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In ‘Traveling,’ A New View of Joni Mitchell That Peers Through Mythology Print-ready version

by Kim Ruehl
No Depression
June 10, 2024

Joni Mitchell at Newport Folk Festival 2022 (photo by Jim Brock)

As singer-songwriters who began their careers in the 1960s go, Joni Mitchell is one of the more mythologized. Numerous books have been published about her, granted, but they typically follow the traditional biography route, as though examining and re-examining the same set of stories about her boyfriends and creative meanderings will ever help anyone understand the magical inexplicability of her talent. Now, though, music critic Ann Powers seeks to fill some of those holes with Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell, published by Dey Street Books on June 11.

In the book, Powers seems particularly compelled by Mitchell's aloofness, which has long been trotted out as one of her more intoxicating qualities - along with her cheekbones and the way she had, when she was younger, of wearing short skirts while delivering her devastating, emotionally exacting songwriting.

Indeed, how Mitchell could be both beautiful and brilliant at the same time has been such a focus of previous criticism it would be a laughable meme if it wasn't so ludicrous a question.

Once they mentioned her looks, though, many reporters have granted Mitchell something her female peers almost never got: the space to be mysterious. One might guess this is because artistic genius is impossible to articulate and also impossible to pretend not to see. When Mitchell has commented on her own genius, reporters have been less taken aback by how correct she is than by the fact she is a woman with the nerve to have a healthy relationship with her own power.

Unlike her female contemporaries - Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Odetta - Mitchell has tended to be afforded the space to be ambitious, ornery, difficult, insightful, and awake to her own talents from the beginning of her career. Though none of these points are central to the more traditional biographies that have been written about her, Powers unearths and examines each of them.

As Powers notes in the introduction to Traveling, folks wishing to learn more about Mitchell's beginnings and the various waves of her career would be better suited digging into the artist's own words on those subjects. Malka Marom's Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is an obvious starting point, as is David Yaffe's Reckless Daughter.

The former is exclusively interviews, while the latter also includes extensive conversations with folks in her orbit. Further, Yaffe's album-by-album breakdown offers a compelling narrative approach to Mitchell's development across the decades. However, even his study leaves something to be desired. As a biography, it naturally places Mitchell at the center. Its emphasis is on her intention rather than her impact.

Impact, meanwhile, is where Powers begins.

Powers never talked to Mitchell for Traveling, preferring instead to tell the story from the outside in. But the critic didn't start out as a fan either, or even as a reporter who sought to avoid stepping on her subject's proverbial toes.

"I don't want Joni Mitchell to accept me," she candidly explains in the book's introduction. "I want to bring as wide a perspective as I can manage to her world, and I can do that only by maintaining some distance. In this way, I remain a witness, not a friend."

From the beginning, Powers' central question points more at the audience than the artist. Why do we love Joni Mitchell so much - not just her music but also her persona, what Powers calls "the Joni myth." This mythology encapsulates Mitchell's choice to give her baby up for adoption so she might have a career, her various relationships with famous men, her time in Laurel Canyon, New York, and British Columbia.

But as Powers rightly proposes, a person (and a time) is more than the sum of the stories that have been told so frequently about them that they have become a character themselves.

"There's so much romanticization of the late '60s, early '70s in the U.S.," Powers says in a recent phone conversation. "Especially among ... white liberals, or whatever. You know, this idea that that was the ultimate moment of freedom, of liberation, of hope, of utopianism. It was obviously more complicated than that. So I think, on the one hand, there's the shadow of the baby boom, it's so dominant. On the other hand, there's this romanticization of that period of time. You have to work to get through that thicket, to kind of see what was actually happening - both the positive and the negative."

One doesn't need to talk to Mitchell to explore these things, or the other questions Powers travels through:

What does Joni Mitchell bring to music that nobody else can? How has she affected not only the wider culture but also those who have lived for a time within her forcefield? Perhaps a more interesting question that Mitchell has raised for generations of songwriters and fans alike: What power does a song have, anyway? What can it do when it worms into a person's heart?

To get closer to some answers, Powers follows an audience's path deep into Mitchell's influences. She stretches her critics' muscles with exploration of feminism and jazz and everything else the music itself brings to mind. She finds ways of connecting Mitchell's work to her own life, illustrating the deep personal relationship many of Mitchell's fans often inadvertently develop with her songs.

Powers, a music critic for NPR, sat with former Mitchell intimates including James Taylor and David Crosby. She talked with bandmates and late-career collaborators like Brian Blade and Brandi Carlile. She explored Mitchell's influence on the drag queen community, and vice-versa. Implicit in all of the conversations she had on her "path" is the idea that one cannot know Mitchell's work without being some kind of a fan, without relating more to Powers' pull toward the artist than they can to the artist herself.

"One of [Mitchell's] primary qualities as an artist and as a public figure," Powers tells me, "is this need to retreat and then need to return. I think that's reflected in her songwriting and it's also reflected in her life story. So, we have these ... periods in which she's struggling with fame and she's struggling with being a public figure, and with the fact that she has created a life's work that opens her up to others [who are] so deeply identifying that they think they know her, right? Her response to that has been, at times ... to say, you don't know me. And almost to create roadblocks to knowing her."

In the song that gave rise to the book's title, Mitchell names this: "I'm on a lonely road / And I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling." There is something grueling to the artist's lonely compulsion, but also something like a practice to it. Something spiritual and persistent. An umbilical pull. It's as though she has relinquished control over her own art. It's akin to what a fan begins to feel the deeper they fall under Mitchell's musical spell.

Perhaps the most delightful thing about Traveling, for this writer and longtime Mitchell fan, at least, is having the opportunity to witness Powers' evolution from skeptic to sold. The way she begins by acknowledging she's not a fan and, by the end, she has come to love the work.

Whatever the path is that leads one to Mitchell's mystery, it is always there waiting for another pair of feet. Maybe this is what Carlile means when she refers to Mitchell as being "unlocked" - her work is always on time but never of a time.

Or, as Powers writes regarding one of Mitchell's most storied albums: "Maybe it's impossible to know what happened when Joni Mitchell made Blue because every time the record plays, it's still happening."

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Added to Library on June 17, 2024. (325)

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