It’s a little bit funny, is it not, how so many of the 60s and 70s artists supposed to have been left choking in the dust of punk’s storm-troopers have turned out to be producing some of the best music of their lives right now, and doing really quite nicely, thank you, in the concert halls of the world? Meanwhile those other chippy chappies are, for the most part, grateful to be churning out the same old stuff in the, ahem, shitholes of the world?
The renaissance of Leonard Cohen, most notably, has been nothing short of remarkable, while Judy Collins, the woman who did an awful lot to popularise his songs, along with Joni Mitchell’s compositions and many others of that singer-songwriter generation, has continued to make music, write books and campaign for causes close to her heart well into her own 70s. She tours constantly, to the tune of a 100 or more dates a year, and her new album Together Again has just entered the Billboard Top 100 (in the same week, as fate would hilariously have it, as Keith Richards’ new album).
Together Again is an album of duets with male singers, from serial collaborators like Willie Nelson and Jackson Browne to the unexpected likes of Jeff Bridges, Ari Hest and Bhi Bhiman. She revisits some of her own hits, duetting on Send In The Clowns with Don McLean and on Someday Soon with Jimmy Buffett, and also showcases new young songwriters like Hest (actually, and generously, the first voice you hear on the album on the title track) and Glen Hansard. She even puts her own stamp on her old pal Leonard’s oft-recorded, oft-murdered Hallejulah and explores, as she has done before, the world of musical theatre, duetting with Bridges on a version of Make Our Garden Grow, from the troubled Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman operetta Candide. It is, in short, as fearless a collection as you could wish from an artist who doesn’t have much left to prove but goes for it anyway.
Collins has talked about her past often enough, not least in her seven books. So I start off by asking her about the new album. Were the songs and singers entirely of her own choice or were they, to some extent, influenced by logistics and the singers’ own desires?
“Well, it was a bit of both,” she says. “I knew who I wanted and I went about it but I let the whims of both the other artists and my own intrigue with certain songs forge the way.
“For instance, I’d sung with Ari before and when I found that song Strangers Again I knew I wanted to do it with him. So then I thought ‘well, let’s reach out to some other singers’ but I did have some different ideas. I thought maybe Jeff Bridges might want to do Crazy Heart but he had a different idea, which was good for me because I didn’t know Candide at all. I approached Don McLean because I was doing some shows with him and I wanted to sing Vincent with him. But he said ‘oh no, I’m bored with that song. You’re going to laugh but why don’t we do Send In The Clowns together?’
“Jimmy Buffett I just ran into at a party and we had a good long chat during which told him about the project and he said ‘I’ve always wanted to sing Someday Soon with you. I wanted to do Hallejulah just to honour Leonard and I’m not one to be shy about something that’s been recorded, even as often as that song has. When I recorded Send In The Clowns for instance, I called Harold Prince about it and he said ‘well you might be thrown off by the fact that it’s already been recorded by 200 people’. I said that doesn’t bother me at all.”
The song When I Go by the late Dave Carter, on which she duets with Willie Nelson, she enthuses, “is just one of the most intriguing songs I’ve ever run across. I wasn’t familiar with at all before and the suggestion came from a fan who has been to 75 of my shows in the last two and half years. So you really never know where these things might come from. I’ll normally listen to a song sung by another singer only when I’m first learning it because I don’t want to be influenced by anything, or get something into my mind that I then can’t get out of it. The exception, though, was that song which I listened to Dave Carter doing over and over, because I’m crazy about it.”
Although Collins is a gifted songwriter in her own right, she’s also been a significant populariser of other people’s songs. Does that mean she’s forever bombarded by would-be songwriters shopping their songs to her? “Yes and no, in that the ones that ought to be don’t and the ones that can’t write have,” she laughs. “I’ll tell you something, though, which is that they land in my lap and there’s something mystical about it.”
She adds: “I lived in the Village [Manhattan’s Greenwich Village] for a long time in the 60s so I ran into these guys in the street, you know. Tom Paxton would sing a little Rambling Boy to me and I’d go off and record it. Or Phil Ochs would bring over Eric Andersen to my apartment and say ‘I told Eric that you were going to record my song tomorrow so he wants to bring you one of his’. Then I got a phone call from Al Kooper and he put on Joni Mitchell and she sang me Both Sides Now. My friend Mary Martin called me up and said Leonard wants to come and see you because he has songs and he wants you to listen to them, you’re the only person he wants to play them for in New York.
“So they just kind of fall into my lap, I’m glad to say.”
Speaking of Greenwich Village and what seems like a magical time, what did she make of the Coen brothers film Inside Llewelyn Davies [the story was partly inspired by the autobiography of folk singer Dave Van Ronk?
“I hated that movie with a passion,” she fulminates. “Let me say it again, it is a disgusting movie – nothing in it represents anything that was going on and I hate it. In order to test out my original feeling about it, my husband and I tried to watch it again recently and just gave up. There was magic in the air then, you’re right, but unfortunately the Coens didn’t capture any of it.”
Obviously, she’s lost none of her passion over the years, remaining a staunch supporter of UNICEF and other causes.
“We all learned at the feet of Pete Seeger,” she observes, deftly tying together the Greenwich Village past with the present which includes her recent, and bracingly candid, memoir Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music, complete with recollections of not only of her turbulent childhood but also her inspiring victories over depression and alcoholism.
The title, of course, comes from the Stephen Stills song about their intense love-affair, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, as featured on the first Crosby, Stills And Nash album and still in their set-list to this day.
He wrote the song for her in 1968 as they were breaking up and first sang it to her at a hotel in Santa Monica, California. “We both wept. It was supposed to get me back, but it didn’t,” she chuckles. The two still see each other regularly, though. “It’s good to be friendly with people who write a hit song about you,” she quips.
One of the realities of having had such a lengthy career is that there are a lot of songs you simply have to do in concert, lest an audience member be heartbroken by some omission. That must sometimes be hard, I suggest.
“I always do the songs as if I’ve never done them before,” she tells me. “If there’s a secret, it’s always to be surprised, always to be involved with the lyric, always to find something new. The combination of the singer and the audience is magic.
“You never know when something that you’ve done will help somebody else. That’s what art is for, to help us experience each other’s losses and triumphs.”
Judy Collins performed at the Royal Northern College Of Music on October 15, 2015. She performs at The Sage Gateshead on October 19, 2015