Judy Collins (photo by Shervin Lainez)
Judy Collins was a budding classical piano prodigy when she first heard two ancient folk songs, “Barbara Allen” and “The Gypsy Rover.” “They changed my life,” she says. The Grammy-winning song stylist and longtime activist, popular for her renditions of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” will perform Dec. 10 and 16 at the Louisa Arts Center (both shows are sold out), and she’ll be at the University of Richmond's Modlin Center for a concert and lecture on April 1 and 2. The ageless Collins, speaking from her home in New York (while navigating a veterinarian appointment for one of her three cats), in September released Strangers Again, an album of duets with an expansive roll call of collaborators ranging from old pals Leonard Cohen and Jeff Bridges to Willie Nelson and Glen Hansard. As for her illustrious and eclectic career, the inspiration behind Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” says she only thinks about the old days when prompted by interviewers like me. “I’m not generally the kind of person who looks back. I look forward.”
Richmond magazine: What made you want to do a duets album?
Collins: I had been touring with Don McLean and he said, “Don’t laugh. But I’ve always wanted to sing ‘Send in the Clowns’ with you.” And I didn’t laugh. And Jimmy Buffett said, “I’ve wanted to sing something with you for years.” Jeff Bridges wanted to sing the song from the show Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow.” It was an adventure.
RM: You are known as a classic song interpreter. Is it tough finding songs that are right for you?
Collins: Everything is difficult. A lot of time, effort, trial and error goes into it. You think something will be perfect and it’s not. It’s a lot of work, more than just "I want to do this." There’s exploration.
RM: You got into songwriting late. Why is that?
Collins: I never would have thought about it except that Leonard Cohen asked me how come I didn’t write my own songs — this was after I’d been doing his songs. I told him, “I don’t know why.”
RM: How do you decide what you are going to sing in public?
Collins: After 55 years of doing this, I have a lot to choose from. If I have two or three shows in an area, I won’t repeat myself too much. The band and I do a lot of moving around within the repertoire.
RM: How difficult was it to turn your back on classical music?
Collins: It wasn’t difficult for me because I decided immediately that [folk music] was what I wanted to do. My piano teacher, Antonia [Brico], was not very happy with my decision. I made an Oscar-nominated documentary about her (1975’s Antonia: A Portrait of a Woman). I’d like to say she got over it, but I don’t think she ever did.
RM: What made you want to pursue folk music?
Collins: I heard “The Gypsy Rover,” and “Barbara Allen” as sung by Jo Stafford, and I was off to the races. I had, without realizing it, been hearing folk music for a long time because my father sang a lot of the old Irish songs.
RM: Your Who Knows Where the Time Goes is considered a landmark folk-rock album of the late ’60s. Did you know it was special when you recorded it?
Collins: Oh sure. The song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” came to the door at the very last minute. Sandy Denny or someone from Sandy’s office sent me the song. I heard it and thought, “Well, this finishes up the album.” And it was a wonderful band, Buddy Emmons, Stephen Stills, Van Dyke Parks, Jim Gordon on drums. It was a monster band.
RM: You famously testified for the Chicago Seven (related to protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention). Has your activism hindered your career?
Collins: There are places where I cannot sing because they think I’m too left-wing, too oovy-groovy, too liberal. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a mark of distinction to be a liberal today.