All those music lessons paid off for Judy Collins

Judy CollinsBy Barry Gilbert 

Her enormous blue-gray-green eyes were half closed, her long hair swung gently across her back and her white-stockinged ankles urged the heavy beat. Judy Collins performed for her friends at the Oakdale Muscial Theater Sunday night.”

This is the lead paragraph of a concert review I wrote for the Hartford Courant on July 16, 1968. I was 19 – it clearly reads that way to me now – and I had quite the crush on the performer.

By then, Judy Collins, a classically trained pianist, had been a teen prodigy in Denver, performing Mozart with the Denver Symphony Orchestra at age 13. She was a veteran of the folk circuit and, drawing on her training, had already expanded her palette from guitar-accompanied folk music to orchestrated pop songs, art songs and show tunes.

She had recorded the groundbreaking “In My Life” and “Wildflowers” albums in 1966 and 1967, respectively, and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” her eighth, would be released a couple of months later. It would include her own composition, “My Father,” and feature songs by writers she continued to champion: Leonard Cohen, Ian Tyson, Sandy Denny, Bob Dylan and Robin Williamson.

I interviewed Judy Collins before her concert in her green room, a small trailer behind the venue in Wallingford, Conn., sitting across from her in the cramped quarters and staring into those eyes. She was the first celebrity/artist I had ever interviewed. I was starstruck and smitten, no doubt about it. 

Collins turned 75 on May 1. She is a worldwide performer, PBS star and road warrior equally at home with large orchestras or simply with her piano and guitar. She has survived alcoholism and laser surgery to save her voice, and lived through the 1992 tragedy of losing her son to suicide. She wrote about that in bestselling books, “Singing Lessons” (1998) and “Sanity and Grace” (2003), and is an advocate for the mentally ill.

The recent “Live in Ireland” is her 50th release.

So it was a real treat to interview her again after all these years, by phone from her home in New York City in advance of her concert in Edwardsville, Ill., on May 17, 2014.

My only regret is I couldn’t see those eyes.

Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity. (My story for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch based on this interview can be found at stltoday.com.)

Q: This is kind of special for me because you were the very first artist interview I ever did …

Collins: Ohhhh! …

Q: … back in 1968.

Collins: Oh, my goodness!

Q: We talked in your trailer behind the Oakdale Music Theater in Wallingford, Conn.

Collins: (Laughing) Oh my …

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about the “Live in Ireland” album, your most recent record. It’s a beautiful record. You’ve done some other Irish songs in the past, even on your first couple of purely folk records. Have you always loved Irish music, and where did that exposure come from?

Collins: I was very involved with the Irish from the beginning with my family, because of my father, who was Irish and English but felt strongly that he was only Irish. He sang all of those old great songs. So I was introduced to them in the womb, probably.

Q: What is the first song you remember singing, and were you singing with him?

Collins: Oh, things like “Danny Boy” and “The Kerry Dances,” and of course I would go on his radio show and sing the Great American Songbook with him, which I also learned. But I was confused at first because I thought that the Irish songs he was singing were probably Rodgers and Hart. I didn’t realize until my teens that they were folk songs.

Q: The album is really interesting in that the traditional Irish songs and the Harry Chapin song (“Cat’s in the Cradle”) and, of course, the Joni Mitchell song (“Chelsea Morning”) are all kind of seamless, it all just seems very natural together. Did you know that would happen?

Collins: Oh sure, I’m hoping (laughs). You wish for the best and prepare for the worst and are happy with the way it comes out.

Q: And your voice is just as clear and as strong as ever. Do you obsessively take care of it?

Collins: Not obsessively. I try to stay healthy, eat right. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t scream. I don’t stay up all night. I get plenty of rest. And I’ve had good training. And I hope that I can continue to get better and better. That’s what was intended by all that money and time that went into lessons (laughs). So it seems to be going pretty well.

Q: I remember back in the ’60s there was almost a thing, at least among my friends, that there were Joan Baez fans and Judy Collins fans. Was there a rivalry? Did you and Joan consider yourselves rivals?

Collins: Oh, no. It was maybe in the press. We were very good friends, always, from the start.

Q: Was there a camaraderie, you and Joan and Mimi Farina, Maria Muldaur?

Collins: I was extremely close to Mimi. (Singer and activist Farina, Joan Baez’s younger sister, died of cancer in 2001 at age 56.) Mimi was a very close friend, I mean closer than anybody. She was a best friend. It was a wonderful friendship, and I was crazy about her, and devasted when she died. That was a terrible loss.

Q: You were a classical piano student into your teens. Do you remember the moment or the song that started you thinking about switching to folk music?

Collins: Yes. I was listening to the radio, and I heard “The Gypsy Rover,” first of all, and that caught my ear, and I went down and bought the record. The next song I heard was “Barbara Allen.” With those two songs, my whole career was set in motion really.

Q: Was this in Denver?

Collins: Yes.

Q: Did the record store stock a lot of folk music?

Collins: They had a folk music section, which I was surprised to find, because I didn’t realize, of course, that anything like that existed.

(Collins was signed by legendary producer Jac Holzman to Elektra Records after several years of performing in folk clubs. Her first album, “A Maid of Constant Sorrow,” was released in 1961. Put in perspective: Dylan’s first record was still a year away.)

Q: For the first two or three or four albums, you did a lot of traditional songs, songs by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie … then you discovered the Joni Mitchells and the Leonard Cohens, Randy Newman and, of course, Dylan. What were you looking for? Did the songs find you or did you find them?

Collins: It’s always been some of both, I think. It was interesting. I think songs always locate me, they land in my lap and then I identify them, and if they’re right, I know it immediately. And if they’re wrong, I don’t bother with them. So that was always true.

People came to me with songs; they were suggested to me. People arrived on my doorstep singing them, in the case of Leonard Cohen. In the case of Joni Mitchell, on the phone. Somebody called me and put me on the phone with her, and she sang me “Both Sides Now.” An old friend sent me the album with “Send in the Clowns” on it and said, “You have to hear this!” It happened in that way a lot, and it still does.

Q: Who among newer, younger artists have come to you that way?

Collins: Ari Hest showed up on my doorstep at a little performance in New York at the Cutting Room a couple of years ago, and he’s been on my show. The song that I did with him on this Irish show (“The Fire Plays”) is one I heard him sing on his new album and just loved it.

Amy Speace is on my label (Wildflower Records), I’ve recorded one of her songs, “Weight of the World.” Kenny White showed up at my label, I started recording him, and one of his songs we’ve worked on. Another writer who’s wonderful is Michael Veitch. I like to listen to all kinds of music, so I quite often run into new songs or new singers, or I’m looking for old things.

I just sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as sort of a big salute to Paul Simon. I have recorded that song, but I don’t often sing it in concerts, and now I’ve put it back in the show.

Q: When you expanded your palette for “In My Life” with strings and some show tunes, what was the impetus for that, what was your thinking at the time?

Collins: Getting into something new. We wanted to take a hard left turn. Well, it wound up being extremely controversial, getting the worst and the best reviews ever (laughs).

Q: Sounds like Dylan at Newport.

Collins: Absolutely, it was a huge departure for anybody who’d been doing what I’d been doing. And in my case, it was introducing the orchestral elements and doing material that wasn’t folky. Certainly, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht were not folky. The music from the “Marat/Sade” was not folky, nor was “In My Life” itself, that song, not folky. Maybe it’s considered so now, but it certainly wasn’t then.

Q: Having come from the classical world, was that a more natural thing for you to do than maybe for some other performers?

Collins: Maybe. Well my background’s been very, very eclectic, so I was really open to many things that perhaps wouldn’t have been attractive to other people. But you know we all carry with us our pasts and we can look back, but we don’t necessarily have to stare. But a lot of it is valuable. In my case, it was the whole training and education in music.

Q: Your shows are very different, some with orchestras, some with small group. What are you planning for the show here?

Collins: It doesn’t matter what the size is. You’ll find it’s a Judy Collins show (laughs), and I’ll do a couple of things from the Irish show, and I’ll sing a couple of new songs. I wrote a new song for the Irish show called “New Moon Over the Hudson.” And also I’ll be doing of course some of the classics, and a couple of surprises. … I travel with my musical director. He plays a lot of piano, and so do I. And I play guitar.

Q: You’ve also been very successful as an author, though sadly much of that success has been rooted in tragedy.

Collins: Well I consider it the phase of my life when I’m talking about and writing about mental health. And it’s something that we all have a part in. So I may have more extreme experiences, but everybody has something that they can identify with.

Q: Is it therapeutic? I imagine it would be.

Collins: Oh absolutely. Absolutely.

Q: What are you working on at the moment?

Collins: I’m working on a new album of Sondheim songs. It’s a new show, actually, that will be orchestrated, and that I’ll do in Europe and the U.K. And the States with orchestras, which will be a PBS show. And I’m working on a new book, and I don’t want to divulge that yet. So I’m always at it.

Q: Do you have any advice for young up-and-comers? You have several on your label.

Collins: Keep at it! Don’t give up. Never give up. Keep at it. Don’t let the bastards get you down. That’s my advice.

Q: You were very lucky landing with Jac Holzman and Elektra (in 1961).

Collins: Oh, yes. Well, also, after I shook hands with Jac Holzman and agreed to make a recording for Elektra in 1961 in April, a week after that, (producer) John Hammond (who later signed Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among many others) called me and said, “You’re ready to make an album for Columbia.” I said, “You know, you’re a week too late.” He and I remained friends, but you know it wasn’t just luck. It was the right time, the right place.

I was on the cusp of doing what I do, and it was clear I think to a lot of people that I’d already had a lifetime of experience growing up and a couple of years on the road doing the clubs and getting my feet – more than wet, practically drowned – and that I was ready.

Luck? You have to make your own luck. And part of my luck was made by the fact that my parents really put in the money and the time to make sure I knew what I was doing musically. And, of course, the example of my father, who was a great musician and who continued working till he fell over – that was all part of it. It was luck, and the luck you make.

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