BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — The Green Room began as a column that was dedicated to spotlighting individuals who had previously appeared on our own Studio 701 program — but over time, has grown to speak to community icons, North Dakotan entertainers, and musicians all throughout the Midwest. Today, we’re honored to have the opportunity to introduce an individual who has left a tremendous legacy in the music industry, and continues to blaze trails even now — miss Judy Collins.
Judy Collins is a name that is almost synonymous with Folk music, and for good reason: for six decades, she has constantly been at the forefront of the genre. In addition to possessing multiple awards for her music (including Grammy awards and platinum records), she boasts an incredible number of albums, collaborations with music legends, and both covers and original songs. Now, as part of her recent tour, she will be headed to the Peace Garden state for two performances — one in Bismarck, and one in Fargo. Before she arrives to leave North Dakota’s audiences spellbound, however, she paid a (remote) visit to The Green Room — where we were honored to discuss the singer’s life, musical career, and other exploits.
A Harmonic History
Contrary to what some may believe, Ms. Collins was not always a folk musician — and in fact, began her time in the performing arts as a piano prodigy. As talented as she was on the ivories, however, Judy was instead drawn to the musicians that spurred the 1960s revival of Folk Music (such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger) as the inspirations for her musical career, which led to her shifting to the guitar as her primary instrument of choice. After graduating from high school, she made her first appearance as a folk artist in Boulder and Denver before moving to Greenwich Village (a neighborhood on the west side of NYC) — where she would eventually release her debut studio album (A Maid of Constant Sorrow) in 1961.
During the early years of her career, Judy primarily worked as a cover artist, singing the works of the traditional Folk masters that inspired her (including Seeger and Bob Dylan) — and in the process, helping to spread the word and legacy of up and coming singers and songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, and Leonard Cohen.
Judy’s biggest foray into the public eye came from her 1967 album Wildflowers. In addition to the first appearance of songs she wrote and produced herself, her rendition of Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” would go on to win a Grammy award. By the 1970s, Judy would continue both covering the works of others and adding her own songs to albums — and see another tremendous hit when her tenth studio album Judith went platinum, in part due to the stunning popularity of her rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” She would later go on to appear on The Muppet Show, sing at Bill Clinton’s first presidential inauguration, and have her cover of “Amazing Grace” inducted into the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”
Even long after the release of her iconic records, Judy has continued to stay a powerhouse in the Folk genre. In total, she has recorded and released a stunning 55 albums over six decades — almost one a year — with the most recent being 2022’s Spellbound. This breakneck pace, she states, is simply due to a love of the craft, and an eagerness to share the stories and scenes she witnesses with the world through song.
“I always keep my eye on the next album,” she explains. “And the next song, and the next group of things that I’m going to put together and record. It’s always on my mind to be thinking about what’s next. And then, when I have a block of time that I can get the studio and the musicians I want to use, I get on it. It’s just a question of management, really, and I have a lot of help.”
The same can be said for her collaborative work — in addition to continuously creating new projects, Judy is known for frequently partnering up with both older and newer faces of the industry (including Willie Nelson and Jeff Bridges).
“It’s very synchronistic,” Collins states. “They come across my path. The opportunities just sort of fly into the window, just like they did with Both Sides Now back in 1967 — I was sound asleep at three in the morning, and Al Cooper called me and put Joni Mitchell on the phone. That’s the way that things often happen with me, but I’m also always on the lookout — a lot of these opportunities happen when people send them my way.”
Among these many musical forays, however, Spellbound is a particularly special one for Judy — the 2022 release marks the first full studio album entirely written by Ms. Collins herself. Throughout the track list, Judy recounts many of the times that shaped her life — ranging from her early and “hell-raising” years in New York and Colorado to both joyful and melancholy moments experienced everywhere from the beaches of Hawaii to wide-open prairies to the winding canyons of Arizona. While the whole album is a special one to Collins, she notes that some of her favorite entries from it include the title track, “Grand Canyon,” “Thomas Merton,” “So Alive,” and “Hell on Wheels.”
“I did something called Voices about 30 years ago,” she recalls, “and I had a lot of my own things on it, but it didn’t come out on an album — I think it was meant to be for a book that I was writing. I spent a long time working on the poems that I’d written over the course of three or four years, and would take them to a piano to see if I could turn them into a song. Many of them couldn’t, but the ones that could make it onto the album. When I’m within nature, I’m always inclined to listen to long poetry, and so I’m drawn to that theme anyway.”
This discussion of poetry may make it seem like songwriting is simply a matter of transcribing one’s words to a musical score — but Judy believes that this is a rather unfitting comparison.
“Poems are not lyrics,” she declares. “There’s a distinct difference between the two, and once you realize that, you have to figure out what makes a song. A lyric has its own clothes to wear, and it has to go out with a melody. You’ve seen the forced effort to put poetry to music… I can’t think of one successful transportation of a true poem to music. It’s not a healthy thing, literally or musically speaking, so you have to turn them into something they’re not.”
While the two may not be directly tied into one another, Ms. Collins notes that, oftentimes, her poetry and lyrics tend to spawn from the same sources — and that making sure they are similar in spirit but different on paper is a matter of notation, transformation, and the natural differences between each style of writing.
“I take a lot of notes,” Judy states. “I keep my telephone ready to dictate, and write in notebooks all the time. I keep phrases that I hear and visions that I see, and sometimes they get into poems or a song. I just sold my first complete book of poetry, and there aren’t any lyrics in the book — even the ones inspired by the same sights and sounds. The poems are there, but I don’t talk about how one turned into the other. I don’t think they have to be altered in any way. The poems are poems, and the lyrics I write, even intending to write poems, are still lyrics if that’s what I meant to do.”
Whether these thoughts find their way into poems or songs, though, Collins states that they still share an origin point — a true love of the craft, and an urge to share her visions with the world.
“I don’t think we could live without the arts,” she states. “Just like the cavemen had to go in and start drawing, our stories are what stand the test of time, and what allow us to stay in social groups. In telling them, I do what I love. I do lyrics that I love, and songs that I love… nothing that I don’t. I think that if your passion is evident in whatever you’re doing, you’re going to put it into what you really love. That’s how it comes out. I think falling in love with a song is absolutely the right way to get it into the shape you need to sing it, and make people feel that energy. They say love makes the world go round, and love is what makes music go round, too.”
This love of nature, conveniently enough, is what makes her excited to return to the Peace Garden State. As for what concertgoers can expect to hear at Ms. Collins’ events, she says that the song list varies depending on the audience itself. However, she also notes that regardless of what she performs, the message behind it remains the same.
“I certainly have been to North Dakota, but it’ll be great to be back. I’m sure that I’ll find the right combination of songs. I restructure every single concert that I do — I go in and sort through the entire repertoire to figure out a new approach to the sequences. It gives me a lot of pleasure, and it helps me discover different sequences and stories as I piece the songs together in some sort of order. That prompts me to think of stories I’ve forgotten. I was thinking of one day putting out a book of both my stories and songs… I think I’ll try that sometime.”
While music is undoubtedly Ms. Collins’ most well-known endeavor, it’s worth noting that her portfolio goes far beyond just singing and songwriting — and over her life, Judy has served as a filmmaker, record label head, mentor, keynote speaker for mental health causes, and podcast host, effectively making her a modern-day renaissance woman.
“You just do one thing at a time, and concentrate on that,” Collins says. “Then, you move on to the next. It’s a shuffleboard type of life, because you have to move from getting in the car early, and shuffling into a plane to go to the next place — and that could be anywhere from Hawaii to Morristown, New Jersey. A lot of it is time management, and having a good grip on what to do next. I’d like to get back into my next book, and I’ve written many, many hundred-page dossiers on the next area I want to talk about, and it’s been a number of years before I really delved into those. It’s about harnessing these things, and figuring out how to do them. I did most of my writing, for example, on airplanes. You have to fit in where you go, and get up at four in the morning to squeeze it in. And then, you put your coffee machine in the bedroom, so you never have to leave.”
Most notably, she is a prolific author in addition to being a prolific musician, having penned a total of ten books in between her musical efforts — the topics of which range from self-help to heartbreaking memoirs and even romantic novels. Her most recent written work, entitled Cravings, features Ms. Collins discussing her lifelong battle with compulsive overeating in the hopes of sharing what she has learned about the topic, and providing others with the tools and information they need to combat it themselves using both personal and historic examples.
“I decided I was going to write the book to discuss my own eating disorder over the years, but when I sat down and brainstormed about it, I ended up assembling a group of people throughout the centuries who had similar struggles. For example, there was once a mortician named Banting in the 1880s, who published a diet book called ‘Letter on Corpulence’ — and that was so influential that for a long time, people in England used the word ‘banting’ to express losing weight. Then I learned of others like Lord Byron and the founders of Weight Watchers and the Scarsdale Diet, who had their own fascinating stories. Those little portraits serve as a draw to the book, and help make it somewhat addictive… after all, it’s hard to put down a good story. These are my stories, about my life, and my experiences — that’s what makes them personal.”
In fact, it is in these additional exploits that lies Judy’s personal favorite project throughout her widespread career. While she is most known for her Grammy-winning performances and platinum records, Ms. Collins states that she does not consider them to be the “magnum opus” of her career. That honor would go to Antonia: Portrait of a Woman — a 1974 documentary Judy directed alongside Jill Godmillow about the struggles symphony conductor Antonia Brico faced when addressing gender bias in her profession. It was nominated for an Academy Award, and in 2003, the film was preserved in the National Film Registry. The story, however, hits a more personal tone for Collins — after all, Brico was her piano teacher all those years ago, and one of the people who kindled her love of music.
“In 1975, because of the movie and the timing, the world rediscovered Antonia Brico, and a music critic wrote a note about her return to her symphonies. After that, her whole career changed, and she became renowned.”
After all of these years, Judy notes, there is plenty to look back on throughout her life: Not only in terms of music, but from her films, books, and charity work as well. Although not all of it has been ideal, she says that these experiences have shaped her art and her spirit into what it is today — and presumably, will continue to do so in the future.
“I look back a lot, at the present in whatever is left of my journal-keeping, and what’s going on around me. Listening and keeping my notes handy helps me keep track of what’s going on, and helps bring to mind the things that have happened. Those things salt the various periods of my life — mostly good, sometimes not so good. Just like the name of the poetry book I’m working on… sometimes it’s heaven, sometimes it’s hell.”
Despite multiple lifetimes-worth of previous experiences and past endeavors, Judy states that she has no intention of slowing down or passing up some projects in favor of others — and that much like her music, she intends to continue these extra activities as long as possible, even hinting at trying new ventures further on in the future.
“I’m curious. I’m excitable when I get onto something that’s interesting and new to me. I have a wonderful social life, as well as a sensational professional life. I don’t think I could live one without the other, so I have every intention of going on to the very end.”
Ms. Collins will be performing twice in North Dakota as part of her tour — Once in Fargo at the Fargo Theatre on Sunday, October 29, and again in Bismarck on Monday, October 30 at the Belle Mehus Auditorium. In order to purchase tickets for the Bismarck show, visit this page on the Bismarck Event Center’s website. To learn more about the life and times of Judy Collins, listen to her music or podcasts, and order her books, visit her own web page here.