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From piano prodigy to folk legend, Judy Collins still leaves audiences ‘Spellbound’

Ahead of two Newport shows, the singer talks Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and embracing a new look after losing her hair

Judy Collins performs at the "Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song" during the 2022 Tribeca Festival at Beacon Theatre in June in New York City.Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival

Judy Collins is no stranger to Rhode Island.

In her decades of singing, Collins played Newport Folk Fest many times, even introducing Joni Mitchell to Newport in 1967.

She’s called the Rhode Island festival “part of my history.” She’s back in town this week to play two shows in Newport at the Jane Pickens Theater on Aug. 19 and 20.

“I’m just looking forward to being in Newport. It’ll be wonderful to be back in the back in the saddle,” Collins said in a recent interview.

The Grammy winner and Stephen Stills’ one-time muse has also struggled with — and written about— her eating disorder, alcoholism, and losing her son to suicide.

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Born in Seattle in 1939, she grew up in Denver as a piano prodigy. She later became the folk singer with a mountain-clear voice, credited with detecting hits — her interpretation of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” landed on her 1967 album “Wildflowers.”

Her 55th album is her first album of all originals. “Spellbound,” released earlier this year, is dedicated to her long-time inspirations Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

We recently caught up with the folk icon and podcast host for a wide-ranging interview — from discovering Leonard Cohen to embracing a new look after losing her hair.

Q: So your latest album is your first of all originals. What sparked that?

Collins: Around 2016, I was writing an album with [my co-writer] Ari Hest. I realized I had to get back into my working frame-of-mind about songwriting, so I started writing poems every day for a year straight. I had 365 poems, [a few of which] made it into the “song” category. By 2020, I had a bunch of songs.

Do you prefer writing or finding songs to cover?

Well, I mean if I fall in love with a song — I have a couple now on the back-burner that I must record. I have recorded [David] Crosby’s [2014] song “Radio.” I’ll start doing it in concerts. It’s a wonderful song. I think his songwriting, since he started to drift away from CSN, has really improved.

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Sounds like you’re still close with the guys from CSN?

Oh, yes. They’re wonderful. I did a year-and-a-half-long tour with [former boyfriend] Stephen [Stills] in 2017. We had such a ball. We ended every show with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”

That’s awesome. He famously wrote that song for you. Do you remember when he first played it?

He and I were breaking up at the end of ‘68. He came to see me to give me flowers and a birthday present on May 1st of 1969; he gave me a beautiful Martin guitar. And then he played “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” We both were weeping, and I said, “Well, it’s a gorgeous song, but it’s not going to get me back.” [laughs]

[laughs] What did he say to that?

He was not happy. [laughs]

So tell me a little bit about growing up. I know you were a piano prodigy.

A: Yes, I played piano from about 4, and got to the point where I was playing with an orchestra. I was exposed to all kinds of music — both classical and popular. The real breakthrough came when I was 15. I was supposed to be practicing piano and learning this Rachmaninoff concerto. For some reason I walked away from the piano and turned on the radio. The first song I heard was “Gypsy Rover” — from the movie score of “The Black Knight,” an Alan Ladd picture of 1954. I just went crazy. I said, “I’ve got to sing that.” After that, I went to my piano teacher and said, “No more piano.”

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Wow. How did your folk career grow from there?

A guy named Lingo the Drifter [T.D.A. Lingo] had arrived in Denver, gotten himself a radio show, became very friendly with my father, and used to come over to our house to sing all the Woody and Pete songs. We’d go up to his cabin and listen to all these wonderful singers singing traditional songs.

Then I got a job [at a folk club] that started as a pizza and pasta joint and turned into a folk music club overnight. That’s how it started, and it’s still going.

You’re credited with introducing the world to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Did you see videos of Joni at Newport Folk this summer?

Oh, that was so wonderful. She’s had a long struggle and she’s put in a huge amount of work. I know how serious and hard that is. One of my best friends had an aneurysm a number of years ago and it’s taken her years, but she’s back on top. And it looks like Joni’s working her way back [from her 2015 brain aneurysm.]

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You also helped launch Leonard Cohen.

A: I did. I was very lucky. His friend Mary Martin was working for Warner Brothers. We were good buddies. This was ‘63, ‘64. She’d talk to me about Leonard Cohen this and that, how his friends were very disappointed in him because they could see his poetry, which was very obscure, was probably going to go nowhere. One day she called me and said, ‘Oh, he wants to come and see you and sing you his songs.’ I’ve since realized that she sent him to me because I recorded a lot of people who didn’t have contracts yet. She knew she had to get Leonard to me rather than trying to have him go sing his songs for Bob Dylan. I mean, what was Dylan going to do? He was busy with his own songs. He was not going to sing somebody else’s songs no matter how good they might be.

That’s how it happened. He walked into my apartment, he walked in the door and said, “I can’t sing, I don’t know how to play guitar, and I don’t know if this is the song.” Then he sang me “Suzanne.”

I said, “Well, I have to record it tomorrow.”

You must’ve felt like you were stumbling upon gold.

Oh my God. I recorded dozens of his songs, of course. And, you know, when “Hallelujah” came out, I wasn’t interested in that song, honestly. I would sing it in a minute today, but I wasn’t interested in it at the beginning — I was more interested in “Priests” and “Bird on a Wire” and “Story of Isaac” and “Joan of Arc.” So I had this pot of gold already with all his other material.

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You’ve also talked publicly about struggles in your own life, too — eating disorders, addiction, your son’s death from suicide.

You have to talk about how you got through it, what’s important for suicide survivors and potential suicides to know about. It’s important that we share the story. People have become much more open and able to face this condition — it’s not as much of a taboo as it was. My son died in ‘92.

Do you tell personal stories on tour?

A: I talk a lot, quite often I get into something more personal. The other night I was in my brand new haircut — one of my best friends says I look like Judi Dench, which is, of course, flattering. I like the reference to looking like Twiggy a little better.

So I said to this audience, I just started wearing my own hair after losing my hair. I had a surgery on my hand [in 2017] and all my hair fell out from the anesthesia. For a long time, I wore wigs, which my sister hated. I think they looked fine. But I did get to the point where I said, “OK, this is [enough].”

Fortunately, my hair came out this glorious, quite silver white. That’s my color, apparently, which means I don’t have to go to the hairdresser to get it dyed. But it’s a big deal. Since I’ve been wearing it [natural] everybody loves it. I can’t get over it. They’re just kind of flipping out and saying: Oh, it’s so great. You look 20 years younger. I said, I prefer to look 25 years younger [laughs]. But I’ll take 20.

JUDY COLLINS

At the Jane Pickens Theater, Aug. 19 (sold out) and 20. Tickets from $69. Details here. Documentary screening details here.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.