The excitement surrounding the news that legendary folk singer Joan Baez would be releasing Whistle Down The Wind, her first new album in nearly decade, was tempered by the other announcement that came with it: her upcoming tour of Europe and North America would be her last.
It’s hard to fault the 77-year-old for the decision. She has spent nearly six decades—from her early days in the folk music scene in Boston to her recent appearance at Barclays Center when she was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—performing for audiences all over the world. Along the way, she’s released 30 albums, featuring elegant and dynamic songs like “Diamonds and Rust” and her Billboard Hot 100 top 10 cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” And she’s lent her voice to a number of important political causes, finding herself on the frontlines of the civil rights battle in Selma, Alabama, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. Baez deserves the chance to rest a while.
She’s at least leaving us with something special to remember her by with Whistle. Produced by Joe Henry, the record features a mix of songs—some written expressly for Baez and some covers chosen by the artist—that look back warmly on the past and graciously on the present, as with her cover of Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” which reflects on hearing President Obama singing the spiritual in Selma. Along the way, she offers up some sharply modern material as well, tackling a couple of recent Tom Waits songs and a stunningly spare take on “Another World,” a track originally found on Antony and the Johnsons’ 2009 album The Crying Light.
Billboard spent some time on the phone with Baez to discuss her new album, retiring from touring, and the current state of American politics.
As with many of your previous albums, all the songs on Whistle Down The Wind were written by other artists. How did you choose what to record this time around? Were you just looking for songs that resonated with you in some way?
Well, you’re on the right track because, in the end, it sounds really trite but it is the song that chooses me. It’s a no brainer, sometimes, like “The President Sang Amazing Grace.” The only thing we knew when we went into it was we wanted to make basically a bookend to the first album. That’s the song written for me — “Silver Blade,” because that’s an obvious follow up of “Silver Dagger.” And then they are some where I think, “Oh, this will be perfect,” and I’ll try it and if it doesn’t become me, then I won’t do it.
How are you trying these songs out? Are you playing them live or just working them out in the studio?
Not all of them can be transferred to my guitar because I don’t play that well. I don’t know chords that well. So, for instance, “Civil War.” Sounds really simple but it’s really complicated. In which case, I’ll go, “Okay, you guys do it, and I’ll sing.” Most of them I played with a finger picking thing. I think I play on six of them. There are three or four where I don’t. I just turn it over to the guys. They’re all brilliant. I go sit in a corner of the room and they gather around and play the song. They take it from there.
The one song choice that really surprised me was your version of Antony and the Johnsons’ “Another World.” How did that one come into your life?
My assistant comes up with a lot of stuff and I’m wondering if that’s where it came from. Sometimes I just hear it on my own or in the car. I can’t exactly track it. But I do know that it speaks to my condition really more than anything else on there. Because I really am that dark. The song is as beautiful as it is dark.
Is that primarily how you hear new music these days, other people presenting them to you or do you stumble across things on your own?
It’s stumbling. And then from my manager. He gets piles of stuff and he listens to everything. If he thinks it has a chance, he’ll listen 50 times before he’ll send it to me. Because he doesn’t want me to waste my time. My assistant in the office is a big follower of every kind of music and she sends me some things. Some I just heard on my own, like “Whistle Down The Wind.” I listen to a lot of Tom Waits’ work and that one came back immediately. That was the first thing that came when talking about this album.
How was it for you working with Joe Henry on this album? Was there anything he brought to the sessions that surprised you?
It’s all kind of a surprise. The musicians are never surprising. Once you get in a studio—New York, Nashville, Austin, L.A.—you know they’re going to be the best musicians around. I don’t even look at their names. I just know they’re going to happen. During that process, we get to know and like each other. With Joe, it’s really interesting. Joe and I are not really in a lot of ways on the same wavelength. And it doesn’t matter. He’s very formal with his little hat and cravat and I’m not. But musically we were completely tuned in.
Another element of this album that stood out for me is that it sounded like you’ve embraced the changes happening to your voice, the imperfections that come out as you sing these songs. Was that something you did on purpose or was that simply something unavoidable?
It’s unavoidable. I could have said, “How dare you?” [laughs] No, they’re just there.
Does the fact that your voice has changed play into the decision to stop touring or is it just to do with not wanting to deal with the grind of being on the road?
I think probably both. I have to keep reminding myself that I am my age because I get on tour and I look at the schedule and it’s the same one I had 15 or 20 years ago. I went through a period where I couldn’t do three nights in a row and I saw this amazing vocal therapist. And now, I can’t do many of them, but I can do three nights in a row. Yes, I’m sure it’s grueling but it’s also my life. I figured out how to do it. I get first class treatment everywhere. I’m sure I couldn’t do it if I couldn’t fly business. If I didn’t have what I call “the Dolly Parton suite” on the bus, I wouldn’t be able to do it with much grace. So all of those things count. The other thing I always think of with that question is that anybody who does any work, their life is grueling. And it’s fun. That I will miss. My traveling family.
Looking back, is there an album of yours that you feel didn’t get the attention it deserved?
Honest Lullaby because I had insulted the head of the record company and we had a fight about Israel and I said something about occupied territory and that was the end of the album. It just got buried and didn’t get any advertising. It’s kind of sad. I didn’t think of it at the time that it wasn’t a very smart thing to say, whatever it was I said. But I didn’t realize until way later that that’s what had happened. It just got pulled off the racks in a way. And it’s a beautiful album.
Having lived through some of the darkest days of American politics, how does the current state of affairs look to you?
Darker than them all. Back in the ‘60s or ‘70s if someone said this was going to happen we’d say, “It couldn’t get any worse than it is now.” And, lo and behold, we’re dealing with an evil empire. It’s evil. I won’t say so-and-so is evil even if I think they are. It’s what they do that’s evil and it’s so relentless and so lacking in anything resembling decency or empathy or compassion or anything to do with anything except making millions of dollars and passing them on to your kids so your kids can make millions of dollars. And lying is this amazing part of the program. They’re ahead in the lying battle. They’ll always win because they’ve been studying how to do it for the last 40 years.
How has it been for you to see people who fought alongside you during the ‘60s and ‘70s turn their backs on being politically active and chasing careers and wealth instead?
There were two nights on TV where one night I saw George Will and the next night I saw Michael Moore and they both they said exactly the same thing: If there’s any hope for this country, it’s coming from the grass roots. And that there is hope in that because it’s already happening and has happened. I do believe it’s the only hope. The scale of it is greater than any of us would have dreamed. It’s all people who never did get off the couch before. A lot of younger people. Even though I’m a big pessimist, I would rather look at that than think it’s absolutely hopeless. We really need to live in denial about 80-85% of our lives because it’s too scary. People who really do get it about global warming are living in grass huts using bicycles to make enough electricity to read by. I’m not there yet. Right there you could say I’m not doing enough.
Are you inspired at least by how politically active and aware so many people have become in the wake of the 2016 election?
I think we have time for victories but they’re going to be really small victories in the face of what we’re living through right now. But I think they’re really, really important. Every 19 year old decides they want to do something, anything. And I’ve met tons of them. I’m always so surprised. Obviously it’s the circles I travel in but I’m still surprised. I’m sure there are an equal number of kids who really don’t care about anything except getting high and listening to music and getting laid. But I do see the active kids with a great deal of fervor and humor. The only thing they’re lacking is an anthem, a fresh anthem. Josh Ritter might have it. He wrote a song called “I’ll Carry the Flame.” So I have to nag him about getting easier words to it. It has an anthemic chorus. What’s missing is a chorus that everybody can sing.
With the 2018 elections happening this year, do you have plans to get your voice heard in support of candidates or causes important to you?
I’m not sure what I’ll do. I’ll do what I feel comfortable doing.