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Folk Icon Judy Collins On Meeting Joni Mitchell & Her Highest Charting Album, 1967's 'Wildflowers'

Judy Collins photographed in 2017.
Joe Pugliese

Judy Collins photographed in 2017.

Ahead of the release of her new LP 'Winter Stories,' out Nov. 29, the legendary singer-songwriter recalls her international breakthrough.

One of the most iconic names in folk, Judy Collins got her start in the 1960s in New York’s Greenwich Village scene, where she collaborated with Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, Stephen Stills, Shawn Colvin, Michael McDonald, Joan Baez, Ari Hest and many others. “When I met Judy at the Whiskey A Go Go, it was like meeting a goddess,” Stills tells Billboard. “Hearing her voice was like finding a unicorn, and she’s still at the top of her game today.”

Apart from her own musical legacy, Collins witnessed first hand many now-landmark pop culture moments, including catching Dylan mid-song writing  “Mr. Tambourine Man” on a trip at his manager Al Grossman’s country home in Woodstock in 1963. “I woke up to the sounds of this voice coming from somewhere in the house, three stories up,” she says. “It was Dylan sitting in a room with a closed door, writing ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ I crept down the steps and sat outside this door listening to him for two hours.” [Collins later covered the hit on 1965’s Fifth Album].

“These moments have happened to me all my life,” she says of the many kismet encounters that have led to some of her biggest hits. In 1973, she says that a friend sent her Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music soundtrack to inspire her. “She dropped off the album at the apartment I still live in -- I’ve been here for almost fifty years -- and she made a note to ‘listen to ‘Send In The Clowns,’ ” she says. [Collins’ version of the song appeared on her 1975 LP Judith, and won song of the year at the following year’s Grammy Awards, as well as a nod for Collins in the best pop vocal performance, female category.] 

But it was Collins’ seventh album, 1967’s Wildflowers, that marked a career best when it peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 in 1968. The set has since spent 75 total weeks on the chart, led by the Joni Mitchell-penned single “Both Sides Now,” which reached No. 8 on the Hot 100 and took home the Grammy Award for best folk performance in 1968. In 2003, the Recording Academy inducted the song into its Grammy Hall of Fame. 

Today, Collins is “in the moment,” she says. “I’m a workaholic. I do 120 shows a year. I feel very blessed to have had this wonderful career and it just goes on and on.” As a longtime activist, she says there are many similarities between the political turmoil in the U.S. during her early career and today’s fractured landscape. “Remember, President Lyndon Johnson was just as foul and just as dangerous as Mr. Trump, possibly worse. Trump has not trumpeted a war that has killed millions of people, yet, and has not insulted everybody in the county, yet. Trump must have studied Lyndon Johnson very, very carefully,” she says. “We’ve lived through terrible things before and we’ve come out the other side. As a musician, you’re bound to live through terrible things, because it’s not the best or easiest way to make a living. But if you just hang in and do what you love, it’s going to come around.”

On Nov. 29, the singer will release her new album, Winter Stories, via Wildflower Records/Cleopatra Records and featuring Norwegian folk artist Jonas Fjeld and Americana band Chatham County Line. The set includes a new take on Mitchell’s Blue holiday classic “River.” To celebrate the occasion, Collins will play an eight-night run at New York City’s Joe’s Pub (Nov. 18-27).

Below, Collins, 80, recalls her international breakthrough.

 


 

After I recorded Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” in 1966, which he said “made him famous,” he told me I should write my own songs, which I started to do in 1967 for Wildflowers. The Vietnam War was plunging forward with more deaths, chaos and lies, and we were trying to make something beautiful out of what was happening. But one night at 3 a.m., I got a call from my old friend Al Kooper [of the group Blood, Sweat & Tears], who said, “I’m sitting here with Joni Mitchell.” I knew she had written a song called “The Circle Game,” which was the favorite of Tom Rush’s, but otherwise I didn’t have a clue who she was. He said he followed her home from the club because she said she wrote songs. He put Joni on the phone, and she sang me “Both Sides Now.” I said, “I’ll be right over.” 

We were in the middle of recording the album when we went to the Columbia studios in New York. I was working with [arranger] Josh Rifkin on that album, which was basically all orchestrated. Josh was sitting in the studio having made a nice string arrangement for “Both Sides Now” and he said bring in that little harpsichord in there and let me put this on it. Quite frankly his orchestration and the harpsichord opening was the thing that brought us to the attention of Billboard and the charts. And of course radio loved it, loved it, loved it. My producer David Anderle mixed it about 15 times before they truly accepted it and Billboard took notice. It was all over the radio, which was a salute to my record company, Elektra, who had seen the onslaught of the folk music revival and knew exactly what to do.

I’ve never been off the road in 60 years except for the exception of two years when I couldn’t work. I had tuberculosis in 1962 and then I was in treatment for my alcoholism in 1978, so it was maybe two and a half years when I wasn’t touring. I was already performing at New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall, and in a way, yes, it was wonderful, exciting, and important, but I did not think about it that way. It was part of the process. We always thought -- and still do -- that it was all about the album, the whole context and experience of it and I think Wildflowers still holds up in that regard, in part because it was driven by a charting single. Billboard takes note of what the pulse is, what the taste is, what the yearning is that people want to hear. That’s a huge service both to artists and audiences.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of Billboard.