Interview with Ann Powers, author of Traveling

Interview with Ann Powers, author of Traveling

Books


Ann Powers makes an unexpected revelation early in her new book, Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell. In the second paragraph of the introduction, “Drawing the Maps,” Powers cuts to the chase, writing, “I’m not a biographer, in the usual definition of that term; something in me instinctively opposes the idea that one person can sort through all the facts of another’s life and come up with anything close to that stranger’s true story.”

While we may be unable to know Mitchell’s true story, Powers crafts a rich and textured portrait of the artist many consider to be America’s finest songwriter. Though she did not speak to Mitchell for the book, Powers did interview Mitchell’s friends and collaborators, including Wayne Shorter, Judy Collins, Taj Mahal and Brandi Carlile. She also draws from archival interviews and several other books about Mitchell, including David Yaffe’s 2017 biography, Reckless Daughter.

Traveling by Ann Powers

Powers says she knew she wanted to add something new to the canon of Joni studies, and she relied on her instincts as a critic to guide her to fresh territory. They’re well-honed instincts, as Powers is the lead music critic at NPR Music and has contributed to numerous outlets throughout her multidecade career, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

“With Joni, because there is so much writing about her, I wanted to seek the critical context around her as well,” Powers tells BookPage. “And I needed to confront her as a public figure, as that much-overused word ‘icon,’ or ‘legend.’ She’s a much-beloved figure. I wanted to think about how she became that way, what she and her music offered, at different points in history, to her audience as her audience grew and changed . . . I wanted to have that freedom to be more mobile, as my subject is mobile.”

Traveling follows Powers’ 2017 book, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music. Where that book snaked its way through scenes and subcultures to interrogate sexuality and race in American music, Traveling maps out Mitchell’s life through place, eschewing a neat timeline in favor of curious sightseeing, hitting all the must-sees while taking fascinating and enlightening diversions. (Powers literally drew a map of Mitchell’s travels, though that, unfortunately, did not make it into the book.)

“I found spots that others hadn’t spent a lot of time in. Like Florida, for example,” Powers says, referring to Mitchell’s late ’60s idyll in folk enclave Coconut Grove. “That was really helpful—understanding her journeys, whether they were geographical or musical or personal. She went places the casual Joni fan isn’t as aware of, and I got really interested in that. I got interested in her byroads.”

Read our starred review of ‘Traveling’ by Ann Powers.

Powers says that she didn’t write the book in chronological order, instead beginning her writing journey by digging into the era Mitchell spent in Laurel Canyon, a music and counterculture enclave in the Hollywood Hills, where she was closely associated with acts like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. (“I just worked my butt off trying to be as good as she was,” David Crosby told Powers.) Powers attended Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration in 2018, where a bevy of artists performed Joni covers, and she spoke to James Taylor and Graham Nash about their work with Mitchell and her still-unfolding legacy. Nash shares that when he and Mitchell were romantically involved, he “tried to give her as much space as possible” to make room for her brilliance. Taylor muses on the development of Mitchell’s rich inner life, which he theorizes owes, in part, to the quiet of her rural childhood.

“Obviously, I knew Blue very well, as so many of us do,” Powers says. “That’s our entryway, for a lot of us, into Joni’s story. I knew I wanted to write about, for that chapter, her relationship to those collaborators and friends and lovers that she had, and I wanted to try to really understand that scene. There had been a lot written about it. So, that’s where I dove in.”

As that material developed, Powers “went backward and forward,” learning about Mitchell’s childhood while considering her spirituality as well as drawing connections to the American folk music revival of the mid-20th century. It was through this back-and-forth movement that Powers discovered the book’s structure.

“That’s really when the metaphor of traveling kind of took hold,” she explains. “And that helped me center the narrative, in a lot of ways, thinking about her literal life on the road and then, also, her spiritual life as a traveler, her artistic life as a traveler.”

Some pit stops include Mitchell’s childhood, of which Powers writes, “This girl was a real person, one who’d lain on prairie grass and gazed at the wide sky, an explorer in her own backyard who soon knew she’d have to flee far beyond it.” There’s Mitchell’s foray into jazz, on which Powers says she initially wrote 30,000 words and hopes one day to explore in greater depth. Then there was Mitchell’s 2015 aneurysm, which pulled her out of public life until her triumphant return to the stage in recent years.

 “I needed to confront her as a public figure, as that much-overused word ‘icon,’ or ‘legend.’” 

Writing about a monumental figure who is still living and working—Mitchell performed at this year’s Grammy Awards, to rapturous acclaim—had its intimidating moments, Powers says, and she found solace in Geoff Dyer’s 1997 Out of Sheer Rage, in which he records his struggle to write a book about the complicated life and legacy of D.H. Lawrence.

“I needed that, sort of like having a good friend tell you a story,” she says. “Like, ‘Oh, you know, I relate to your problem. And let me tell you a funny and rich story about how I went through that.’ So, that would unlock some things for me. And one thing that unlocked was that it showed me that I could and should foreground my own struggles.”

Accordingly, many of the book’s more potent moments come when Powers shares her own personal experiences, finding connections or contrasts between herself and the artist. Mitchell placed her child, Kilauren Gibb, up for adoption in 1965, and Powers is an adoptive mother. Though Powers writes she “felt hesitant to make any conjectures about this most intimate connection” (and she doesn’t), she shares the story of a brief encounter with Mitchell in 2004 that connects the dots between them.

Nine months after adopting her daughter, Powers traveled to Montreal to watch Mitchell receive an honorary degree from McGill University. “Adrift in the dream state of sleep-deprived early parenthood,” Powers shared thoughts on Blue during a panel discussion, becoming emotional when remarking on “Little Green,” which Mitchell wrote for Kilauren.

As Mitchell and Gibb had only reunited seven years earlier, Mitchell was relatively new to parenthood, too, and Powers felt a complicated kinship with her, one that is still revealing itself today.

“Twenty years later, I can see that Joni and I were, in that moment, in one version of the same boat,” Powers writes. “We were both newly visible mothers negotiating uncommon definitions of that term.”

Those anecdotes bring Mitchell’s story back down to earth, an impressive feat given her penchant for self-mythologizing. They remind us that Mitchell may have written “Both Sides Now,” but she’s still a human being, still imperfect and messy and seeking resolution to the same existential questions all of us have but none of us can answer.

It’s a point Powers makes early in the book, a few paragraphs after she shares her reluctance to write a straightforward biography. “Every legend is also one of us,” she writes, and in the following 10 chapters, she bears that out, bringing us into her complicated relationship with a complicated artist making complicated art in a complicated world.

With Traveling, Joni Mitchell becomes a little more “of us” than she’s ever been.

Ann Powers author photo by Emily April Allen.



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