American folk singer Judy Collins, most famous for 1960s hits like Send In The Clowns and her moving recording of Amazing Grace, tells JOANNE SAVAGE about musical inspiration and the joys of touring
“I love Belfast,” says American folk singer Judy Collins in her sing-song accent that somehow makes everything sound slightly poetic and exotic and wonderful. “I’ve only been here a day, so I need to go out exploring,” she laughs.
“I first came here in 1965,” she recalls, “to sing, of course, but I was also visiting the McPeake family, and when we got together I remember we sang the Wild Mountain Thyme.”
The McPeakes, of course, are famous for their Irish trad and folk music and Collins has always loved to flit between musical genres, discovering new twists for ballads and inspiration for lyrics.
Collins, 74, who was born in Seattle and raised in Denver, Colorado, is an iconic voice from the 1960s American folk revival, and her star shone brightly throughout the 70s when she collaborated with or recorded material by Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. She is well-known for her social activism and left-leaning politics, and in her heyday was both hippie and wholesome, photographed running through fields of flowers and the like, and then drinking beer between gigs with Janis Joplin. For all her corn-spun loveliness, Collins had a much-publicised struggle with alcohol for many years. As she’s said in the past, a certain innocence clings to her, regardless: “I always want to be a sort of bad-ass, and I always come out smelling like a wildflower.”
Judy, with her amethyst-blue eyes and elegance, and a voice of incredible power and cut-glass purity, remains most famous for songs such as Both Sides Now, In My Life, a moving interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns, My Father and a breathtaking recording of Amazing Grace (which sounds like an angel has briefly arrived on earth and burst into song) – among numerous other much-loved hits. Judy’s voice is a precise and beautiful instrument, and she sings Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man perhaps better than the man himself, drawing out all its melancholy and lulling, mesmerising phrase-making.
She will play at The MAC, Belfast on October 3 and even after such a lengthy and artistically rich career, the intrepid troubadour still loves touring: “It’s my privilege and my pleasure, and I always have such a good time,” she laughs. “I’ve just come from Hong Kong and Taiwan on what was a dazzling trip – I was on the blacklist in China because of my politics for years,” she laughs again, “but now they seem to have loosened their grip!
“One of the greatest gifts you have as a singer is being able to tour and see the world and entertain people at the same time.”
What songs will she perform at her Belfast show, besides all the old hits?
“I have to sing Both Sides Now, Send in the Clowns and Amazing Grace – of course,” she says, “but also Danny Boy and the Kerry Dancers and I’ve actually written a new song about Ireland which people will be able to hear for the first time at the show. It’s called New Moon and its really about the Irish Diaspora in America, about a New Yorker returning to Ireland: “New moon over the Hudson,” it begins, “the stars are shinning bright, I think about my true love in Ireland tonight.”
“I’m excited for people to hear this,” adds Judy.
I ask Collins if she feels the music industry today is in good shape, what with the increasing success and predominance of talent-show-manufactured bands; Judy is from an era when authenticity was key, when artists had to play the long game and slowly build to fame.
“There’s a huge wealth of talent out there, in both singing and songwriting. I think today they don’t always play the great stuff on the radio, so maybe you have to look a bit harder for some of the best music – but it’s there.
“True artists need to tour and get out here and develop. That’s the key.”
And with that Judy is off to see a bit more of Belfast, and, who knows, what she sees may even inspire some new songs.
“Well, I never stop looking and listening and writing,” she finishes. “That’s who I am.”
Judy Collins,The Mac, Belfast, October 3. Call 90 235053 or visit www.themaclive.com.