ONE might wonder — why another biography of Joni Mitchell? What could we possibly learn that we don’t already know?
Over four decades, countless books, articles and documentaries have chronicled the great singer-songwriter’s humble Prairie beginnings, an bl he her groundbreaking musical catalogue, her star-studded romantic history, and the daughter she gave up and with whom she was later reunited.
Mitchell, 68, has for years refused to grant interviews to biographers on the grounds that her life has been media fodder for far too long.
Fortunately, this did not dissuade Vancouverbased film writer Katherine Monk. Joni is no dry historical biography. Whereas American Sheila Weller’s 2008 bestseller, Girls Like Us, used Mitchell’s story to illustrate burgeoning ’60s feminism, Monk’s book explores the human creative process with Mitchell as its illustrious poster child.
Examining key formative moments in this singular artist’s life, Monk sees Mitchell as a wholly original and self-determined creative force.
The thrust of Monk’s argument is that almost from the start Mitchell was a fully realized, though constantly evolving creative being.
Her early mastery over her own sense of identity allowed her to avoid the usual traps of insecurity, self-loathing and commercial conformity that befall many artists.
Monk examines the vast and varied work on the subject of the artistic self, from such philosophers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus, psychologist Carl Jung and mythologist Joseph Campbell, all of whom Mitchell herself has read throughout her life and who have informed so much of her art.
In fact, it was an elementary-school teacher reminding Mitchell of Nietzsche’s directive to "write in one’s own blood" that helped set her on her distinctive road.
Ultimately, this is less a biography than an inspiring meditation on personhood and the creative process designed, in part and by the author’s call to ignite the reader’s own creative fire.
Such an undertaking requires a skilled and ambitious writer, and Monk, whose first book was the 2001 Canadian film history Weird Sex & Snowshoes, is both. She deftly alternates between dense though accessible cultural theory and colourful anecdotes of Mitchell’s life and times. In that, she produces a significant cultural reading of Mitchell that is also cleverly entertaining.
Monk’s colloquial first-person treatment of Mitchell’s life is refreshing and often hilarious. She describes Mitchell and David Geffen’s business dealings as a union that "could have opened a boutique for forged brass testes."
As with any bold approach, there are sure to be missteps, a few obvious jokes and a connection of dots that feels like a stretch.
At times Monk too aggressively assumes the meaning behind not only Mitchell’s artistic and commercial choices but other artists in her genre. Without confirmation of such intention from the artists themselves, these conclusions can only ever be educated guesses.
Monk’s last chapter feels slightly rushed, and it’s a shame given the book’s otherwise excellent pacing. Still, these stumbles are minor and few and far between in an otherwise fascinating read.
Nicky Mehta is a Winnipeg singer-songwriter and a member of the folk trio the Wailin’ Jennys.