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Judy Collins' Bright, Beautiful Side

At 82, she celebrates 60 years in music with two new albums, a podcast and a tour

spinner image Judy Collins holding her guitar during a performance onstage
Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

Judy Collins was 22 when her folk-oriented debut album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, arrived 60 years ago. That was the launch of her second act. She had already spent years as a classical pianist, training since the age of 4 and making her public debut at 13. After recording a broad range of folk, pop, rock, show tunes and standards on 41 studio albums over the past 60 years, the 82-year-old soprano refuses to slow down.

An album of her own compositions, Beauty and Resistance, is due by late summer. She's just released a collection of covers, White Bird: Anthology of Favorites (listen here). And on June 3, she will launch Since You've Asked, a 24-episode podcast series featuring her conversations with admired musicians and creative thinkers. Collins, whose silvery voice has lost none of its radiance or range, also intends to resume her pace of 120 concerts annually and has booked shows starting in June.

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From her apartment on New York City's Upper West Side (which she's had for more than 50 years), Collins spoke with AARP about her life, loves, songs and why, at 82, she can't imagine retiring.

How did you cope with the pandemic?

We've had a privileged lockdown. My husband and I have a beautiful home. We have a lot of Zoom dinners with friends. The stores I would normally shop in for food, Zabar's included, all deliver. I don't cook anymore. I'll boil an egg or make an egg white omelet. I did just put a bunch of beef in some teriyaki sauce to marinate overnight, but that's as close as I come to cooking. Now we've started to go out to restaurants. I've been writing songs, and I'm getting ready to go to the studio and finish up my new album of all my own songs.

A Maid of Constant Sorrow came out in 1961. What would Judy today have told that younger version of yourself?

It's going to be all right. I'm much more myself. It is a very hard life. I don't know how I did it particularly, since I was an active alcoholic for 23 years, starting at 15. The first 20 years of my career, I was drinking. But I never missed a show and always turned up for work. I can remember one show that I canceled in the early ‘70s. I flew to Colorado, and when I got to this little mountain town, I was overcome with panic. I had anxiety and depression — that's part of my story. When I got to the hotel, I called the guy and said I have to go home right now. I was in the middle of nowhere and got a plane back to New York. That's the only time I remember ever doing that. I love my work. This job I have, satisfying as it is, and it is thrilling, has been a huge amount of hard work.

In addition to singing and songwriting, you've been a painter, author, filmmaker and record label chief. Is there something left on your creative bucket list?

Oh God, yes. I've been writing poetry since 2016. I'm not OCD every day, but I keep the machinery oiled and warmed up and write many times a month. I am now working with my literary agent to put out a book. I have 365 poems. I didn't edit them at all. She will fall over when she sees them, of course. And I'm working on a new memoir. I can't get a real fix on what I'm going to say, but doing that poetry will help me sort it out.

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Retirement seems unlikely for you.

I don't believe in retirement. It was created in the industrial revolution so they could fire people to make room for the young and underpaid. If you're an artist, you never retire. If you're a dancer, forget it, because the body goes. But the voice doesn't go if you treat it right. I did have problems once. I had surgery 44 years ago. They took a burst capillary off one of my cords. It was the same surgery Julie Andrews had. It worked for me and it didn't work for her.

spinner image The cover art for Since You've Asked, a podcast series with Judy Collins
Courtesy Artist Vision

You've been a social activist throughout your career. What causes are most important to you now?

Immigration is on the top of the list. I wrote a song called “Dreamers” based on a poem I wrote on December 31, 2016, when I was writing poems every day. So many things are compelling right now. The climate, Black Lives Matter. I put a lot of money into the campaign this past year. Gloria Steinem said, “We can tell our values by looking at our checkbook stubs.” Politics is high on my list. You support who you can. ActBlue is getting a big slice of my pie lately. I do what I can for the things I believe in. One of the most urgent political acts you can do right now is wear a mask. And get the vaccine. Looking at India, you just want to weep.

Your podcast spotlights everyone from actors Jeff Daniels and Betty Buckley to British rebel vicar Pat Allerton to musician Ben Harper. Who else were you eager to bring aboard?

One of the most exciting people I've talked to so far is Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records. He signed me on a handshake 60 years ago this year. He was the master of finding artists and treating us well, and he was one of the few moguls in the music business who was never sued. I did a podcast with Arlo Guthrie. We've known each other for 60 years. I was the headliner at Gerde's Folk City in 1961 in Greenwich Village. When I got there, I found out I had an opener, and it was Arlo. He was 13 years old. He and I had fabulous experiences over the years. We were planning a 60-show tour to start last summer. He called me and said, “I can't do this anymore. I can't even stand up.” (Guthrie suffered two strokes in recent years.) He's much better now. He's retired. My podcast with Christiane Amanpour was breathtaking. It was an emotional hour. She's a powerful person. She's brilliant and funny, and she's been in every hot spot in the world. When the podcast was finished, I was completely drained. The podcast is a great way to be engaged in someone else's life. It's almost better than a dinner party.

How do you spend your leisure time?

I watch movies. We've watched a year and a month of movies, and we're going to start over. We're not thrilled with our options. I'm not interested in watching Red October again. I spend a lot of time practicing the piano. I had no idea when I sat down for my first piano lesson that I would still be doing this at 82.

BONUS: Between the Lines of White Bird

Judy Collins’ newly released White Bird: Anthology of Favorites includes “Blackbird,” “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” “When I Go,” her first interpretation of the 1969 tune “White Bird” by It's a Beautiful Day, and several new versions of previously recorded songs, including Joni Mitchell's “Chelsea Morning.” Among the album's guests are Willie Nelson, Joan Baez and Stephen Stills, whose romance with Collins inspired him to write “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (the song failed to win her back). Collins shares stories about some of Anthology's tracks.

"White Bird": I didn't know much about It's a Beautiful Day or their work. It's a beautiful song. When I heard it, I thought, I can sing harmony with myself. That will be great fun.

"I Think It's Going to Rain Today": I first recorded that in 1966. Randy Newman had not become a singer/songwriter yet. I'm sure he was thinking he would write movie music like all his relatives. Someone sent my producer a recording of him playing and singing that song. I said, “Oh my God, I have to record that.” When he found out I was recording it, he must have said to himself, “Oh, I see what I'm supposed to be doing,” because within days he recorded it himself. But I got it out first.

"The Last Thing on My Mind” (with Stephen Stills): I love this for several reasons. The romance was a big part of our lives. It's a beautiful song. It has heart and fits my voice very well. It must have been 2016 when Stephen and I recorded the song at my house. I thought we were going to record “Four Strong Winds.” But he said no. He adored “The Last Thing on My Mind."

"Both Sides Now": It was 1967, and Joni Mitchell was another girl in the Village that nobody knew about. She was hanging out with Blood, Sweat and Tears and got to know Al Kooper. He and I were good friends, and he knew I was making Wildflowers and looking for songs. He called me in the middle of the night and put Joni on the phone. She sang “Both Sides Now.” I couldn't believe the song. I said to her, I'll be right over. It's a tremendously important song. Joni was probably 25. It was her breakthrough. People discovered her through that song because I recorded it. It helped me. It was my first major hit. It made a big stamp on the pop music scene. I will always be indebted to Al Kooper for not calling someone else.

"Send in the Clowns": It was a synchronistic out-of-the-blue gift. In 1973, [actress] Nancy Bacal sent the album A Little Night Music over. I saw [director] Hal Prince's name, but I didn't know anything about the musical. I called him, and he said about 200 people have already recorded “Send in the Clowns.” I said, well, I don't care. I need to record that song, and I'm going to. The song immediately tore into the charts. It's a remarkable song.

"Turn! Turn! Turn!": I had always listened to Pete Seeger. When I got to New York in 1961, my manager, Harold Leventhal, was also managing Pete, The Weavers and a whole panoply of folk singers. Pete and I became friendly, and I got to know his songs and do concerts with him. In 1963, I recorded “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and I even sang it on his Rainbow Quest television show. It's a terribly important song. He went to the Bible to look for material. It's been wonderful to have that song in my life.

Edna Gundersen, a regular AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.

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