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Women's Lifestyle Magazine

Judy Collins on Her Latest Album, Aging as an Artist, and the "Gentle Persuasion" of Folk Music

Oct 08, 2019 01:08PM ● By WLMagazine

Interview by Elyse Wild

St. Cecilia Music Center (SCMC) will bring folk icon and singer/songwriter Judy Collins to Grand Rapids on October 20, 2019. Judy Collins has inspired audiences with her sublime vocals, boldly vulnerable songwriting, personal life triumphs, and a firm commitment to social activism. In the 1960s, she evoked both the idealism and steely determination of a generation united against social and environmental injustices. Five decades later, her luminous presence shines brightly as new generations bask in the glow of her iconic 50-album body of work, and heed inspiration from her spiritual discipline to thrive in the music industry for half a century. On November 8, 2019, Collins will release her new album called Winter Stories.

We spoke with Collins about her prolific career, her latest album, what she looks for in a collaboration and more.

Note: Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Women's LifeStyle Magzine: Tell me about your latest album Winter Stories, which comes out in November. You collaboration with a Norwegian folk artist and a bluegrass artist, which sounds like a collaboration that could have incredible results. What were your creative motivations behind the album?

Judy Collins: I was very intrigued with this bluegrass group — they are very talented and wonderful. We decided to take a crack at it. Winter Stories has three of my songs, one of them being a great version of "The Blizzard," a song I recorded in 1989, but that whole album was dropped by Sony. I do it a lot in concert, but people have not had the ability to hear it otherwise.

We also did "Mountain Girl," which is a song I wrote a number of years ago that I also do in a concert a lot; and another one of mine called "The Fallow Way."

Then we did some songs the rest of the group had written — some beautiful songs. And then my favorite of all, which I really wanted to record with a bunch of guys, is a song called, "The Northwest Passage." It was written by a Canadian writer named Stan Rogers. I just love it.

I loved his work, but he died in the 1970s. He was absolutely brilliant,
This particular song is very close to my heart. It's about Lord Franklin and his ships, which were lost in 1842. Both ships were discovered very recently, in the last five years, in fact. He lost both of his ships in 1842, and everyone starved to death. The English explorers didn't take the advice of the inuits and learn how to dress in skins and eat the right things. They were walking around in their city clothes in the frozen north.

Anyways, the song that Stan Rogers wrote is practically an anthem in Canada, but people don't know it here. It is so gorgeous and such a beautiful song. Getting to record that song, in particular, was wonderful.

We also did Joni Mitchell's song "River," which I had always wanted to do, and a couple of other marvelous pieces. It's great, and it comes out in Novemeber, and then we will do some touring.

WLM: You being so drawn to the song "The Northwest Passage" is a great segway to my next question. A lot of your songs feel like they have a narrator. It feels as though you are channeling people other than yourself — less like you're singing the story of a character and more like you're sharing the experience of a real person through song. It makes for a very intimate listening experience. Is that intentional?

JC: I have never gone about it with that intention, but the fact is, I think there is a real reason for this. I have always been interested in stories. That's why I started really getting into folk music. The first two songs I found in the folk music tradition that changed my life — I was 15 and a half when I heard "Barbara Allen," which is a story of a guy who died for love. The other song was "The Gypsy Rover," which is an absolutely clear discussion of a woman who runs away from her situation — leaves her baby at her very wealthy home and runs off with a gypsy rover. It's a story of an adventure of the heart.

My process of choosing songs is if I listen to a song and if I fall in love with it, I'll sing it. If I don't, I'll never hear it again. In my own songwriting, I am doing a lot of storytelling. I always have. In "The Blizzard," for instance, its a whole story of a love affair. It's a drama.

Folk music is really about transmitting to the listener valuable information of how to get through life, and also showing what doesn't work.

WLM: Yes, music can really move you in ways that you might not even be aware of or in touch with.

JC: It's absolutely true. It's subconscious transformation on the part of the listener because they don't know they're being lectured to. It's storytelling and storytelling always has information that is subtle — it's a gentle persuasion.

Folk music is really about transmitting to the listener valuable information of how to get through life, and also showing what doesn't work.

WLM: You have a really distinct voice, and your music has a very distinct feel, and you often collaborate with other artists. What do you look for in collaborations? Do you set a goal for a specific outcome, or do you follow a path that unfolds as the collaboration takes place?

JC: I have to love it, and I have to love the players. I have to be very moved by what I hear and very interested in what is going to happen if we get together.

I was at the Newport Folk Festival, and there were three groups — The Shins, The Decemberists and the Fleet Foxes — and they put together a version of "Sweet Judy Blue Eyes." They sang some of it, then had me come on and sing the end of it with them. Then they all got down on their knees because I'm the inspiration for that song. It was very touching. Then I sang a duet with Robin Peckhold, who is the Fleet Foxes lead singer. We did a version of "Turn, Turn, Turn" by Pete Seger, and we discussed it afterward and said, "Let's make a recording of that." So we are going to do that this upcoming winter. I heard his voice and I said, "Oh my God. What a great voice to sing with."

I've worked over the years with dozens of incredible, phenomenal instrumentalists who have added luster to my own work. I'm not a guitarist, really; I write everything on the piano. I've had so many wonderful, wonderful artists play with me and orchestra for me.

WLM: How would you describe this point in your career? You have been creating music for most of your life, and it appears that you've kept steadfast in your creative journey. How do you keep yourself in love with the creative process? What guides you?

JC: I always, for the most part, practice a little every day. I always try to be writing something. I started writing poetry again. I wrote a poem everyday 2016, and a lot of things came out of that, including "Dreamers," which is this new song that I wrote about immigration. I heard this girl on television talking about how her mother was so worried because the girl is a Dreamer. That is the story of our time. When I sing that song in concert, people go crazy. They stand up, they scream and shout.

The way that I keep it all fresh is I read. I like history because everything gets solved, so we can see how we arrived here.

I am so blessed because I have a great career with the opportunity to sing all over the place. I get to practice. Every night that I walk on the stage, I am practicing.

When we are in the mindset of practicing, we are also acknowledging all of the influences that have helped us — all of our teachers.

I've been lucky in terms of my health. I exercise, I eat right. I take care of myself and take a day off from time to time.

WLM: One of the things that is remarkable about your career is that you turned 80 this year, and you're producing albums at a prolific rate and going on tour. Traditionally, the music industry doesn't embrace women as we age. Do you have any advice for women who are artists and aging in industries that don't typically embrace them? You appear to be just absolutely thriving.

JC: Yes, I am thriving, and I am very happy. I have been lucky. I solved a lot of problems in the past that needed to be solved — I've been sober 41 years, which is a big part of it. I would be dead if I wasn't sober.

My advice would be to never, never give up, and never let somebody else tell you that you can't. While the internet has somewhat ruined the music business, it also opens up a lot of opportunities, and there are lots of windows wide open.

When I started out, although I wound up having a wonderful record company, they were cheap too. They were crooks and did what they could to make sure I wouldn't have anything left. There are forces that are against you, but that has always been true. There's always this huge force against you; you have to realize that being on the planet is like. Never let someone tell you that you can't do what you want to do. Just keep practicing.

Click here for ticket information on Collin's Oct. 20 performance at St.Cecilia Music Center.