At age 71, Judy Collins still packs her lunch…and breakfast…and dinner. “I travel with food because I don’t want to be stuck somewhere where all I can get is stuff loaded with sugar,” she says. “I can’t afford to eat crap.”
Today she’s driving from Manhattan with her husband of 14 years (and partner of 32 years), industrial designer Louis Nelson, to a book-signing in Princeton, N.J. The book is a children’s story, Over the Rainbow, with illustrations of Yip Harburg’s magical lyrics to the song. A Peter Yarrow project, the book includes a CD of Judy singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which is also the first track on her new album, Paradise, which goes on sale next month. Surprisingly, Collins, one of the signature voices of our time, has never recorded it before.
“I did know Yip,” she says. “When I recorded ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime?’ [another Harburg song, which Collins included in an album during the seventies], I hung out with him. He kept saying, ‘You’ve got to sing “Over the Rainbow.”’ I said, I can’t, it’s Judy’s song…she’s still singing it…or maybe it was Liza singing it then. But everybody knows it as Judy Garland’s. Now, I feel like I’ve grown into it.”
Growth—it’s a driving force in Collins’s still-remarkable life. “I finally got around to reading Paradise Lost,” she says—as if the rest of us have all checked that off our To Do lists. “I have a quote from Milton on the Paradise liner notes: ‘The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.’”
With characteristic wit and honesty, Collins talked to More.com about her personal and musical projects, including the new CD, which includes memorable duets with her long-ago lover Stephen Stills and her longtime friend Joan Baez.
On the new CD, the song you sing with Stephen Stills is so poignant—“Last Thing on My Mind.” A lot of people can relate to its message of regret: “I could have loved you better/Didn’t mean to be unkind/Don’t you know that was the last thing on my mind.”
Well, most people have broken up with somebody.
How did you choose this song to sing together?
He chose it. When I called him about singing on the CD, he said, “Oh, let’s do ‘Four Strong Winds.’” He always loved Ian and Sylvia—we did “Someday Soon” in 1968. But when he got to the recording session for Paradise—and it was really hard for him, he was rehearsing for the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame show, so he was very busy—but when he got there, he was humming “Last Thing on My Mind.” He had been trying to sell it to the other guys [in his group] for their album, and couldn’t, so he sold it to me.
It’s great that, considering your history, you are still friends.
We’ve seen each other off and on since the big breakup in 1968, talked over the years, spent time together. He and I had some things in common, certainly the music. That’s a big part of it.
How did the duet with Joan Baez come about? Is this the first time you’ve sung together?
We’ve performed in the same concerts, but we haven’t done duets. I’ve only done duets two times before this. One was a trio with Joan and her sister Mimi years ago, on the Women Strike for Peace album. But I called Joan to tell her I was singing “Diamonds and Rust” on the album. She said, “Oh my God, let’s do a duet.” We did it live last year at Newport—you can see it on YouTube. We were singing in the rain.
Who came up with the idea of an album themed to “paradise”?
It was my idea to group these songs together. Peter Yarrow had asked me to do the kids’ book. Since he had the CD on the book, I thought, why not put it on the LP and gather all these songs I’ve done in concert?
The CD bookends ideas of paradise—“Over the Rainbow” and Jimmy Webb’s “Gauguin.” In the Tim Buckley song, “Once I Was,” and Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust,” paradise is not so great. “Dens of Yarrow” is paradise lost. In “Emilio,” his paradise is a little bit more narrow. I had been performing these songs in concert, but now I felt comfortable recording them. It takes a while to get them right.
In the new Broadway show, Sondheim on Sondheim, the great Broadway composer credits you with giving him his only pop hit. He says when you recorded “Send in the Clowns,” then Sinatra and everyone else did.
I’m not sure about that—I think Sinatra may have recorded it first. But I did get a nice note from Stephen Sondheim saying thank you for giving me my first hit.
You’re working on another book—how many is this?
This will be my tenth book—it’s shocking, actually. But I like writing them. This one is called Suite Judy Blue Eyes: Sex , Drugs, Rock & Roll and the Music that Changed a Civilization.
You’ve written memoirs before. How is this different?
This has more in-depth, articulate portraits of people I worked with. Joan Baez, Stephen Stills, Mary Travers [of Peter, Paul and Mary]. It covers the Chicago Convention, the trips to Mississippi. I talk about the business, explain it, the role of the club owners, the producers, the rock writers, who were much more influential then.
When Mary Travers died a few months ago, what went through your mind? What do you think about when you look back at your life?
I feel very lucky. I have a life that’s unusual and privileged. Getting to do what you love and make a living doing it—it’s very rare. How many people would love to do what we do?
I don’t think careers nowadays can be built like ours were. Back then, there were lots of footholds that were friendly to artists. Now, everything has to be friendly to money.
You now have your own label, Wildflower Records. How did that come about?
Out of necessity. Ten years ago, I made a few LPs that were not working. I thought, “Let me put my money into my own business.” The Canadians caught on first. Gordon Lightfoot already had his own label. They saw this coming. They saw that we weren’t getting the kind of support we needed from the traditional labels. It’s better for me to manage myself.
Who do you listen to?
I’m broad in my musical tastes. Classical, new talent…I’m always thinking about getting talent on my label. I think Susan Boyle has done a lot for music. I very much like her.
When did you first hear Susan Boyle?
I saw her online—like everybody else!
You have written extensively about your son Clark’s suicide, and I know you are very close to your granddaughter.
Oh, yes! Very close! She’s 22, in college. She’s very musical and very smart—so smart, I don’t think she’ll go into the music business. She’s an awfully good writer and a poet.
Do you talk about her father?
We always talk about her father. I’ve always told her the truth. She’s been privy to every aspect of her heritage, the good and the bad. She’s very intuitive and very realistic.
I’ve read that when you met your husband, Louis, you were the one who pursued him.
I did propose to him—but no, it was a mutual pursuit. We’re coming up on our 32d anniversary of being together, 14 years married—unheard of, certainly in my life.
If I can ask a really superficial question—You have beautiful skin. Do you do anything special to get it?
My mother has wonderful skin. She’s 93. So I think it’s genetics. But I don’t’ smoke anymore—that helps. I use Arden products. I’ve used them all my life. I also put on SPF30 in the sun. And I try to drink a lot of water, though I probably don’t drink as much as I should.
Is there one song you sing that you feel most expresses you, that you feel most connected to?
“Both Sides Now” is the most immediately evident. I think that’s what most people connect to me.
You are still going strong, with a career that spans 50 years. What has kept you going so long?
Passion and good training—and a taste for the road doesn’t hurt.
Susan Toepfer blogs at The Bumpy Ride, http://trueslant.com/susantoepfer/