Interview: Before Clearwater concert, Judy Collins shares the secrets of life and how to play a show in The Villages

She plays Capitol Theatre on Jan. 16.

click to enlarge Judy Collins - SHERVIN LAINEZ
Shervin Lainez
Judy Collins
Sixty years removed from her major label debut, there's not a lot Judy Collins hasn't experienced—so it's no surprise to hear that she's got few qualms about living in the moment and touring in Florida as omicron runs out of control. On the eve of her show in Key West, the 82-year-old folk icon had a simple observation about the climate down here: "It's a fabulous day, the weather is great."

She's right. Since the Christmas holiday, Florida's enjoyed the kind of weather that can make you forget global warming and the sweltering summers ahead. And just five days from her appearance at Clearwater's Capitol Theatre, Collins—famous in part for her activism and for covering complex tunes like Dylan's "I Pity the Poor Immigrant"—was also unphased by her Jan. 7 concert at The Villages, where four residents have been arrested for voting more than once last year's presidential election (three of the them were registered Republicans at the time of the election).

"Well, my presence, I hope, takes a message that's a better one for them. What do you think?," Collins told CL, before laughing and adding, "I was what they needed."
Plus, how could you expect her to stay home at this point? Over the course of the pandemic, Collins completed Spellbound, a 13-track effort due next month. It's her 29th album and the first featuring material written exclusively by Collins. As the world figured out what to do about COVID, she wrote and recorded songs like "City of Awakening," a love letter to her home, New York City, which she explored in new ways.

"We did a lot of walking, which was fabulous, I didn't ever walk much in Central Park or by the river, but I sure have since then," she said. "My life is very much around, touring and rehearsing and writing and practicing and getting in and out of town. I had a vacation in a way that I haven't had in years, years and years."

Now, Collins said, "I've been vaccinated and boosted. I have a mask and wear it every place."

Collins might play songs from Spellbound in Clearwater, but the set definitely includes Sondheim's "Move On" and "Send In the Clowns." Fans may also hear songs recorded as part of her latest release, Live at The Town Hall, NYC, or stories from Collins' new podcast "Since You've Asked."

What the Cap will get, without a doubt, is a full serving of the songwriter who's been focused on writing about her life since she started her first journal at just 15 years old.

"If you are an artist, you have to keep doing it because that's what keeps you alive," Collins explained, adding that at the end of the day, we all wake up in the morning, face ourselves and then go to bed at night. "So whatever happens in between, hopefully contributes to your welfare and the welfare of others."

For Collins, the trick is to just make sure she absorbs as many of those moments as she can. "Being in touch with the past and the present and the future," she said, "is really what my life is all about."

Read our full Q&A below.

Are you having a good day?

A fabulous day. The weather is great down here, and I'm in Key West at the moment.

Yeah, you were in The Villages earlier this month, too. You’ve written about so many different topics, immigration included—a lot of political things. What was it like to be in The Villages? Obviously there are a lot of your fans, but also a lot of people who voted for a certain someone who pushed a lot of disinformation. I think four people from The Villages have been charged with voter fraud after voting twice for the former president.

Well, my presence, I hope, takes a message that's a better one for them. What do you think?

I would agree.

[Laughs] I was what they needed

No, definitely. I wanted to thank you quickly, and I tell this story every chance I get, but I went to Newport in 2019. And you played with Robin, and James and Eric and it was one of the greatest moments of my concert going life having grown up on that song from my parents, and you coming out, speaking of your presence…

We had a great time. It was fabulous.
So I think the question people wanted me to ask you is if you knew where to get rapid tests at. They’re hard to come by these days.

I'm doing fine. I've been vaccinated and boosted. I have a mask and wear it every place, so I'm doing fine.

OK, you mentioned that you're outside today and it's beautiful. Are you able to get outside and explore outside the venues? Will you be out at about in Clearwater?

Absolutely. I'm walking and just having a great time here. The weather's beautiful. So I'm very happy to be here.

Yes, Spellbound. That album's name comes from your love of the outdoors. I think it was 2016, you wrote a poem every day. Have you still been writing poems every day?

Well, it's not every day, but it's very often. I've done my three the last three days, so that's always good.

That is good. I was thinking about a story you tell, as a kid, your dad went on tour and you went with him. So you were able to see a lot of the country, and I’m wondering if that’s what led to you loving being outside so much.

I've been able to see a lot of the country, and I do try to walk a lot. During the pandemic we did a lot of walking in New York City. That was fabulous because there were places I've never walked in. I didn't ever walk much in Central Park or by the river, but I sure have since then, which is wonderful.

Is there any particular reason that you, up until now, weren't able to walk through Central Park or along the river?

You know,my life is about touring. So my life in the city is very much around, touring and rehearsing and writing and practicing and getting in and out of town. So I had a vacation in a way that I haven't had in years, years and years.

Yeah, you wrote “City of Awakening” as a love letter to the city.

I did indeed. Absolutely.

Has it been strange to see the city change during the pandemic? I know a lot of people have moved out, many probably haven't come back. There must have been times when the city was unrecognizable for you.

Well, you wouldn't know that anybody went away because the city is jam packed. The traffic is triple what it used to be.You know, I love New York City. I am just dazzled by New York City. And it's come back full force and is just amazing. Lots of things are opening back up, and it's a very healthy city.

When you're on the road, what's the thing that you miss the most about New York? Is it bagels or anything like that?

I don't miss anything when I'm on the road. I'm focused on my work and on traveling. You know, we get paid for the travel. We don't get paid for the singing.

That's true. It is tough.

It's hard work. And it's a part of the world of entertainment that people don't really understand...as hard as it is, I love it. I'm addicted to it, so that's a good thing.

Yeah, I was gonna say, you've said multiple times that this is the thing that you do. What you know, and that you're going to do it for as long as you can.

Yeah.
For Spellbound—and songwriting in general, for you—you do your thing. You turn off the phone, you sit down to write a song, but the songs often come out of nowhere, and you don't know where the songs are coming from. Thinking about Spellbound, a record featuring all original songs, what's it like to jog through the memories and emotions that come with the songs as they appear to you?

I have been, throughout my career—if not my life—focused on writing about my life, writing about my dreams, and participating in them in my writing of journals. My first journal, I started when I was 15, so it's been a long time and pretty much I keep the journals up. And so writing, and being in touch with the past and the present in the future, is really what my life is all about—or so I think. I have some place to take those memories and those dreams and the opportunities. I often think any artist spends a lot of time living in their imagination, and I certainly do.

That's interesting. I'm getting nervous because I want to ask you another follow up on that, but I don’t want to waste too much time thinking. With a life like yours, you've lived so much and collaborated with so many people—and I love the story that you tell about Leonard Cohen, challenging you to write more music. Thinking about your imagination at this point. What are some of the fantastical visions that your imagination gives you these days still, despite living such a rich life already?

Well, it's ongoing. If you are an artist, you have to keep doing it because that's what keeps you alive. I think that's the secret to longevity for a lot of people—and I include myself. Yes, I exercise. I eat well. I've had a lot of experiences that are traumatic, but I've also had fantastic success and experiences that are wonderful. So it's a combination of many things, but you have to wake up in the morning and face yourself and you have to go to bed at night. So whatever happens in between, hopefully contributes to your welfare and the welfare of others.

You mentioned taking care of yourself. I know your secret to preserving your voices to sing every day—and obviously, not drinking and smoking, but there was a time in your life when I think there was a lot of drinking and smoking. Do you remember when you gave those up?

[Laughs] Yes, there was. I quit smoking in 1970. That was the hardest thing I ever gave up. I've been sober now since 1978, so I've been sober 43 years, and it wasn't nearly as hard as giving up smoking.

Well, you're well past it now. It's not one of those things where you want to light up a cigarette, right?

No, it's not. And once the booze was gone, it was gone—no question. Addiction is a terrible thing. And so is mental illness. And addiction is a mental illness, so there's that. I lost a son to suicide in 1992. He was sober, but he drank again and within the day he had decided to kill himself. You can't stop what people want to do. I mean you can try to help and you can make suggestions but mental illness and addiction are a really toxic combination.

Yeah. You've talked at length about Clark. And I'm really sorry. I'm sorry that we brought it up again, but how often do you still think about Clark? I have a two year old, so I've started to see the world in a different way. How much do you still think about Clark every day? They say that with pain and mourning, the pain doesn't go away, but it gets easier. Is that true for you?

I don't know about it getting easier. I don't think you get over it. I think you get through it somehow. Clark's birthday was a couple of days ago and it was interesting because I put something on Facebook, I put a bunch of flowers and so on. I had so many friends and acquaintances write to me, so you know it's an opportunity, like a funeral is, to share moments of his memory and things that are very important. It's very important to have those anniversaries because they do make you and all of your friends and family remember what a great guy he was and how sad we are that he's gone. But he had a very good life in a lot of ways. And I was very lucky to have him in my life. So I'm always delighted to be reminded about him anytime. He would have been 63 a couple days ago. He would be a grandfather and a great grandfather.

That's awesome. I didn't realize Clark shared an astrological sign with Stephen Stills.

He certainly did. I just was talking to Stephen a couple of days ago on his birthday. He loved Clark. He was very close to Clark, that was very hard for him.
Is Stephen gonna show up in Tampa?

Laughs I don't think so, no, he lives in California, so I don't think he goes to Tampa, but what I was thinking about Orlando. We had a concert in Orlando about six years ago. It was a big show in an arena for AARP. Richie Havens was on that show. It was his last show before he died. And CS&N were on the show, and so was I. We had such a ball. And it was at that point that we said, “Wait a minute, we should be on the road together.” So then we went out on tour. Stephen and I, we did 115 shows in a year and a half. We had such a good time.

And you skipped the last verse on “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” too”

Skipped the first verse actually.

OK, the first. It was too mean, right?

Yeah, we sang the whole song otherwise.

I love that you love ribbing Stephen every chance that you get.

I adore him.

I wanted to ask him about another Steven. Obviously you didn't meet Sondheim until ‘78. I think at an ERA fundraiser.

That's right, yeah.

“Send In The Clowns” has been such a prophetic song, and obviously you've done an album of Sondheim songs. How are you doing since your friend passed?

Well, it's very sad. He was a great light in New York City. We've been doing some of the other songs in concert. We're doing “Move On” from “Sunday in the Park with George,” and of course, “Send In The Clowns” again.

It's so funny. We had a driver on the way down from The Villages. It was about a nine hour drive, and our driver was a very sweet, very quiet, awfully good driver. About halfway through his drive, he said, “Are you thee Judy Collins? The one who sings ‘Send In The Clowns’?” And we said, “Yes.” And then he said, “Oh my god, you're my favorite singer. I've used your song for 20 years. I play ‘Send In The Clowns’ to teach my class English.” Is that wonderful?
I think it's awesome. Especially for somebody like you who's sang so beautifully about immigration and things like that. And obviously, when you're hanging out with Pete Seeger, and everybody, I think that was always on your minds—to make music and art that uplifted people and also showed folks that looked like yourselves that there were other people out there who needed your help

That's right. That is right, yeah.

OK, well, I know I'm supposed to keep to a strict 15 minute time limit. Is there anything that you wanted your fans in Clearwater to know before you get here? I see you have 10 days off after the show, are you going to stay in Clearwater or will you go back to the city?

I think it's Clearwater and then back to New York. I was supposed to be going to Las Vegas for a bit to get a big award from the ballet, but they have changed and moved it into May, which is very smart because there's a lot of omicron around the country, so it's good to keep trying to keep us safe, you know?

100%. Well, I hope you stay safe and healthy. Thank you so much for all your music and you specifically for personal highlight in 2019 with Robin and James.

Thank you. I had a ball. And you take care of that little boy, alright?

I will. Thank you so much.

God bless you.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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