by Greg Cahill
“I think it’s the Irish in me,” says singer Judy Collins, 76, referring to the sadness that permeates so many of her songs. “You know, that doesn’t go away.”
It’s a mood that suits her fans. The acclaimed song interpreter, who the New York Times has dubbed “the ageless wild angel of pop,” likens the song-selection process to falling in love. “You know when you fall in love what you’re feeling and it just feels right,” she says with a chuckle, speaking on the phone from her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Emerging from the mid-’60s folk revival, Collins scored early hits with Joni Mitchell’s pensive ballad “Both Sides Now” and the anti-slavery hymn “Amazing Grace” before expanding to include pop, art songs and show tunes. She’s closely tied to Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” the swan song from the Broadway musical A Little Night Music. Her 1975 recording of that melancholy missive earned a Grammy Award for Song of the Year. Sondheim looms large in her career—joined by Don McLean, Collins reprises “Send in the Clowns” on her upcoming album of duets, Strangers Again. Last year, she brought a mostly Sondheim show to San Francisco. Next year, she plans to record an all-Sondheim album.
“The songs I identify with are the ones I’ve made my own—it’s that simple,” says Collins, who sports a still-strong soprano voice. “There’s lots of music in the world, but when you decide to take [a song] into your life, you sort of take over a piece of its landscape. You own it. And I own a lot of that landscape.
“It’s kind of magic, really.”
Collins was one of the first artists to cover the works of Mitchell, Randy Newman and Leonard Cohen. In 2008, Cohen returned the favor, recording one of her originals on a tribute album.
Asked about sustaining a 50-plus year career in the face of a once-debilitating battle with alcoholism and personal tragedy, Collins explains, “I showed up. You know, getting what you want in life, and what you think you need, has to do with showing up. By some fortune, and certainly not my own, because I was a mixed-up kid at the time, I did what I wanted to do and I did what my heart told me to do.
“You do what you’re passionate about … I’ve been passionate about my politics and my music, and those are the things that mean the most to me.”
Judy Collins performs with the Passenger String Quartet on Sunday, July 5 at 3pm at the Marin County Fair, San Rafael. For more information, visit marinfair.org.