The Sunday Conversation: Judy Collins dishes on her Grammy nomination
In 1969, when she peered from her album covers with those piercing blue eyes and resembled the fair maidens she saluted in song, Judy Collins took home her first Grammy for her recording of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”
Seven years later, she was nominated for female pop vocal performance for her sublime rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Collins didn’t win, but the popularity of her version no doubt led to Sondheim collecting the Grammy for song of the year.
But there was just one catch with her sole Grammy victory.
“I never got the little statue,” Collins says.
Forty years later, at age 77, Collins is getting another shot at one of those statuettes at Sunday’s 59th Grammy Awards. She’s nominated for folk album for “Silver Skies Blue,” a collaboration with singer-songwriter Ari Hest.
As an artist best known for interpreting others’ songs, Collins is particularly tickled that the nomination is for an album of her compositions — and on her own label, Wildflower Records, to boot.
“Silver Skies Blue” is the latest in a string of successes for Collins, whose work ethic is legendary. In the last decade alone, she has recorded two PBS specials, wrote a memoir about the 1960s (2012’s “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music”), released an album of duets (2015’s “Strangers Again”) and even made a triumphant return to her old stamping grounds, the Newport Folk Festival.
I always say that I never took too many drugs — I always felt they would interfere with my drinking.”
Ahead of her trip to the Grammys, Collins spoke with The Times from a tour stop in Boise, Idaho. As usual, she was more self-deprecating and humorous than the casual fan would expect. Sober for many years, she cracked a joke about her wild past: “I always say that I never took too many drugs — I always felt they would interfere with my drinking.”
You had already released a handful of albums by the time you won a Grammy in 1969 for folk performance. How did that victory change your career?
Being nominated for a Grammy was a healthy injection into my career, because then the larger music family notices you and talks about you to promoters, who then get you jobs. You know, my life has been as a touring artist. “Both Sides Now” was my first veritable hit, and that kind of put me on the moon. People started to return my calls. (Laughs.)
I was surprised to learn that your latest release marked the first time you had written and recorded an album with another artist. Whose idea was it?
After we worked together on “Strangers,” Ari and I met up for lunch, and he said he thought we should try to write together. And I said, “Fantastic.” It was very unpressured. We had no thoughts about where it would lead. We just did it for the love of it. He lives in New Jersey, and he would come across the river, so to speak, and we would work in my studio. We’d have lunch, talk about our various friends and families, and then we’d go in and sit around for an hour or two with songs. That allowed me to dig into my writing in a different kind of way.
Have you noticed that your songwriting concerns have shifted over the years?
They say that to write a good song, you have to write 100 of them.”
Absolutely. I’m always making resolutions about my career, and on Jan. 1 of last year, I decided to start a “90 in 90" project, which meant I wrote a new song every day for 90 days. Just to keep the wheels oiled. But then [it was suggested] that I do it for the whole year — that way I’d have a book of poetry/songs by the end of the year. So that’s what I did in 2016. They say that to write a good song, you have to write 100 of them. So I’ve already gone back into the studio with Ari and started recording my next project. Well, my next project after the one that I’m working on later this year with an artist you would know. I’m not allowed to talk about it yet.
I think I have a clue. Are you working again with a Mr. Stills?
Yeah, I’m working with Mr. Stephen [Stills, her longtime friend and former lover who wrote the Crosby, Stills & Nash tune “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” about her]. Thank God for Skype, because it might be my saving grace with Stephen, since we don’t live on the same coasts. We’re not going to write together. We’re going to sing together and sing each other’s songs. It’s a secret, but you know how secrets go.
How are you feeling about Trump’s administration?
Fired up and ready to throw myself off a bridge. I alternate between those two feelings. But I must say: Look, the Democratic and liberal base has really been fired up. And that has been historic. I don’t know when that has happened. Yes, in the ‘60s, when we were marching against the war. And we did make a difference.
How have you been reflecting on the recent passing of your old friend Leonard Cohen?
It’s been horrible. I started singing “Everybody Knows” the very next day after his funeral. An old friend who was a best friend of Leonard’s sent me a text the morning of the election. It said, “He’s gone.” I called her up, and she said I couldn’t mention it yet because they wanted to have the funeral in privacy. But what I realized was, “Leonard, you take the cake. You got out of here the day before the election. How prescient of you.” (Laughs.)
And speaking of your famous friends, what’s the latest on Joni Mitchell?
All I know is that she’s doing the work that she’s supposed to be doing, which is rehab, rehab, rehab — metaphysical and spiritual. She quit smoking, and apparently that’s made a big difference. It’s always in the wind that I’m supposed to go visit her, but then something happens and we can’t do it or she’s not feeling up to it.
I get the sense that you don’t do well with idle hands. Any plans to take some downtime?
Never, never. My job is to live as an athlete and fly like a bird.
I hope that’s a line in one of your songs.
It will be.
Follow me on Twitter @jreedwrites.
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