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Judy Collins Talks Her First Grammy Nomination in 40 Years: ‘I’ve Been Working All This Time’

Gloria Gaynor once went 36 years between Grammy nominations, and Carole King endured a 17-year dry spell. Yet it’s hard to remember a longer pause than the one experienced by 1960s folk icon Judy Collins, who recently received her first Grammy nomination in 40 years. Her release “Silver Skies Blue” will compete for best folk album, a cool 48 years after her first (and only) Grammy win in the category.

The singer, now 77, takes a measured view of the attention. “I’ve been working all this time,” she says, “and I guess the Grammys were somewhere else.”

Born in Seattle, Collins grew up in Denver, the daughter of a radio DJ and singer (“My father had a great voice.”) A piano prodigy, Collins had a love of folk that led her to switch to guitar, and, like so many others of her generation, she relocated to Greenwich Village, where she was signed. She released her first album in 1961, when she was 22.

It wasn’t until 1967, though, that she came to commercial prominence with the album “Wildflowers.” Eight years after that, she enjoyed renewed popularity with her 1975 version of “Send in the Clowns,” a pop hit that won writer Stephen Sondheim a 1976 Grammy for song of the year. Collins has enjoyed a fittingly low-key late-career resurgence over the last several years. Her 2015 duets record, “Strangers Again,” was her highest-charting since the 1970s. Last year she headlined a PBS special, “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim.” Though indelibly identifiable by her peers, Collins’ brand of simultaneously earthy and virtuosic folk has found clear modern-day echoes in the likes of Joanna Newsom and Sharon Van Etten. Collins was even featured on a 2013 episode of HBO’s “Girls,” playing herself.

Although she was introduced to what would become her signature song, “Both Sides Now,” back when the then-unknown songwriter Joni Mitchell performed it over the phone for her, Collins stresses the importance of unhurried, face-to-face collaboration. The songs on “Silver Skies Blue,” for instance, were written and performed with Ari Hest, a singer-songwriter 40 years Collins’ junior, whom she had previously brought on tour as a supporting act.

“I know most people have to figure out how to get online to Skype songs back and forth to put them together these days,” Collins says. “But Ari and I got to write these songs while sitting in the same room with each other, talking to one another, talking to my husband [designer Louis Nelson], talking to the cats. It was a social as well as a professional involvement. And there was no pressure, no agenda, because it wasn’t like we needed to get this done next Thursday.”

The art of collaboration has been a constant through Collins’ life. “Strangers Again” saw her duet with everyone from Willie Nelson and Jackson Browne to Jeff Bridges and Glen Hansard. In addition to her album with Hest, she recently wrote songs with the Gin Blossoms’ Jesse Valenzuela.

VOICE OF MANY: Collins, shown here in 1966, was an early champion of songwriters including Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.
Ray Stevenson/REX/Shutterstock

It was Collins’ decision to make “Silver Skies Blue” a full duets record, Hest notes. “I credit Judy with really pushing this project, because she’s always been the type of person to take on ideas full-force and see where they go. For her to have been in the industry as long as she has and still create at the pace she’s creating is pretty rare.”

Looking at the number of songwriters whose work Collins was among the first to record, one wonders if she couldn’t have pursued a career in A&R in some parallel timeline. She quickly picked up on the talents of Richard Fariña, and though she was not the first to explore the Bob Dylan songbook on record, she was certainly one of the earliest adopters.

“I recorded Dylan right away,” Collins says. “And even though a lot of other people did too, it meant something that I had started doing it in ’63.

“I do this all the time,” she adds. “I’ve always been able to find consistently great songs, and I’ve been able to maintain the quality of my own performances by having so many. You’ve always got to be careful when choosing a song, because if you’re going to be singing it for 58 years, it had better be good.”

Of course, the songwriters most closely associated with Collins are Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, both of whom owe their careers, in part, to the singer’s early championing. Cohen, who died in November, had never cut a record of his own when Collins released a version of his song “Suzanne,” and she would she remain his most prolific interpreter.

“Leonard was very smart,” she says, “because in 1966, there were a hundred singer-songwriters wandering around the Village, but there weren’t that many people who were interested in singing somebody else’s songs. Whereas I, who didn’t write songs at that point, was very interested, and he knew that, because he was a very savvy fellow.”

Collins describes her relationship with Cohen as “both comic and cosmic. Because there was a sense that something was supposed to happen, and it worked out the right way — and that’s not always true for all kinds of reasons. But the minute I heard him sing ‘Suzanne,’ I was off to the races. Anything he was writing he always sent to me. And that went on for years and years.”

Collins encouraged Cohen to start performing and recording his compositions himself; returning the favor, it was Cohen who first persuaded Collins to try songwriting.

“He and I were very close and very much in each other’s hair all the time. And, of course, it was Leonard who said, after I helped put him on the map, ‘This is wonderful, and please don’t stop. But why aren’t you writing your own songs?’ So that question led me to sit down at the piano [in 1967] and answer him with ‘Since You Asked.’”

“You’ve always got to be careful when choosing a song, because if you’re going to be singing it for 58 years, it had better be good.”
Judy Collins

Continuing in her typically collaborative mode, Collins is preparing to step into the studio with another face from her 1960s past — Stephen Stills. The two were an item in the Woodstock era, and after their breakup, Stills wrote a song to try to get her back, which failed in its intended purpose but ended up becoming one of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s most enduring tunes, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” This spring, they’re cutting an album, which Collins says will likely be split between new compositions and songs from their respective catalogs.

“It is going to happen,” she stresses. “Because we already have [studio] bookings. And it’s a dazzling thought … We were discussing it, and I was thrilled when he told me he quite likes one of the songs I’ve written. So that seems like a good start.”

Collins, who plans to publish her 10th book sometime in the first half of 2017, continues to maintain a touring schedule of 100-plus performances per year. It’s no accident that her soprano voice remains in nearly as crystalline a shape as it was in her youth, and she is eager to discuss one often dangerously ignored element of music-business longevity.

“1965 and ’66 were very good years for me, and I was working like a maniac,” she says. “But I was having a really hard time, because I was losing my voice. If you hear those really early records, you’ll hear that I was singing way down” — she drops her voice an octave — “in the bass here. I had very little understanding of what it was going to take to sustain this instrument I had been born with.”

She ended up taking vocal lessons for 32 years with Max Margulis — the colorful vocal coach, leftist activist, and Blue Note Records co-founder — and the results speak for themselves.

“All my friends who are opera singers, like Frederica von Stade and her friends, will come hear me every time I sing Carnegie Hall just to see how long I can do it,” she says. “We’re all very interested in one another’s voices. Of course, most of my contemporaries couldn’t have cared less about that, because they were involved in different things. But I knew in my heart that I was a late bloomer, and I knew that the only thing I had going for me was this voice.”

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