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17 Joni Mitchell Paintings And Self-Portraits Used As Album Covers
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17 Joni Mitchell Paintings And Self-Portraits Used As Album Covers

Many Joni Mitchell paintings and self-portraits have made for unforgettable album covers, serving to enhance her ‘very visual’ songs.

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“In the early 1970s I used to carry a sketchbook around with me everywhere I went,” Joni Mitchell wrote in 2019, in the foreword to her collection of drawings and song lyrics Morning Glory On The Vine. “The drawings were becoming more important to me than the music at that time,” she added. Indeed, by that pint in her career Mitchell had already used an original illustration as the artwork for her debut album, Song To A Seagull, and a self-portrait had adorned the sleeve of 1969’s Clouds. In the years to come, many striking Joni Mitchell paintings and self-portraits would be used as album covers, establishing the singer-songwriter as a visual artist as much as a musical one.

“I am a painter who writes songs. My songs are very visual”

Mitchell once referred to the relationship between her music and her art as one of “crop rotation”. Just as in agriculture, where land use is circulated to reduce the soil becoming sucked dry of nutrients, Mitchell saw those periods which she devoted to painting as being necessary to her artistic balance. “I am a painter who writes songs. My songs are very visual. The words create scenes…” she explained in 2014.

A teenage Mitchell attended the Alberta College Of Art In Calgary, albeit only for a year. She reputedly didn’t take to the trends of the early 60s – minimalism, abstract expressionism – and their tendency to cast a cool rather than emotional eye over their themes. In painting, as in her songs, Mitchell was interested in the churn of human dynamics, the paradoxes of love, changing states of mind. She was inspired by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso.

In recent times, as Mitchell largely retired from live appearances and creating new music, her visual art has remained a constant. She continues to produce paintings, primarily for herself. “Painting is obsessive,” Mitchell once said. “I forget to eat. I forget to sleep.” As these Joni Mitchell paintings and self-portraits used as album covers show, we are all richer for her obsession.

17 Joni Mitchell Paintings And Self-Portraits Used As Album Covers

‘Song To A Seagull’ (1968)

“I sing my sorrow,” Joni Mitchell once said. “I paint my joy.” The sleeve of Song To A Seagull, Mitchell’s debut album, is her most psychedelic and jubilant cover. With rich colours, paisley-esque eddies and avian guests, Song To A Seagull is perhaps the most on-trend of all Mitchell’s artworks. Yet it anticipates future releases and gently establishes some trademarks found throughout many Joni Mitchell paintings – mainly in the use of flowers, and her confident whirling strokes that could easily be read as waves, as hair dancing, or as waves lapping.

On the right-hand side, the seagulls spell the album’s title. In later remastered editions of the album, this is plain to see, but on its original release the cover was cropped poorly and the delicate artwork was lost. Her record label didn’t notice, and for many years the album was known as “Joni Mitchell”. This did not help Mitchell’s own mixed feelings about her debut album, which she had remixed to her satisfaction for the 2021 box set The Reprise Albums (1968-1971).

Song To A Seagull

‘Clouds’ (1969)

Clouds is the first Mitchell album to feature a self-portrait on the cover. A freckled, unsmiling, black-clad Mitchell is offering up a prairie lily (the floral emblem of Saskatchewan, the Canadian province where Mitchell grew up). The setting is yellow, bright – the sun pouring in like butterscotch (as Mitchell sings on Chelsea Morning).

But, just as the album itself shifts to darker moods, there’s a gravitas to the painting; the surface brightness contrasts with Mitchell’s clothing, which blends into the landscape. This feels very much in keeping with the serious content of the album: The Fiddle And The Drum, Roses Blue and one of the very best Joni Mitchell songs, Both Sides, Now, are all about the weightier sides of life, the shadows cast by that butterscotch sunshine.

Clouds

‘Ladies Of The Canyon’ (1970)

For the Ladies Of The Canyon album, a simple line drawing of Mitchell’s distinctive features, like a Jean Cocteau self-portrait, encases a colourful representation of Laurel Canyon – at that time, Mitchell’s home (8217 Lookout Mountain Avenue, to be precise). Mitchell would return to the theme of home, in a very different way, on the cover of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, but here it is vibrant, homespun, free, creative. Many of Mitchell’s contemporaries lived nearby. “It was just a personal neighbourhood statement,” Mitchell said of the illustration.

Because she was so intimately familiar with the Laurel Canyon community, the portrait is one of love. Its yellows, browns, greens and blues were drawn with felt-tip pen, and perfectly capture the spontaneity that was so important to Mitchell at that time (and which is aurally represented on the album’s title track). Being surrounded by white space, Laurel Canyon here appears as a haven, a fireside retreat, a civic paradise in a blanker world.

Ladies Of The Canyon

‘Court And Spark’ (1974)

Mitchell chose to appear in photographic form on her 1971 album, Blue, and the following year’s For The Roses, but returned to painting for what would become her most successful album so far, Court And Spark[https://www.thisisdig.com/feature/court-and-spark-joni-mitchell-album/]. The name of the Joni Mitchell painting on the cover is The Mountain Loves The Sea, and, as on Ladies Of The Canyon, it juxtaposes isolated colour work with sparser lines. The work was painted in Vancouver and, according to Mitchell, “was done in a moment of whimsy. It’s a metaphor for the way the waves met up with the mountain; the way they embraced one another.”

Court And Spark

‘Miles Of Aisles’ (1974)

Mitchell has had a tempestuous relationship with touring. Escape and travel are frequent themes of her songs, such as River, on Blue, or Refuge Of The Roads, on Hejira, but Mitchell could find the grind of touring stressful. The tour which resulted in the Miles Of Aisles double album – a 75-date monster, and Mitchell’s first with a full band rather than as a solo performer – drained her energy, but the live album that documented it showcases a confident Mitchell, revelling in the success of Court And Spark.

The artwork for Miles Of Aisles is an embellished photo taken by Mitchell at the Pine Knob Music Theater, in Clarkston, Michigan. For the cover, Mitchell extended the photograph by using orange and blue ink. “Something about that [view] appealed to me as an abstract painting – the blue blobs where the knees are, the checkerboard grid at the top. I like the way it looks, but more than that, it was just impulse,” she said.

Miles Of Aisles

‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ (1975)

The Jungle Line, the centrifugal force of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, is partly inspired by the paintings of Henri Rousseau, who once claimed that he had “no teacher other than nature” as he explored the jungle in all its beauty and wrath. Mitchell’s musical concept on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns was to explore the repressions below the manicured gardens of the bourgeoise; her cover is a visual depiction of this.

Just as on Ladies Of The Canyon’s album cover, Mitchell’s own house is visible on the sleeve for The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, but this time it is not an idyll but an urban, moneyed vista. In the foreground, a snake is carried by Black figures, their facial features undefined in contrast to the highly detailed buildings in the background. In this, Mitchell was inspired by the work of photojournalist Wolf Jesco Von Puttkamer, who had taken a photo (used in the February 1975 edition of National Geographic magazine) of seven members of the Kreen-Akrore tribe of Amazonian hunters carrying an anaconda to their village.

The-Hissing Of Summer Lawns

‘Mingus’ (1979)

Out of all the Joni Mitchell paintings used as album covers, the one that appears on Mingus is deeply entangled with the music’s creation. While collaborating with the jazz great Charles Mingus, Mitchell initially struggled to write lyrics which would convey the avant-garde bassist’s musical ideas. Her illustrations, included as part of the album’s artwork, are not only of Mingus himself, but of her process of understanding the man. The song A Chair In The Sky is about Mingus facing the end of his life; Mingus Down In Mexico, a portrait of the bassist, with his back to the artist, visually reflects this. “It is a sad-funny little painting,” Mitchell observed.

The Mingus artwork itself is much more abstracted. Called Abundant Decline, it was painted over four years and “was like a mystical process, it went though a lot of changes”, Mitchell said. For instance, in her first iteration Mitchell conceived of the barely-there figure on the right as a male misogynist; later, she changed him into a conga player; then finally a haunted female dancer. “I like the cover myself,” Mitchell said at the time that Mingus was released. “I’ve always done much more commercial covers – by that, I mean to distinguish it from my very personal, private painting. It’s the first time I decided to put that out because it seemed to suit the music.”

Mingus

‘Wild Things Run Fast’ (1982)

Joni Mitchell’s first studio album of the 80s was certainly a product of that decade; Mitchell did not believe in hanging on to the past. For the self-portrait she used as its cover she poses in a very 80s-era jacket, with the natural world (a feature of many Joni Mitchell paintings) reduced to an image of horses on the television she leans against. Mitchell seemed to be signalling her awareness that, in this new era, the earthiness of previous years was ebbing away.

In 1986, Mitchell reflected on how the self-portraits that appeared on Clouds and Wild Things Run Free sit alongside one another: “They are stylistically more compatible than some of the other [self-portraits used as album covers], don’t you think? Like you can almost tell that they were done by the same artist,” she said. “Some of them you would never know, you know.”

Wild Things Run Fast

‘Turbulent Indigo’ (1994)

Featuring a self-portrait in which she reimagines herself as Vincent Van Gogh, complete with famous bandaged ear, Turbulent Indigo is perhaps Joni Mitchell’s most celebrated album cover. Hypocrisy has always been a central theme of Mitchell’s music (the whole of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns references it) and, on Turbulent Indigo’s title track, she uses Van Gogh to explore it: “The madman hangs in fancy homes they wouldn’t let him near,” she sings. “He’d piss in their fireplace!”

Mitchell also identified with Van Gogh in another way – in terms of a frustrating lack of recognition. Though very critically lauded throughout the late 60s and during the 70s, the following 15 years had been far trickier for Mitchell, and her irritation was building. Turbulent Indigo arrested a run of mixed reviews and won a Grammy for Best Pop Album.

Turbulent Indigo

‘Taming The Tiger’ (1998)

From Turbulent Indigo onwards, Mitchell started to frame the self-portraits she used on her album covers. This effectively put her paintings in a gallery, declaring them artworks first, album sleeves second. Posing with her cat on the front of Taming The Tiger, Mitchell seems to embrace her middle years. Is it the cat who’s tamed, or Mitchell herself? If it is the latter, it’s surely ironic – Mitchell spits vitriol on the album’s title track, taking aim at record companies and bland radio stations alike.

Taming The Tiger

‘Both Sides Now’ (2000)

One of the most astounding Joni Mitchell paintings adorns the sleeve of her 2000 album, Both Sides Now. A collection of orchestral recordings of jazz standards (plus re-recordings of the title track and A Case Of You), the album’s mood is enhanced by a sleeve which evokes both jazz clubs and the atmosphere of The Last Time I Saw Richard (from Blue). Mitchell, with red wine and cigarette, gives a direct stare akin to her steady gaze on the Clouds album cover.

Both Sides Now told the story of a romance, and Mitchell pushed for it to receive a Valentine’s Day release. “They like you to put your picture on the cover,” she said, speaking of her record label. “So I see this picture lying around, and my drummer, Brian Blade, said, ‘Oh, I like that picture.’ I was in my early 30s. And I looked at it, and the fold of the sleeve had a heart in it… So I grabbed it, and then I had to put jowls in it, you know. I had to age the face a little.”

Both Sides Now

‘Travelogue’ (2002)

At the time of Travelogue’s release, Joni Mitchell stated that it would be her last studio album. Working with arranger Vince Mendoza, who she had also used on Both Sides Now, she this time revisited her own back catalogue, recasting her songs with her lower, slower, nicotine-scarred voice. On the album’s cover, however, Mitchell is sprightly, almost idealised, with her shining hair, Vermeer-esque pearl earring, and smoke swirling upwards from an unseen cigarette.

Travelogue would not, in fact, be her final studio album – that was to be Shine (2007), which featured a photograph of ballet dancers, with bare bottoms, on the cover. It was a reminder that, as serious as Mitchell’s art was, she could also be playful (and sometimes downright rude).

Travelogue

Compilations and box sets (2004-2022)

Just as Joni Mitchell controls (as far as possible) how her albums are packaged and presented, she is also her own best archivist. Even her compilations have her unmistakable stamp on them, and she sequences their tracklists in such a way as to evoke new associations and insights; previously unseen Joni Mitchell paintings are also frequently chosen for their covers, ensuring that these collections are stand above the usual best-of fare.

‘The Beginning Of Survival’ (2004)

Witness The Beginning Of Survival, released in 2004, which collects some of her 80s and 90s material. The self-portrait on the cover was based on a Mitchell photograph by Herb Ritts. That photo had been used by the clothing store Gap in a 1990 advert; its use by Mitchell for this compilation, whose songs include the biting The Windfall (Everything For Nothing) (which features the lyrics “Clothes from fancy stores/You want too much/You want too badly”), was surely a subtle nod to the contradictions inherent in the edgy relationship between music and commerce.

The Beginning Of Survival

‘Dreamland’ (2004)

Dreamland followed The Beginning Of Survival by a matter of months, and the Joni Mitchell painting used for this album cover finds her depicting herself as a phoenix (or is it a demon in disguise?) emerging from flames; she presents flowers to her listener, calling back to the prairie lily of Clouds. Something of a self-portrait in song, the Dreamland tracklist presents a more imagistic set of tunes than the earthier The Beginning Of Survival. It’s also jazzier in musical content, strongly elemental in lyrical themes, and includes some of Mitchell’s best-known work.

Dreamland

‘Love Has Many Faces’ (2014)

Love Has Many Faces is a hefty 2014 love-themed compilation curated by Mitchell and separated into acts, as in a play. “I am a painter who writes songs,” she wrote in the sleevenotes. “My songs are very visual. The words create scenes – in cafes and bars – in drab little rooms – on moonlit shores – in kitchens – in hospitals and on fairgrounds. They take place in vehicles – planes and trains and cars.” She further enhanced the 8LP vinyl edition with some new etchings on the records themselves, positioned to mark the end of each “act”.

Love Has Many Faces

‘The Reprise Albums (1968-1971)’ (2021), ‘The Asylum Albums (1972-1975)’ (2022)

More recently, the Joni Mitchell Archives series has included two box sets of her first seven years: The Reprise Albums (1968-1971) (2021), and The Asylum Albums (1972-1975) (2022). The first features a self-portrait originally created from that period of Mitchell’s career; the second, a scene of natural Canadian lushness, inspired by the photo that appeared on the cover of For The Roses (1972). The care and detail in these box sets is beautifully wrapped in these new insights into Mitchell’s art.

Asylum

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