HITS Daily Double


Interview by Simon Glickman

Vocal great Judy Collins earned a Grammy nomination in the Folk Album category for Silver Skies Blue, her collaboration with troubadour Ari Hest; it's her first Grammy nod in 40 years (she earned a Pop Performance nod in 1976 for her immortal take on Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," which won Song of the Year). Collins has never ceased her musical explorations, and Silver represents her first duets set with a single collaborator. She spoke with us about her latest work, live performance, the late Leonard Cohen (whose career she helped to launch with her version of "Suzanne") and the current political scene. We can only assume she mistook us for a more reputable publication.

Congratulations. I’d love to know your thoughts on the nomination.
Surprised. I thought they’d forgotten all about me! Nobody could’ve been as surprised as I was, as well as honored. I’m particularly happy for Ari—to me, that was the highlight. I think he’s brilliant. I started working with him four years ago and my goal was to make people aware of Ari Hest. That’s made me happiest.

What was the genesis of your collaboration?
We met in 2012 and starting doing shows together and I was so impressed with his voice and songwriting and I started to listen to his history and his wonderful, powerful songs. I sang with him on my Irish show in 2013 and then found a song called Strangers Again and said I have to get ahold of this before Diana Ross and Taylor Swift hear it! We recorded that and I got a bunch of friends including Jackson Browne and Michael McDonald and Willie Nelson and a bunch of other people to join us. Again, to draw attention to Ari. Then we decided to try to write a bunch of songs together and that ended up being this album.

You have an exceptional vocal chemistry.
The first time we sang together, I said, wow, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’d never found another person with whom I sang like that. I’d never really hunted for that because I never really needed it. I thought about doing a duet with a great opera singer like Pavarotti, but I never thought about looking. So when he fell into my lap, I said, “Thank you very much!”

You’ve never done an album of duets with a single other vocalist. It’s an interesting new chapter after everything you’ve done.
It’s sort of a leap off the cliff but turned out to be great fun, and the Grammys liked it!

Your prior, star-studded album would probably strike most people as being more like “Grammy bait.” This one is much more personal and idiosyncratic.
Exactly. In a way that’s more meaningful. It makes me very happy about the Grammys and their integrity.

Having been nominated once again the folk category, and having been nominated in that category several times over a span of time, do you feel the meaning of the category has changed?
I see that what the Grammys have had to do is divide and conquer—but you can’t lump everything into popular music. In my view, folk music is a generally very broad, very humanistic, very lyric-driven, very life-story-driven category. In a way it’s probably folk-pop and folk-rock and folk-blues all at once, But they’ve done the right thing in separating out specific genres just in order to see what they do that is important. And it gives the artists within those groups a unique standard. I have 60 years of folk-music, or whatever you want to call it. That’s evolved into categories that include “Send in the Clowns,” which is absolutely theater, and “Both Sides Now.”

The departure of Leonard Cohen was a huge loss, and I read a 1987 interview with him by my colleague Bud Scoppa in which he credited you as having helped him walk through the door with “Suzanne.”
He always, for 50 years, talked about my place in his extraordinary career, and how lucky he was to have found me. It was an interesting but brilliant choice; he didn’t sing in public—I’m the one who pushed him onstage—but he knew he needed to go to someone who wasn’t writing songs. This is not something he could’ve handed to Tom Paxton or Eric Anderson or Phil Ochs; he came to me because by 1966 I had already recorded most of the folk genre singer/writers of the time. He knew where to go and what to do, and I think our mutual friend Mary Martin helped to guide him. She was very savvy—she’d worked for Albert Grossman and Warner Music—and very familiar with the scene. He’d been fiddling around with songs for a while, but this was the real deal. Leonard was always grateful and always acknowledged that I had gotten him in the door, gotten [legendary A&R exec] John Hammond to go see him and take him seriously. In a way, it was like what happened with Ari—there was something karmic about it. For years, Leonard was sending songs; he’d send me a little tape of songs he’d recorded on a little quarter-inch reel-to-reel. I wanted to sing them all; they were all so beautiful.

Since his death and this election—which has driven many of us half-crazy—I’ve started singing “Everybody Knows.” It’s given me a lot of relief and given my audience some time for reflection and emotional regrouping. That’s what you do at a concert if you’re lucky: You sort of re-ignite your own values.

We suspected we were being lied to in the '60s by everybody;
now we participate in it!

This brings me to my next question: How might music and activism aid each other in this political moment, which in some ways recalls the ferment of the ’60s?
We suspected we were being lied to in the '60s by everybody; now we participate in it! [Laughs] Considering we’ve elected somebody with rampant Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s no just Trump—it’s all these other people too. You have things coming out of their mouths that you had the secret service to protect you from! But now no more. Legal actions and morals and ethics protected us. But now they don’t even teach those things in school and we don’t read anymore. We don’t have Miss Manners telling us what’s right and what’s not right to say.

Do you think music can, to some degree, step into the breach?
Absolutely. I think that happens in private moments. I see it. I’m singing but I’m also in my own mind, and everyone in the audience is doing the same thing—but they’re doing it in private--there’s no cell phones in the way, because we don’t allow cell phones. They can reorganize their branwaves a little bit and start thinking about generosity, peace, joy, love and creativity.