Judy Collins is a true Renaissance woman. At 72, she's still going strong. She continues to write, perform, and lead her own record label. In addition to her own music and creative projects she nurtures and manages other artists. She is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, a painter, an author, and an in-demand keynote speaker.
2011 marks her 50th year as a performer with up to 80 to 100 concert dates across the country per year.
Judy Collins’ social history has always been linked with her musical history. As a social activist she is active in many causes, including UNICEF and the abolition of land mines.
A Conversation with Judy Collins
with Suzanne Joe Kai
Judy Collins chatted with Suzanne Joe Kai recently about her new projects, her creative spirit, and her upcoming performances in San Francisco and across the country.
Suzanne: I understand your new book Sweet Judy Blue Eyes is quite the memoir.
Judy: I decided to write it really because I was going to celebrate 50 years in the music business, which I'm doing, this is the 50th anniversary year, and also that I was going to turn 70, so I figured I gotta do something that's exciting.
So I decided I would write about my life and music and about the experiences I've had and the journey I've had, and it's been a very, very exciting time.
It's amazing to be able to not only look back and then get back together with people that you've known for years or sometimes decades--as I did with of course Stephen Stills, whom I've known forever, since our affair. And we've remained friends, which is nice.
So we'll have a wonderful time and do signings all over the country and that'll be great.
Suzanne: The title of your new autobiography coming out October 18, 2011 Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music has special meaning to you.
Judy: The song was written by Stephen Stills for me, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. I've had a relationship with him for many years. He and I have been friends, and that's sort of the remarkable part, I think, that we have maintained our friendship and, I think that's an exciting thing to do.
I recorded a song with him on my most recent album, which is called Paradise, and in 2007 he put out an album of all the songs that he wrote that I had never heard-- except in some of the Crosby Stills and Nash Group--but he wrote a whole bunch of songs in 1968 and put them on a tape and it resurfaced in 2007 and we all got to hear it. It was called Just Roll Tape.
I told him it was just like getting a Valentine 40 years later, nearly 40 years, just to the day. You know, it was a very important relationship, it was a very important song.
I also reconnected with the man who started--I started writing about the blacklist of--the Hootenany blacklist of Pete Seeger, and I was very involved with that, because I was managed by Harold Leventhal who managed Pete Seeger. And [as] I was reading and thinking and working around the information, I realized that I hadn't been in touch with Fred Weintraub, who ran The Bitter End, and who sold Hootenany to ABC. I hadn't seen him since 1964 and we have now, you know, what is it, it's 40, 45 years or something like that?
And we've become fast friends, we've seen each other now and gotten back together and that's been remarkable because I really heard the inside scoop about the things that were going on that I had no idea of. So I wrote about that.
Of course I wrote about the Chicago 7, which comes up every year and they put it on Google and I always think about it and look at it and think my gosh, how did that happen, you know?
Suzanne: You're credited with having a social conscience with your songs.
Judy: Oh, of course. How could I not? There was this terrible war going on, and it was a terrible, difficult time.
Suzanne: Do you find that there is a difference between music that you wrote in those days [late 60's] and music today, that it's more commercial?
Judy: Yes, of course it is, it is. There are all kinds of things like the Internet which is fascinating and which provides many, many opportunities that, if you have the time, and if you are...I mean, it's always been hard.
I think that's the distinct feeling that comes across in this book. It's never been easy to do this, it's never been easy to be an artist anyway, and so all of the things that made it difficult, the things that we had to go through: the drugs and the insanity and the war and the protest and the travel. We still have to travel, and, it's hard.
But there are a lot of rewards, and of course I wanted to talk about a lot of things that have happened to me, from going to Mississippi to register voters to going to the Soviet Union in 1965 when the Iron Curtain opened up a bit, to having a career of 50 years and what's gone into that.
S You also have your own record label, and you're also mentoring new artists. Can you share some insights on how you are representing your artists?
Judy: Well, we try to help them as much as we can. Sometimes I put the artists on the label on my shows. That's a help, and they all work very hard. There's half a dozen artists that I've worked with and feel very good about and, again, it's not an easy thing to do. It's really not. These kids, I think "kids," some of them are a little older than kids, but they work very, very hard. They have to.
Suzanne: When you compose your music, are you writing from your personal experiences?
Judy: Oh yes. But also I have turned into, over the years I think, a storyteller. I don't think I started out as a storyteller, I started out doing some autobiographical writing. But I've also become a storyteller, certainly with songs like The Blizzard and some of my new songs.
Although my mother's death, I've written a new song about her which is on the album, on Bohemian. And believe me, it wasn't something I was prepared to do, or wanted to do, but these things happen to you and then you find yourself writing about them, which helps, because then you have a way to deal with the sorrow.
Suzanne: Do you have a certain discipline when you write your music?
Judy: Oh yes, I have to sit down every day at the same time and work. I keep a notebook, so that's helpful, but I work--when I sit down to write, I'm working. Don't answer the phone, you know, don't go to the refrigerator. Select a time when you're going to work, and work every day. It's good to do it at the same time every day, although it's not always entirely possible.
Judy: I usually do it in terms of time. I'll work for an hour or two hours or three hours, and then go have lunch.
Suzanne: I've read in other interviews that there's no way for you to know when your creative genius flows through you, it just happens.
Judy: Well, it's putting your bottom on the seat and not moving! That's when it happens. It doesn't happen...I mean, you can take notes and leave things in notebooks. You certainly carry your writing materials with you, and you can-- But the main thing you have to do is being there, sitting down there, every day at the same time. It's that simple, really. It's that simple.
Suzanne: Your music is as fresh today as it was years ago.
Judy: Well, I write a lot of my songs of course. But I don't write them all, so I have the advantage of choosing songs that I want to sing, as well as writing songs that I want to sing. So it's a very, very rich and diverse group of places that I go to for my art.
Suzanne: Back to the 60's and 70's, with all the changes happening--do you find that [social consciousness] is somewhat missing in today's more commercial music?
Judy: Well, yes, but what I do is what I do, and I expect that my audiences will be inspired in their own lives to take actions that are appropriately radical, and sometimes that means, starting to write. Art is a radical form, and the more we look into it and realize that, the better off we are.
Suzanne: You have a children's book coming out?
Judy: That's very exciting. I put out a book on the Peter Yarrow imprint last year and it was called Over the Rainbow, and now this is the second book that I'll be doing for them, called When You Wish Upon a Star, and that's coming out at the same time, October 16.
Suzanne: And you received an Academy Award nomination for a documentary you produced and co-directed about your piano teacher?
Judy: My movie about Antonia Brico, Antonia – was my great teacher. I was very, very close to her. I was glad that we got the nomination before her death. It was a very exciting experience for her.
Suzanne: I read that you began performing as a classical pianist at the age of 13 under her tutelage, and then changed to singing, writing and playing the guitar. Years later, after you became internationally known as a singer-songwriter, you invited her to one of your performances and she came up to you and said, "Little Judy, you could have gone places."
Judy: (laughter) Yes, exactly. Well, she really believed in me as a pianist, and she was a marvelous, marvelous teacher. So, yeah, that disappointed her that I didn't continue making myself into a pianist. But there you go.
Suzanne: What kind of advice can you share with aspiring artists?
Judy: Oh, that's easy. Just keep doing what you love, and don't ever give up. That's easy. And that's true for any time, any place, any era, Internet or not, music business on its behind or not. It's just always true, you just keep at it. Never give up.
Suzanne: Do you know, do you have a feeling when a song is ready to be released? Do you know when it'll be a hit?
Judy: I know some things. I know when I love it. I will say it that way. Whatever happens to it after that is not always predictable.
Suzanne: You've survived your personal tragedies, and you've said that people should grieve, but also share their experiences.
Judy: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It's certainly something that we have to deal with in our own lives. And if you're an artist and you do that, you write about what happens in your life, that's what happens, you share it. Makes perfect sense.
Suzanne: And that begins the healing process.
Suzanne: I was at a Bob Dylan concert this summer...and there were thousands of people in the audience, many were in their 20s and 30s, who were too young to have seen him when he started in the 60’s. From your vantage point, is this multi-generational audience also what you are experiencing? It feels like a Renaissance of great music transcending all generations.
Judy: Oh, that's very true. The audiences come because --because art is timeless, I mean it's not about one particular time, it's about timelessness, and that's why it's happening...they may not have known something about early on, but then they connect and they find out and they learn.
Suzanne: When you write, a lot of your music is very sophisticated, with emotional undertones, and poetic lyrics, and you were very young when you started writing some of these now classic songs. When you look back at your work, are you amazed at what you've done?
Judy: No, I take it a day at a time, I take it in stride. It happens that sometimes people write great things when they're young, sometimes they don't. Or they choose great things when they're young, and sometimes they don't. What I am amazed at is that I've gone on for 50 years in an industry where nobody does that, not performing at the level that I perform at, so that's very rare, and I'm extremely grateful for it.
Suzanne: I hope you continue to do this forever.
Judy: Me too! Oh, I have no other plans.