A Grammy Nomination And Letters To Stephen Sondheim And Vladimir Putin: A Conversation With Judy Collins

01/06/2017 10:46 am ET Updated Jan 31, 2017
Judy Collins & Ari Hest / <em>Silver Skies Blue</em>
Judy Collins & Ari Hest / Silver Skies Blue album cover
Judy Collins & Ari Hest / Silver Skies Blue

A Conversation with Judy Collins

Mike Ragogna: Judy, you must be thrilled about the Grammy nomination for your album with Ari Hest, Silver Skies Blue.

Judy Collins: Yes, I'm delighted! Ari and I are beside ourselves!

MR: Before we get into your new project, A Love Letter To Sondheim, let's have a quick chat about Silver Skies Blue. Your studio collaborations with Ari Hest began on your album Strangers Again in 2015, right?

JC: Yes. I put him on my Irish show for PBS in 2013 and we sang a song of his together. Then we recorded “Strangers Again” in 2015, I got a bunch of other guys to sing duets with me, but “Strangers Again” was really what intrigued me. I wasn't particularly interested in doing another album but then we started it going. We decided to write together and Silver Skies Blue is the result, and that's what we got our Grammy nomination for.

MR: Were you surprised by the nomination?

JC: Yeah, I was stunned! I thought they had forgotten all about me.

MR: [laughs] A lot of the collaborations on the album are love songs. Though you may not be a couple, there's an obvious closeness between the two of you. How would you describe the chemistry between you and Ari?

JC: Well, we met about four years ago and immediately realized how magical our singing was together. I don't think I've ever found anybody I sang together with as well as I do with him. That's huge! I always say you're looking at the American Idol of 1957. I've been doing this a long time. I think the intimacy of some of the songs has to do with the singing. Really, there's that kind of quality that I don't know either of us has found in another singer.

MR: Beautiful. Judy, I don't understand how you've kept your voice so perfect all of these years. What kind of magic are you working here?

JC: [laughs] I have had a lot of good training. I have battled a lot of things that could have brought me down, vocally and physically. I think it's been a matter of overcoming a lot of obstacles and also just having good luck and good genes and an inherited voice from my father and that Irish approach to singing. It's a good thing, because it has to do with lyrics and melody and that's what I was raised with. That feels very comfortable to me.

MR: And the way you're able to hit high notes with such clarity and ease, it's impressive.

JC: I'm very lucky, I have a lot to be thankful for.

MR: Irish music has come up twice now. What is it about that genre that makes it so endearing and enduring over the years? And do you feel its popularity is increasing? How's it doing?

JC: I think it's doing great! It has a lasting quality that probably has everything to do with the melody and the story. You have stories that are endearing and that actually hit home. I think everything has to do with the poetry and the yearning that's in Irish music. Whether you're Irish or not...everybody's actually Irish at the core, I think. Certainly when we hear Irish music, there's something very familiar about it, for all of us, no matter what culture we come from, and the stories are always things we can relate to. That's probably part of the reason for its popularity. You think about songs like "Danny Boy." That's unmistakably universal.

MR: And it’s pretty obvious that Irish folk is one of the roots of American folk music.

JC: It's the basis of everything, I think. We came over here pretty early and we started infiltrating the mining communities and the union communities, the working people, and everybody sang around in the bars at night. They always sang Irish songs.

Judy Collins / <em>A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim</em>
Judy Collins' A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim DVD artwork
Judy Collins / A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim

MR: In addition to your strong connection to folk, you also have a history with Broadway repertoire, especially Stephen Sondheim’s works. What is it about his music that you relate to most?

JC: My first experience with Sondheim was "Send In The Clowns," and that hit me with such a strong resonance that I immediately called up Hal Prince and said, "I have to sing that song." He said, "Well, two hundred people have already recorded it." I said, "That doesn't matter to me, I've sung songs that are centuries old." I think that the resonance is with the melodic structure. If you hear the opening melody of "Send In The Clowns," and then you think, "What is it about 'Amazing Grace' that has a similar resonance? What is it about 'Danny Boy?,’" there are similar qualities in all of these melodies. In my favorite Sondheim songs like, "No One Is Alone"—which is right up there with "Send In The Clowns"—I think, there's an intelligence, there's a lyricism, there's a timelessness of his writing that I find I can slip into easily. Some of the songs are harder to sing than others, certainly "Finishing The Hat" is one of them because when you put it all together, it doesn't really make sense.

MR: You had Jonathan Tunick oversee the orchestrations on A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim.

JC: Yes, he did. He and I have been together for a long time. I've been working with Jonathan since he did the orchestration for "Send In The Clowns."

MR: And that was during your time working with the great Arif Mardin.

JC: Yes, it was, indeed. I had a number of things in my pocket when I convinced David Geffen to get me Arif Mardin as a producer. One of them was that I had already talked to Jonathan and secured him to do my orchestration of "Send In The Clowns," and I'd also written a couple of songs that he was going to orchestrate. I went with a pocketful of gems before we even started working, and then, of course, working with him was divine. He came up with so many things.

MR: Was Danny O’Keefe’s "Angel Spread Your Wings" one of them?

JC: That's actually how I got to him. I heard Danny O'Keefe sing that and I said, "Oh my God, I have to go to Arif because he will understand what I want to do with "Song For Duke," which was the song I wrote about Duke Ellington. We recorded "Angel Spread Your Wings" and also "Song For Duke" and a couple of my own other songs. He suggested The Rolling Stones’ song "Salt Of The Earth," and then his wife suggested "Buddy Can You Spare A Dime?"

MR: "Houses" was an amazingly beautiful recording on Judith as well as being, I believe, one of your great original songs. Judith also featured, I believe, the definitive version of Jimmy Webb’s "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress." That absolutely should have been a single.

JC: Yes, it should have been. Jimmy always tells me that he wrote that song eight years before I recorded it and he always said it was languishing until I got a hold of it, and then everybody did it.

MR: Nice. Judy, with the career you’ve had and your musical history, you seem fearless when it comes to the stage. What was going on internally and from a performance perspective at the Greeley Philharmonic where you recorded your Sondheim DVD? It appears there was a great comfort level and intimacy going on.

JC: There was. My musical director Russell Walden and I had been working on these songs for two years, and I'd been working on them for twenty-five years, because I started with the choice of the songs in 1992 and I went to Sondheim and talked about it with him. Over the course of years, I refined what I was going to do and eventually got a green light from PBS saying, "Okay, we're ready for you to start doing this project." By the time we got to the stage in Denver, we had already done the show with the Greeley Symphony the year before in Greeley, and we had a big rehearsal with them a month before, and I had sung all the songs in San Francisco the year before. So I had a lot of mileage with these songs. Of course, there is that magic of it being in Denver and the fact that we were with a super orchestra in the Boettcher Concert Hall, which is one of the great halls of the country. I was in my home town.

MR: Was there a statement in the song selection or a purpose behind how they related to each other?

JC: I would say that the connecting link is that these are songs which move me. These are songs which I heard and said, "I have to sing that." Finding the songs that I will sing is something that happens viscerally. It's not something that I could ever tell you, but also we do think of interfacing the songs with each other and what happens within the sequence so that they're woven together as though we were doing a tapestry.

MR: Judy, what advice do you have for new artists?

JC: I look for them and I support them and I hope that I could make it good in the world for them. The thing that I think is most important for them to know is never give up, never think that you have to do things in an "acceptable" fashion. All kinds of surprises happen, so the main thing is to keep your course. If you're the captain of a ship and you're in charge, you can't have people running all over the deck telling you to do this and do that and do the other thing. Occasionally, you could take some advice from somebody but just be aware that you probably know better than anybody what you're supposed to do. And be smart. Go to the internet for information if you need to; ask questions. Keep your skills honed, that's terribly important. Practice. The main thing is don't get discouraged. If somebody says, "No," say, "Well, you may think so, but I don't." I think the main thing is to be positive. If you really want this, first realize that it's difficult and you may not wind up really wanting to do it. It may not be your thing.

MR: It sounds like this advice might be coming from personal experience.

JC: Yeah. People may have said certain things that I thought were unhelpful. "If I'm not your producer, you're never going to go anywhere. It's going to ruin your life," and I'd say, "No thank you, you're not right for me." I think it's important to do what you want to do. That's been my bellwether, because I wanted to do things that seemed like they were unusual. If they drive you, then they're things you have to respond to.

MR: And you've always been pretty one-pointed in your vision, haven't you.

JC: Yes, I have to say that I have been, in spite of being terribly insecure at times, or needing a lot of therapy at times. That's also part of it. If you need to get help, go get it.

MR: How are you doing in the state of affairs we're left in after this election? What are your thoughts?

JC: Well, first of all, you have to stay positive, particularly as an artist. But I think everybody has to keep their chin up, keep their eyes front, and keep thinking positive thoughts and know that one vote can make a difference and, in fact, has. After 9/11, I got to know the woman who was the director of the Metropolitan Museum. She said that after 9/11, everything closed down in New York. She got a call from the mayor who was Giuliani, and he said, "You must open the museum, because people have to know that they can get through this, that this is not the end of the world. They did manage to open it and she said it was flooded. A hundred thousand people came through the next few days and she said it was the most powerful thing she'd ever seen, because it was so right. I think people need art to get through anything, but particularly now.

MR: You still pals with the Clintons...is Hillary okay?

JC: Oh, I can't say that she's okay. I think it's a horrible blow, but she'll figure out what she's going to do next. It's terribly important. She's an incredibly intelligent, powerful presence and she can do a lot of good and she will.

MR: What about your own future?

JC: To keep working, to keep performing, to keep creative, to keep doing the things that I love. Writing, coming up with new ideas, making new albums, having a good time, watching good movies.

MR: Judy, do you appreciate that so many people look up to you? You're an icon, and your opinion counts to so many. Are you aware of that at this point and does that energize you?

JC: It does, but I think the most important thing about my life is the legacy of a working artist. I belong to three unions--well, now two of them have merged. I believe in fighting against management and getting paid a proper wage and continuing to be an artist and a person who makes their living with their art. That's a big, big deal with me. I find that every day is a gift because I can do that and I know that I'm not unique but it's not everybody who can make a living doing what they love to do and I am very appreciative of that. More than anything, that's probably the thing I would want to have as my legacy: I've done what I've wanted to do, I've worked extremely hard at it and I haven't been discouraged by the travel or the pressure or the down part of the career. Also I'm a liberal to the core, to the bone. I believe in people's rights, I believe in civil rights of all kinds and animal rights. I believe in saving the planet and I believe in working for all of those things that we believe in, that we not only do our work and try to bring beauty into our own lives but also that we try to bring beauty into the lives of other people. I believe in tolerance. I believe in kindness and courtesy and I do not believe in bullying and racism and fascism, so I have to keep expressing that through my art and through my life.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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The following is a poem Judy Collins wrote specifically for the New Year's Eve Peace Concert at NYC’s St. John The Divine. She read it as a performance piece on December 31st. The annual New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace is a signature Cathedral event begun by Leonard Bernstein, and has continued for over a quarter of a century.

Day 354 Dec 31 2016 To Russia With Love

Mr. Putin

Moscow, Russia

Dear Vladimir

I was raised on “War and Peace” and “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Chekov” plays.

I was in invited to sing in Russia in nineteen sixty-five,

My sister Holly was eleven and I asked my mother to let her travel with me.

I was twenty-six.

There was a thaw in the Cold War ice.

I took Russian for six months at the New School in New York before the trip and learned to write Cyrillic and say

“Thank you” and “goodbye” and “hello”

And “I am so happy to be in your country.”

We were advertised as “Judy Collins and her Rock and Roll Band” (the Tarriers, Eric Weisberg, Clarence Cooper

and Al Dana, ) That PR got green apples thrown at me on the stage in Odessa.

I ducked.

I sang in Moscow at the Wedding Cake--The great Opera House— in Sochi the old Russian Monarchy castles were

turned into hotels for party vacationers.

We watched Russian teenagers play volleyball on the black beaches.

The journalist who travelled with us--was a handsome slip of a Party member who we liked a lot.

Our translator was a zaftig, dark haired beauty who had borrowed a cincher from the Royal Ballet--a tight body girdle.

And my sister Holly and I threaded her into it every night so she could introduce us from the stage.

Neither our translator nor our journalist could join us at the party given for us at the American Embassy- as they might be accused of being spies and lose their memberships in the party.

We traveled by bus and everywhere we stopped men with black cases exchanged Rubles for US Dollars—creepy men we were told to ignore--

The audiences stood –sometimes in the rain—with bright umbrellas and shouted and stamped and called me back again and again.

I sang a song in Russian and got standing ovations

I love Russia, and the Russian people, who were kind and loved my music and embraced me.

My sister said “They know the rules, the Russians.”

They did.

But you don’t.

I want to come back to Russia but people tell me it is dangerous. Thugs, they say, in the streets in Moscow.

I want to come to St. Petersburg, which I didn’t see back when I was twenty-six.

I have read Russian history for years—and know the stories of your culture and your struggles.

I could come and visit Snowden.

Take care of him and write me back, I do not tweet, but I email.

Send me something to show you care.

Love,

Judy Collins

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