Graceful and Gracious: Judy Collins Is Back

09/15/2015 04:19 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2016

The New York Times dubbed her "The Ageless Wild Angel of Pop." Her ethereal, stunning voice has informed our lives since 1967. That was when Judy Collins' classic album, Wildflowers, zoomed up the album charts to #5, containing her Top 10 hit single, the Joni Mitchell-penned "Both Sides Now."

The songs on that record - a delicious genre-mix containing a second Joni song, "Michael from Mountains," three Leonard Cohen aching beauties, a Jacques Brel tune I was far too young to understand, a medieval Italian piece by Francesco Landini, and three songs by Collins herself (her first recorded self-written material) including the sublime and stunning "Albatross" (a song that still haunts my dreams) - will live forever in my heart.

So it was with a frisson of nervous trepidation and much joy and excitement that I approached the assignment of speaking with Judy Collins about her new album, due Friday September 18th, Strangers Again. Special guests enlisted to record with her for this project included Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett, Don McLean, Jeff Bridges, Glen Hansard, and Thomas Dybdahl.

The album features new interpretations of classic songs by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Randy Newman, James Taylor and more. Dybdahl, a Norwegian singer/songwriter, joins Judy for his acclaimed ballad "From Grace," which is the new record's first video, released today on YouTube.

I asked Judy how she chose "From Grace" to be included on the album and to be the video: "Well, I love this wonderful singer, Thomas Dybdahl, and he wrote this, of course, and, when I was putting together Strangers Again, I knew I wanted to record with him. I've recorded with all these other wonderful artists."

"I had already had the recordings done with Michael McDonald and Jackson Browne, and then I found out about this song, and my old friend Larry Klein was producing it. Larry used to be married to Joni Mitchell, and he's Thomas's producer, so they sent along this song and they thought this would be perfect for me, and I said, 'You know, you're right. It is perfect.'"

"It adds, I think, to Strangers Again, I think it adds a very unusual kind of twist to it, because, after all, it's among a lot of older songs, like "Hallelujah" and "Someday Soon." I think that it adds something very special to the whole balance of the album and I love the song, and I love the video. We've never done anything like this before, so, for me it's that kind of an artistic vision, too. To move out from the musical to also the visual to a young filmmaker, Gints Zilbalodis, is exciting to me."

Collins had co-directed an Oscar-nominated film with Jill Godmillow in 1975 about her world renowned piano teacher, who was also the first woman to conduct major symphonies around the world, Antonia Brico: Portrait of A Woman. Therefore she is no stranger to the world of film, and has done several concert films over the years. She also acknowledged that there are several performance videos on YouTube, but not necessarily ones that she herself made, so "I feel it's exciting for me to be doing this."

An extensive tour for the new record kicks off this fall, beginning with an in-store Q&A and CD signing this Friday, September 18 at Barnes & Noble on 86th and Lexington in New York City. Her usual schedule of 120 shows per year has not abated, but she had not done a studio album in quite some time. How did this project first begin to take shape? "I had the idea because I'm working with Ari Hest, who's just a divine singer, and my voice and his voice go together so well, we did a duet when we were in Ireland at Dromoland Castle. Then I started digging around in his discography to see he's written, dozens of wonderful songs, and I found "Strangers Again," and I said to him, "This is a great song! I'm surprised I've never heard it."

One thing led to another and Judy called many old friends and new to join her on the venture. She's very proud of the new album and looks forward to hitting the road once again. "I always forget that, when "Both Sides Now" came out in 1967, that song did not happen overnight. Some radio picked it up, but basically it was about nine or ten months before it really hit the charts in a big way. It just took work, it took touring."

She went on to say, "I started two years before I made my first album and I have never stopped. I've done this since 1961, so it's a long time now, 54 years, I think. Most years, I've done an album. Most years, or every eighteen months, I've either done an album or a collection. Every five or six years you have to do a gathering of all the best songs from the recent CDs, so I've always been touring, and I've always been making albums. That's part of it. The whole thing goes together. I'm hoping that I can capture a number of these artists to do concerts with me around the world. That, also, is another part of our plan."

I asked how she continues to keep up such a busy touring schedule, which would be daunting for someone half her age. "It's a full-time job. I get on the phone, I get on my social media, I meditate, I don't drink, I eat right, I sleep well, and I exercise." Judy's Facebook page is quite obviously handled by her personally; she shares personal stories and connects with fans both old and new. 'I love it, I'm just dying to get on Twitter and also on Instagram, which I don't do, I just do Facebook. My office is going to connect everything up so I can do them all. I love it because I've always been a photographer, I've always written in journals, and, in a way, this has sort of become my method of connecting with both what I'm doing, and then connecting my audience with what I'm doing. It's very personal."

She enjoys the fact that social media connects her directly to the audience, something that was unthinkable years ago. "That is a big change, and it's wonderful. There's a price that's been paid for that, but it does offer you opportunities that are quite fascinating. I'm optimistic about my own career, about the music business, about people's passion for good music. My audience has continued to grow. They've continued to be interested in me, and also their ages have changed over the years."

"There are so many young people now that follow me, and it's quite wonderful, they come to my shows, they Facebook with me, they write me letters, even. They text me, they give me information about their own lives. For instance, I do a number of speaking engagements a year for mental health issues, I speak for suicide prevention groups, mental health groups, and I talk about that on my Facebook page. I think it was in June, maybe, that I went down to Washington to talk to Congress with the AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention), which is a big suicide prevention organization." (Collins' son, Clark, committed suicide in 1992).

Before ringing off, I thanked Judy for her generosity of spirit and her time, and also for bringing the gifted singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen to the attention of the world 48 years ago. "Well, I did, and I'm glad I was able to, because he also got me writing songs. It was a good trade-off. He said, 'I love it! You've made me famous, I now have a record label, everybody knows who I am.' But then he said, 'I don't get why you're not writing your own songs,' so I did." And the rest, as they say, is history.

Judy Collins launches an extensive tour for Strangers Again this week beginning with the Barnes & Noble event on the record's release day, Friday September 18, is planning another PBS project next year, and also has a new book in the works (her tenth). She will continue to inspire and amaze us with her music for a long time to come.

For more information on her work and touring schedule visit www.judycollins.com