For her latest album, Paradise, Judy Collins (the muse behind “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”) invited an old lover, Stephen Stills, to join her in the studio for a poignant duet. We talked to the folk music legend about finding new material, getting up at 4 a.m., and whether or not she’d ever cover “Hallelujah.”
Why did you name the record Paradise?
There was a phrase in the Jimmy Webb song [“Gauguin,” which appears on the album] which said “he went searching for paradise,” and that really was what lead me to call the album Paradise. But also I think there are a lot of references to paradise and its opposites, throughout the album, so it seemed like a very good way to go.
You’ve said of “Gauguin” that it’s one of the most challenging songs you’ve ever done. Why is that?
It’s a big song, it’s a big portrait, it has many angles to it. It’s kind of like an opera, or for me it was, anyway. I really felt very challenged by it, and it took me about a year to really learn it so that I could do it properly. It was exciting to find something like that.
The lone original on the album is “Kingdom Come.” When did you write that song?
I guess I wrote it about eight or nine months after 9/11. I put it on an album before, but it wasn’t right, it didn’t feel right, the words were not right. It was just not a good recording of it, and some of the words I had to change. I really wanted to do justice to it and I think that is something that we should never forget what happened, it changed our world entirely.
One of the songs included is “Weight of the World” by a songwriter named Amy Speace. How did you first hear it? Do you spend a lot of time sifting through material?
I started my own label about ten years ago and Amy is one of the artists on my label. She really is a great writer and I keep an eye on what she does — what they all do, and I’m always looking for good stuff. That really jumped out at me and I told her, I said, “It’s not because you’re on my label, it’s because this is a great song.”
Paradise also finds you singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Over the Rainbow.” Did you pick those for any particular reason?
You know, I have a book out now, a children’s book on the Peter Yarrow imprint called “Over the Rainbow,” and I had never sung that song before, and of course I had never recorded it. When I did record it, I thought, “Well, why not put it on an album as well as in the book?” That’s what I did. It lead me to be looking around for other songs, and actually, “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” since 1941 when it came out and I heard it sung by Vaughn Monroe, it always struck me as a great song.
Is there a difference for you in singing a song that you wrote versus singing a song that you’re just a fan of? Do you approach it differently?
Not really. It’s very lovely to have your own songs. You have to feel the same way about all of them. You have to feel strongly about them and you have to feel that they’re special and that they deserve the attention that singing them for fifty years is going to give them. It’s hard to find songs that are going to hold up for that long.
You sing a duet with an old ex-boyfriend, Stephen Stills on the record, on Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing on My Mind.” Whose idea was that?
I called him and said I think we should record a song together since we’d never done that. He’d played on “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” and of course he wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” but we had never recorded anything together and I thought it was time. We talked about it and decided we would sing that great song of Ian Tyson, “Four Strong Winds,” but then we got going and he came over to record and he said, “Why don’t we do the old Tom Paxton song because it’s so wonderful.” He really made the choice and I was perfectly happy to go along with him.
Did you feel a resonance with the lyrics as you were singing them?
Well, sure. There’s always something to that, isn’t there, for all parties involved. It was great recording together. We’ve remained friends throughout the years, which is kind of amazing.
The story of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is really fascinating, because among other things, it launched Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s career. It must be a strange sensation to have a song about you. It’s considered a classic now, but how did you initially feel about it when you first heard it?
It’s always been a classic. The minute he played it for me in 1969 I said “Oh, my God, this is fantastic.” It’s a fantastic song, it’s nice that it’s about me. Very beautiful song, and it always has remained that way.
Did you try to puzzle out the lyrics, or did you take it as it was?
It was a semi-biography of my life anyway, so I didn’t have to analyze it very much. I knew what it was about.
Paradise is doing very well. Do you have a theory on why this album has been so well-received?
I don’t know, I think it might be the selection of songs. There’s a good contrast here –- new things, old things, classic Judy Collins choices in a way. I do kind of move between traditional, as the case of “Dens of Yarrow,” and the contemporary. It’s a good cross section, and that’s pretty much what I think I’m famous for, doing that kind of combination.
You’ve had a musical relationship with Leonard Cohen, and the song “Hallelujah” has been in the news the past couple years, it’s a song that everybody covers…
Not me! I covered everything that I thought was worth covering, and I did it in the very beginning. He came to see me to find out in 1966, whether I thought he was a songwriter or not, and I said “You bet you’re a songwriter.” And then I recorded dozens of his songs and made them famous, which was great, a great thing to do. It is a privilege to be of service. I don’t need to record “Hallelujah.”
Would you say, speaking generally, that they don’t write songs as good as they used to?
Oh, no. I think Amy Speace’s songs are pretty damn good. I think people write great songs. It all depends on who and where and when. You just have to be aware that there are great songwriters working today, just like there always have been, and keep your eye out for great songs, and that’s what you have to do, really; keep listening.
Did you have any songwriting mentors?
My father was a great influence on me as a performer, and as a writer he wrote some pretty good songs Then of course I started singing traditional songs, and that kept me busy for a long time. I would say that Pete Seeger was a big influence, I would say Dylan, I would say Tom Paxton, I would say David Blue, many of the singers whose songs I recorded.
You’ve said that on your current tour, you’ve been getting up at 4 a.m. a lot, and you have to live like an athlete. Usually, you think of a musician having a more luxurious lifestyle. Why do you have to get up at four in the morning?
I do about a hundred shows a year, sometimes more, and when you travel that way, it’s what you do. I’m a working artist. Many of us are. It’s not for the weak-hearted, I’ll tell you that.
Do you do anything in particular to keep your voice ready for singing?
I make sure that I am rehearsing, and I make sure that I’m healthy and that I eat right. It’s very demanding, but on the other hand, it’s a terrific way to live.