Joni Mitchell: Hejira
This is the third in our series of five seminal album covers by female artists
Much of Joni Mitchell’s best music concerns travel. Her classic record Blue opens with the line “I am on a lonely road and I am travelling”, while in the following tracks Carey and This Flight Tonight she leaves her lover for the allure of new adventures. In Court and Spark we meet the hero of Free Man in Paris, who misses life overseas when he was “unfettered and alive”. Hejira – a transliteration of the Arabic word for “journey” – takes this obsession with itchy feet to its logical conclusion. “I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it” she explained.
The sleeve for Hejira is a great example of cover art that perfectly fits the music. Mitchell, who was a painter before she became a musician, designed it herself (we looked at a couple of her other covers in the post for The Shepherd’s Dog). “I trained as a commercial artist, as well as a fine artist. So when I began to record albums, I thought album art was a great way to keep both careers alive.”
For me, the photo collage on the cover, with its empty road and forbidding but beautiful landscape, so aptly captures both the loneliness and glamour of solitary travel.
The icy background is from a 1976 Joel Bernstein photoshoot of Mitchell ice-skating on a frozen lake. She had just played a gig at the college town of Madison when a massive series of storms ripped through town. Mitchell decided to make the most of the misty, frozen surfaces of Lake Mendota for an impromptu shoot.
“When Joni awoke”, it recounts on her website “she donned a pair of black men’s skates, a long black skirt and a fur cape, took a limo to the lake’s edge and managed to conquer bitter winds and an already thawing, spongy ice while Joel took the pics.”
Images from this shoot would later be re-used for the 2005 compilation album Songs of a Prairie Girl.
The glamour shot of Joni’s face, with its impassive and confident expression, was taken in a studio later by Norman Seeff, the same photographer responsible for Playing Possum by Carly Simon. “Norman used a very difficult and strange psychological process,” says Mitchell. “He’d shoot forever and tried to get a shot of everyone he worked with crying. A lot of people cracked and didn’t go back. He could be a cruel overlord, but he took great photographs.”
Be it skating on thin ice or facing down an intimidating photographer, the road Mitchell travelled may have been at times lonely but it was seldom boring.