Judy Collins - Full speed ahead for Judy Blue Eyes

“I’m not slowing down, I’m speeding up,” says Judy Collins before rattling off a list of current and future projects. Words and music have been pouring out recently from the now septuagenarian singer who became famous for interpreting songs by Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Sandy Denny and many others – and often being the first to spot these writers’ special talents.

Collins’ mother, Marjorie, died in December last year at the age of ninety-four and the singer, who fully expected to be organising a one hundredth birthday party for her in due course, says that this opened the creative floodgates. She’ll be singing new songs, including one dedicated to her mother, as well as old favourites, on her Scottish concerts this weekend and has a new album in the can, hot on the heels of last year’s Paradise, and a new memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, due in the autumn.

“This one has all the alcohol, all the drugs, all the sex,” she says. “It’s all in there; nothing’s held back.”

And this from a woman who has written candidly in three previous volumes including the extraordinary Sanity & Grace, which told of her son, Clark’s suicide in 1992, and the cathartic Singing Lessons. But then, hers has been quite a life.

Just looking at her musical experiences involves a roller-coaster ride that saw her not only becoming a very willing musical clotheshorse for the above mentioned talents and encourage the early career of Joshua Rifkin, whose revival of Scott Joplin’s music preceded its use in The Sting and whose arrangements graced Collins albums such as In My Life and Wildflowers. She also wasn’t above singing The Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly with the Muppets not long after she’d won awards for her dramatic, popular interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, taken a hymn, Amazing Grace into the pop charts and incorporated the songs of the humpback whale on her moving version of Farewell Tae Tarwathie.

Collins recording career began fifty years ago this year with A Maid of Constant Sorrow, a collection gathered from the mostly traditional songs that she’d been singing on the American folk club and concert circuit over the previous two years. It’s a time she remembers very clearly.

“I wasn’t looking for a record deal,” she says. “I was doing okay without one. But then one night after I’d played the Village Vanguard in New York, this man came up to me and said he wanted to sign me to Elektra Records. It was Jac Holzman, who’d founded the company about ten years before. I knew all about Elektra. There were people I loved recording for the label, people like Jean Ritchie, the Appalachian ballad singer, and Theodore Bikel, the great character actor and folk singer. It turned out that Jac Holzman had been watching me. He’d been to a gig inColorado a couple of years before but didn’t think I was ready to record at the time, and now he said I was ready. I hadn’t even realised he or anyone else was interested.”

Joining Elektra was like joining a family, she says. Holzman and his former wife, Nina, are still good friends of Collins and they nurtured her talent and encouraged her, inviting her to dinner parties at their house where she could meet other people in the business who could help and introducing her to the right record producers.

“It was all very carefully handled, nothing was ever rushed, and that’s the way it was for all the people who joined the label after me, I think,” she says. “Jac really loved good singers and songwriters. He went on to sign Tom Paxton, Tim Buckley and Paul Siebel, who was a wonderful songwriter who never really got the recognition he deserved, and then of course there were The Doors and Love when the label got more into rock music. But even when they were having big selling pop albums, while Jac was in charge, it still felt like home. It changed almost as soon as he sold up but I’ve always been able to go to Jac for his advice or opinion on something if I needed to, and that’s been invaluable.”

Holzman’s model for Elektra is unashamedly the guiding principle behind Collins’ own Wildflower label, where she records rising talents including singer-songwriters Amy Speace, Zoe Lewis and Kenny White and looks after them as Holzman looked after her, down to the dinner parties and introductions.

“I’ve always loved hearing new talent,” she says. “I’ve always found it inspiring and refreshing, going back to the time Leonard Cohen turned up at my door to let me hear the songs he’d been working on and was too shy to sing to me. The music business is still a tough place to survive in. I don’t think it’s any easier than it was when I started out, so if I can help the people who record for my label and encourage them the way Jac Holzman encouraged me, I’m doing a good service.”

Collins’ other recent good service came when she presented part of her guitar collection for auction at Christie’s to raise money for UNICEF and Amnesty International. She was giving away part of her history here – the sale included the Martin D28 on which everything she recorded between 1968 and 1977 was played – but plays down any talk of grand gestures.

“I didn’t give all my guitars away,” she says. “I still have the one Stephen Stills gave me, which was pretty old at the time and must be approaching an antique now, and I have plenty others. Instruments should be played and some of mine were lying idle, so I’m happy to see them going to new homes, especially if it helps some of my favourite charities. Put it this way, unless something really drastic happens, I won’t be turning up at The Tolbooth in Stirling, which is one of my favourite venues anywhere, and asking to borrow a guitar.”


From The Herald, June 2, 2011.

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