When an editor suggested that Ann Powers write a book about Joni Mitchell, the NPR music critic hesitated.

It wasn’t that Powers didn’t admire the iconic folk singer-songwriter, known for legendary albums like Ladies of the Canyon and Blue and enduring songs such as “Both Sides, Now,” “The Circle Game,” and “Big Yellow Taxi.”

But, as Powers writes in her new book, Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell (Dey Street/HarperCollins, June 11), “I preferred underdogs.…All the Joni worship freaked me out, frankly—it’s so intense and uncompromising. To so many, she can do no wrong. I have never felt comfortable around the popular kids.”

After thinking about it, though, Powers, whose other books include Weird Like Us: My Bohemian Americaand Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, decided to accept the challenge, hoping that she could “find another Joni Mitchell, one less worshipped but better understood.”

In order to do so, Powers took a different tack, opting not to write a straight-ahead biography of Mitchell, but instead to explore “the byways, the roads where she had wandered unnoticed.…She has often been the object of others’ obsessions, but as a subject, she cannot be owned. I can only follow her and call her name, again and again.”

Powers, who currently splits her time between Nashville and Scandinavia, talked to Kirkus about Traveling via Zoom from Uppsala, Sweden. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you decide to write a book about the iconic Joni Mitchell?

[Editor] Denise Oswald was at Dey Street at the time, and she called me and said, “I just want to read you on Joni.” I was cautious, hesitant, antagonistic about it. I was a little bit like, I’m a pretty established woman music writer who writes a lot about women, and so having me write about one of the great women feels a little like the obvious thing. Maybe I was resistant to that. And my history as a fan of Joni at that time was spotty.

I loved her classic works. I loved some of her more obscure works. I loved Night Ride Home; I loved Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. I always loved her jazz fusion music, but I was resistant to writing about this iconic figure. She is such a powerful presence and stimulates such passion in her fans, so that felt a little daunting.

I thought, Here’s this boomer goddess whose reputation is so unimpeachable and whose genius is so undisputed. What is there for me to say that’s new about this person? What I finally decided was that I can’t make a definitive statement about Joni Mitchell, so I’m going to try approaching her from many different angles and trying to tell many different stories about her, through her music and through her life.

You write that you “remain a witness, not a friend” to Mitchell. Why was it important to keep this kind of distance between you and a musician whom you admire but have a complicated relationship with?

I was well aware of how becoming too intimate with your subject can compromise you. And particularly with the vortex of her charisma, I’ve seen people get swept away. The hyperbole was so great. I love that I am now part of an elite group of writers who have written really wonderful books about Joni, and I think each negotiated this in their own way, whether it was David Yaffe or Michelle Mercer or Sheila Weller. Each of them had to figure out, What is my perspective and relationship, and how close to or far from this subject am I?

For me, I just wanted to feel that I could say anything. I could think about the uglier side of her, the challenging sides of her. If I had connected with her and made it more of an official biography, it would have been harder to do that. I wanted to be free, and that’s why I stayed free of direct connections with her. That said, I thought it was really important to talk to a lot of people connected to her, whether those people were central to her, like [Mitchell’s former husband] Larry Klein, or more peripheral. I loved finding these characters like [musician] Bobby Ingram in Florida who just crossed paths with her but illuminated who she was, too.

Did you find that doing research for this book changed the way you looked at her?

Absolutely. I won’t say that I thought she was ever a purely confessional songwriter, but learning about the context and the craft of what she was doing—at every phase of her career—made it ever more clear that her combination of autobiographical material, and lyricism, and absolute curiosity, and inventiveness, and restlessness all challenge what we think confessional is.

It’s similar to how I think we should be looking at someone like Taylor Swift today. One of the lessons of Joni’s career is that she defined confessional or autobiographical writing in popular music, but she did so by messing around with that idea from the beginning. What I came to realize is that even in very early songs, she’s much more of an observer than most people give her credit for. It’s not all just her insides coming out. I know she’s often said that films inspire her, and she thinks of her songs as little movies, and I could really see that. Especially when she gets into the post-Blue period, there are some incredible little movies in her catalog.

Mitchell performed “Both Sides, Now” at the Grammys this year. What was watching that like, having just spent seven years writing this book?

Well, I cried. I was very moved. But as moved as I am by Joni’s resurgence, I also really value her sense of humor. I think it was [critic] Lindsay Zoladz who said that Joni has an expert bullshit detector. Even in these kind of dowager moments when she’s literally on a throne, she’s still smiling and laughing and giving us a little bit of a side eye. I thought that reading of “Both Sides, Now” was incredible because there are moments in it where she reminds me of one of her own idols, Annie Ross, when she was older, and other jazz singers when they’re older, where the phrasing changes. It is almost like the phrasing is pointing to the time that’s passed between when they were in their prime and the present day. She is giving us that little bit of a perspective on her own. I don’t know if it’s incredulity or just amusement at being welcomed again into the circle.

“Both Sides, Now” is one that she reprised many times throughout her career. I think it’s indicative of her own canniness and wisdom that she’s going back to these moments in her catalog and saying, This song is the one that can mark the passage of time. This is the one that can show all the bumps in the roads I’ve taken. It is an old-person song that she wrote when she was young, and now she is an old person, and it fits her like a beautiful caftan that she would wear to the Grammys.

Michael Schaub is a contributing writer.