The Israeli Singer Who Discovered Joni Mitchell: A Glimpse Back, Three Decades On

When singer Malka Marom happened upon the young Joni Mitchell onstage in Toronto in 1966, it was the start of an acquaintanceship that, 48 years later, has produced a respectful, insightful book.

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Malka Marom (left) and Joni Mitchell, California, 1973.
Malka Marom (left) and Joni Mitchell, California, 1973.Credit: Malka Marom

Malka Marom did not want to go home that night. Her life was at a personal and professional crossroads. She needed to process her thoughts and make crucial decisions, so she drove through the streets of Toronto. It was November 1966. Her marriage had fallen apart. She had been married very young, to a Canadian man who met her in Israel and took her back to Toronto with him. They had two small children. Her musical career, however, looked like a success story. Marom sang in a duo with Joso Spralja, a Croat-Canadian singer, and they performed on Canada’s most respected stages. Malka & Joso – their on-stage moniker – even had a weekly program on Canadian television.

But what looked like a success story from the outside was a painful one for Marom, who had to deal with attempts by people in the entertainment and television industry – all of them men – to force her into the polite Anglo-Saxon mold. She argued with Joso, who told her that as a woman about to become a single mother in a foreign country, she would be better served holding her tongue and playing the game.

Marom, who was born in Poland in the 1930s and came to Israel with her parents when she was 3-weeks-old, did not want to go home. In the end, she went into a café, The Riverboat – a small place that was full on the nights when well-known folk musicians such as Gordon Lightfoot performed. But that night, the place was almost empty. Marom sat down in the corner and drank a cup of coffee, lost in thought. And then, a teenage girl who looked to Marom to be about 17 or 18 years old, 20 at most, got up on stage.

“On the lit-up stage – a platform only a foot, if that, off the floor – stood a girl who must have picked out her miniskirt at the Salvation Army. With her back turned to the empty seats, she seemed totally engrossed in trying to tune her guitar and failing, trying and failing, which gave me the impression that she was one of the waitresses who had nothing better to do than to playact at being the performer.

“She turned to face the empty seats and, leaning closer to the mike, she strummed a progression of chords with a surprisingly assertive hand. They were unlike any chords I’d heard before. I found myself hanging on every note. And then she started to sing. From verse to verse, her song was like a kaleidoscope that splintered my perception, turned it round and round, then refocused to illuminate a reality I had not dared to see.”

So writes Marom in her new book “Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words” (published last month by the Canadian publishing house ECW Press), which is more like a long interview with the great folk-singer. In a telephone interview to mark the book’s release, Marom recalls the moment she heard the Mitchell song “I Had a King,” about a man who leads a woman to marry too early – a moment that, she says, changed her life. That moment, she writes, was when she realized she could not continue holding on to illusions and remaining in denial: her marriage was over. Then she approached Mitchell, and the meeting between them led to a friendship, and finally to the writing of a new book.

A memory you don’t want to touch

After that night, which Marom says she experienced as a kind of religious epiphany, she became the number-one fan of Mitchell, then 23 and unknown. She called people at record companies and brought them to The Riverboat to hear Mitchell. At her own performances, meanwhile, she urged people to go and hear her perform in cafés throughout Toronto. Marom also sang some of Mitchell’s songs, “but let’s be honest: I wasn’t talented enough to sing them the way they ought to be sung,” she says.

Marom was the first, or among the first, to notice Mitchell’s enormous talent. But it did not take long for many others to listen and be captivated. Mitchell’s star ascended. She left Canada, and she and Marom fell out of touch. In the meantime, Marom left her musical career and embarked on a new career as a radio journalist, which she continued for many years.

In 1973, she tried to get back in touch with Mitchell and ask whether she was willing to be interviewed. Although Mitchell kept her distance from the media during that time and gave few interviews, Marom hoped she would agree to an interview in her case. She was right. Marom traveled to Los Angeles and conducted a long interview with Mitchell (who was recording her album “Court and Spark” at the time). The interview was broadcast on Canadian radio.

About six years later, when Mitchell was in the midst of her album “Mingus,” Marom interviewed her again, and that interview was also broadcast on Canadian radio. They fell out of touch once more.

Also in the 1970s, Marom conducted a long interview with another great Canadian singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen, which came about thanks to the broadcast of the interview with Mitchell. (Marom is currently at work on her next book, which is about her acquaintance with Cohen.)

But Marom never would have considered publishing a book of interviews with Mitchell if her son Daniel, who lives in Israel, had not given her transcribed versions of those radio interviews as a birthday gift, some years ago. “I didn’t want to see them at first,” she says. “Those programs were like a pleasant memory that you don’t want to touch. But when I read the interviews, I was amazed. They go much deeper in writing than they do on the radio. On the radio, everything goes by very quickly. There’s no time to think about what Joni is saying. And she is no ordinary interviewee. She treated those interviews almost like an art study.”

That same day, by coincidence, Marom met a literary editor she had known in Toronto. “I told her about the interviews, and about the surprise I had felt when I had read them. I asked her, ‘Do you think there’s potential for a book here? It’s a pity that only I and a few friends and relatives will read it.’ She asked me to send her the interviews, and the next morning she called and said that her publisher was dying to see them.”

When the decision was made to publish the book, Marom called Mitchell and asked for another interview. More than 30 years had passed since their previous interview. Marom says Mitchell has not changed in any way. “Our character traits become more prominent and deeper the older we get,” says Marom. “Joni’s absolute honesty, her directness, are more to the fore than ever. Her language – her sentences sound like poetry, even today. She says she is less sharp than in the past, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Leonard Cohen once told me that we get braver as we grow older. Both Joni and I have become braver.”

In the 1973 interview, Mitchell told Marom that, two years before they met in 1966, she had borne a daughter and given her up for adoption. She told Marom that she had been trying to locate her daughter (she found her many years later) and asked that Marom not reveal that fact or tell anyone. “I kept it in a safe,” Marom says.

The story of Mitchell’s daughter was published some 20 years later, and after Marom recounts, in the book’s introduction, how she was asked to keep it a secret, it would seem that such a traumatic incident would have been discussed at length in her book. But it isn’t. Marom places it in context, writing that raising a child without a father in mid-1960s Toronto was something that was not done. But she does not focus on the episode in her interview with Mitchell, even though it definitely had a profound effect on her work.

Profound emotional crisis

Marom says Mitchell is “strong – strong as her song,” and that it is hard to make her cry. But there were times in Mitchell’s life when she cried without ceasing, and one of the most fascinating and moving parts in the book focuses on such a time. Mitchell recalls how, at the height of her success, just before and during the recording of her signature album, “Blue” [released in 1971], she underwent a profound emotional crisis, and tells of the effect it had on her.

“I lost my daughter. I made a bad marriage. I made a couple of bad relationships after that. And then I got this illness – crying all the time.

“It also simultaneously appeared when my insights became keener, so I could see painfully – things about people I didn’t want to know. I’d just look at a person and I’d know too much about them that I didn’t want to know. And because everything was becoming transparent, I felt I must be transparent, and I cried.

“I dreamed I was a plastic bag sitting on an auditorium chair watching a big fat women’s tuba band. Women with big horns and rolled-down nylons in house dresses playing tuba and big horn music, and I was a plastic bag with all my organs exposed, sobbing on an auditorium chair at that time. That’s how I felt. Like my guts were on the outside. I wrote ‘Blue’ in that condition. In other cultures, that would be called a shamanic conversion. In this culture, it would be called a nervous breakdown. Your nerves are on fire.”

Suffering is one of the largest topics in this book of interviews. Although Mitchell refuses to be seen as a victim and is horrified by the thought that anyone would pity her, Marom’s interviews with her reveal a web of suffering. Her bout with polio at 9 years old; giving up her daughter for adoption, which was not discussed at length but hovers over the book (one cannot help thinking that Mitchell’s obsession with original sin stems from that emotional wound); her nervous breakdown when she was working on “Blue”; and the skin disease that struck her in recent years, making her life difficult.

The book shows Mitchell to be a woman of great determination alongside endless sensitivity and, above all, uncompromising, almost fierce individuality. “I was never a feminist,” Mitchell says at another point in the book. “I was in argument with them. They were so down on the domestic female, the family, and it was breaking down. And even though my problems were somewhat female, they were of no help to mine. I was already past that. I don’t want to get a posse against guys. The men need correcting. The feminists were emulating them.”

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