If you ask the award-winning songwriter and performer, Judy Collins, about her father, she’ll tell you that he helped to set her foundation as an artist—but, perhaps more importantly, she’ll also tell you that he helped to set her foundation as a hard worker first and foremost. Collins, who later went on to earn several Grammy nominations and a win in 1969, is known today for her crystal clear singing voice, folks aesthetics, and interconnectedness with some of the biggest names in American entertainment, from Leonard Cohen to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Stephen Sondheim. Collins—whose forthcoming album, Live At The Town Hall, NYC, set for release Friday (August 27)—remains focused on the work at 8 years old. She’ll drop another studio record in 2022 (called, Girl From Colorado) and, she says, she’ll continue to write, sing and live in song for as long as fate allows.
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“[My dad] taught me how to make a living,” Collins says. “How to conquer the problems that came along, how to be kind and generous and, at the same time, determined. He was blind from the age of four and decided that in order to make a living and to survive, he had to learn to do a lot of things, including getting around the world without a cane or dog.”
Collins, who is known for her renditions of songs like “Send In the Clowns,” “Amazing Grace” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” says that her father became a skilled musician, singer, radio host, interviewer and even a “pretty good” songwriter. Collins was one of five children. Growing up, she would watch her father interview musicians, sing with songwriters and navigate the world of music.
“He knew how to work,” she says, “and how to live and how to create and charm people and make a go of life. That was my lesson.”
At three years old, Collins performed for the first time. Her father brought her on stage in Butte, Montana. She was completely hooked after that. Living in Seattle around then, her family moved to Los Angeles when Collins was about four-and-a-half years old. She started taking piano lessons. She watched her father as he practiced, learning both the classics and the songs of the day.
“I used to have this friend,” Collins says, “who said that I wasn’t raised, I was trained!”
Collins would perform on her father’s radio show. In school, she also performed in concerts. Slowly but surely, she says, she was learning. Later, when her family moved to Denver, Collins sang in choruses and in stage productions of works like the Pagliacci opera and plays by Eugene O’Neill. But when she found folk music and the idea of writing and performing songs on guitar, Collins had found her new direction.
“The main attraction with the songs,” she says, “was the fact they were stories.”
The artist’s new live album, out Aug. 27, is rich with stories in the music. It incudes “Send In the Clowns” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” and it also includes original songs and tunes Collins sang in 1964 at a similar New York City live show in Town Hall. Collins, who recorded the show virtually in January during the pandemic lockdown, says she enjoyed the occasion singing so much at the time that she also calls it “divine.”
“It was thrilling to be able to do those songs,” she says.
Collins, who was trained as a performer, both classically and colloquially, says that, as an artist, she is ultimately drawn to songs. They have their own lives, she says, and exist independently of the writer. She loves songs that are hundreds of years old or two weeks old. When Collins moved to New York City in the ‘60s, she was surrounded by songs and songwriters, from the future Hall of Fame to the amateur. She absorbed these songs, often singing them back.
“The trick is to hear the right song,” Collins says. “It is magic and I can’t explain it. It’s a very physical experience and it has to do with falling in love in a very powerful way, which lasts if you’re lucky and chose the right song. It can last 60 years, but it should be able to lost forever.”
But it wasn’t all just covers for Collins, who remembers a moment of inspiration with Cohen after she’d recorded one of his songs and made him famous. Of course, for Collins, it’s about living with the spark, the music, being able to participate in it. That’s what she’s always loved —her relationship to song—ever since learning about it at her talented father’s knee.
“After I recorded ‘Susanne,’” she says, “Leonard Cohen told me in 1967 that I had made him famous. He also asked me why I was not writing my own songs and I had no answer to that. But I ran home and sat at the stool on my Steinway piano and wrote a song called, ‘Since You’ve Asked,’ which is my first song. And I’ve been writing ever since.”