Judy Collins on the Best and Most Personal Moments of Her Career

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

At 82, Judy Collins still has a few musical tricks up her sleeve. After she released 28 studio albums over the span of six decades, the legendary folk singer’s latest LP, Spellbound, out February 25, marks her first record of original songs. (It’s also her sixth album in six years.) “In a way,” she jokes of the late-career milestone, “I’ve had 50 years of practice to get it right.”

Collins might have been writing music for more than half a century, but she’s best known for her skillful reinterpretations of other songwriters’ work. In the late ’60s, she made the then-obscure Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell famous with her versions of “Suzanne” and “Both Sides Now,” respectively; her dreamy take on Stephen Sondheim’s ballad “Send in the Clowns” from his show A Little Night Music became a major pop hit in 1975, winning the Grammy for Song of the Year; and her a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” from her 1970 album Whales & Nightingales, was selected in 2016 for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, making it the definitive version of the oft-recorded Christian hymn. (She’s also the inspiration for Crosby, Stills & Nash’s iconic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” hence the title of her juicy 2011 memoir.)

A teenage piano prodigy before picking up the guitar, Collins has always considered herself an “interpreter” of music. Turning up-and-coming talents into household names with her pristine voice is “karmically what I’m supposed to do,” she says rather nonchalantly. “I have to turn the spotlight to the song and not treat it as my song but treat it as a song.” Yet she also believes a musician must find a way to make every song they sing entirely their own, whether they wrote it or not. “Otherwise,” she says, “you’d better drop it from your repertoire.”

Best advice you received from another musician

I had recorded Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” and he said, “Well, now you’ve made me famous,” which I was very excited about. He also said to me, “I don’t know why you’re not writing your own songs.” I was the only one in the Village who wasn’t writing. That’s why he brought his songs to me, because he knew I had a history of recording other people’s songs and kind of bringing them out of the shadows. I got a lot of songs out there for talented people who didn’t have record contracts yet. He was one of them. After he said that, I ran home and wrote “Since You’ve Asked,” which is also the title of my new podcast. The minute I wrote it, I thought, Well, there is something here I don’t get anywhere else.

I didn’t completely dump the rest of my life and do nothing but write songs, but I have written songs for more than 50 years and have written a good bunch because of that conversation. My favorite is definitely “The Blizzard,” which I wrote in 1989 in preparation for a concert with Kris Kristofferson in Aspen at the Wheeler Opera House. I think the song is really the height of my storytelling. I’m hoping somebody will make a movie out of it someday.

Most personal song on Spellbound

“Arizona” is about a watershed moment in my life. It was 1962, I was 23, and my marriage had broken up. I was really at a loss. I was in the hospital in Tucson and then in Colorado for about five months with tuberculosis. On the way to the hospital, I bought a six-pack of Canadian beer thinking I’d be there for a day or so. I was there for a month. After that, my whole life shifted. I lost custody of my son because of the behavior of my husband. He was a good guy, I did him wrong. I was having an affair with somebody, and I told him. That’s the mistake! I’d been working for a few years, always on the road, and I really needed a rest.

My quarantines in both Arizona and Colorado were symbolic personally but also showed me the power of medicine. When I was diagnosed with tuberculosis, there had been medical achievements so you didn’t have to go to Switzerland for a year. You could stay in Tucson and Denver and get the shots. By the way, I am a vaccinating person. I believe in vaccinations. I believe that people who do not get vaccinated are extremely selfish and actually inflict damage on their friends, their book club, and everybody else they might see. I think so much of the planet right now is selfish.

Favorite “Both Sides Now” needle drop

I was thrilled when they used my version of the song on Mad Men. I was beside myself, I really was. I didn’t watch television in those years. I was working too hard. I mean, I went to the movies, but I didn’t know what was on TV. I’ve always been so focused on work throughout my life. I don’t even remember the first time I heard myself on the radio. It must have been “Both Sides Now,” but I was too busy to listen to the radio. I was working my ass off at all times. I’m sure I had a good time a lot of the time in those early years. I had some hot love affairs, for sure, but otherwise I was always working. But when I heard “Both Sides Now” on Mad Men, I just thought, Eat your heart out, Joni!

Greatest part of being Stephen Stills’s muse

Stephen Stills wrote what I think is his best song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” about me in the late ’60s for his band Crosby, Stills & Nash. All of his songs are good, but that one is great. We had a love affair back then, which always helps with the songwriting. When he first played it for me, I let him know, “It’s a beautiful song, but it won’t get me back.”

Last night, I was looking for something online, and I stumbled upon the session I did at the Newport Folk Festival in 2019 with Robin — oh, what’s his name? His band has a funny name — and some other musicians. [Editor’s note: Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold sang the CSN hit with the Shins’ James Mercer, Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson, Janet Weiss, and Jason Isbell to close out the 60th edition of the festival.] I joined them to play “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and I had such a ball. It was very sweet that they invited me to sing with them, and they really dedicated it to me. I think they even bowed down! It really is an honor to have inspired such a great song. Much better than inspiring a bad one, I’ll tell you that.

Biggest secret to vocal longevity

In 1965, after recording four albums, I was on the road, and I was losing my voice all the time. I found a singing teacher, and I stayed with him for 32 years. Max Margulis is really the reason for my voice. I thank and pray all the time for Max — and also for my surgeon, Dr. Don Weissman. In 1977, I had a hemangioma, a broken capillary, taken off my left vocal cord. Before I had the procedure, he said to me, “You don’t have to have it, but if you don’t, you just won’t sing again.” I already had to cancel 40 shows that year, so I was scared. He then said, “If I do this, you will have a chance.” Thanks to those two, I’m here singing, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m better than ever. It’s because of them that I don’t have some of the problems that come up for most singers.

Most voice loss is a matter of technique, and when you say “technique” people want to get complicated, like, “You put the sound in your forehead and sing through your whole chest.” It’s all bullshit, really. It’s about something called “bel canto,” the clarity of the voice. It’s about finding a way to accomplish a bridge between the lower and upper registers. The bel canto singing style, which was developed in the Middle Ages, persists to this day because it’s the only thing that works. My best vocal performances all came after I started studying with Max, and I’ve never looked back.

Best memory from guest-starring on Girls

I knew about Lena Dunham before she asked me to be on the show. I really thought she was an amazing artist and still do. I was very associated with singing at the Carlyle in New York, so Lena had decided to do an episode in season two where her character’s parents come to see me play there. They set it up as if it was a real concert. The day we filmed was the first time I met Lena. We laughed a lot. That was a hot guest spot, so to speak.

As far as I know, I was always the first choice for the role. Lena wanted me to sing “Someday Soon.” I think it’s in the script as what her character’s mother wanted to hear — and maybe Lena’s mother was a fan of that song too? I don’t know. I could be wrong about that, but I think that’s what it was. It didn’t feel like acting, I just felt like I was doing a concert, but I’m acting when I’m doing a concert. When you step on the stage, something happens to you. I had a good time on the show, but no, I probably wouldn’t yell at someone from the stage like I do on Girls. I probably would have let Lena leave in peace.

Your relationship with “Both Sides Now” and Joni Mitchell

After hearing Joni Mitchell sing “Both Sides Now,” over the phone, of course, I was just blown away. It was the middle of the night when she called. I was probably drunk. I was definitely passed out. I woke up to the phone ringing, and when I heard her sing it, I just thought, This is it. It’s that simple. That happens with everything that I choose to sing. I either fall in love with it after I hear it, or I never want to hear it again. It’s instinctive, which is very lucky.

I remember hearing something about Joni not liking my version of the song, but I couldn’t care less. [Laughs.] I’m sure she feels that way about a lot of people who sing her songs. I’m sorry she didn’t have the hit, but I’m sure glad I did! I think she’s a little jealous, but with her history of being this brilliant songwriter, she has no right to actually feel that way. She should just be saying, “Thank you, thank you, God. Thank you for my talent with writing all these other songs. I so appreciate everybody who records my songs because look how rich they’ve made me! And actually, Judy didn’t make a cent off this song,” which is true, and I’ll tell you why.

This country doesn’t have a performance royalty for singers of songs. The royalty goes to the writer and the publisher, but the singer — me, in this case — doesn’t get a cent. There was a bill passed in 1939, the year I was born, which denied performers the royalty that they had had and that they should get when their song is played on the radio. So for 82 years, which is exactly how old I am now, none of us, including Frank Sinatra, has made any money on songs we sang that were written by other people. We made all of these songs famous, but we never got a dime. The U.S. is the only country in the world that doesn’t have a performance royalty, but there is a bill in Congress right now that I hope will get passed. I think we’ll have retribution if it does. Listen, I’m going to survive. People want me to come and sing my songs. I do 120 shows a year. But I don’t want young artists to be on the road forever unless they want to be — though I won’t blame them if they do!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Judy Collins on the Best, Most Personal Times of Her Career