‘Traveling’ traces Joni Mitchell’s health crises and alter ego

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Joni Mitchell arrives for the 31st annual MusiCares Person of the Year Gala in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., April 1, 2022. Photo by REUTERS/Steve Marcus.

Celebrated musician Joni Mitchell has spent decades traveling — 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 the most revered music of her career, like her album Blue. Later, Mitchell dabbled in jazz fusion and experimented with African and Latin rhythms.

However, a debilitating brain aneurysm a decade ago forced her to learn to walk again. It was unclear if she’d ever sing again. But she made a long comeback, resulting in a Grammy-winning performance two years ago at the Newport Folk Festival. This October, she'll be doing two shows at the Hollywood Bowl — tickets are already sold out.

NPR Music Critic Ann Powers chronicles these turning points — and her key songs at those times — in her new book called Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell. 

The book started as a collection of essays examining Mitchell’s life, Powers tells KCRW. But soon enough, she realized the Both Sides Now singer spent much of her life not only metaphorically traveling, but physically moving forward. 

“I am 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 in the story as a character, and in a sense, as a stand-in for any reader or any fan because we all love our favorite artists so much.”

She continues, “We elevate them and we make them into icons. … Each of us creates our own version of that person, and I wanted to examine how I had created various versions of Joni that I could relate to.” 

Musician Joni Mitchell, with producer Patrick Milligan, accepts the Grammy for Best Historical Album for “Joni Mitchell Archives, Volume 1: The Early Years,” at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards premiere ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. April 3, 2022. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni.

Mitchell was born and raised in Canada. As a child, she contracted polio, which forced her to grow up quickly. 

“Going through that experience really cemented her willfulness that already existed, her determination,” Powers says. “I think in a strange way, it gave her a kind of confidence, even though that confidence has always been laced with anxiety and self-doubt, which she also shares in her music, but it fed her drive.”

She eventually landed in Laurel Canyon, where she became a close collaborator with David Crosby, Graham Nash, and James Taylor. 

“From a very young age, Joni Mitchell identified as much with men and boys as she did with girls and women. She could code-switch. She was a tomboy. That's an outdated word, but she used it to describe her childhood. … She had a handle on how to exert her authority in a way that impressed men. And so they accepted her as one of theirs, even as other women in the scene, even ones who were equally talented and charismatic, kept getting shoved back.” 

In February 1965, at age 21, Mitchell gave birth to a daughter, Kelly Dale. She put her up for adoption, however, and kept that private for three decades. That experience is detailed in “Little Green,” a track from Blue.  

“That speaks to how buried stories of adoption were at that time. And I think we carry around so much cultural baggage. It's very painful for people who are a part of adoptive families. The experience itself carries with it a lot of pain and loss, even when there's also joy and love. But then just the views that people have of adoption, it's very poisonous in our culture,” Powers emphasizes.

Core to Mitchell’s music is how she owns sadness, which Powers says is grounded in the singer’s experience of loss and sacrifice. 

One of Mitchell’s records has raised eyebrows over 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 persona traces back to the mid-1970s, when Mitchell met a Black man on Hollywood Boulevard who had “a New York diddy bop kind of walk.” She continues, “And as he walks by her, she feels the spirit of this guy enter her and inspire her. And so then she went to a costume shop and tried to recreate his look, which meant buying an afro wig and big hat and sunglasses … and some brown makeup.” 

Mitchell has walked away from the character recently, but Powers says you cannot “excuse it away.” Still, she says it is important to understand the historical context of the alter ego. 

“It was a time when so many white performers felt completely entitled to not just identify with people of color, but to assume the vocal inflections of people of color, the experiences of people of color. … We can single her out maybe for an extreme transgression, but she was hardly alone in doing what she did.” 

In 2015, Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm. In some ways, it shifted the perception that fans, and Powers, had of the singer. 

“I was suddenly enlightened about the intense feeling Joni Mitchell's fans have toward her toward her music, but also toward her as a person — as the person they imagined she is. And I was just overwhelmed. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I didn't realize that people felt their whole lives had been defined by this woman's music, and they felt so close to her.’ I think what we're seeing now in that she's come back, and she's there to be celebrated, is that intense emotion. It does almost feel like a religious or spiritual connection.” 

Powers adds, “The fact that she has now survived mortal danger 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're interested in her music, it's just inspirational.” 

More: Joni Mitchell on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic: 1994 and 2015



  • Ann Powers - NPR music critic and correspondent, author of “Traveling: On The Path of Joni Mitchell” - @annkpowers