JUDY COLLINS: Late Bloomer as Songwriter

It's hard to believe that Judy Collins has a 40-plus year career in music...

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It’s hard to believe that Judy Collins has a 40-plus year career in music until you start counting up the hits – Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon,” Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and her own “Albatross,” and “The Blizzard.” She’s even had a classic rock song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” written for her!
It’s hard to believe that Judy Collins has a 40-plus year career in music until you start counting up the hits – Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon,” Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and her own “Albatross,” and “The Blizzard.” She’s even had a classic rock song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” written for her!

Her father, Chuck Collins, was a singer, composer and broadcaster. Collins grew up in Seattle, Wash. and was only 10 when she began studying with Antonia Brico, the orchestral leader who conducted major symphony orchestras in the U.S. and Europe. In 1974 Collins wrote a documentary about her, Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman. The film, which Collins produced and co-directed with Jil Godmilow, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, and was named one of the top 10 films of the year by Time.

Although she was performing classical music, Collins was drawn to the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. She loved the traditional songs of the folk revival and learned to play guitar. It wasn’t long before Collins was singing at the folk clubs in Denver, Boulder and Central City in Colorado. She then headed east, performing at the Gate of Horn in Chicago and in New York City’s Greenwich Village folk clubs. A performance at the village Gate in 1961 landed her a contract with Elektra Records, the label where she stayed for 35 years.

Collins filled her first three albums with traditional songs and later began recording songs that made social and political statements written by the likes of Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. She was one of the first artists to record Roger McGuinn’s “Mr. Tamborine Man” and Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn.” She was the first to record the songs of Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb and Joni Mitchell. Even today she still enjoys finding great songs written by other people.

“I’m learning a song called ‘Drops of Jupiter,’ by a group called Train, out of Atlanta,” she says. “It’s marvelous. I really admire a songwriter named Beth Nielsen Chapman.”

“I was almost 30 when I first started writing songs, so I was a latecomer to songwriting,” Collins says. “There were so many great songs around to sing, I never thought of it (songwriting) as something I would be able to do. It has been a wonderful thing to write songs.”

Leonard Cohen encouraged her to write. “He said I should give it a try. I went off and started working on songs. ‘Since You’ve Asked’ was my first song; it took 20 minutes to write.”

Collins says her writing has changed over the years, especially since she has written the novel Shameless and her most recent book, Singing Lessons. She cites “The Blizzard,” a story about being stranded in a Colorado snow storm, and “Walls,” about the Korean Memorial Wall that her husband designed, as two examples of how her writing has changed.

“This type of writing is kind of what I was writing when I wrote ‘Albatross,’ a song that is very personal for me,” she says. “I think those songs are very much a particular stamp that I have made on songwriting. I suppose they are a bit like movies or theatre, they have stories in them. Most of them, like ‘Chay’ and ‘Houses,’ sometimes come out of dreams. ‘Fallow Way’ started as a poem.”

Collins said she is pretty disciplined but that songwriting is something that really has to be faced. “If I work every day I get a lot done. But there are times you have to go into it and not come out. I try to work every day. Sometimes songs come out boom, boom, boom. And then they can take five years, ‘Chay,’ took five years. I just could not finish it. ‘Rings of Angels,’ which I wrote after my son’s death, took me forever. They all seem to have their own timetable.”

The hardest thing about writing, Collins contends, is that you have to just sit down and do it. “I’ve written journals since my early 20s, and I think that writing is so important. Sometimes there will be a few weeks when I’m not quite as faithful to those journals as otherwise, but I have journals going back 40 years. It’s a wonderful source. Someday my granddaughter and libraries will have those.”

Collins says she looks for ideas everywhere. “Steve Gillete sent me his book about songwriting. He said try using somebody’s name in a song. So I wrote ‘Lily of the Valley,’ which I think is one of my best songs ever. It’s about spouse abuse. I keep notebooks in my purses, I jot down phrases. Someone will say something and you gotta get it down. Hook lines are real important. I think listening to music is very important.

“You listen for inspiration, for what not to do, for the ideas of rhythm. Rhythm is an important piece of songwriting. The rhythm of the lyric will shape what you write in a totally different way.

“It’s important for me to write my own songs. I try to apply the same standards to writing as I apply to picking songs. So I have to make sure my writing is right up there, which is tough.”

Collins latest venture is owning her own record company, Wildflower Records, which she started about two years ago. Her first projects were re-releasing her first two albums as one project and recording a live album at Wolftrap in Vienna, Va. as the label’s second project. She points to the late Teresa Sterne of Nonesuch records as one of her heroes when it comes to innovation and creativity at record labels.

“Tracey was the only woman who ran her own record company, and she had a terrible time of it,” Collins says. “She was so smart, so detailed, such a perfectionist, but it was a man’s world and she was treated horribly. Still, she made all those great records – records that will last. She’s a great role model for me – a pioneer. I hope that her example will allow me to float my new label into longevity.”

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  1. “since you’ve asked is a beautiful piece”–and to think it was one of her first is amazing. She needed someone like Cohen to encourage her to write. I think we all need an outside motivator to draw out that hidden talent. So glad she used it to write her own songs.

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