Marina Maximilian Finds Emotion and Simplicity Reaches Audiences Best with “Late Bloomer”
Photo Credit: Shai Franco
Marina Maximilian is a classically trained pianist, composer, jazz vocalist, and solo artist who has worked in multiple languages, as well as being an actress whose latest work you can see on the show Fauda on Netflix. She was born in the Ukraine and grew up in Israel where her public life in music began at a young age and gained considerable national attention. She began also releasing music in English in 2014, and in 2020 joined the label AntiFragile, with whom she has been releasing singles such as “Late Bloomer” and “Acting Like” as a prelude to a new English-language album in 2022.
I spoke with Marina from her home in Israel and we discussed the broad sweep of her career, her evolving identity as an artist with a strong connection to family and parenthood, and what these new singles tell us about her musical trajectory. She also highlighted the key roles of positivity and simplicity in her personal and professional life as she moves towards her goals.
Americana Highways: On some of your recent work, I can tell that your experience of parenthood is being brought into your perspective. What was the first song that you wrote where you were aware of that new point of view?
Marina Maximillian: Actually, I was writing about the sense or feeling of being a mother for many years before I was a mother because I thought a lot about it. I would think or write about the children I would have, or even in the spiritual sense, there are beautiful exercises where you can speak to your inner child. I work with these kind of ideas a lot, but obviously, being a mother is quite different from thinking about it. The first clear instance was the song “Acting Like.” I wrote that song while the kids were asleep in another room and I was thinking about that. For years, I thought it was very egotistical to talk about myself when I writing a song, so I would write about other people, but what I found out was that only when I wrote as openly as I could about myself would it really reach other people.
It was an interesting evolution and I had a lot of discussions about it with my mom and grandmother, because we emigrated from the Ukraine to Israel, and when we were in the Ukraine, there was the KGB, and things were very secretive. But even once I became famous in Israel, and I was speaking a little too openly about myself, I felt that it was alright because in every case when a person hears a song, they are thinking about themselves. But now, especially, when it comes to writing songs, I try to phrase things very carefully to focus on the special moments in life, because I feel that the right people will be drawn to the music and it will speak to them.
AH: I think that’s quite true that the emotion in a song is the biggest bridge to the audience.
MM: I totally agree with you. I grew up as a classical vocalist, an opera singer, and a jazz pianist. Then I was a jazz vocalist. In Israel, I tried to reach out to as many people as possible without talking too much about myself. The thing that always created the best position between being myself and being clear, or being too avant-garde, too jazzy, or too sophisticated, was looking for the emotion. I always said to myself, “Say what you want to say. Don’t ever ruin the message but be clear in how you say it. Because then people can connect to the emotion.”
AH: Since you work in multiple languages, though these new songs are in English, are you your own editor when writing lyrics? Are you hard on yourself to make sure that your lyrics are not too complicated and can reach audiences?
MM: Actually, yes. In Hebrew, for sure. In English, I work with my best friend, with whom I’m celebrating twenty years of friendship this year. Her name is Yael Biegon-Citron and she is also an artist. She grew up in America and we write together. I’m the editor in the partnership because she’s more avant-garde and deeply into art.
AH: Since your lyrics require a lot of thought, is it then a relief to write music, since that doesn’t have to be translated as much?
MM: Actually, the music also goes through transformation in other languages. The timing, the phrasing, and the musicality of every language is very different. It’s inspiring, actually. I’ve been doing music for so many years that every challenge brings something interesting with it and I’m happy about that. The musicality of Hebrew, which is a very ancient language, is very interesting. For instance, in English, you understand the meaning of most words on the first syllable. In Hebrew, it’s the opposite, it’s on the second, or third, or even the fourth, syllable. Everything is longer in Hebrew, and obviously that affects the music as well. Russian is also different and has a very different flavor. I love this musical ocean. I love the variety and whatever it brings. There is a song, “Let Him See,” where I have a Hebrew and an English version.
AH: I saw some of your videos for some of your Hebrew songs, and to me they seemed a little more avant-garde and arts-driven than your English language song videos. Do you think that’s true?
MM: That is so interesting. Actually, because I became famous in Israel when I was 19, when I was really into jazz and deeply into art, I zig-zagged a lot. As I grew as an artist, I noticed that when I would communicate with people on the street, that my music was too narrow. I like to communicate with a large variety of people. I grew up in an area of slums where people were not into classical music or jazz. I loved these people, who were very simple but street smart, and I realized that I wanted to sing to them. I didn’t want them to think, “This is not for you.”
I started to change direction and focus on the content and not the shape of the music. I decided to use less makeup, less hair, and think about what I wanted to say. As a person, I love being colorful, but more than that, I want to touch peoples’ hearts. If I want to do that, I need to focus. So I think what you were seeing was me growing up, on one hand, and also the fact that I’m much freer in speaking to audiences outside of Israel. Also, being a mother really changed me, so I have less time to waste on things that are less important to me. I want to be meaningful to my family and to the world, so that makes me keep things simple.
AH: One of your singles and videos, “Late Bloomer,” is a little different in that you’d like to draw attention to the athlete Dror Cohen, who lost his ability to walk in an accident and afterwards became an extreme athlete. Was the song something you wrote and later associated with him, or did you always have him in mind?
MM: I did write the song first as a confession about where I am right now in my life, being 34, having a successful career here in Israel. My family sacrificed and emigrated for my future, and the future of my brothers, like all the immigrants around the world. I feel so lucky to be able to give them a sense of satisfaction. They come to almost every show and dance on the sideline. I’m so grateful for my audience, and I appreciate them. I feel blessed. And yet, there are more things to come and I pay a price to fulfill myself, which I express in the song.
I talk about it for all the women in the world, because we demand so much and expect so much of ourselves. We want to be feminine, but also powerful, have a career, but also have fun with friends, have families, but also explore the world. We expect everything and we need to have a lot of forgiveness when things go differently than we expect. I have to accept some things, like feeling guilty and grateful when I get to follow my sound and leave my babies with daddy. That’s the song that I wrote to support myself and others on that journey. We still have so many goals, and we should have those.
Then, when I started thinking about the video, I wanted to take things to a different level. I was thinking about it while driving my car, which is one of my sweet spots in life, and I thought about Dror. He’s such an inspiring person. I met him when I was 13 years old when he gave a lecture. He’s someone who is in a wheelchair but actually created an organization for extreme athletes with special needs. He lectures about it all over the world. Every time I talk with him, he sends me pictures from where he is at the moment, and he’s in the desert in his jeep, or he’s at a crazy party. He’s having more fun than all of us.
One time, I had a performance where I was feeling exhausted, and I barely had any voice left. It was a terrible situation. I felt so sorry for myself. It was a live show. Then, in the first row, I noticed Dror in his wheelchair dancing like crazy. I looked at him, and said to myself, “Shut up, and say ‘Thank you’, and have the time of your life!” This is a magnificent, powerful energy that he brings with him, and I wanted to show that to the world in the video.
AH: That’s a great way of putting it. I was thinking, when you were talking about the expectations we put on ourselves, that they can be a positive force that drives you, or they can become a negative thing that overshadows you when you feel you aren’t living up to them. I wondering, “How do we keep that positive?” But then you mention Dror, and I begin to understand a little bit more. It’s about that energy. Seeing people who have that energy helps us keep it positive.
MM: Totally, because the inner dialog is always there. We are never only in depressive zone or only feeling optimistic, it’s a constant dialog inside of us. Sticking to people who inspire us is the thing. It also means letting go of people who, unfortunately, for some reason always feel that life is too hard and that things never go right. Because that’s just a matter of perspective, it’s not reality.
AH: That’s a very good point. Dror clearly has an excellent perspective on everything. But I do wonder what caused him to go in one direction rather than another. He could have let his accident absolutely destroy his willpower. Do you get a sense of why he chose a more positive direction?
MM: You know, I’ll ask him that. I want to ask him that and make a video out of it, because I want people to hear his answer to that. I’m sure he talked about it the first time we met, when I was 13, but I want to hear it again as a grown up. I’m sure it’ll be inspiring, like everything about him.
AH: I also really liked the pacing of the video footage of Dror’s life because you got through the ascent of his struggle, then you finally see him smiling a little towards the end, realizing he’s achieved some of his goals in life.
MM: Yes, and he actually didn’t win that contest he was in. But I wanted us to go with him and experience it. It’s like the inner dialog we just talked about, knowing how in higher moments to stay grounded, and in lower moments, to keep the small, inner smile. It may be a failure, but it’s better to have a failure than none of that journey.
AH: I have also seen an acoustic version of this song, “Late Bloomer,” which has a video filmed at the piano. I loved hearing the simplified structure of the song.
MM: That’s the way that it was written. My team keeps reminding me that people outside of Israel are new to me and don’t know anything about me. They need to see just me and me playing, so we shot the video at my home while my girls were at kindergarten. They didn’t know it was happening, or they would have crashed the party! I wanted people to see my living room and piano, with my great guitar player, so we cleaned the place up a little.
Another thing about doing the acoustic version is that I’m a control freak, and I have no problem with that. I have learned the piano, and I compose, and I write, and I sing. I want to take control in every way. But then the producer and the computer came into my world, and I have realized that I’m nothing without a producer. But the acoustic version is a way of showing the essence of the song, how it was born, and its energy.
I’m lucky enough that my producer is my husband, Guy Mentesh, the father of my girls. It’s a beautiful deal, particularly for me. I can be very tough in the studio, though I’m working on that, since it’s hard to do everything and then have someone else take over, but at least it’s someone I want to open up to. I started off being a fan of his music and I completely adore him. One of the reasons it took me so many years to release my first album was because it was hard to decide on genres, like classical, and jazz, but it also took a lot of time to find the right Producer to work with. Finding the right Producer is like finding love, it’s so rare.