Ann Powers' 'Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell'

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday July 2, 2024
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Author Ann Powers (photo: Emily April Allen)
Author Ann Powers (photo: Emily April Allen)

If you've been waiting for the great summer read of 2024, your patience has been rewarded with the publication of "Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell" (Dey Street, 2024) by acclaimed music journalist Ann Powers. Legendary singer/songwriter Mitchell, who is undergoing the kind of renaissance that few artists match, has been the recipient of a profusion of accolades in recent months.

In Powers' more than capable hands, we are taken on a grand tour of Mitchell's extensive career. But since Mitchell is no ordinary subject, "Traveling" is no ordinary biographical work. Powers, renowned for her groundbreaking music journalism, incorporates a personal element, reflecting on the impact Mitchell had on her life, something to which virtually every reader (and Mitchell fan) will relate.

Joni Mitchell in 2022 at the Newport Folk Festival (photo: Jim Brock)  

Gregg Shapiro: Ann, as a lifelong Joni Mitchell fan, I loved your new book. Would it be fair to say it was a massive undertaking?
Ann Powers: Thank you so much! And yes, more than fair. The same thing that makes Joni Mitchell so fascinating — her lifelong pursuit of new artistic challenges, in dynamic relationship with her ongoing travels and inner explorations — makes her a massive subject for anyone who really wants to understand the whole of her life and work. I didn't want to merely dwell on the best-known work, and that meant I had to go on a serious journey.

How long did it take from start to finish?
About seven years, maybe a bit more. It did take me some time to really delve in.

Did the book begin as a personal memoir in which Joni figured prominently in your life or as a Joni bio in which her impact on you became part of the story?
I was asked to write a biography, but for reasons I discuss in the book, I didn't feel comfortable with the conventional biographical form. I wanted to try something both more personal and more wide-ranging and associative. Early drafts were even more like that! I had fictional passages, long wanderings away from the subject. My wonderful editor Anna Montague helped me focus.

Are you the kind of person who can write while listening to music and, if so, was Joni in constant rotation?
I don't listen to music with words while I write. But I spent tons of non-writing time getting to know all of Joni's catalog. Whatever period I was working on, that's where I lived. I hadn't spent that much time with certain albums — even ones that are now favorites, like "Mingus" or "Night Ride Home" — before beginning this project.

The first Joni book I ever bought was in 1976 — "Joni Mitchell" by Leonore Fleischer, cleverly subtitled "Her Life, Her Loves, Her Music." It wasn't among the ones you mentioned in "Traveling." Were you aware of this book?
You know, I believe I did run across that book! But I think I only saw it referenced here and there. Now I have to go out and find it [laughs]! One definite problem with music biographies is that many of them become somewhat lost to time: they're published as mass-market books and aren't very well documented. Fleischer's is one of those, I believe.

Was there one book or source that you found indispensable in your research?
Yes, there were many. David Yaffe's "Reckless Daughter" is fundamental. It sets out the chronology in loving detail and he's fantastic on the music. Lloyd Whitesell's "The Music of Joni Mitchell" helped me grasp the details of her composition and performance — he's a musicologist and gave me a language I didn't necessarily have.

I feel great kinship with Michelle Mercer, whose "Will You Take Me As I Am" is so beautifully considered and written. Sheila Weller gave me key context with her triptych of Joni, Carole King, and Carly Simon, "Girls Like Us."

Malka Marom's book-length compendium of interviews, "Joni Mitchell in Her Own Words," is what I'd point people toward if they asked for one recommendation.

I'd also love to draw attention to two academic books: the Finnish scholar Anne Karppinen's "The Songs of Joni Mitchell: Gender, Performance and Agency" and the anthology "Joni Mitchell: New Critical Readings," edited by Ruth Charnock. Both provide rich frameworks for going deeper into Joni.

"Traveling" also reads like a reference book. What would it mean to you to have your book on the syllabus for a college course on Joni?
I'm always really excited when people teach my work! As someone who loved school and got a graduate degree in English, I'm honored to be included in any syllabus. I'd love to teach a course on Joni one day.

"Traveling" was released in June 2024 a few months after Joni had a triumphant night at the Grammys, where she performed for the first time, and won a Grammy. Do you regret not being able to include that in the book?
Now that Joni is in her wonderful renaissance, I feel that we are going to continue to see great milestones for her. She's playing the Hollywood Bowl this fall! Every non-fiction book that's published is by nature incomplete, even if it's on a historical subject — there's always new material surfacing, new angles to consider. So, I'm okay with where this one ended. I think her return to Newport made for a wonderful closing of the circle.

In the first chapter, you wrote, "Gay men fall hard for Joni, too," which reminded me that in February 2025 gay writer Paul Lisicky's book, "Song So Wild and Blue: A Life With Joni Mitchell," is being published by HarperOne. Do you know Paul and were you aware of his book?
I don't know him, but I welcome what will certainly be a fine volume to the shelf.

In the Emissaries chapter of "Traveling," which comes right before the book's conclusion, you include two queer artists, John Kelly and Brandi Carlile, which, again, speaks to Joni's connection to the community. Do you have a sense of what that might mean to her?
Joni is a very open-minded person and has always had queer friends and confidantes. I mean, David Geffen was her bestie, roommate, and champion! The relationships with John and Brandi are unique — one created an unparalleled tribute to her, and the other has been her emissary during this new phase. I think they're among her most important relationships, certainly in this century. Joni appreciates those who show that they really understand her, whomever they may be.

Joni also included queer representation in her music, found in songs such as "Underneath The Streetlights," "Tax Free," "Two Grey Rooms," and "Free Man in Paris." Aside from perhaps Taylor Swift, do you think it would be fair to say that Joni is the closest the queer community came to having a singer/songwriter equivalent to a Judy Garland type of icon?
Oh wow, I'd really have to think about that. Years ago, I did a book with Tori Amos, and I saw first-hand how deep her connections are to her queer fans. I think Beyoncé cemented a serious bond with the queer community when she released "Renaissance." I could go on! But Joni does have the life story to inspire Judy Garland-level adulation, and the music to back it up. And she does love a dramatic flourish. Thank goodness her life took her somewhere other than where Judy ended up, though. She is having a happy late life. I wish Judy could have had that.

There are "Joni Jam" concerts planned for later in 2024. Are you planning to attend?
I'm debating! It's funny because I have so many favorite moments in Joni's career and wish I could time-travel back to see those bands — like the Shadows and Light band of course, or the bands with Larry in the 1980s. I was lucky enough to see her play the Fez with Brian Blade in the 1990s. I love the whole Joni Jam vibe and I think Brandi and her other collaborators have perfected an approach that really highlights where Joni's voice is, but I might be happy with my memories and my dreams of other times.

Do you know how aware Joni is about "Traveling?"
She has been aware of it since not long after I began writing. I have to admit, I have some butterflies about what she might think — she's often been critical about authors who've taken on her life and work. And I don't shy away from difficult subjects, particularly the Art Nouveau character and its complicated shadow on her relationship to Blackness.

I don't know if she would appreciate what I have to say about that. But — and I say this in the book — I feel that true respect for an artist demands honesty and the courage to criticize when it feels right. I would hope that Joni, who never shied away from criticizing either herself or others, would appreciate that.

Have you started working on your next book project, and do you think you might ever return to the Kate Bush book?
Oh goodness, that book [laughs]! It was supposed to be one of the very first in the 33 1/3 series, but right after I signed the contract, I was offered the chief critic position at the Los Angeles Times and that ate up my life for several years. Then I started on "Good Booty," my history of popular music and sexuality, and that really ate up my life!

I feel bad that I never got back to Kate, who remains in my very top tier of artists. But I'm still busy — I have my work at NPR, and a while ago I signed a contract to put together an anthology of my own work. That's what I'm going to focus on for the next bit of time. I've been writing since I was a teenager and I'm 60 now, so there's a lot to consider! I wrote a very long piece on (Bush's) "The Dreaming" for NPR Music not long ago and that's going to have to do for now as far as considering her goes. But I wouldn't rule it out forever!

"Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell" by Ann Powers, $28, Harper Collins

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