Full disclosure: I was more than a little bit nervous when preparing recently to interview legendary singer-songwriter, author and activist Judy Collins.
After all, generations of music lovers have grown up listening to the Grammy Award-winning soprano’s renditions of such modern masterpieces as Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and Steven Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”
A Seattle native and New York City resident, Collins, whose first album “A Maid of Constant Sorrow” came out in 1961, hasn’t come up for air since. Last year, she released “Winter Stories,” a collaboration with Norwegian folk artist Jonas Fjeld and bluegrass band Chatham County Line. If you listen to that album as I did, you’ll find that Collins, now 80, sounds better than ever.
But you can also hear for yourself when Collins, who inspired the Crosby, Stills & Nash classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and who still performs more than 100 concerts a year, graces the stage of the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills on March 5.
And by the way, I needn’t have been so nervous. Collins couldn’t have been nicer.
Jmore: What keeps you and your voice young?
Collins: I’m very lucky. I’ve had an incredible amount of training. In 1965, I found a great teacher [Max Margulis] and worked with him for 32 years. He taught me to make my voice last forever.
I don’t really believe in age. I’m getting better, growing up and becoming healthier. Time is important, but age isn’t. You have to put in the time, do the work.
Who are your biggest artistic influences?
My father was a singer-songwriter a great performer and he had a radio show for 30 years. He was a first-class artist in many ways. He was professional, he practiced, he showed up. He had a great deal of influence in my life.
I read the meditations of Marcus Aurelius and Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain.” I go to museums and see all the great artists of the centuries and I read mysteries and poetry from the past to the present. I’m either reading Robert Frost or Edna St. Vincent Millay or Robinson Jeffers.
How did you meet Leonard Cohen?
A friend of his called me in 1966 and said [Cohen] wanted to come over and sing me a song. When he came over he said, ‘I can’t sing and I can’t play guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song.’ Then he sang me ‘Suzanne’! And that was the beginning.
He was wonderful. We never had an affair, thank God! I loved him though. He was a gentle soul, wonderful.
Any crushes on famous male artists you’re willing to discuss?
None that went unconsummated! There was a relationship with Mr. [Stephen] Stills. That resulted in a 50-year-long friendship and 115 shows that we played together between 2017 and 2018. That was wonderful, wonderful!
How does it feel to be immortalized in Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes?”
You were part of the protest movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. How do you compare those times with what’s happening today?
We’re in a particularly terrible time now. But there have always been terrible times. We have to be strong. We have to live through them. We have a lot to work on. But people who think things are signed, sealed and done are wrong. There is always hope. There are wonderful things happening all over the world. There are good people doing good all over the world.
I have a friend named Emily Rafferty who used to be president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After 9/11, everything in New York closed. Emily got a call from Rudy Giuliani — it’s hard to imagine him doing anything good — and he said to her, “You have to open the museum. … People have to understand that they can live through this.” I try to be reading something positive and inspiring every day. I try to practice every day, and I have to play piano every day. Life is a big deal. It takes a lot of concentration. We all have to work on our mental and physical health so that we can do what needs to be done.
We all have to work on our mental and physical health. I’ve written about alcoholism, mental health, suicide. … My son committed suicide. We have to be vigilant about getting mental health treatment, and it needs to be paid for by insurance companies. We should get paid as much for a broken heart as we do for a broken leg.
How did you cope with your son’s suicide?
You never get over it. But you get by and become stronger and help others. You turn it around and help someone else with their suffering and loss. Maybe that’s the secret.
You’ve been married to Louis Nelson, a prominent architect, for more than 40 years. How do you make that work?
I’m lucky to have found a great fellow to hang out with. It takes patience, consideration, kindness, forgiveness. We have dinner together whenever we can … sharing, laughter.
Any current projects?
I’m writing, mixing recordings I’ve already done, working on a couple of books. And I’ve had a wonderful surprise hit! My new album “Winter Stories” has been number 1 on Billboard’s bluegrass album chart for three weeks! When they called me, I thought they were joking! It’s the first I’ve had a number one album on any Billboard chart. I love the album and I’m excited that others do, too.
What should folks expect from your Gordon Center show?
I’ll be singing everything — old songs like “Send in the Clowns,” and “Both Sides Now,” and some of the new songs from “Winter Stories.”
For information, visit https://www.jcc.org/gordon-center/event/judy-collins.
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