Judy Collins Isn’t Slowing Down
The singer on hard times, her folk hits and her nearly 50 years in the music business
By Alexandra Wolfe in the Wall Street Journal
Judy Collins still has beautiful blue eyes. And the 75-year-old singer—known for her renditions of hits like “Both Sides Now” (1967) and “Send in the Clowns” (1975), as well as for inspiring Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (1968)—is still as enthusiastic about making music as she was in her heyday. “I feel like I’m in high school again,” she says.
Ms. Collins has just released a new single called “Helpless,” a cover of a Neil Young song. But the song has nothing to do with how she’s feeling these days. “I thought I was going to be gone from the planet by the age of 40, but it turns out that I’m just getting going again,” she says.
Known for her crisp, clear, almost ethereal voice, she still performs live more than 100 times a year. She has recorded over a dozen hit singles and has been nominated for four Grammy Awards. “Helpless” is a precursor to a spring tour and a coming album.
Ms. Collins says that the secret to keeping up her pace is waking up every morning at 7 a.m. to exercise. “What I do is really an athletic life, and you have to live it like an athlete,” she says. For years, she’s eschewed carbohydrates, sugar and grains. She tries to keep a healthy balance, though; she has talked publicly about her past battles with bulimia, as well as with depression. “I’ve been struggling with the food issue most of my life,” she says.
At 75, folk singer Judy Collins, known for her renditions of hits like “Both Sides Now” (1967) and “Send in the Clowns” (1975), is as energetic as ever. She tells WSJ about her new single, demanding tour schedule, and exercise regimen.
She describes her career as “up and down,” which is typical in the music business, she says. “An artist is not always the most lucrative job in the world, but if you don’t have the downs, you can’t get the ups.” At this point in her life, she prefers something steadier. “You have to settle somewhere in the middle.”
Ms. Collins says that she’s always had a strong work ethic. Her father, who was blind, was a radio host with morning shows on news and talk radio stations in Denver in the 1950s. He never missed his show, despite his struggles with alcoholism. “He was always battling,” she says, “but it didn’t matter because he never allowed it to interfere with his performance, and I think that [work ethic] is genetic.”
Rachael Sage and Judy Collins: ‘Helpless’
She was interested in music from an early age. Growing up in Denver, she studied classical piano with conductor Antonia Brico. Even in her youth, she kept a tight schedule, making regular appearances on her father’s show and performing in her high-school orchestra. “I was always having to be somewhere, doing something and practicing every day to keep it up,” she says.
She later turned to folk music and first found fame with her 1967 rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” (Ms. Mitchell didn’t record the song herself until 1969.) She performed with singers like Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, and remembers meeting Peter, Paul and Mary before they were the eponymous band. “Peter used to say, ‘If it doesn’t work out with Mary, keep your schedule open,’” she recalls with a laugh. She started her career performing songs written by other artists but began recording her own compositions in the late 1960s.
She was—and remains—politically active. In the 1960s, she traveled to the South to help register black voters and testified on behalf of the Chicago Seven, including activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, when they were charged with inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Do people often ask you to sing for them?
“The other night I was at a New Year’s Eve party and I don’t usually sing at the parties I’m invited to, because it’s like asking a lawyer to practice a little law at a New Year’s party. But someone mentioned a song of mine called “The Blizzard.” It’s like a dream romance in a snowstorm. Everyone relates to that. They all get involved in the experience of being in a huge, natural situation around which they really don’t have any control but which leads to intimacy, and leads them to think about when they were young and doing that sort of thing—and [then they think] that maybe it’s possible to do something like that again.”
You write books, record music and perform live. How do you balance your schedule?
“One seems to stimulate the other. You have to divide your time up so you spend an hour writing and go to the piano and spend a half-hour practicing, then go to work, go to lunch, do some self-care, and then go back and finish your edit. That’s a nice day for me.”
With her early success came dependency on alcohol. “I didn’t crash and burn until the very end—and then I did crash and burn,” she says. She went into rehabilitation and therapy and has now been sober since 1979.
Today, Ms. Collins lives in Manhattan with her second husband, Louis Nelson, an industrial designer. She had one son from her first marriage to Peter Taylor, a former Navy pilot, but lost him to suicide in 1992. The day after our interview would have been her son’s birthday.
“His suicide has both ruined my life and probably saved my life at the same time, because I had to get through it,” she says. “And you get through it, but you don’t get over it.” Ms. Collins says that writing about her hardships helps her to get through them. She now speaks to mental health groups about her son’s suicide as well as her own attempted suicide at age 14.
Lately, Ms. Collins is also active on social media. “I’m a big Facebook user,” she says. The singer joined the site two years ago after her manager suggested that she use it to post songs and photographs. And now that she’s turned to Facebook, she says, “I’ve abandoned all that constant journaling I did pretty much all my life.” Her posts range from recaps of local concerts to photographs of her Hawaiian vacation to a picture of her and her friend (and former boyfriend) Stephen Stills on his birthday.
Mr. Stills wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” for her in 1968 as they were breaking up. (“I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are.”) He first sang it to her at a hotel in Santa Monica, Calif. “We both wept. It was supposed to get me back, but it didn’t,” she says. The two still see each other regularly. “It’s good to be friendly with people who write a hit song about you,” she says, smiling. Ms. Collins hopes someday to record a song with Mr. Stills.
For now, she’s working on other collaborations. She recorded her latest song, “Helpless,” with Rachael Sage, an American singer-songwriter who has opened for Ms. Collins in concert.
She is often pleasantly surprised by how some of her songs have resurfaced. Last year, she rerecorded “Both Sides Now” for director Rob Reiner’s film “And So It Goes,” starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton. She also had a cameo on the HBO television show “Girls,” in which she sang her 1969 song “Someday Soon.”
And she recently heard that the Syfy television show “12 Monkeys” had licensed her 2005 song “Checkmate.” “I was amazed that anybody knew about it,” she says. It’s a song about grief, she explains. “You never know when something that you’ve done…will help somebody else,” she says. “That’s what art is for…to help us experience each other’s losses and triumphs.”