Judy Collins, 82, has no plans to slow down anytime soon. She recently released Spellbound, her first full album of original songs in her 60 year career.
Collins, one of the most effervescent voices of the ’60s folk movement, earned a good deal of recognition in her earlier years for interpretations of songs by other artists. She possessed a seemingly uncanny ability to pick out a hit, even and especially when the original writers were not yet household names. She included “Suzanne” on her 1966 album, In My Life, a song by the then-timid poet, Leonard Cohen. In 1968, she released a single version of “Both Sides, Now,” by Joni Mitchell, who had written the song a few years earlier but hadn’t felt it worthy for her first album — the single reached No. 8 on the charts.
In 1975, Collins recorded a cover of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” from Broadway’s 1973 production A Little Night Music. Sondheim himself had never considered the song to be of much merit. “I thought, ‘This is the kind of song that’ll be played in boites — supper clubs — and that’s all,'” he said in a 2005 interview. Collins’ version hit the top of the charts and stayed there for weeks.
Make no mistake though, Collins, who has spent most of the last several decades touring, has always been a prolific writer. It was Cohen, sometime in the latter half of the ’60s, who first asked her why she didn’t write her own songs. She responded with her first composition, “Since You’ve Asked,” and has been writing ever since. Spellbound includes a number of retrospective songs that touch on her childhood, her whirlwind life in Greenwich Village and various other snapshots of her storied career, plus songs that, as Collins describes it, arrived “mysteriously.”
Collins spoke with UCR from Santa Fe, N.M. to discuss the new album, her memories of “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” and the rigor of working in the music industry.
What has your pandemic life looked like?
Well, I was thrilled to be off the road, I can’t tell you. I was told for many years: “You have to take some time off,” and I never could. And suddenly I did. So it was an expensive rest because, of course, you know, there’s no money coming in, and there’s all the bills to pay. So hopefully, we’re catching up. … But it was wonderful. It was a real gift for me. And I had already started this album. I’d recorded four or five songs at the end of 2019, so I knew I was in the groove. And I had done a lot of writing, a lot of trying to get a lyric crafted out of attempted poems for three or four years. So I had a lot of material to go through, and I do still think that the writing of poetry, quote unquote, which really you can turn into a lyric when you sit down with it at the piano — it’s a very good access point to getting out songs that you couldn’t get out otherwise. … I’ve always written poems and I’ve always written songs right along the way, but this time I was going to concentrate only on my own songs. And so the pandemic was spent ordering food out, taking walks around the park and down the river, down the Hudson, having Zooms with friends. … and practicing the piano, singing and writing.
Do you find that it’s easier to write songs now than it was when you were younger?
No, no. I think that the combination was set very, very early. When Leonard Cohen asked me why I was not writing my own songs, and it was 1966, so I was 27 and had already made half a dozen albums. … I went home and wrote “Since You’ve Asked,” which was my first song, which I sat down at the piano and noodled away until I found it. It took me about 40 minutes to write that song. And the next song – well, I wrote a lot. I wrote “Albatross,” and then I wrote “My Father,” and then I wrote “Che,” which took me about five years to write. You know, sometimes it’s short. I think [“When I Was a Girl in Colorado”] took me a few minutes to write, and I think that “Arizona,” it took me – at least a couple years to really finish. [In the early ’60s, Collins was in Arizona playing a local concert when she fell ill and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She spent a month in Tucson Medical Center.] So it’s either one. It’s always something. It either takes a long time or a little time. But it takes tension. It takes what it takes. … Sitting down, letting the thing happen, praying that the muse will show up, and the muse, whoever the muse is — and I don’t know who my muse is, maybe it’s Leonard, probably in some form or other — but it’s always a mystery, and it will remain a mystery. I don’t care how people analyze their writing or their work or what they think. My byword is utilize, don’t analyze. Because you can think your way out of a paper box, but it’s not going to be the same as trusting your instincts and acknowledging that you don’t know where it comes from. Nobody does. Any artist worth their salt will tell you that they don’t know where it came from.
Listen to Judy Collins’ ‘When I Was a Girl in Colorado’
This particular collection of songs touches on a number of specific life experiences and where you were living at different points. But you’re saying that wasn’t purposeful, you didn’t set out to write certain songs about certain places.
No, not at all. … When the songs that I’m supposed to record arrive, they arrive mysteriously. They usually don’t have anything to do with my wishes or intentions. They just arrive.
One of my favorites on the album, as a fellow New Yorker, is “So Alive,” which is about your time in Greenwich Village’s folk scene in the ’60s. When you were coming up at that time, there were a lot of folk singers — did you feel a sense of competition or camaraderie?
Well, it was definitely camaraderie because we were hanging out together. … There was a lot of going down to the park there and playing on a Sunday. And drinking a lot in the clubs and going to hear all your favorite singers. I wasn’t home all the time, but I was home enough to get — I did have an apartment in the Village for a couple of years from ’63 to ’65 on 135 West 10th. … So I was sort of in the thick of it, and I’d wake up and go to breakfast at one of the funky joints, I can’t remember the name of it now, but it was very social and very interactive. And of course, I heard a lot of songs that I recorded. But I was sort of in the midst of it anyway, because my manager was Harold Leventhal. … The village is where all of the artists that he represented were either singing or performing or living or in the case of [Bob] Dylan — Dylan always has a question in his little book about his songwriting, I think he calls it Chronicles One — and he says he started out as somebody who was homeless and singing old Woody Guthrie. That’s when I met him, when he was Robert Zimmerman. I met him in Colorado a couple of times and then when I got to New York in ’61, and was singing at Gerde’s Folk City, he was still there, still homeless and still singing these old Woody Guthrie [songs].
Listen to Judy Collins’ ‘So Alive’
Do you remember your first impression when Stephen Stills initially played “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” for you?
Well, it was May of 1969 and Stephen and I had really parted, although he showed up at my apartment in New York often in those months after our breakup, but before our final separation, really. [He] started living with Stacy Keach and he was at the door and on my street when I took off to go to New England,. … But I went to California in May to do a concert at Santa Monica Civic. And it was my birthday. And there he came to celebrate my birthday. He brought me a beautiful old Martin [guitar] for a present, and a bunch of flowers. And then he pulled out this Martin and sang me “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” I had no idea about it. He had written it at the end of ’68 with the guys when he started to put CSN together. And he was already in the studio, but he was singing me this song and it just blew my mind, you know, and I said — we were both weeping at the end of it — and I said “You know, it’s beautiful, but it’s not going to get me back.” [laughs]
I mean, I was wrong about that, because, in fact, we remained friends for 50 years, and then in 2017, after much deliberation, and many talks and many, many shared midnight rounds of emails with 25 songs on them written from a ship in the Mediterranean to New York where I was, we finally said, “Let’s do it, let’s do the concert tour.” So we were out together for a year and a half, and we did 115 shows together. And we were on the stage for two hours together. We each had one solo show, but usually, when a duo happens one person does the first half and the other person does the second half. … But we were on stage for two hours and we had the best time in the world. One of the best things that ever happened to us. And I could say that maybe it’s because none of us — neither one of us ever said anything unforgivable to one another. You know, we were friends. We talked often and we often met together over the years. But we continued to be interested in one another’s lives.
Listen to Crosby, Stills and Nash’s ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’
When you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?
That’s a good answer. What else would you like to do with your career?
I think I’d like to try turning this album into a Broadway play. I have some highfalutin help in the wings. [laughs]
What advice would you give young singer-songwriters who are starting out, particularly female ones?
Get a job. [laughs] It’s what David Crosby advised everybody else. If you wanna go and do it, don’t. You have no clue as to how hard it is. I tell you, I was asked to do some talk with a writer from The New York Times, whom I like a lot. She was doing a piece about Brandi Carlile. I said, “Give me a couple hours, let me think about [it].” I know Brandi, I know her work and so on, and I said, “Let me just take a few minutes to think about Brandi and her career.” So I did. I went back, I looked at all the history and all of that. And I wound up saying, “God Almighty, this is the hardest thing.” I mean, I have no idea how hard that I’ve had to work. But I looked at Brandi’s career and I said, “How did I do it?” I have no idea how I did it. It was enormously hard. It was the hardest. It was unthinkable to do what I did, and it was unthinkable to do what Brandi had to do to get where she goes. I don’t know how people do it. The only thing I would say is if you have a death wish, fine. [laughs]
Listen to Judy Collins’ ‘Hell on Wheels’
People would rather hear the honest answer! Turn back now, so to speak.
Turn back now, that’s it. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a girl or boy, it doesn’t matter. You know, there’s all this talk about sexism and who has the better chance — it’s impossible for all of us. Any one of us is considered a child, first of all, by the music industry — there are so many crooks out there stealing your money, stealing your royalties. You don’t have royalties! If you’re a singer-songwriter and you were trying to make a living singing songs and recording them and having them get played all over the world, and you got no performance royalty for 60 years from ABC, CBS, NBC, because there is no performance royalty. … That’s why all of us have to be on the road for the rest of our lives. So yeah, give it a little look. … There’s a bill [Fair Play, Fair Pay Act of 2017] now to change the lack of performance royalties in this country. [The U.S. is one of only four developed countries that does not have traditional performance royalties for sound recordings and does not require compensation for recordings when they are broadcast publicly— the other three countries are North Korea, Iran, and China.]
Yeah, and that struggle seems to have been exacerbated by the pandemic. A lot of full-time musicians have found that it’s hard to be sustainable.
It’s not sustainable. I mean, not unless you’re crazy, like I am.
I hear a lot of artists talk about how they can’t imagine the idea of retiring, mainly because they feel like there are still so many doors of opportunities to open. Is that how you feel?
I was raised in an environment in which I knew that I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life. Let me put the addendum to the comments about whether or not you should become an artist: If you do, then you’ll save your own life and your own soul. Because this is the work that you were meant to do. If you don’t have that knowledge, then there would be no point in your doing this. Because this is the only way that I stay on the planet.
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