Judy Collins chuckles when she hears the word legend used to describe her. Despite her obviously well-tempered ego, many fans wouldn’t call the word inaccurate.
Her career began in 1959 when she first started making appearances around the country as a folk music artist. Her debut album, “A Maid of Constant Sorrow,” was released in 1961, although she didn’t see an initial charting single until the release of the song “Hard Lovin’ Loser” from her 1966 album “In My Life.”
Her 1967 album “Wildflowers,” which included the song “Both Sides Now” – an ol’ skool favorite among many in the LGBTQ senior community that once identified with hippie culture – shot her to international prominence.
But we’ll talk about that and her other musical successes, including the iconic “Send in the Clowns” a little bit later.
At the time of our conversation, Collins, now 83, is peering out the window of her upper West side Manhattan apartment. It’s the same one she’s lived in since 1970. It’s raining outside and she’s looking forward to the rest of the day and what she has planned for the evening.
“We’ve only been back for a few days and it’s good to be home,” she explains. ‘We were in DC for a few days last week. My husband Louis [Nelson, an industrial designer and graphic artist] designed the Korean War Veterans Memorial in DC and they were adding a new wing to include the names of the many other people that were lost during that war.”
While Collins says she’s happy to be home, it’s no secret in the music industry that she tends to feel most at home when she’s on the road performing.
“I’m touring all the time,’ she confesses. “We had 14 months of lockdown here in the city, and of course everybody was locked down, so we weren’t any exception. But by May of ’21, I was back on the road, so I have been touring again for well over a year.
“I absolutely feel at home on the road. I’ve been doing this for a living forever. Let’s see…since 1959, so how many would that be? It’s 63 years actually. With few exceptions a month here, a year there, but pretty much all of my adult life.”
In addition to the music, Collins has written two books and is busy with a podcast.
“In September we have five or six new podcasts coming out. They include interviews with Clive Davis, Christiane Amanpour, Jeff Daniels and another with Jack Halson, who used to be with Elektra, but now is with Warner Brothers.”
An Academy award nominee, the recipient of six nominations for a Grammy and winner of a Grammy for her rendition of “Both Sides Now,” Collins describes how the experience has made her feel.
“It’s a very gratifying thing for me, personally, especially when I think about the particular song that I won the award for.”
Despite the recognition for the song, Collins doesn’t believe “Both Sides Now” is what she will be best remembered for. In a recent interview she pointed to “Amazing Grace” as the song she believed many people associate her with, but she’s not entirely sold on the idea of that being the particular tune musical history will recognize her for the most.
“It depends on where you were, where you grew up and what you heard,” she explains. “In England and many parts of the United States they certainly know ‘Amazing Grace,’ but I think they would say ‘Send in the Clowns’ is what I am best remembered for.
“I just knew I had to record ‘Send in the Clowns’ and when I heard it for the first time, it was given to me by a friend, Nancy Birkhall, who was introduced to me by Leonard Cohen – they grew up together in Montreal. Anyway we were very close friends and still are. She was living on the upper west side, where I live and she called me one day in 1973 and said, ‘I’ve just heard the song that will make you famous.’ (laughs heartily)
“She sent it over to me and I put the needle on the record and that was it, I had to sing the song.
Over the years, critics have often chided Collins’ style of music as “ethereal melancholia.” Not surprisingly, she lets out a sudden burst of laughter upon being reminded about that bit of information.
“I sent a song that I love, to this friend of mine and she listened to it and she said ‘it’s beautiful, but it’s sad.’ I said, ‘Aren’t they all?! And of course they are. Most of the things that I choose are beautiful but they’re also sad. It’s a pill, this part of my career, but it’s also beautiful, wildly beautiful.
“I think that’s what attractive to people. They want to be told the truth but they also want to know their lives are surrounded with beauty, amidst the sadness, as well.
“We have to live and deal with that contrast and I think life is about accepting that.”
At 83, Collins is still going strong and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. It begs the question, what keeps her going and motivated?
“I have to say, it’s always finding something new and exciting. I found a song that was sent to me by a friend, again. So I think I’m going to have to record it. It’s always about something new I’ve got to keep my hands busy, whether it’s poetry or music or whether it’s about trying to learn something new. I think that’s very much a part of my process and my journey as a singer, a journalist, songwriter, pianist, performer, etc.”
As for her continuing good health and longevity, she points to her parents for still being around and doing quite well.
“DNA, she laughs.”I was lucky enough to get the right parents and I have had lots of relatives that have lived into their hundreds so I’m afraid I have that to look forward to (laughs).
“I’ve also been an advocate of good health. I eat right, I exercise and I’ve been doing that since I was in my twenties. I haven’t had a drink in 44 years, so that all helps.”
Another quality that Collins has maintained, despite her age, is her vocal capabilities. While other singers that were popular around the same time and are still with us today have lost some of their range, Collins voice hasn’t gone through any detectable changes.
“I studied with a great teacher for 32 years. He got a hold of me when I was 26 and he told me what to do. I guess that was around 1965. And I was very carefully taught.”
For many fans of Collins, that song she captured a Grammy for – “Both Sides Now” – has raised a few questions about her own sexual orientation. Though she has been married twice and is currently married to Nelson, she spent most of the last half of the 20th century as a purportedly single woman and stories about bisexual romances aren’t uncommon when it comes to conversation about Collins among the elder lesbian community.
She doesn’t delve into that aspect of her personal life, but it doesn’t stop her from confirming her support and love for the LGBTQ community.
“I certainly have been grateful and supportive and certainly always will be,” she says, before pausing momentarily and reflecting on the recent backlash against LGBTQ communities around the country.
“I was talking with a friend of mine the other day, Gloria Steinem, about this insane period now where we are having to go back and fight for things that we were already able to do. I don’t think either of us understand why it’s happening, but we’re going to have to continue the fight. That’s just what we’re going to have to do.
“It makes me worry about the future of our country, it does,” she says. “The countries that have done what we have now done, there are about 17 or 18 countries that have done some of the worst things when it comes to issues related to control of our bodies and sexuality. It’s dangerous and disgusting. We are becoming dangerous and disgusting.”
Collins isn’t hesitant about expressing her opinions on other political issues, either, especially when it comes to a certain former president and his followers.
“You mean when he got into office?” She asks. “Horror. I felt horror. I live in New York and we all know him here. We knew what he was like. People would not speak to this man or want to wind up in any close proximity to him. We all lived here and we were constantly near this slimy production that he has and his very presence was toxic. We all knew who he was, and now everybody knows who he is. Thank God for the committee hearings.”
Collins has always been part activist and part musician. Both are passions for her. Even in what many refer to as her golden years, she proves that people can still be active and involved at any age. Earlier this year she released a new album, entitled “Spellbound.”
“It’s been a great pleasure to get this out there,” she says. “This is my first album of all my own songs and that was quite a thrill.”
In her trademark vocal style, such tunes as “Spellbound,” “So Alive, “When I was a Girl in Colorado” and “Wild with Mist,” a listener can travel back to a time when Collins was much younger, but realize even now she’s still just as capable of extolling the virtues and beauty of ethereal melancholia.
Judy Collins performs live across the Carolinas beginning in Charleston, South Carolina, at the Charleston Music Hall on August 5. Her next appearance takes place in Durham at the Carolina Theater on August 6. The following evening she’ll take a grand bow for the southeastern leg of her performance tour on the stage of the Knight Theater at Levine Center for the Arts in Charlotte on August 7. For more information contact ticketmaster or visit Collins’ website at http://www.judycollins.com.