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‘Traveling’ Follows Health Crises and Joni Mitchell’s Alter Ego – KCRW’s This…Is Interesting

‘Traveling’ Follows Health Crises and Joni Mitchell’s Alter Ego – KCRW’s This…Is Interesting
‘Traveling’ Follows Health Crises and Joni Mitchell’s Alter Ego – KCRW’s This…Is Interesting

Celebrated musician Joni Mitchell has traveled for decades – from frigid Saskatchewan, where she grew up, to folk clubs in New York and Florida, and of course LA’s Laurel Canyon, where she made some of the most revered music of her career, including her album Blue. Later, Mitchell dabbled in jazz fusion and experimented with African and Latin rhythms. However, a disabling brain aneurysm ten years ago forced her to learn to walk again. It was unclear whether she would ever sing again. But she made a lengthy comeback, culminating in a Grammy-winning performance two years ago at the Newport Folk Festival. She’ll be doing two shows at the Hollywood Bowl in October – tickets are already sold out. NPR music critic Ann Powers chronicles these turning points — and her most important songs from that era — in her new book called Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell. The book began as a collection of essays examining Mitchell’s life, Powers told KCRW. But she soon realized that the Both Sides Now singer had spent much of her life not only traveling metaphorically, but also progressing physically. “I’m not really a biographer by nature. I don’t like prying into people’s lives. I’m self-conscious about that. And yet at the same time I am fascinated by the life stories of the artists I admire,” she explains. “I felt the best way to deal with that was to put myself as a character in the story, and in a way as a stand-in for any reader or fan, because we all love our favorite artists so much.” She continues: “We elevate them and make them icons. … Each of us creates our own version of that person, and I wanted to explore how I had created different versions of Joni that I could identify with. Musician Joni Mitchell, with producer Patrick Milligan, accepts the Grammy for Best Historical Album for “Joni Mitchell Archives, Volume 1: The Early Years,” during the 64th Annual Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, April 3 2022. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni. Mitchell was born and raised in Canada. She contracted polio as a child, which forced her to grow up quickly. “Going through that experience really strengthened her stubbornness that was already there, her determination,” Powers says. “I think in a strange way it gave her a kind of confidence, even though that confidence has always been fraught with fear and self-doubt, which she also shares in her music, but it fueled her drive.” She eventually ended up in Laurel Canyon, where she worked closely with David Crosby, Graham Nash and James Taylor. “From a very young age, Joni Mitchell identified with men and boys as much as she identified with girls and women. She could switch codes. She was a tomboy. That’s an outdated word, but she used it to describe her childhood. … She knew how to exert her authority in a way that impressed men. And so they accepted her as one of their own, even as other women in the scene, even those equally talented and charismatic, kept getting pushed back. In February 1965, at the age of 21, Mitchell gave birth to a daughter, Kelly Dale. However, she put her up for adoption and kept it private for thirty years. That experience is detailed in “Little Green,” a song from Blue. “That says something about how buried stories about adoption were at that time. And I think we carry so much cultural baggage with us. It is very painful for people who are part of adoptive families. The experience itself involves a lot of pain and loss, even if there is also joy and love. But the views people have about adoption are very toxic in our culture,” Powers points out. At the heart of Mitchell’s music is the way she experiences grief, which Powers says is based on the singer’s experience with loss and sacrifice. One of Mitchell’s records has raised eyebrows in the decades since its release: Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. The album cover image shows the singer in blackface as she portrays Art Nouveau, her alter ego. Powers says the inspiration for the persona goes back to the mid-1970s, when Mitchell met a black man on Hollywood Boulevard who was “having a New York diddy bop kind of walk.” She continues, “And as he walks past her, she feels the spirit of this man enter her and inspire her. And so she went to a costume shop and tried to recreate his look, which meant buying an afro wig, a big hat and sunglasses… and some brown makeup.” Mitchell recently walked away from the character, but Powers says you can’t “excuse it away.” Still, she believes it is important to understand the historical context of the alter ego. “It was a time when so many white artists felt every right to not only identify with people of color, but to adopt the vocal inflections of people of color, the experiences of people of color. … We may single her out for an extreme violation, but she was certainly not the only one who did what she did.” In 2015, Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm. In some ways, it changed the perception fans, and Powers, had of the singer. “I was suddenly enlightened by the intense feeling that Joni Mitchell’s fans have towards her, towards her music, but also towards her as a person – as the person they imagined her to be. And I was just overwhelmed. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realize that people felt like their whole lives were defined by this woman’s music, and they felt so close to her.’ I think what we’re seeing now with her coming back and being there to be celebrated is that intense emotion. It almost feels like a religious or spiritual connection.” Powers added: “The fact that she has now survived the threat of life again after her polio as a young child, and now this very close brush with death, I think that story even transcends her as a whole other dimension. Whether or not you are interested in her music, it is simply inspiring.” More: Joni Mitchell on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic: 1994 and 2015