I feel a bit ridiculous dialing Judy Collins’s phone number in Manhattan for an interview. I presume she has been asked every question imaginable during her long, distinguished career in the music business, and I’m guessing that — like a few veteran artists I have interviewed for this column — she will relish being interviewed as much as getting a root canal.
Collins picks up the phone, and I immediately realize my presumptions are wrong. She chats excitedly about her upcoming album, puts my pre-interview concerns to rest by saying every interview is a new day, and is downright friendly. She speaks without pretension despite her exalted place in the history of pop music, and we talk and talk and talk — and might still be talking if I hadn’t thanked her for her time and ended the conversation.
After our interview, I notice an interview Collins did with Bill Moyers in 2004.
“I think there’s always a new story out there to find and tell,” she told Moyers. “And I think that’s what pulls me. There is something beautiful around the corner. And there’s a new day to find that beauty. That’s what draws me. That’s what I see … . There are new things coming and new pieces of music to write, and new avenues to travel and new friends to meet.”
Judy Collins, whom many say has the most pristine, clear, and beautiful voice in pop music, celebrated her 77th birthday on May 1. Her voice, which became renowned largely for incredible renditions of other artists’ songs, remains a gorgeous instrument. She sounds as nimble and sharp on the phone as a 27-year-old, discussing her numerous upcoming projects and concerts, including some with relatively new musical friends.
In Denver earlier this month, Collins performed songs from A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim, which is expected to become a PBS special in the fall. On July 4, the excellent British label BGO Records will release remastered versions of her three 1967-1970 albums — In My Life, Wildflowers, and Whales and Nightingales. And this Friday (June 3), Collins and fellow Manhattan singer-songwriter Ari Hest will release Silver Skies Blue, which contains 11 original songs and is her first album written and sung with another musician.
“Ari is so gifted—such a great talent and such a wonderful singer,” she tells me. “It’s a natural step to have Ari sing and tour with me.”
Hest, who is less than half Collins’s age, was an opening act for her in the past. They developed a friendship and began singing and recording together. They sang Hest’s “The Fire Plays” on Collins’s 2014 album Live in Ireland and recorded another duet, Hest’s “Strangers Again,” which became the title cut of her highly praised 2015 album. It consists of 12 duets with well-known performers, including Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, and Don McLean, and younger, lesser-known singers, including Thomas Dybdahl and Bhi Bhiman.
“When I found ‘Strangers Again,’ I thought I better get a hold of that song before Taylor Swift or Diana Ross records it,” Collins says.
Long before we ever touched
Long before we knew too much
I wish we were strangers again
Long before we ever kissed
Long before I ever missed you
I wish we were strangers again
I want yesterday to come back again
Nothing is as simple as I once knew
Why can't everything be the way it was
Before the day that I lost you?
Long before the afterglow
Long before our tears fell slow
I wish we were strangers again
The Strangers Again album — released on the Wildflower label Collins created about 15 years ago — generated better reviews than any other record in her career, she says.
“I’ve been doing this forever, and I said to Ari, ‘Why don’t we try writing songs together?’ Silver Skies Blue is a new experience that was quite exciting and musically satisfying. I had never sung with someone throughout an entire album, and something extraordinary happened. Something happened that’s more than the sum of its parts, as though it was always meant to be. I am lucky he walked into my life.”
A long time ago, another talented musician walked into her life and had a big effect on the songs she would sing. Collins says she met Robert Zimmerman, who would later become Bob Dylan, when he was performing in Denver in 1959.
“He was singing Woody Guthrie songs, and he was not so hot,” Collins recalls. “He was boring. Then we met again in 1961 in Greenwich Village, and he wasn’t good there either. He was sleeping on people’s couches, and he started reading books in their libraries. The next thing, he wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ It was the most remarkable sudden rise of a star. It was unbelievable.”
How could Dylan within weeks transform into so an incredible songwriter? “He’s a genius,” Collins says. “Geniuses can’t be explained.”
Collins calls Dylan “the most influential” musician of our time and ranks Leonard Cohen second.
Though she has recorded numerous Dylan songs, including an entire album of his songs, she says she “was never a close friend. No one is. But I feel very close to him.”
It was a Dylan show in 1962 at New York’s Town Hall that she considers the best concert she has seen.
“It blew my mind,” she says. “I was sitting with Jac Holzman (the founder of Elektra Records), and I said, ‘that one, that one’” as Dylan sang "Masters of War" and other songs she immediately wanted to record.
Collins says she first heard about Cohen from the comedian Lily Tomlin and another friend. They told her that Cohen was writings songs and wanted to come to New York to play them for her.
“In 1966, Leonard came to me and said ‘I can’t play guitar, and I can’t sing.’ Then he played “Suzanne,” “The Stranger Song,” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” and I said, ‘Let’s get it on.’”
Collins recorded “Suzanne” and "Dress Rehearsal Rag" that year on her album In My Life, and it helped launch Cohen’s musical career. A year later, he released his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which included “Suzanne,” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag” appeared on Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate in 1971.
“I discovered him,” Collins says. “I pushed him on stage. He was never a guy who wanted to sing.”
At a 1966 benefit show for the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, a frightened Cohen started singing and then walked off the stage halfway through a song. “I made him go out and finish it, and I finished it with him,” Collins recalls about the show, which also featured Jimi Hendrix. “It was a watershed moment for him.”
In subsequent years, Cohen brought cassette tapes of his songs to Collins for her approval. “He’s very grateful,” she says. “For years, I would pick out the songs I liked.”
Collins says she really misses another folk singer, Dave Van Ronk, who died in 2002. Van Ronk, a Greenwich Village mainstay who mentored many aspiring folk singers and was dubbed the “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” shared a little house with Collins while they performed in Oklahoma City in the early 1960s.
“It was freezing cold, and the second story wasn’t heated,” Collins recalls. “I slept next to a pot-belly stove, and he would sit next to me and tell me stories about the Merchant Marines.”
Collins, who has lived in the same Manhattan apartment for 53 years, says New York City was a different place when she, Van Ronk, Dylan, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, and many other musicians dominated the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960s.
“New York was accessible then — small, exotic and filled with music. Everyone wanted to do their own music.”
Two 1960s concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall influenced her more than others she has seen. They were Belgian singer Jacques Brel’s shows in 1966 and 1968 — the only concerts he ever performed in the USA.
“Brel’s whole package was amazing,” Collins remembers. “I studied French in school, but my French was not that hot. It didn’t matter, though, with Brel. He made you understand whether you knew the exact French words or not.”
Collins says Montserrat Caballe, a Spanish opera singer, is one of her favorite singers today. Caballe gained wider recognition in 1997 when she sang “Barcelona,” a duet with Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.
Other female singers she enjoys listening to are early records of Joni Mitchell, the late Sandy Denny, and Adele. “I loved Sandy Denny’s clean, sparkling voice, and I like Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep.’”
Collins says that, if she was limited to owning only a few albums, they would include Songs of Scotland by Jo Stafford, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares by the Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir; Duets with the Spanish Guitar by Laurindo Almeida, and Joni Mitchell’s Hejira.
“When I was getting sober, I would listen to nothing else,” Collins says about Mitchell’s 1976 album
Unlike many of her fellow musicians who reached stardom in the 1960s and 1970s, Collins’s problem wasn’t drugs. Like her father, she was an alcoholic — for 23 years — until she went to a rehab facility and got sober in 1978.
“I didn’t do a lot of drugs,” she says. “I always felt they would interfere with my drinking.”
Despite his alcoholism, her father, who was blind, held down a respectable job. He hosted radio shows in Denver and didn’t miss a show, according to Collins. She credits him for passing down the strong work ethic that keeps driving her to create new projects.
Her work is not limited to recording albums and running her own record label. She has also written several books, including her most recent one, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music, and is a social activist, representing UNICEF and other causes.
Collins’s website may provide the best summation: “Judy Collins is as creatively vigorous as ever, writing, touring worldwide, and nurturing fresh talent. She is a modern-day Renaissance woman who is also an accomplished filmmaker, record label head, musical mentor, and an in-demand keynote speaker for mental health and suicide prevention. She continues to create music of hope and healing that lights up the world and speaks to the heart.”