objectivity has been exposed as an idea, as an ideal, and not an achievable goal. So in my writing, I try to always acknowledge my own presence and hopefully without having that be overweening.

You interviewed just about everybody who has worked with Joni Mitchell. But you deliberately avoided interviewing the artist. Why?

Partly because I have read the wonderful books that grow from interviews with her and time spent with her. And I know that once you're in Joni's story with Joni, that your perspective is fixed on that telling of the story. I didn't want to get sucked into the vortex of her charisma. I didn't want to feel obligated to an official story.

I treasure the distance between myself and my subject because that's what all of us who are fans, who are music lovers, experience with artists we love the most. It's in that distance between their human reality, and our perception of them, that understanding grows and that opinions grow. Many of the people she's worked with, and people who were sort of on the path near her, did give me insight into who she is.

For someone who owns "Blue" but wants to go deeper into her catalog, what would you recommend?

I would recommend "Hejira" because while "Blue" is the entryway for so many people, for so many generations, I want people to hear Joni with a band. To show the richness of her musical intelligence. The heartbreak journey of "Blue" is really relatable. In some ways, the self-actualization journey or the journey into maturity of "Hejira" is one that speaks to me very deeply and also just speaks to our moment. It's universal in a different way.

I'm very attached to "Night Ride Home." It does have maybe her greatest anthem, "Come in From the Cold," which is just a song we all need to listen to once a month as a cleanser.

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Added to Library on June 17, 2024. (443)

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