Parting Shots: Judy Collins
Photo by James Vesey
At 72, Judy Collins still possesses the artistic restlessness that has helped define her 50-year career. “Singing is my passion and also my job, therapy and profession,” she says. Whether she’s interpreting the music of Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, Collins typically pairs the work of others with her own original compositions to deliver albums imbued with senses of strength and fragility. This past October, Collins released a new album, Bohemian (her 40-somethingth), memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes (her fourth) and children’s CD/book, When You Wish upon a Star (her second).
You are a prolific recorder of albums—more than 40 and counting. For a while, you were releasing an album every year on Elektra. Did they ever tell you, “Judy, slow down?”
[Laughs.] No, I always found something to do. I had a passion to tour and sing and collect these great songs. Also, there was a good deal of interest on the part of Elektra in getting me out often. I had a lot of support, touring to do, press around the touring and a lot of demands. I was up for it. I just loved it—I still do.
Your father, a radio DJ, played a pivotal role in your musical education as a child. How important was it to you that he got to see you win your first Grammy in 1968 for “Both Sides Now?”
There were earlier successes that were probably more important to me. My parents didn’t actually hold the Grammy so closely, but when I was 17, I won the big Kiwanis Club convention contest. I was sort of the American Idol of 1957, so that was very impressive. And then, of course, I played at Carnegie Hall in 1962 and they flew out from Denver. That impressed them much more. Carnegie Hall was the top of the heap.
You dedicate your new album Bohemian to your mother Marjorie who passed away last December, noting that she was, “the original Bohemian.” How so?
Well, she married a blind man in the first place, which I thought was the bravest thing that one could do in 1937. When they met and got together, it was a subject of opposition by her family. They said, “What? You can’t marry someone who’s blind and wants to be a musician. That’s absurd! What’ll happen to you?” She believed in my father and his talent, and of course, he turned out to be a wonderfully successful musician. He had a radio show for 30 years, raised five kids. She was very adventurous and interested in the arts. The book club she belonged to read all of [Marcel] Proust. That’s the kind of person she was.
You’ve already written three rather revealing memoirs— Trust Your Heart, Sanity and Grace, and Singing Lessons. Why did you write Sweet Judy Blue Eyes now?
I wanted to tell the whole story, the whole picture of my life at 70 and also that I was celebrating 50 years of music. I very much wanted to concentrate on the songs, the affairs and the portraits of artists that I’ve worked with—people I’ve hung out with and people that have written songs that I’ve recorded. It’s more a portrait of the times as well as the portrait of my own story.
In the opening of your book, you talk about the experience of hearing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” on the radio, which Stephen Stills wrote about his relationship with you. To what degree did the song’s exposure encourage you to be as open as you are with the public about your life?
I think there’s always been a good deal of transparency in my writing about my life, partly because I’m accustomed to keeping journals—I’ve always done that—but I don’t think there’s any other way to go about it. If you don’t reveal yourself, what is there? What would be the point? I wanted to talk about [my] troubles because I think it’s encouraging for people who have troubles of their own to notice that somebody is writing about them and exploring how they got through them. That’s definitely the journey.
In the preface to your new memoir, you write, “There are no accidents in memory, for memory has its own reasons and its own logic.” What did you mean by this?
People have different interpretations of a memory from the same myth and it’s really interesting. If you put two or three people in a room who have seen the same thing, they’ll all tell it differently. Actually, I was talking to Stephen [Stills] today and he read the book and loved it—which is a big relief for me because he’s known about it for a number of years. I didn’t send him anything until it was finished and out in print, and he loved it. He said, “You know, I’ve forgotten some of those things that happened.” But he said, “There’s a number of stories you didn’t tell and I can’t wait to tell them when I write my book.” [Laughs.]
Has anything ever eluded you?
The idea that I’ve done enough [Laughs.]
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