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Joni Mitchell: ‘A painter derailed by circumstance’ Print-ready version

Prompted by a new a publication of lyrics and poems, Scarlett Reiners discusses Joni Mitchell’s status as an artist as well as a musician

by Scarlett Reiners
Varsity (Cambridge)
February 22, 2020

What differentiates a songwriter from a poet? Or a musician from an artist? This debate permeated the sixties, resurfaced in the eighties and arguably climaxed in 2016 with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to the singer songwriter Bob Dylan. Joni Mitchell, a highly acclaimed Canadian music artist who broke onto the scene with her unforgettable album Blue, 1971, has always defined herself as more than just a 'music artist'. In 1997, she published a hybrid collection of her writings entitled The Complete Poems and Lyrics, and in 2000, she told the Globe and Mail; "I have always thought of myself as a painter derailed by circumstance".

Joni Mitchell's broad and abstractly 'artistic' book Morning Glory on the Vine, published in October 2019, elaborates upon and adds to this age-old debate. First created in 1971, originally called The Christmas Book, and gifted by Joni to select 'nouveau riche' friends, the book compiles song lyrics, poems and over 30 colourful drawings. Amanda Petruschi for The New Yorker called it "an extension of Mitchell's already considerable reach - it's a way of better understanding what she found beautiful, and worth holding onto." The work defies classification, for Joni breaks down the barriers between different art forms, uniting them in one integrated and undefinable work of art. She places poems alongside bare song lyrics, the latter appearing increasingly and unavoidably 'poetic' when they are stripped of the music which accompanies them. If the reader did not already associate one of these pieces with a melody, it would be hard or even impossible to distinguish which was poetry and which song lyrics. After reading the book and pouring over the artful use of rhyme, rhythm and evocative natural imagery that infuse such lyrics, I find it increasingly hard to agree with the poet Simon Armitage's claim that 'songs are not poems'.

As well as this, Joni Mitchell's choice to publish her poems and songs in handwritten form emphasises the visual 'artisticness' of these literary pieces. It also provides a unique insight into the way she visualised them, certain words that she wanted to emphasise or highlight jumping out on the page or being drawn attention to by lines and exaggerated ellipses. Abstract and colourful drawings featuring many lines and curves embellish her written work, sitting either directly beneath them or on the adjacent page. They mimic and complement her elegant and cursive handwriting, whilst also contextualising it. Her drawings of Laurel Canyon, a significant location in her life, and of David Crosby and Graham Nash, two significant figures in her romantic life, provide a visual backdrop to her emotional outpourings.

Her drawings, however, are more than just this; they are works of art in their own right. The Metro, in their books of the year, importantly acknowledge that "she's also a water colourist of some distinction". It is important that we see these works of art as more than simply ornamentation to her song lyrics because Joni herself saw them to be so much more than that. In her foreword to the book, she writes that, in the early 1970s, "The drawings were becoming more important to me than the music at that time."; she saw herself to be as much of a visual artist as a singer songwriter, if not more than.

Moreover, for those familiar with her early music, which is a likely demographic of readers of Morning Glory on the Vine, the elegant yet bold lines and colours match the tone of her soft yet powerful melodic folk tunes. For her fans, the sound, shape and feel of all of her artwork seems to be one in the same, all from the canon of her artistic genius. Thus, it seems arbitrary and even impossible to distinguish these multimedia expressions of Joni's creativity. And by the merit of this extensive creativity, she is more than just a musician; she is an artist.

This article has been viewed 1,544 times since being added on February 24, 2020.

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