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Judy Collins’s sharp ear for songwriting has served her well

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“It really is like falling in love,” says Judy Collins about finding great songs to sing.Shore Fire Media

At 77, Judy Collins talks about songs like lovers, in erotic terms. The connection is physical, chemical, sensual. Renowned as an interpreter – her iconic covers include Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," and Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" – Collins doesn't so much choose her material as collide with it.

"It really is like falling in love," she says, buoyant despite a bad cold, on the phone from the Manhattan apartment she's rented since 1970. "I learned that from my father, who had a radio show and was a wonderful performer and always chose the very best songs. If something hits me in the heart, I want to sing it."

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In a time of life when many musicians ease into a routine of light touring and the greatest hits, Collins is, well, insatiable. She travels constantly, performing 120 or so concerts a year; on Sunday she'll give matinee and evening performances of "A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim" in Boston at the Wilbur Theatre. Collins runs a label, Wildflower Records, and is readying her 10th book, "Cravings," about her eating disorders, for publication in February. In June she released "Silver Skies Blue," an album of original songs written and recorded with 37-year-old singer-songwriter Ari Hest.

Collins fell hard for Hest's oaky voice and folk-pop tunes when she heard him play several years ago, and asked him to open a few shows for her. In short order the pair became full-blown collaborators, the first such relationship in Collins's long career. The age difference, she says, is immaterial.

"Attraction, musical or physical or emotional, doesn't pay attention to barriers. We mesh. When Ari and I sing together, that's what counts. There are no barriers to our artistic drive."

Likewise, there seem to be no limits to Collins' lust for life, although life has done its best to throw her. Clinical depression, alcoholism, bulimia, the 1992 suicide of her only child – these struggles, and the will to transcend, have cultivated in Collins rigorous devotion to a healthy lifestyle. Meditation and exercise are pillars of her day, along with practice, writing, and an afternoon nap. She is a voracious reader and tireless mental health activist, but everything revolves around breakfast, lunch, and dinner, she says, "the most important parts of my day. Everything is determined by what you eat."

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By her own declaration, Collins's salads are renowned and she makes a mean soy pancake, often preparing meals when she's not on the road for her husband and companion of 38 years, designer Louis Nelson, and the swath of Upper West Side literati (Mary Karr, Nan and Gay Talese, Robert Caro, Susan Cheever, and a couple of past mayors among them) that form her large circle of friends. She keeps losing them, though, as the years wear on. Music, as always, is her salve.

"I've been listening to a lot of English and Irish choral music," says Collins, who began her musical life as a piano prodigy. "The wonderful Adagio for Strings is very healing. Classical music is helpful to me. It stirs up the interior."

That stirring is her beacon, guiding Collins as a young folk singer to an abundance of fine material. And while good taste remains an underrated virtue, Collins's sharp ear has served her, not to mention the objects of her attention, well. In the 1960s she recorded songs by Randy Newman, Eric Anderson, and Richard Farina well before they gained national acclaim. Collins made stars of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, then virtually unknown songwriters, when her recordings of their songs became hits.

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"We changed each other's lives," she says of Cohen, with whom she is still close. "He is a breathtaking example of this idea that you never stop."

Collins, too, plans to sing until she falls over, and Hest, who will join her for a run at New York's Cafe Carlyle next month and then a West Coast tour, observes her work ethic with a kind of reverence.

"People my age are trying to sustain themselves by doing four or five different things at once," he says. "I have another band, a Brazilian jazz group, and my work with Judy, and I do house concerts. That's how I make my living. Judy doesn't need to do that, but she does, and with grace."

Of course need comes in many forms, and Collins's collaboration with Hest is not without practical advantages.

"I get exposed to his audience and he sings for my audience," she acknowledges. "It's wonderful for both of us."

Looking ahead, as she contemplates the toll time invariably takes on body and spirit, Collins is immensely grateful for her sense of adventure. It's the secret, she says, to enduring as an artist. "You must keep doing things, making things happen, getting to know people, thinking that the next song, the next artist, the next project is the most exciting thing. You must be restless."

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You must also be lucky enough, or careful enough, to possess a clarion soprano that sounds as lovely as it did half a century ago. For that Collins credits her late voice teacher Max Margulis. But the resolve to live and work fully is all hers.

"I've had enough failure," Collins says. "You learn how to swing and climb up to the next branch. And you hold on to your ideas and your dreams and keep them like a box of wonders."

JUDY COLLINS

Performing "A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim," Sunday at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Wilbur Theatre. Tickets: $45-$65. www.thewilbur.com


Joan Anderman is a freelance writer. You can reach her at jcanderman@gmail.com.