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Judy Collins Gets Suite on ‘Winter Stories,’ a Not So Christmas-y Seasonal Album

The singer tells Variety why she was good with putting home and hearth on the back burner for her ambitious new song cycle.

Judy Collins Variety Feature Grammy Nomination
robert maxwell for Variety

You may have a pretty clear idea of what a Judy Collins album titled “Winter Stories” would be. The clear-voiced Collins singing of comfort and warmth by the hearth of her long-time Colorado home. That sort of stuff.

Or not. The opening, tone-setting song on “Winter Stories,” a collaboration with Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld and the North Carolina country-folk quartet Chatham County Line, tells of tracing the path of the ultra-ill-fated quest led by Sir John Franklin to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. The song, “Northwest Passage,” was written and originally performed by Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers, who died tragically himself, in a 1983 airliner fire.

“Winter Wonderland” it ain’t.

We thought, ‘Well, why don’t we do a handful of songs that somehow brush the idea of colder weather and winter time?’” Collins says of the album, which comes out Friday, speaking by phone from her New York residence. “So we thought about all these songs that to us make sense [for that]. Maybe not to everyone else.”

To be fair, the album ends with Collins’ own “Blizzard,” an epic journey home that does end with the singer finding comfort and warmth by the hearth of her Colorado home. But much of the collection evokes the darker sides of Solstice time with its mix of originals new and old (Collins’ “Mountain Girl” and “The Fallow Way,” two new songs co-written by Fjeld and Chatham singer-guitarist Dave Wilson), plus chestnuts from other sources, notably Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman” and Joni Mitchell’s seasonal affective disorder ode “River.”

So, no, it’s not a conventional Christmas album, not that there is or ever was anything conventional about Collins. That’s true now, arguably, more than ever in the course of her nearly six-decade career.

“I like a challenge,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I like new things. I like to learn new things. I like to write new things. I do a lot of new writing all the time — songs, poetry, books. Keep moving.”

How’s that working for her?

“Feels good,” she says.

That has manifested in a rush of projects of late. “Winter Stories” is her fourth album in four years, and the third of them to be a collaboration, following her 2016 “Silver Skies Blue” duo set with singer-songwriter Ari Hest and 2017’s “Everybody Knows,” a decades-in-the-waiting pairing with long-time friend and late 1960s romantic partner Stephen Stills. (She is, of course, the Judy of his “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” arguably the most beautiful, loving break-up song of the modern era.) The lone “solo” set in that stretch was 2017’s tribute “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim.”

And that’s just the start of it.

“I have about 15 different projects I want to finish up, including an album coming out in April, probably — my own songs, my own writing,” she says. “And a new coffee table book which I hope will be beautiful and interesting. About me — the coffee table book about Judy! Songs and pictures and stories. That will be a lot of fun. The year is full of projects.”

On top of that, she is still doing about 120 concerts a year. Oh, and she’s been the guest curator for Joe’s Pub in New York for 2019.

Maybe this is a good time to mention that last May Day she turned 80.

The point is that Judy Collins can do anything she likes. She’s, well, Judy Collins! And right now she wants to do, well, everything. As she always has, really.

Not that you need a refresher, but: She was the first person to bring songs of Mitchell (“Both Sides Now”), Sandy Denny (“Who Knows Where the Time Goes”), Leonard Cohen (“Bird On a Wire”) and, to some extent, Sondheim, to popular attention. She’s moved seamlessly back and forth between folk music and art-song. She’s been cited as a hero and influence by countless artists, from Dolly Parton to Chrissie Hynde to Rufus Wainwright. She’s written two memoirs and a novel, acted in a few movies and TV shows as well as a Joe Papp stage production of “Peer Gynt,” and sang “Amazing Grace” and “Chelsea Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration — the Clintons having said that daughter Chelsea was named after her version of that Mitchell song. She’s been an outspoken, though never strident, figure at the forefront of the civil rights, anti-war, anti-gun, environmental, feminist and immigrant movements — no less now than ever before, last year writing and releasing a song, “Dreamers,” as the DACA measures came under threat.

The collaborative albums are a new twist, though.

“I never did it much before,” she says. “But it seems to be more is less, or less is more. Something or other. I like the idea of working with other artists and hearing new sounds, the addition of other colors, other viewpoints. It’s very nice.”

“Winter Stories” makes the case strongly, more and less.

“First of all, we like Chatham County Line very much,” she says, not using the Imperial We, but rather including her long-time pianist and musical director Russell Walden in the mix. “And we like Jonas — I’ve recorded with him before.”

The album was made, in fact, in winter time, in a place that has winter time, specifically February in Chatham County Line’s home town of Asheville. Sessions were held in Echo Mountain, a studio housed in a converted old church. The essential elements of the project were worked out last year first with a rehearsal when all parties were in Raleigh, and then in two shows in Alamosa, Colorado, at an outdoor stage reached by a two-hour mountain train ride.

“It gave us a chance to take those songs out and walk them around the block a little,” she says.

Even with a project such as this, Collins could call all the shots, even take the top billing with the others in smaller type. If she wanted to. Again, she’s Judy Collins! That’s not her style, though.

“It was very much a collaborative effort,” she says. “It’s very important to be part of a group. It was like in kindergarten with a bunch of other kids. It’s fun — among other things, it’s fun.”

Even, it seems, when the subject matter was grim. “Northwest Passage” is a fairly recent discovery of hers, though hardly a discovery for our northern neighbors, where some consider it a second Canadian anthem.

“I’m very much a Canadian songwriter fan,” she says, listing off some of those whose songs she’s done, including Mitchell and Cohen, of course, but also Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. “But I had never discovered Stan. I was invited to sing at the Stan Rogers Festival in Cape Breton a few years ago. I was sitting in my trailer and it was raining and the windows were open and I heard this song coming up the lawn. The whole audience was singing it. I flipped out! ‘What is that?’”

She knew she would be recording it eventually.

“Anthems are hard to come by,” she says. “‘Northwest Passage’ is certainly an anthem in Canada and could be here. The connection to what historically happens and how people use music to get through things and how music connects to that. Stories were what the folk music revival was all about and continues to be. Stories connect us to what is on the planet, and give us hope and reflection in our own minds about what the hell is going on in the world.”

That, of course, has been a long interest for her as an artist and as a human. She says she’s “terrified” about the state of things — “as everyone else should be” — and sees her role as an outspoken activist as consistent from the early ‘60s to today. There’s a sense of continuity and a sense of optimism.

“You mean the idea that people are awake?” she says. “Some. I think a lot has to do with history. Young people are learning that people are not fixed in stone, which we always think they are, but they’re not. I was talking with someone earlier today about this, and the idea occurred to me that it’s kind of like the seasons. We have spring, summer, winter, fall. Everything dies, then spring comes and it starts to grow again, and we’re in trouble again. We have to harvest and fix it and regenerate it and figure it out. So it’s never finished.”

And clearly, as she releases her winter album, neither is she. Not close. She won’t even pause to assess her legacy, her stature in the cycles of changes and renewals she’s seen through the decades.

“I think that’s a job for writers and musicologists and people who think about that,” she says. “I don’t. I think about what I’m going to have for breakfast, when I’m going to practice, when I’m going to get to see ‘The Irishman.’ I let others worry about that aspect of my life. I’ve been very fortunate to be in the middle of a lot of it. First of all, startling and remarkable to think about my age and what I’ve done and what I still want to do.”