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There's a wonderful moment in Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words: Conversations With Malka Marom in which both Marom and Mitchell exchange amusing stories of Leonard Cohen, and meeting his Buddhist master, Roshi. As they banter about him and his not-so-honorable intentions, the reader feels like a guest at a first-rate dinner party, listening to incredible people tell fascinating tales about other incredible people. That is what makes this new book about Joni Mitchell so special: not the gossip, but the relationship between these two women.
Marom is a remarkable woman herself; she began her career as a folksinger as part of the duo Malka & Joso and has since become an award-winning documentary filmmaker and radio broadcaster. In fact, her short introduction at the beginning of the book on her own life is fascinating enough to be expanded into a book of its own.
She tells the tale of how she first met Mitchell in 1966 during her early days on the Toronto coffeehouse circuit. Because of their long history together, it's apparent Mitchell is comfortable and relaxed answering Marom's questions - which comprise the book's "conversations" - and comes across as warm, intelligent and actually quite modest at times.
In fact, the chronology of the interviews is quite effective, as it offers different and interesting perspectives at unique points in Mitchell's career. The first was conducted when Mitchell was at the height of her success during the making of Court & Spark in 1973; the second in 1979, when she was in the midst of her more experimental years; and the final and most recent interview from 2012, where she looks back at her life and work with new wisdom.
The transcripts of these interviews reveal plenty of amusing tidbits and recollections, particularly concerning Bob Dylan and the aforementioned Cohen. Dylan doesn't get half the chiding you might expect, although he's, without a doubt, something of a fallen hero for Mitchell. Cohen is mostly spoken of with affection (and sometimes bewilderment) as both Mitchell and Marom are still good friends with him; Mitchell even mentions having a wonderful time at one of his recent concerts in the 2012 interview.
There are also fascinating little glimpses into Mitchell's everyday life, like her enjoyment of Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris ("It's brilliant. It's got a brilliant conclusion: enjoy the air you're part of"); her anecdote about turning down $1m to appear for one night in Las Vegas ("That's stupid integrity, isn't it?"); her apathy regarding TV talent shows ("The judge's panel... they like volume... it's contemporary taste, it's just not mine"); her views on relationships these days ("I really watch out for any romance at my age. A friendship, yeah... but no romance"); and the fact that, although unimpressed by a lot of modern music, Mitchell really likes Emeli Sandé ("She's a great new talent, the first one I've heard in 20-something years").
Ultimately, though, Marom's immensely readable book isn't really about the gossip; it's about Joni Mitchell's art. It is, without a doubt, the best book so far about her creative process and her continuing need to innovate and make completely unique music. In her most recent interview, she tells Marom, "I was never addicted to applause... the measure for me was the art itself." Even her accounts of her youth, her time as an unwed mother alone in Toronto, and her unhappy first marriage to Chuck Mitchell, are told in relation to how they formed her as an artist - and are often quite revealing.
Mitchell's frustration with how some of her more challenging and innovative work has been received is still a bone of contention for her, but it's most obvious in the 1979 interview, done just before her collaborative album with Charles Mingus was released. (There are also lots of warm recollections of the time she spent working with the jazz legend.)
Rather nicely, a lot of her artwork is included throughout, along with lyrics from many of her greatest songs. As the women discuss the writing, recording and often-detailed meanings behind the words, referencing the full text makes it easy to understand exactly what they are talking about. Other books about Mitchell have tried to get to the root of her songs in this way, but learning the background and process from Mitchell herself is what makes this book particularly special and insightful, as she, like her songs, is never afraid to open her heart and be truthful.
Whether speaking about events in her life that inspired her art, or her opinions about the world (everything from religion to sexism to evils of the music business is covered), or people she's known, she is always as interesting and brilliant as her songs would suggest.
In 1979, Marom asks Mitchell what her goal for her career is. "To make modern American music," she replies, simply. This book, an absolutely essential read for any Joni Mitchell fan, reveals she has achieved so much more than that as a poet, painter, and musician. But it also makes you wish you could be friends with both Mitchell and Marom, just to listen to them talk some more.
Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words: Conversations with Malka Marom is out September 9, 2014, from ECW Press.
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