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Interview: Judy Collins

Judy Collins - photo 1
3 April 2023

Judy Collins is undoubtedly one of the hardest-working women in the music business. At eighty-three years old, she’s been performing professionally for seven decades, releasing more than fifty albums. She first gained international fame in 1967 with the single “Both Sides Now,” which earned her a Grammy award for “Best Folk Performance.” She’s also had major success as a pop singer, notably with 1975’s “Send in the Clowns.” Her versatility has led her to explore other genres, including country and rock – and all of it has been well-received. In all, eight of her albums have made it onto the U.S. Top 40 charts (including two that attained platinum sales status, and four more that went gold). Her latest album, Spellbound (2022), is nominated for a Grammy award for “Best Folk Album,” proving that her work remains as affecting as ever. She has often used her music as a platform for activism and political protest, becoming one of the most prominent artists to do so. In recognition of her trailblazing career, she will be honored with a prestigious She Rocks “Icon” award at an April 13, 2023, ceremony at The Ranch in Anaheim, California, and it will also be available to watch live online at no cost – see for details.

How did you feel when you found out you were being honored with this She Rocks award?

JUDY COLLINS: I was delighted! I’m now going into my seventieth year of performing, and I think a lot of things that have happened to me as an artist and as a person have reference to what this award is all about – women in the artistic area [who] have pursued whatever they love with passion, and sometimes facing difficulties that are unusual. I think that the music industry is not an easy route no matter who you are, but I think if you are female, there have been differences in pay, differences in attitude. And I think it provides an opportunity to celebrate people who have who’ve done more than just survived, but have affected millions of people and made a difference in the world. I think that that’s what’s being celebrated, and therefore, I’m particularly honored to be a member of this group of women who are being honored.

Since you started your career, do you think things have improved for women in the music business?

JUDY COLLINS: There’s definitely been a lot of improvement. I’m not sure that we’re equally paid for our work. Being a performer – no matter what sex you are – we are oftentimes treated like children. You have to overcome that. And I think that’s one of the things that stands out for the careers of a lot of women, is that they’ve been able to overcome the differences, and also be part of the solution in making it more possible for a woman artist to do what she wants, to create what she wants, and to surround herself with people of all sexes who can be part of her success. I have never been particularly aware of being treated differently, but that’s because I have been able to see the road ahead and know that I’m up for the challenges. I think that’s also part of the [She Rocks] award that has an appeal to me, which is that the challenges have always been here, but I think that I’ve always been able to overcome them. And I think that’s part of what the award is all about.

Where does that grit come from?

JUDY COLLINS: My father. He was an entertainer in a world that was prejudiced against people who were not like the rest of us. He was blind in a sighted world, and he made his way successfully, but it was tremendously difficult, and he just never gave up. And he always told me that I was a woman and therefore I could do anything.

How did you know that you should follow his footsteps into the entertainment business?

JUDY COLLINS: Because I was born with the gift. I was playing the piano by the time I was four. I never stopped practicing; I never stopped performing. I sang in the choruses at church and at school. I performed in all kinds of venues and became passionate about it. I was a concert pianist by the age of thirteen, and by the time I was fifteen, I was learning folk songs, learning the guitar, and performing. And so it was a natural thing because I don’t know how to do anything else. It didn’t matter whether I was singing Irish folk songs or songs by Joni Mitchell or songs that I had written myself: my intention has always been to be uniquely myself, and I was lucky because I had great teachers growing up in the classical world, and I had a great singing teacher who made me understand. We listened to basically three singers during my lessons: Pavarotti, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. And that was about it. I learned about phrasing and clarity, and no matter what you apply that to, a lyric and a melody, it will work out fine.

You’ve been remarkably prolific, releasing more than fifty albums. Where did that kind of work ethic come from?

JUDY COLLINS: Again, that’s my father. I learned so much from watching him as I was growing up because he never missed a day [of work]. He woke up every morning singing and happy, and always was up for the next thing – to learn, to keep on doing what he did and to make it better, and to try to fill it with interest for his audience. He was on the radio. He was a great entertainer and a wonderful performer. So all of these things, I learned originally from him. As I began to work professionally and get paid for doing this, starting in clubs and then graduating to Carnegie Hall, every time I set up to perform a new song, I learn something. So I keep on finding things out, even today, that are new to me. And I love my audiences. I have great respect for my audiences, and I trust them to lead me in their choices of what I do and how they feel about it. It’s an interaction between audience and performer, because your audiences tell you about who you are, what you’re doing, whether they like it or not, whether they see you improving or not, whether you should give up the ghost and get off the stage or not. They’re very, very, vocal, and they have opinions.

When you perform, do you ever wish you could go back and rework any of your earliest songs, now that you’ve learned more about your craft over the years?

JUDY COLLINS: No, I wouldn’t have done them any other way than I did them. They were perfect for their time, and they’re perfect for their time now. Which is really interesting. I think it’s because people have so many strong memories, and I try to take them back to that time in their lives by reminding them of what happened – politically, socially, musically, and in terms of humor, in 1967. And they go with me, and they go with their own memories, so it adds a lot to the context of what I’m singing. I have the blessing of doing songs that I’ve chosen well, that I know will last. That’s part of what choosing songs is about: don’t record them unless you think they might last for fifty or sixty years. And in my case, that’s been the case with a lot of these songs. I have a huge repertoire to delve into, to find songs that have quality and have staying power.

Is there anything else that you’d like people to know?

JUDY COLLINS: I have had the opportunity to be an activist in many of our political and social issues throughout these years. It does appear that although we always think we’ve overcome things, they come back. It’s true for politics. It’s true for personal journeys. I would say the hardest thing about reaching a higher age is that you keep losing friends, and I think that’s one of the tragedies that if you’re not equipped to face it, I don’t have any recommendations. It is very hard and it’s sad. You have to have a program for life. You have to stop drinking. You have to stop doing drugs. You have to figure out what your diet is. You have to learn to exercise on a daily basis, no matter where you are, and whether you remembered to bring your weights or not. You have to learn to meditate. You’ve got to learn who you can hang onto, who’s going to be there for you in the middle of the night – and who’s going to be there in the middle of the night that you’re not going to have to break any of your vows to spend time with! [laughs]

Judy Collins - photo 2