You could say singer Judy Collins is the great songwriter’s best friend. Through her chosen form of expression, singing, she has interpreted the songs of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Stephen Sondheim, and even put Leonard Cohen on the musical map. Judy Collins is a prolific recording artist with well over two dozen studio albums. She continues to perform over 100 concerts per year.
On Judy Collins’ album “Strangers Again,” she is as much a friend of the songwriter as she is other singers. On each track she is joined by a duet partner (most of them known as being great songwriters themselves), a diverse list including Willie Nelson, Jeff Bridges, Michael McDonald, Jackson Browne, Glen Hansard, Don McLean, and artists gaining in acclaim like Bhi Bhiman, Ari Hest, and Thomas Dybdahl.
You’ve joined us for a conversation about your album, “Strangers Again.”
Yes, and I’m glad we’re talking about that, since it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done!
Why do you say that, what makes it so exciting?
I had all these great singers that I’ve known for years, some of them personally, some of them were newer to me, but gathering together Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, Michael McDonald, Jackson Browne, Glen Hansard… All these wonderful artists! And of course Ari Hest, who wrote the lead song. He is one of my favorite artists and I’ve worked a lot with him and we’re doing this new CD together. So it’s all very exciting!
You are already looking at the next album.
I’ve already finished recording it. I’m trying to keep up with the times, you know.
What is the experience of singing a duet like for you?
It’s very exciting. Ari Hest has recorded this song of his already, called „Fireplace,” which is on my last big PBS show, called „Judy Collins Live in Ireland,” and I liked it. Ari has been out with me, sometimes he opens for me on shows, so I’ve known him for a while. I started looking at his material and I fell in love with this song called „Strangers Again.” And I told him: I’ve got to record that before Diana Ross gets her hands on it! It’s a real, solid, wonderful love song. I thought: Where is Whitney Houston? She’s gone, but not forgotten, and she should have done this song for sure. And then I thought, in order to do this song properly, I’ve got to put around at people who will not only make good choices with me about singing duets that we both want to do, but who will also make me look good, too. So let’s do that so we can sell some albums and get you out there into the world as you should be. So that’s how it started, and then I called my friends. I called Jeff Bridges. I wanted to sing a duet and I wanted to sing songs that were very much a part of the other artists’ repertoire. With Jeff Bridges I wanted to sing „Crazy Heart,” from that movie that he won an Academy Award for. I’ve known him for years, so I got him on the phone and he said: I don’t want to be rude, but I don’t want to sing that song. I want to sing another song from “Candide”. And it is a wonderful song called „Make Our Garden Grow,” which I plan to put into my shows. I’m already doing some of the duets in my shows. „When I Go” is a song by Dave Carter that I’m singing with Willie Nelson and it put me on the Amazon’s bluegrass chart for the first time.
It was an amazing experience to sing with all these wonderful artists. They all had different ideas, it was a mixed kind of adventure and I learned a lot of things.
What is Jeff Bridges like on a personal level? You said you’ve known him a long time.
He’s a doll, I’ve known him for many, many years. Such a sweet man! A couple of years ago, before this duets project happened, he came to see me in California, at a theatre there. He came because the opening of my show was this young girl, a singer who is a neighbor of his. He wanted to help her and also say Hi to me. He is a personable darling man.
Another song on the album is „Miracle River.” How did you find that particular gem?
It came because of going to hear Jeff Bridges work. He has a band called The Abiders, they’ve been together a long time and they did a show in a little town in Connecticut. I had already talked to him about recording „Make Our Garden Grow,” but then he sang some Tom Waits songs that were really beautiful, which made me want to investigate Tom Waits. He then sang „Crazy Heart,” and I asked him: Did you write that? He said: No, I write with a guy named John Goodwin, whom you should call. So I called John Goodwin, who lives in Nashville, and who wrote dozens of songs, particularly for country, but he has branched out into the commercial music area, too. We had a chat and he told me he would send me a few of the songs that he had written, because he thought I might find something I liked. He sent them to me, I listened and I called him back and told him that the one that I loved was called „Miracle River.” He said: That’s kind of odd, that was written by Amy Holland, who is married to Michael McDonald. I didn’t know that. The funny thing was that Michael and I had been discussing what we should sing on this album, and I called Michael and told him: I know what I want to sing with you, it’s your wife’s song!
How did you come to discover Glen Hansard?
I met him in Michigan, a couple of years ago. We were both on the Ann Arbour Folk Festival. It’s a famous festival and everybody wants to be there, it was my very first time performing at this event. He was there too and we had a conversation, and then he actually came to see me at my apartment in New York. We had a meal together and got to know each other a little bit. After that I called him and told him: I’ve really got some ideas, but I’d really like to know what you think. He said: Let me send you a couple of songs that are somewhat new to me and you’ll see whatever strikes you. He sent me „Races” and I said: This is the one! And it’s my husband’s favorite song on the entire CD. It’s such a wonderful song and it’s also very different from anything I have done before. Don’t you think?
Absolutely, I agree.
And Glen is such a lovely man! All these guys, every one of them is a professional, they were grown-ups, so there was no drama. I hate drama.
I also wanted to ask you about the recording of „Hallelujah” on the album.
Oh, yes! That’s Bhi Bhiman. He is such a well-known artist on the West Coast. He came on my show when I was in San Francisco, and when he came on the stage, everybody went crazy, because everyone knows him there. I found him through my publicist in New York. And we decided we have to record „Hallelujah,” because I had missed it all these years, I hadn’t done it. And it was a great way to introduce a singer who is relatively unknown to most of the public, but who needs to have a little step up, you know?
It seems like that’s important to you, to get behind the artists that you appreciate.
Absolutely. It’s my goal to help with my own voice and with theirs, or both, a writer who’s got something to say. There are some great writers out there that we don’t know about. That’s how I found and introduced Leonard Cohen. He found me, totally. I had been recording other people’s songs, including Bob Dylan, Richard Fariña, Pete Seeger,Woody Guthrie and Tom Paxton and I was the girl in the “Village” that didn’t write songs, I found them. And then I recorded them for Elektra Records and took them somewhere. I some cases, certainly in the case of Leonard, because I found him, he found me, nobody knew him, but I had a record already of doing this for other artists, and so it worked. I did two of his songs immediately, and then many, many more. The collaborative part of my life is very important to me because it’s about the artistry, it’s about the song, it’s about the story, it’s about: where can I take this, so that other people will understand what I see in it?
When you take a song like „Hallelujah,” what’s going through your head when you sing the song?
Oh, a thousand things. But the main part is to make the lyrics understandable. That’s what I’ve been taught to do when I studied the piano, that’s what I’ve been taught to do as a singer: to be clear. Because if you can’t understand what the story is, how do you get it? So my concentration is to find a way to make the lyric clear and phrase in a way so that people understand.
I saw Jacques Brel the two times that he was in New York at Carnegie Hall, once in 1966 and then in 1968. I was already a full-blown fan. I had already started to work on recording his song “Marieke.” I studied French in school, although I don’t understand very much. I can’t have a conversation with you in French, but it didn’t matter. With his phrasing he made me understand everything he said, and I don’t understand exactly why. I think the lyric and the phrasing have everything to do with understanding whether you’re speaking in French, Italian or English. I strive for that. I think about what it is I am saying in a song.
The duet “Send in the Clowns,” the Stephen Sondheim song – do you know if he heard this version?
No, it’s not important to me. I love him, but it doesn’t matter. A song has its own life and quite often, a composer has no idea where that song is going and who is going to be singing it. Of course it’s nice if it’s a big hit, and my version was his first and his only major hit.
Why do you think that Don McLean chose “Send In the Clowns”?
He wanted to see what he could do, what would happen. He asked himself what could happen if he took something that’s challenging and different, what could he make of it? It was a wonderful adventure for us.
I also wanted to ask you about a Randy Newman song, “Feels Like Home,” that you sang with Jackson Browne.
Randy was in town and I went to see him at the city center, especially so that I could corner him and tell him: Randy, I’d like to sing a duet with you of “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Until then he hadn’t recorded anything, so I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I got Randy to sing with me? So I approached him with that idea. Eventually, Randy said it would embarrass him if he sang it with me, so instead I called Jackson Browne. We did it and it’s a beautiful song. And I’m sorry that Randy didn’t sing with me, but I can understand.
Do you know right away when you’re attracted to a song and when you want to sing it?
Yes. Immediately, without a doubt. If I don’t like it, I never want to hear it again, if I love it, I want to hear it forever.
What about a song makes it great for you?
I have no idea. It’s visceral, it’s probably got something to do with memory – what or who you fell in love with, why you fell in love when you did, what it was about the person, how the melody is shaped.
What is the best thing about being Judy Collins?
I make a living, that’s a nice thing. I’m not a multimillionaire, but I make a living doing what I want to do. There is nobody pushing me around, I was always able to choose where I wanted to go. For an artist, that’s where you hope to be. And if you’re determined and you don’t let other people tell you what to sing, that’s great. It’s about trying to be original, trying to be faithful to yourself. And with the certain amount of fame that I’ve been blessed with, I have that privilege to do many of the things that I want to do, to choose the people I want to hang out with. I do what I love and I think not everybody has this privilege.
What would you say to our listeners and readers?
Figure out what your dream is and then go for it!
Who is Judy Collins?
She is a country girl, a Colorado girl who loves to cook and loves to sing and loves to get on the stage! That’s me!
IF YOU LIKED THIS INTERVIEW, PLEASE CONSIDER MAKING A DONATION
Listen to our interview here:Semnat de Paul Leslie