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Judy Collins On Her New Album, What She Learned From Yoko Ono, And Why She’s Mad At Aaron Sorkin

A photo of Judy Collins, a white woman with white hair, wearing a pink shawl.
Shervin Lainez
Shore Fire Media
Judy Collins.

On Sunday, American folk legend Judy Collins returns to the Berkshires to perform at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. Now 82, Collins has been performing and releasing music for more than six decades. Earlier this summer, she debuted a new interview podcast – “Since You’ve Asked” – and is preparing to release a new album in February. Collins spoke with WAMC about how her creative process has evolved over the years, why she’s preoccupied with plastic, her beef with Aaron Sorkin over his film “The Trial Of The Chicago 7,” and more.

COLLINS: You know, I have a friend who writes mysteries, and he says that writing is like laying pipe. It's work. You have to sit down and do it and close off the room and shut off the phone and do it. That's about it. I wish I could say there's a particular inspiration. I don't know what it is. You sit down and you start playing and something comes. And if you like it, you get to work with it. And if you don't, you don't ever look at it again.

WAMC: So what's the tone of this new album like?

It's called ‘Spellbound,’ and it's very much my of the moment concentrations. There's a song about New York called ‘City Of Awakening.’ There's a song about Thomas Merton. There's a song called ‘Hell On Wheels’ about the time I almost killed two little children in a car in the mountains when I was a teenager. Well, I was, I think, 17. I didn't kill them, but I came awfully close to it. Scary. There's a song about Arizona, which is sort of a lengthy biographical, what would you call it- Reverie. So I kind of veer between- There's a song about the Village, performing in the Village and what that was like in my life. I sort of bounced around from one thing to another. It's probably a memoir more than anything else.

So this month, you're coming back to Berkshire County to perform at Tanglewood. It's a venue you know well- What are your associations with that space?

Oh, I love Tanglewood. I've been singing there for so many years. I think the first thing that comes to mind is that train that goes across, is always crossing the tracks and whistling during ‘Send In The Clowns’ almost every time.

You know, some of the songs that you've performed over your career, they’ve become sort of staples in the American Songbook. Do the meaning or the performance of those songs change over time for you? Are they tied to their origins? What's the story there?

Well, everything has to be fresh and of the moment because otherwise it's no fun for the audience, I don't think. I mean, you can't cardboard cut them out, you know and serve them on a plate. They have to be- They have to feel like they've never been sung before. You want to feel like it's the first time you’re hear it. I mean, I don't mean that you stumble through it, but that you have a relationship with it, which is very clear, after all this time, and you make the lyrics understandable and you hope that everything is going well and that you're getting it across.

You're known for being an outspoken political activist. What is on your mind in the summer of 2021, looking at the political landscape of America and the world at large?

Plastic. It's killing me, plastic. I don't know what to do about it exactly, but it's one of our big problems with the oceans and with our own destruction of the environment. Plastic has a lot to do with it, so I'm going to try to get involved in something that helps us to stop using so much plastic.

Back in 1969, you testified at the trial of the Chicago 7. It was recently immortalized by Aaron Sorkin in film- What are your thoughts watching a semi-fictionalized take on this incident that you were actually involved in?

It wasn't in the film. That's the problem. It wasn't in the film and I was quite insulted and I didn't know why he didn't put it in the film. It would have been a wonderful- It would have been an amazing opportunity, because what I did at the trial of the Chicago 7 was to go into the courtroom with our wonderful lawyer, Bill Kunstler, and sing ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone.’ And I opened my mouth, started to sing, and the clerk came up to me and put his hands on my mouth and shut me up. And Judge Hoffman said, “There will be no singing in my courtroom!” So no, they didn't put it in the movie. And it's, I think, a terrible and huge gap which Aaron Sorkin is responsible for. Don't ask me why he didn't do it. I can't imagine why he wouldn't have done that. And of course there are drawings that were made at the time which are available, you can go online and buy them. Three different drawings from the court artist, the portraitist. And so no, I was extremely upset. It would have been a wonderful moment in the movie, and it would have given a young woman an opportunity to kind of have a match set off under her career. It's too bad.

So looking into this upcoming performance at Tanglewood, what kind of set list are you putting together?

Oh, I'll put some new songs in of course, but the old standards because I think people like to hear the classics. I'll do ‘The Blizzard.’ And I'll probably do ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Someday Soon,’ but I'll also do ‘The Highwayman’ by Jimmy Webb, which has become one of my standards in my in my repertoire, and a couple of brand new songs.

You’re as much known for your originals as your interpretations of the work of others. When you approach songs written by people like Leonard Cohen or Stephen Sondheim or Dylan, what is that process like to make it your own?

Well, it's not about the writer of the song. Once the song is written by anybody, including me, it has a life of its own and it disconnects itself from the writer, from the author, and goes out into the world and finds the artists who are going to be singing it. It's just- Yoko Ono always said the song has a mind of its own, and I think that's true. So the first thing that happens is that I suddenly hear the song and say, oh, my god, I have to sing that song, no matter who wrote it, no matter whether it's – well, I love Leonard’s songs all together – but if I'm going to sing one, I have to be struck with it like an arrow in the heart that I can't get away from.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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