> Zed Book Club / A Look at Joni Mitchell’s Life From Both Sides Now – and Then

Photo: Emily April Allen

> Bookshelf

A Look at Joni Mitchell’s Life From Both Sides Now – and Then

NPR critic Ann Powers' biography, 'Traveling,' lands at the height of the 80-year-old singer-songwriter’s renaissance / BY Joshua Ostroff / June 13th, 2024


Joni Mitchell famously warned us that we don’t know what we got ‘til it’s gone, but we’ve been proving that wrong since the Canadian icon was discovered, unconscious, on her Bel-Air kitchen floor in 2015, struck down by a brain aneurysm three days earlier. While the Saskatchewan-raised singer-songwriter was re-learning how to speak, walk, play guitar and, eventually, sing, we all got to realize what we have while it’s here, sparking a rare revival of a still-living artist. 

From whispered rumours, sporadic appearances and occasional interviews to an acclaimed Archives album series, her surprise 2022 Newport Folk Festival performance and star-studded “Joni Jam” at Washington’s Gorge Amphitheatre, the Joni-ssance culminated in last February’s Grammy triumph. Mitchell, resplendent on a throne-style chair with sceptre-like cane in hand, followed her Best Folk Album award for the Newport set’s live recording with a show-stopping rendition of Both Sides Now

At 80, Mitchell’s first-ever Grammy performance of a timeless classic, presumptuously penned in her early 20s, proved the power of looking at life from both sides.

Into this out-of-the-blue cultural moment arrives Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell by acclaimed author and NPR music critic Ann Powers, who started working on the book amid Mitchell’s aneurysm-induced silence only to see the story updating in real time. “Writing a biography about someone who’s living is always complicated by their life, which continues,” Powers says in a Zoom call from her home in Nashville, Tenn. “In those early years, I just felt sadness that she seemed very incapacitated. This comeback … worked out because it gave a beautiful close to the book. Here she is standing at the centre of her own legacy.”

 

Ann Powers


Post-Grammys, many tied Mitchell to that night’s big winner, Taylor Swift, whose professed admiration extends to naming her album Red in homage to Mitchell’s Blue. While Traveling doesn’t delve into this, Powers sees connections in their self-mining songcraft. “People read into [Mitchell’s] songs, often to her own irritation. But it was very difficult to not say, ‘Oh, isn’t this one about Graham Nash? Isn’t that one about James Taylor?’ Mitchell and Taylor are both amazing sonic autobiographers, memoirists in a sense,” Powers says, noting their shared skill in “making this intensely personal material feel universal” inspires devotion.

Mitchell’s famous lovers make their way into Traveling, especially during the late-’60s, early-’70s Laurel Canyon folk scene in L.A., which included a fleeting romance with Leonard Cohen that inspired Rainy Night House, among other songs. “It was a very intense artistic connection and intense musical connection, and they both were learning from each other,” Powers says. “Sometimes when you’re a young artist or writer, you meet someone who gives you permission to do certain things. Cohen gave her a framework to think of herself as not just a folkie who’s going to be doing Kumbaya or whatever … but as someone who could be both personal and poetic.”

Cohen is one of many Canadian touchstones who shaped the artist as a young woman. Her North Battleford beginnings (as Roberta Joan Anderson) were marked by flat fields, dispiriting parents and, profoundly, contracting polio at age nine (the first time she re-learned how to walk). After high school, she fled to Calgary in 1963 for art school and coffeehouses en route to Yorkville, Toronto’s hippie enclave. She moved to Detroit, New York and then settled in southern California. By 1971, Canada was still calling her so she bought a retreat on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, where she lives part time.

 

Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell in 1968, outside the Riverboat Coffee House where she started as a dishwasher and, after begging for a gig, eventually became featured performer. Photo: Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images

 

“One very basic way that Joni’s Canadian, which influences her music and has shaped her public identity, is literally her voice. She has her own tone and style to her singing that I feel is different than most [American] performers,” says Powers of Mitchell’s Canadian accent. “But also, her love of the Canadian landscapeand the fact she calls herself a Prairie girl and is a Prairie girl. That’s so important to her sense of the world.” 

That said, we never hear Mitchell’s voice in Traveling. Powers relies on archival interviews to relate Mitchell’s past perspective, alongside new interviews with friends, peers and experts. There’s a huge difference between writing a profile and writing a work of criticism. Once you’ve engaged with the subject, you have a kind of mandate to become a conduit for that voice,” she explains, noting other Mitchell biographers have done that. Plus, Powers adds, “I didn’t want to get sucked into what I’ve been calling the vortex of her charisma.”

This allows the book to remain laser-focused on the objective: appraising Mitchell’s legacy from origin to pop-cultural peak and ever-expanding influence, which includes the occasional problematic parts of any aged artist’s past. In Mitchell’s case, posing as a Black man on the cover of 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. “It was definitely a challenge to write about Joni’s appropriations of Black culture, specifically her adoption of a Black alter ego that went so far as putting brown makeup on her face,” Powers says. “There’s also the question of her relationship with Indigenous culture, which is equally complicated in that she’s done a lot of activist and charity work for First Nations people, but then at times she’s assumed certain elements of that identity.” 

Powers tried to find a measured voice. “I want people to feel unsettled enough that they themselves wrestle with all the questions this stuff brings up,” she says. That’s what makes Traveling so effective and a rebuke to “stan”-era music writing that simply celebrates. 

Powers calls herself a critic, not a biographer – which she defines as “a  balancing act between mind and the heart.” The book begins by acknowledging her youthful reservations over Mitchell’s fame and beauty privilege, a skepticism fuelled, she writes, by her “unwavering attachment to underdogs and rebels, eccentrics and outcasts.” It ends with the author realizing how Mitchell was all those things. 

 

The Joni-ssance culminated in February 2024 when the singer-songwriter won the Best Folk Album award at the Grammys in Los Angeles for ‘Joni Mitchell At Newport [Live]’ and performed ‘Both Sides Now.’ Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

As a reader who felt similarly at the start – my favourite Mitchell “song” has always been her sampled hook on Janet Jackson’s Got ‘til it’s Gone I was engrossed not only by the strong authorial voice and the subject’s obviously incredible life story, but by my own developing appreciation for Mitchell’s music as I played relevant songs while reading about their creation. 

Crucially, Powers’ book also unpacks and then transcends rock-music sexism. Consider how much has been said of Mitchell’s appearance and how little about how her songwriting inspired Bob Dylan (Tangled up in Blue) or her unconventional guitar-tuning influencing on Eric Clapton. “We’re now having this richer picture of her as a musician apart from her gender. But even as the most acclaimed woman artist of her time, she still was left in that category ‘woman artist,’” Powers says. “Now we’re living in a moment when those kinds of hierarchies are being seriously challenged – and that’s another reason why it’s so great that she’s still here to enjoy that.”

THE SCROLL

Canadian Writers Among Literary Luminaries Named on the New York Times’ “Top 100 Books of the 21st Century” ListThe New York Times Book Review ultimately featured two Canadian authors – and three Canadian books – on their list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.


Alice Munro, One of Canada’s Literary Masters, Dies at 92Alice Munro's career spanned over four decades, during which time she earned a multitude of literary awards, including a Nobel Prize nearing the end of her writing career. 


American writer V. V. Ganeshananthan wins the US$150,000 Carol Shields Prize for FictionHer novel, 'Brotherless Night,' was chosen over the work of four finalists, including 'Birnam Wood' by Eleanor Catton


2024 Amazon Canada First Novel Award Shortlist AnnouncedThe award, which was founded in 1976, offers a $60,000 prize for the winner.


Three Canadian Authors Shortlisted for the US$150,000 Carol Shields Prize for FictionClaudia Dey, Eleanor Catton and Janika Oza are finalists for the largest cash prize celebrating American and Canadian women writers


Donald Sutherland, 88, to Detail His Journey to Hollywood Fame in Long-Awaited MemoirThe Canuck screen legend's first-ever autobiography will hit Canadian bookshelves on Nov. 12.


Camilla Leads Miniature Book Initiative to Celebrate 100th Anniversary of the Queen’s Dolls’ HouseThe miniature book collection includes handwritten tomes by Sir Tom Stoppard, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Sir Ben Okri and other well-known authors


2024 Giller Prize: Noah Richler, Kevin Chong and Molly Johnson Among Jury MembersAuthor Noah Richler is chairing the jury for this year's Giller Prize, an award's body his father literary icon Mordecai Richler helped launch in 1994.


Queen Camilla to Offer Weekly Reading Recommendations in New Queen’s Reading Room PodcastThe Queen's Reading Room Podcast will feature Her Majesty's book picks as well as literary discussions with authors and celebrities every week.


2023 Booker Prize: Irish Writer Paul Lynch Wins For Dystopian ‘Prophet Song’Canadian Booker Prize jury chair Esi Edugyan called the novel a "a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave."


Sarah Bernstein’s ‘Study for Obedience’ Wins 2023 Scotiabank Giller PrizeThe author, who gave birth to a daughter 10 days ago, accepted the award remotely from her home in the Scottish Highlands


Governor General’s Literary Awards: Anuja Varghese’s ‘Chrysalis’ Among This Year’s WinnersEach of the 14 writers, illustrators and translators will receive a prize of $25,000


Giller Prize Winner Suzette Mayr Among Finalists Shortlisted for 2023 Governor General’s Literary AwardsThe 14 winners, who will each receive a prize of $25,000, will be announced Nov. 8


Five Authors Shortlisted for This Year’s $100,000 Scotiabank Giller PrizeDionne Irving and Kevin Chong are among the finalists who "probe what it means to be human, to survive, and to be who we are"


Norway’s Jon Fosse Wins Nobel Literature Prize for Giving “Voice to the Unsayable”The author's work has been translated into more than 40 languages, and there have been more than 1,000 different productions of his plays.


Scotiabank Giller Prize Longlist Recognizes 12 Authors Who Demonstrate “the Power of Human Imagination”The 2023 longlist includes the prize's 2005 winner David Bergen and debut novelist Deborah Willis. 


Duke and Duchess of Sussex Buy Film Rights to Canadian Author Carley Fortune’s ‘Meet Me at the Lake’Prince Harry and his wife Meghan have purchased the movie rights to the bestselling romantic novel, which was published in May this year.


Booker Prize Longlist ‘Defined by its Freshness’ as Nominees RevealedEsi Edugyan, chair of the 2023 judges, said each of the 13 novels "cast new light on what it means to exist in our time."


Barack Obama Releases His 2023 Summer Reading ListThe list includes the latest novel by Canadian-born New Zealand author Eleanor Catton.


David Suzuki Takes Inspiration From His Own Grandchildren for New Kid’s Book ‘Bompa’s Insect Expedition’The book features Suzuki and two of his grandchildren exploring the insect population in their own backyard.


Milan Kundera, Author of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Dies at 94Kundera won global accolades for the way he depicted themes and characters that floated between the mundane reality of everyday life and the lofty world of ideas.


Cormac McCarthy, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Dark Genius of American Literature, Dead at 89McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 novel 'The Road.'


Remembering the Life and Loves of Literary Bad Boy Martin AmisThe legendary British author has died at 73. His absence will be keenly felt, but Amis leaves behind a book shelf’s worth of novels, including 'London Fields', 'Money' and 'Success', filled with shambolic anti-heroes raising a finger at society. 


Sophie Grégoire Trudeau to Publish Two Books Related to Mental Health and Wellness With Penguin Random House CanadaThe upcoming releases include a wellness book for adults and a picture book for children, which will roll out over the next two years.


Queen Camilla Celebrated Her Love of Books by Having Some Embroidered on Her Coronation GownThe Queen's coronation gown also featured tributes to her children, grandchildren and rescue dogs embroidered into it.


Better Late Than Never: Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Unpublished Novel Set for Release in 2024'En Agosto Nos Vemos' or 'We'll See Each Other in August' was deemed by the late author's family to be too important to stay hidden


End of an Era: Eleanor Wachtel leaves CBC Radio’s ‘Writers & Company’ After More Than Three Decades on the AirAfter a career interviewing what she describes as the "finest minds in the world," the long-time radio host says she's ready to begin a new chapter.


Canadian Independent Bookstore Day Features Deals, Contests and ReadingsOn Saturday, every book purchased at an indie store qualifies you to enter the Book Lovers Contest, with a chance to win gift cards worth up to $1,000


Translation Project Will Bring Literature From the South Asian Continent to English-Speaking AudiencesThe SALT project aims to translate and publish 40 works by authors from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka


The Book Thief: An Italian Man’s Guilty Plea Ends a Caper That Puzzled the Literary World for YearsFilippo Bernardini’s elaborate phishing scam netted 1,000 unpublished manuscripts by prominent authors including Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan


The Late Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison Is Honoured with an American StampThe Obamas and Oprah Winfrey pay tribute to the writer whose poetic interpretations of the African American experience gained a world-wide audience


Five Canadian Writers Make the Long List for the Inaugural Carol Shields Prize for FictionThe US$150,000 English-language literary award for female and nonbinary writers redresses the inequality of women in the publishing world


The Furry Green Grump is Back in a Sequel to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”Dr. Seuss Enterprises will publish “How the Grinch Lost Christmas!” in September


Chris Hadfield to Publish a Sequel to His Blockbuster Debut, “The Apollo Murders,” on Oct. 10"The Defector” brings the Cold War intrigue from space to Earth as the Soviets and Americans race to develop fighter jets


Prince Harry’s ‘Spare’ Continues to Break Worldwide RecordsThe book also seems to have put a dent in the popularity of members of the Royal Family — including the Prince and Princess of Wales.


Prince Harry’s Memoir Breaks U.K. Sales Record On First Day of ReleaseThe publisher of the new memoir, 'Spare", says it had sold 400,000 copies so far across hardback, e-book and audio formats.


Barack Obama’s Favourite Books of 2022The former U.S. president’s 13 titles include Canadians Emily St. John Mandel and Kate Beaton, as well as tomes from Michelle Obama, George Saunders and Jennifer Egan


Here are the 5 Books on Bill Gates’ Holiday Reading ListThe billionaire philanthropist is giving hundreds of copies to little libraries around the world


Sheila Heti and Eli Baxter Among 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award WinnersToronto writer Sheila Heti took home the fiction award for 'Pure Colour,' a novel the GG peer assessment committee called "a work of genius."


Suzette Mayr Wins $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for ‘The Sleeping Car Porter’The 2022 Giller Prize jury called Mayr's novel "alive and immediate — and eerily contemporary."


Writers’ Trust of Canada Awards: Authors Nicholas Herring, Dan Werb Nab Top PrizesThe Writers' Trust of Canada awards amounted to a combined monetary prize value of $270,000.


Bob Dylan Releases ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’ a Book of Essays Dissecting 66 Influential SongsIn his new book, Bob Dylan offers up both critique and historical insight into various musical recordings of the last century by a variety of popular artists.


Prince Harry’s Memoir ‘Spare’ Will Be Published in January 2023The long-awaited memoir will tell with "raw unflinching honesty" Prince Harry's journey from "trauma to healing", his publisher said on Thursday.


Sri Lankan Author Shehan Karunatilaka Wins 2022 Booker PrizeKarunatilaka won the prestigious prize on Monday for his second novel ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, about a dead war photographer on a mission in the afterlife.


Canadian Council for the Arts Reveals Governor General’s Literary Awards FinalistsThe finalists for the Governor General's Literary Awards spotlight books in both the English and French language, as well as translated works.


New Penguin Random House Award Named After Michelle Obama Will Honour High School WritersMichelle Obama Award for Memoir will provide a $10,000 college scholarship to a graduating public school senior based on their autobiographical submission.


French Author Annie Ernaux, 82, Becomes First French Woman to Win Nobel Prize for LiteratureThe author said, of winning, that "I was very surprised ... I never thought it would be on my landscape as a writer."


Hilary Mantel, Award-Winning British Author of ‘Wolf Hall’ Trilogy, Dies at 70Wolf Hall, published in 2009, and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, released three years later, both won the Booker Prize, an unprecedented win for two books in the same trilogy and making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice.


Prince William “Cannot Forgive” Prince Harry, According to ‘The New Royals’ Author Katie NichollPrince William “just cannot forgive his brother,” according to Katie Nicholl, author of 'The New Royals: Queen Elizabeth’s Legacy and the Future of the Crown.'


Five Finalists Announced for Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for NonfictionThe winner — to be announced on November 2 — will take home the annual $60,000 prize.


Peter Straub, Bestselling American Horror Writer, Dies at 79Friend and co-author Stephen King has said the author's 1979 book, "Ghost Story," is his favourite horror novel.


Rawi Hage, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Sheila Heti Make the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize Long ListThe jury read 138 books to choose 14 titles for the long list, one of which will win the $100,000 prize, one of the richest in Canadian literature


Salman Rushdie, Novelist Who Drew Death Threats, Is Stabbed at New York LectureThe Indian-born novelist who was ordered killed by Iran in 1989 because of his writing, was attacked before giving a talk on artistic freedom.


Raymond Briggs, Creator of Beloved Children’s Tale ‘The Snowman’, Dies at 88First published in 1978, the pencil crayon-illustrated wordless picture book sold more than 5.5 million copies around the world while a television adaption became a Christmas favourite in Britain and was nominated for an Oscar.


Canadian Author Emily St. John Mandel Makes Barack Obama’s 2022 Summer Reading ListObama's list includes everything from fiction to books on politics, cultural exploration and basketball.


Canadian Author Rebecca Eckler to Launch RE:books Publishing House Focused on Female Authors and Fun ReadsThe former National Post columnist says her tagline is ‘What’s read is good, and what’s good is read.’”


Brian Thomas Isaac’s “All the Quiet Places” wins $5,000 Indigenous Voices AwardThe B.C. author, a retired bricklayer, drew on his childhood growing up on the Okanagan Indian reserve for his coming-of-age story set in 1956


Canadian-American Author Ruth Ozeki Wins Women’s Book Prize for “The Book of Form and Emptiness”The UK judges said her fourth novel, inspired in part by the Vancouver Public Library, contained "sparkling writing, warmth, intelligence, humour and poignancy."


The Bill Gates Summer Reading List Includes a Sci-Fi Novel On Gender Inequality Suggested by His DaughterBill Gates' summer reading list includes fiction and non-fiction titles that cover gender equality, political polarization and climate change.


American novelist Joshua Cohen wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “The Netanyahus”The 2022 Pulitzer prizes include this satirical look at identity politics, focused on the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a crucial time in the Jewish state’s history


Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro Among Canadian Authors Recognized in Commemorative Reading List Marking Queen’s Platinum JubileeThe authors are among six Canadian scribes included on the The Big Jubilee Read list.


Queen Elizabeth II’s Aide Reveals Details of Life in Royal Pandemic Lockdown in New Addition to BookAngela Kelly, who's worked for the Queen for 20 years, discusses everything from cutting the Queen's hair to "the light and laughter that was shared ... even in the darkest moments."


New Leonard Cohen Story Collection, ‘A Ballet of Lepers,’ Set for October ReleaseThe collection features a novel, short stories and a radio play written between 1956 and 1961.


Archived Letters Reveal How Toni Morrison Helped MacKenzie Scott Meet Future Husband Jeff BezosBezos hired Scott at the hedge fund where he worked after receiving a recommendation from Morrison. Shortly thereafter, the pair married and Scott helped Bezos launch Amazon.


Prince Harry’s Memoir is Set to Rock the MonarchyFriends say the California-based royal got a million-pound book deal to write "an intimate take on his feeling about the family."


European Jewish Congress Asks Publisher to Pull Anne Frank BookThe Congress says 'The Betrayal of Anne Frank' has "deeply hurt the memory of Anne Frank, as well as the dignity of the survivors and the victims of the Holocaust."


Canadian Author Details Anne Frank Cold-Case Investigation That Named Surprise Suspect in Her Family’s Betrayal in New BookAhead of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Frank's 'The Diary of a Young Girl' in June, a team that included a retired FBI agent and around 20 historians, criminologists and data specialists identified a relatively unknown figure as a leading suspect in revealing her family's hideout.


Man Who Tricked Authors Into Handing Over Unpublished Manuscripts Arrested by FBI in New YorkFilippo Bernardini, an employee of a well known publication house, has been arrested for stealing hundreds of unpublished manuscripts.


Hollywood Legend Betty White Has a Last Laugh in New Biographic Comic BookThe creators of the biographical comic book have released similar books about Hollywood legends like Carrie Fisher, Lucille Ball, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor.


Barack Obama Reveals His List of Books That Left “A Lasting Impression” in 2021Obama's favourite 2021 reads include two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's 'Harlem Shuffle' and 'Klara and the Sun,' by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro


“Interview With the Vampire” Author Anne Rice Dies at 80 — Tributes Pour in From Stuart Townsend and OthersThe author, who was best known for her work in gothic fiction, died on Saturday evening as a result of complications from a stroke.


Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories


Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel


South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 


Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.


Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events


Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards


Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde


Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 


Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members


Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations


Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


> STAY UP TO DATE

Sign Up for the Weekly Book Club Newsletter