Judy Collins Shares The Love

Judy Collins

Collins' creed: Always a borrower be
By VIJITH ASSAR
Given that the defining Judy Collins performance is still her 1967 rendition of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," it comes as no surprise that the 1960's Greenwich Village folk icon is still up for interpretation. More than 45 years into her recording career, instead of aggressively trying to carve out her own place in the history books, she's more than happy to turn the page and read somebody else's chapter– two of her last three albums, including last summer's Judy Collins Sings Lennon and McCartney, have been entirely covers.
Then again, maybe this just indicates that since her own status is assured at this point, she can afford to do whatever she wants.
The Hook: When did you first start to realize that the folk scene in Greenwich Village during the '60s would resonate for decades?
Judy Collins: I don't think anybody thought anything about that other than how to make a living and how to get to the next song– and, of course, the politics about the war and speaking out. We were there to put a face on what it was like to be telling the truth. It's my job to show up and do what I have to do and not to analyze– they say "Utilize, not analyze." Leave it to the newspapers and the critics to figure out what was going on– we were doing it. I was trying to find a way to work, a voice with which to make a living and to make a difference.
The Hook: Okay, then when did you feel you had done that?
Judy Collins: I feel like I do that every day of my life. If I'm not doing that, then something's wrong. That's the way I was raised. If I don't vote, there's something wrong with me. I certainly have no right to gripe if I don't vote, and I like to gripe.
The Hook: Your last album was all Beatles tunes. What did you learn from them as a composer?
Judy Collins: Oh, I don't know yet. One of the things that surprised me is how short they are. Most of them are under three minutes. I don't think I've ever written a short song, so maybe that's something I could learn from them. Maybe it was just a respect for the pair they were– it was such a magical pair, and that doesn't happen very often and stand up to the test of time.
The Hook: So it was more about your personal love for their music than respect or education?
Judy Collins: Oh, sure. You always have to have that, and I wouldn't have done that unless it was part of the experience. I was also interested in focusing on another writer or writers– I did an album of Dylan in the '90s and another of all Leonard Cohen. I always wanted to sing "Yesterday"– who wouldn't?
The Hook: Their career and yours roughly line up, temporally speaking. At what point did you start to look at them as influences?
Judy Collins: I always was impressed. The minute they walked on the scene, they were doing something extraordinary. It was the same thing that happened with Dylan– they were different and not in the same mode as what was happening over here, and people responded to that. And it was a dramatic story, too, wasn't it? They were working very hard in Germany at these funky clubs and in Liverpool, and finally Brian Epstein caught their eye and decided, 'This can really happen.'
I think it was an added element of excitement and possibility for the writing. If you add other dimensions to what's going on in these songs, and you put Brian Wilson– er, George Martin in the middle– something very different happen.
The Hook: You kind of tripped over Brian Wilson there. Will that be your next one?
Judy Collins: Wouldn't that be fun! I don't know, I hadn't really thought about it before– it might be interesting. I was certainly influenced by it. I love that music, the California sound.
The Hook: How does interpreting the Beatles differ from interpreting Dylan or Leonard Cohen?
Judy Collins: You're just always looking for a great song, whether it's your song or someone else's. The real test of the song is when it can step out from the writer and have someone else singing it. We weren't too interested in George Gershwin or Rodgers and Hart singing.
The Hook: Have you developed any sort of rubric or metric for evaluating that?
Judy Collins: No. The thing I look for is that, 'Aha! That's a song I have to sing.' It hits me immediately, and I don't have to sit around and wonder and ponder. Leonard would send me a tape, and I'd listen to the songs, and the one that came back to me I'd go after first– the one that appeared in my subconscious, if I was dreaming about it or just wandering around the house. The experience is usually quite immediate and quite powerful and beyond reason. Sometimes you could make up a reason, but it isn't like that at all. It's quite visceral. That's the only thing I depend on– that instinctual response.
The Hook: What are some of the more surprising things that have given you that?
Judy Collins: Some very exciting and interesting things are scattered, like the "Lincoln Portrait" that was on the last album before "Lennon and McCartney." It's a song composed by Aaron Copland and set to the words of Abraham Lincoln. I did it down at one of the churches at Ground Zero on the first anniversary of 9/11.
The Beatles were a surprise for my fans. I think it was a fascinating departure for me to do an album in 1968 that was totally orchestrated– it wasn't something that my folky friends and fans would have expected. Those are natural departures for me, but they would be surprising if you didn't know my work, and how eclectic I really am. And I think a Beach Boys album is a brilliant idea, by the way.
The Hook: What's the methodology behind working on someone else's music?
Judy Collins: Sometimes that's sort of a long process because you go into your research. Although I recorded only my favorite songs by the Beatles, I listened to everything they ever did. A lot of research goes into informing yourself. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time, and it takes you on a learning curve adventure.
The Hook: You don't seem to be very artistically possessive.
Judy Collins: You can't really possess art, can you? Unless you own a painting, I suppose, and even then...

Judy Collins sings her own music and then some at the Paramount on April 10. $38.50-$49.50, 8pm.