Ask Judy Collins a question about legacy – what would she like hers to be? – and she answers with this: “Always move forward.”
Ask her when she thinks she’ll stop performing and she says, “They’ll have to carry me out of there. Fate intervenes with anything you think you might be in charge of so I’m not in charge. But you have to act as if you are. I know what I need to do. I have a plan. I know what’s up and there are a lot of things that I do that I couldn’t live without. I have to meditate, I have to exercise. I think exercise is the secret fountain of youth. When I get done, I want to be all finished. I want to be all worked up, all used up.”
At 76, the silver-haired soprano may have years to go. She still does 100 or so concerts a year, including one with longtime pianist Russell Walden at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston Oct. 9.
It seemed possible, however, that Collins might have stopped recording new music, as she hadn’t put out a new CD in four years. But in September on 2015 she released her 35th studio album, “Strangers Again,” featuring duets with Willie Nelson, Don McLean, Michael McDonald, Jimmy Buffet and others.
Collins – the subject of her ex-boyfriend Steve Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” – is known as a sublime interpreter and a canny discoverer of new talent. Her renditions of songs by Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Randy Newman in the ‘60s helped launch their careers.
“I’ve always found great writers, oddball writers,” Collins says on the phone earlier this month “I’ve always jumped ship and done something different from what was expected.”
She retains a regal, glamorous stage presence. Her crystalline voice has not lost a thing. “I’ve gained,” Collins says, “I had a great teacher. He said, when was on his deathbed and we had worked together for 32 years, ‘Don’t worry, just remember it’s clarity and phrasing. That’s all it is.’”
You’ve been in the public eye for so long, more than five decades. Shall we start in the past or the present?
Let’s start with my new CD, shall we?
Fair enough. Like a lot of veteran singers, you’ve done a duets album, and even revisited one of your biggest hits, Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” with Don McLean. What started it?
I have been working on and off with a young singer-songwriter named Ari Hest. He’s a genius. I went back in his discography and found this song, “Strangers Again” and I said to him, “This is a great song and I have to get it out somehow. I’ve got to record this with you but I’ve got to figure out how to do it and where to put it. So I thought I’d put it with other great singer-songwriters. I’m going to gather together a group of my friends, some of whom I knew, some of whom were new to me. I started to call people. It was a really interesting adventure and I got to learn some wonderful new songs, take a trip down memory lane as well as learning brand new things.
What do you get from a duet you don’t get by yourself?
I’d never done that much singing with other people. When I was growing up I sang with the choirs in church and in school and I was in performances of operas. My father was on the radio – he had a show for 30 years- so I sang with him on the radio. But for the most part, I haven’t done any of that singing for years. This album has crossed a lot of lines and it has made a lot of noise and a lot of heat. I think something very special happened that made this kind of a magical CD.
What’s your main motivation to record and perform?
Of course, I make a living which is fundamental to one’s livelihood, but the other thing is I have to work to find out who I am. That’s why an artist has to work. That’s why we keep doing what we do. We’re trying to figure out who we are and those of us who did our work in public, the public gets to watch that process.
Through your books and public speaking, you’ve been very revealing about you and your family’s history, dealing with depression, alcoholism and suicide.
I’ve written about difficult topics – alcoholism, dysfunction. I’ve struggled with my own issues of depression and suicide. I tried to kill myself when I was 14 and I’ve had a tremendous amount of therapy to get through that. And of course I lost my son [Clark] to suicide 23 years ago so that has become predominant: What is it about this condition that causes people to get off the planet? I’ve learned that what I have to say has interest for other people. In sharing your own story, it’s terribly important because then people don’t feel nervous talking about these things. The more you can talk about them, the less they’re taboo.
Are you fairly comfortable talking about this stuff?
Totally comfortable and more comfortable than I suppose I should be but I think everybody should be comfortable talking about mental health issues. They are things that trouble most of us. They say one out of seven people have to go get help for mental health. I think that’s a very conservative number.
You’ve certainly got some sad songs in your repertoire. Do you go there emotionally when you’re singing them or are you distanced?
You can’t sing a song about a drunk if you’re drunk, that’s my motto. Everything you do in public you must practice first in private and get to the point where the audience is the one who’s wrapped in tears. Of course you’re emotional about it, but you’re not falling apart. The reason some of these songs are chosen is because they wrack you. You’re a disaster when you hear them but you can’t be that on the stage. I’m a great believer in the distance between what’s going on with the audience and what’s going on with you. You want to make them break down, fall apart and wail; you don’t want to do that yourself.