With an exemplary career that spans nearly five decades and one of the world’s most pure, perfect, and instantly recognizable singing voices, Judy Collins could be forgiven for taking things easy, but that’s not her style-at all. With a new record of Lennon and McCartney songs out on her own label and an established second career as an author, she is as lively and perhaps more ambitious than she was in her early twenties when she took the 1960s folk movement mainstream. Her albums from the mid and late ’60s were among the most influential recordings in that incredibly fertile period, and, miraculously, they all still sound fresh. But if you really want to feel the goose bumps that are likely to accompany her appearance at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on September 26, go search for her on youtube.com. What you will find there is a score of truly amazing clips, including a 1969 performance of “Someday Soon” from The Smothers Brothers Show that is so simple and soulful, it’s guaranteed to break your heart.
I spoke with Collins recently from her home in New York City.
You certainly are a loyal New Yorker, but you weren’t born and raised there. How did it start for you? I’m from Seattle originally, but it all started for me in New York around 1963 in Greenwich Village. There was so much going on for folk musicians there at that time. We had our own whole scene, and you could just run into people on the street or at the cafes, people like Pete Seeger or Dave Van Ronk, and even the young Bob Dylan.
You were the first person to record and popularize so many important and innovative songwriters-not just Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but also Leonard Cohen and Ian Tyson. Did you know how influential those choices would be at the time? I guess I just had the right taste. If I had known these songs and their writers would go on to become so successful, maybe I would have tried to take some of the publishing. [Laughs.] Only XM and Sirius pay royalties to the recording artist on radio plays.
Did you have an agenda going into the studio back then? Originally, I was just trying to choose revolutionary things-Dylan and Joni Mitchell, but also Brecht, and the song from Marat/Sade that I recorded, which is by a great American composer, Richard Peaslee. A lot of the eclecticism came from proximity to what was happening at Nonesuch. Jac [Holman, Elektra Records’ founder] started Nonesuch in 1964 to license European recordings of classical music, but pretty soon : it had expanded to doing world music, and we were all listening to everything. : New York City was a hot place to be, and the chances we took in the studio paid off because of people like Jac and the great arranger Josh Rifkin, who guided me when I expanded the instrumentation on my records beyond the acoustic guitar. You know if you can get with the right people, like I did, anything is possible, but if you get with the wrong people, you can go the wrong way in a hurry.
And Elektra was right for you, at least at first, is that correct? Yes, and now I can appreciate that, besides the musical education, I also got a business education at Elektra. It was top-to-bottom exposure that I got there, and I learned things-like that your distributors are your friends. My new label, Wildflower, is not a vanity label. I’m not just recording myself-I am also bringing out other music as well. : I have a great singer, Jimmy Norman, who was in the original Coasters. He’s 70 years old, and he might not look like everybody’s idea of a pop star, but he is the guy who wrote “Time Is on My Side” and he can still really sing.
You are touring with this wonderful album of songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Is there anything else exciting that we should be looking forward to? There’s a tribute album coming out that will be all versions of the songs I have written. Rufus Wainwright does a wonderful version of “Albatross,” but it was Chrissie Hynde who actually got the project started. She’s the one who said, “Let’s do a whole album with all different artists.” She has been doing “My Father” for years and she’s just a great person and performer.
Judy Collins will be at the Marjorie Luke Theatre (721 E. Cota St.) on Wednesday, September 26, at 8 p.m. Tickets and information are available through the Lobero Theatre. Call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.