In Traveling (Dey Street, June), Powers delves into Joni Mitchell’s genre-bending music and the forces that shaped it.

You write that this isn’t a standard biography. Can you describe your approach?

I’m hugely respectful of conventional biographies and authors who do a deep dive into a person’s life. The book is my reckoning of who Joni Mitchell was and is to the world. I am also trying to understand how the world influenced her music.

How did the book take shape?

I wrote it in a nonlinear fashion and then structured it into a more chronological framework. It helped me to think about this as a pilgrimage where I’d stop at key points along a winding road and decide to stay there for a moment. For example, the chapter on Mitchell’s childhood is also about the idea of childhood in songwriting in the music scene she was a part of in the early ’70s.

You frame Joni Mitchell as a genius. Can you speak more about that?

If you read interviews with Joni, you find she’s always trying to think about where she fits in the history of art and popular culture. When she appeared on the music scene, there wasn’t a well-founded precedent for female genius; she had to figure out where she belonged. The feminist scholarship that was developing at the time asked questions about female genius as part of the conversation about what women can and can’t do. There was a lot of talk about the personal as the
political, emotional intelligence,
sensuality, and female yearning, and Joni’s champions embraced these themes in her music. Her life and music are the primary texts of her genius.

What will readers be surprised to learn?

Mitchell became a part of this incredibly expansive jazz and jazz fusion scene in the 1970s. I try to share some of what she was absorbing—the people in the rooms where she was making music. I immersed myself in jazz fusion, too. I also fell in love with the music that Joni and Larry Klein made in the 1980s and ’90s, which I hope readers will get to know better.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

As a writer, I learned not to be afraid of your cultural heroes and how others have talked about them in the past. I hope readers will glimpse Joni’s endless curiosity. She absolutely fits our ideal of a certain kind of artist or woman, but she’s always taking apart that persona or ideal. Joni is always moving; she is constantly moving to a place she’s never been before to try something new.