Ahead of this weekend’s Belfast gig, folk legend Judy Collins talks to Jane Hardy about the tough times in her personal life
Judy Collins would appear to have a gilded life, singing multi-million selling songs for five decades and hanging out with some of the greatest folk musicians in the history of the genre. But, behind the glitz, lies tales of dark addictions and personal tragedy. Only the music has remained a constant in a life of ups and downs.
And her enthusiasm for music-making remains undimmed after half a century on the road.
She says, in the speaking version of the voice once described as sounding like amethysts if they could sing: “The tour’s going great. Well, I make a living and get paid for doing what I love. This is my retirement, and it’s getting better. After 50 years, I’m writing new songs, discovering new things.”
She lists some of the talent on her new disc, on release in October. “The New Essex bluegrass band from over here, James McMurty, Joan Baez and Stephen Stills, my old boyfriend. I’ve just finished the edit.”
In spite of this super-creativity, Judy Collins (71) will most likely be remembered for a handful of songs by other people that she has imprinted with the Collins magic. Who Knows Where The Time Goes? and Both Sides Now are probably top of most people’s personal playlist.
And Both Sides Now, which you could call Joni Mitchell’s bipolar song (“I’ve looked at life from both sides now/From win and lose/And still somehow, it’s life’s illusions I recall/I really don’t know life at all.”) sums up quite a bit of the singer’s life.
For although Judy Collins graduated from the 1960s Greenwich Village scene, where she performed and socialised with people like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, to mainstream success — at one point, she says “I’ve been on the Muppet show,” and we both laugh — she has known some tough times.
“When I first heard the song, I knew what Both Sides meant. As you get older and have all sorts of experiences, you get the ... well, teenagers have a way of putting it which isn’t in my vocabulary.”
The list of troubles in Judy Collin’s life might have pushed a lesser woman towards a different musical genre, country. She has grappled with the death of her only son Clark, and with addictions including bulimia and alcoholism. She’s not only happy to talk about her problems, she campaigns tirelessly to help other people through these different hells.
“Drink? Oh, I have drunk more than you can imagine. For the last four years of my drinking, when I’d start in the morning, I was at the peak of my career too. I had huge Top 10 hits like Send In The Clowns, yet inside I was dying. Although I had been drinking for 23 years, I always knew I had an illness, but nobody on Oprah was saying how they’d conquered it. I finally wound up in rehab in Pennsylvania in 1978. Thank you, God.”
It can’t have been easy maintaining sobriety, as in 1992, Judy’s son Clark, by first husband Peter Taylor, committed suicide after suffering from depression and substance abuse. She says now: “I didn’t drink or kill myself, I had reserves and I had my husband.”
Judy Collins’ 33-year long second marriage to designer Louis Nelson is definitely going strong. “We met at a fundraiser for the Equal Rights Amendment. He and I always say he got equal rights, we always laugh about that.” Now, she says, her work with anti-suicide groups gives her profound satisfaction.
“After Clark’s death, I was desolate and worked on suicide prevention after meeting the man who set up the first suicide prevention hotline in LA. We know around 35,000 people died by their own hand in America in 1949. The good thing is although our population has grown, the suicide figure has remained stable. So all the help and fundraising has made a difference.
“When I talk to people who have been helped, it’s very healing, and part of the most important piece of life experience I have known.”
She also has the solace of music. Judy began playing the piano as a child and made her debut at 13 with Mozart’s double piano concerto, before picking up a guitar.
“Music has helped me and I always listen to Haydn or Bach when I get up which is cleansing. But when I hit this watershed (with Clark), it was drown or swim, go under or keep on.”
It’s clear which path Judy took — with American self-belief she says: “It’s my 52nd year of getting paid for what I call the second oldest profession in the world.
“Cleo Laine came to see my last night and said, ‘You don’t have a wobble.’ She told me Johnny Dankworth (her husband) told her she’d know when to retire, when the wobble came.”
The pensionable performers keep on keeping on, and as Judy says she and Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Joni and Joan just “swirl around, track each other’s progress and meet up every now and again”.
She adds: “But you have to get through the middle years, that canyon of neglect, then you can go right on. If you do music when you’re young, thatconnects you to the audience. I think Mick Jagger is remarkable, as is Keith (Richards) who’s reinvented his life.”
Ms Collins’ appeal is definitely multi-generational. At last year’s Glastonbury festival, Judy met fellow performers the Fleet Foxes and was blown away by the latest folkies. “They got down on their knees, I couldn’t believe it. Next time, I’ll bow to them.”
On whether she prefers doing covers or her own material, Judy Collins wisecracks. “I’ve made all those songs and people famous. Do they write, do they call? No.
“Now people record my songs — Chrissie Hynde has recorded Since You Asked, and other songs have been performed by Dolly Parton, Rufus Wainwright, Cleo Laine and Leonard Cohen.”
Judy’s most recent song concerns the death of her mother last year and is called In The Twilight.
“I’m sending my family copies as I did a mix last month. I feel my writing has got better, and when I sing Both Sides it’s fresh because I was taught to sing a song as if you were singing it for the first time.
“I would have a hard time with Sha-na-na lyrics but mine and Dylan’s, Joni’s and Leonard’s aren’t like that.”
Collins is still protesting strongly
Judy Collins is appearing with special guest Andy White at the Waterfront on Saturday. Tickets available from the box office, tel 028 9033 4455, or from Ticketmaster, tel 0844 2774455, or go to www.ticketmaster.ie