Judy Collins Has a Time Machine
By Amanda HessNov. 26, 2019, 5:00 a.m. ET
At a certain age, or so we have come to believe, a singer loses her voice. Her vocal cords stiffen and slow. Her high notes dry up. But that is not what has happened to Judy Collins.
At 80, Collins sounds as clear as a spring wending through a field of wildflowers. The ethereal soprano that guided listeners through the 1960s — the “gentle voice amid the strife,” as Life magazine proclaimed on a May 1969 cover — still resonates in 2019. This has earned Collins an almost supernatural perspective. When audiences come to see her perform, which she does about one out of every three nights, they are transported. “They’re thinking about their youth,” Collins told me. “They’re thinking about their hopefulness. They’re thinking about their dreams, when they hear me.”
Your voice is like a time machine, I said.
“It’s a time machine,” she said. “Oh, very much. Very much.”
Collins was poised at the edge of the dining room table in her bewitching Upper West Side apartment, which she has occupied for almost 50 years. She wore a crushed velvet purple jacket and a sparkling necklace that said “Resist.” Her white hair tumbled down to her slim shoulders. The outline of a swallow was tattooed on her left hand. Just beneath it, “Clark” was etched into her wrist, for her son who killed himself in 1992. Collins drank sparkling water from a purple plastic-footed glass. She goes out onstage 120 nights a year, she told me, “because I make a living. I love it. And I’m getting better at it.” Then she bounded onto a small exercise trampoline and jumped off into a tour of her apartment, and her life.
Her home had the feel of an overstuffed time capsule, as if its curator kept lifting the lid to add important new artifacts. Thirteen umbrellas overflowed from the umbrella holder. Clinton administration ephemera dotted the space, which she called “the environment.” On the walls of the environment hung her Life magazine cover, and small photographs of Western landscapes and Walton Ford’s artfully disturbing paintings of birds. The environment was lit by dragonfly stained glass lamps and softened with pillows embroidered with messages like “Friends Are the Best Present” and “One Can Never Have Too Many Cats.”
Collins has three. They are Persian cats with luxurious coats and celestial orbs for eyes. At my request, she hunted them down, and when each was discovered — the tuxedoed Coco Chanel, the blue-gray Rachmaninoff and the all-white Tom Wolfe — Collins greeted the cat in a high, fluttering soprano. “Hello there,” she said. “Do you want to say hello?”
The hunt led us into the bedroom of her husband, Louis Nelson, who was wearing a pair of funky yellow socks and contemplating a large rendering of a dog. “I design memorials,” he told me — he designed the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall — and now he was at work on a memorial for Samantha, a friend’s old dog, who would be laid to rest in a pet cemetery upstate. “It’s an extraordinary place,” Nelson said. Collins and Nelson have themselves outlived many pets, leaving them with an unwieldy collection of feline remains. “They’re in little pots and things around the house,” Collins said. “Sometimes I think, I should get rid of these. But I can’t.”
The cats stretched and scattered, and Collins zagged through a bathroom and into her own bedroom. A folded New York Times crossword lay unfulfilled on the bed. (Recently she spotted a friend in a Monday clue: “Jong who wrote ‘Fear of Flying.’”) Around the room’s perimeter, an array of leonine wigs was assembled. Collins’s voice is unchanged, but the hair is new. Two years ago, she had surgery on her hand, and when she awoke from the anesthesia, her hair fell out. “I had fabulous hair,” she said; silky hippie goddess hair. Collins was unimpressed with how it grew back, so now she has it all shaved off: “My hair was so good that there’s no comparison.”
It is here, in the environment, that Collins does the work of maintaining her time machine. “Most days, I do a number of things,” she said. “I practice. I sing a little. I write something. I do my crossword puzzle. I write in my journals. I try to do something exciting. I go to a funny movie. I get together with friends who are funny,” she said. Collins is always collecting jokes and stories and curious observations to fill out her sets. She used to stand onstage and close her eyes and just sing songs one after the other, but when she got sober, in 1978, she began to speak. “I found out that I had an awful lot to say, which I had not realized,” she said.
In 1965, when she was 26 years old, Collins did lose her voice. She was so hoarse that she could barely talk. She called up the vocal coach and activist Max Margulis, and once she convinced him that she was not a flighty folk singer but a serious person, they embarked on a 30-year course of study. His technique was not about the mechanics of Collins singing from her head or her lungs or her chest. It focused on the clarity and precision of her phrasing. It was about meaning what she sang.
“If you’re in the forest,” Collins explained, “and there’s a bear following you, and you want to alert your family, you raise your voice and say so, because if you don’t, your family might die from the bear.” Whether you’re in the woods of Colorado or the clubs of New York City, you must always be ready to use it. “The voice,” Collins said, “is actually meant to last forever.”
In the 1960s, when folk singer-songwriters were multiplying in the West Village, Collins was best known for singing other people’s songs. She sang “Both Sides Now,” by Joni Mitchell, and she made Joni Mitchell famous. She sang “Suzanne,” by Leonard Cohen, and made Leonard Cohen famous. She had an intriguing curatorial range. She sang old standards, and contemporary folk songs, and the Beatles, and Sondheim, and a medley based on the music of “Marat/Sade.” Collins encouraged Cohen to sing his own songs, and he encouraged her to write her own songs, which she approached the same way she did everyone else’s songs. You have to write them, she said, but “then you have to figure out how to sing them.”
The art of singing other people’s songs is not fully appreciated beyond the cabaret circuit, or maybe it’s a little bit lost. Folk singers used to be called “collectors” of songs, and Collins is a master collector. “I feel as though my voice is capable of doing anything,” she told Life in 1969. “I don’t question that I can make a sentence mean anything I want it to as long as I know what it is I want to say. I don’t know why I seem to be able to do it, but I do, and I think people are pleasured by it.”
This fall, the artist Justin Vivian Bond performed a tribute to Collins at Joe’s Pub, singing songs from writers that Collins had surfaced. Listening to her music as a child, Bond was struck by her interpretive skill, by “her sense of how to sing a song,” Bond said. “She’s a great actress, in that regard. And I think that’s how a great singer is a great singer — by acting the story of the song.”
Collins’s latest album, “Winter Stories,” out Nov. 29, is a collaboration with the Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld and the bluegrass band Chatham County Line. It’s a hygge folk collection, perfect for curling up with three cats, but it also holds unexpected emotional power. On it Collins sings Mitchell’s “The River,” and her own “Mountain Girl,” and “Highwayman,” Jimmy Webb’s song about a man who is reincarnated as a thief, a sailor, a dam builder and a starship captain, which was later covered by Glen Campbell and then the country supergroup the Highwaymen. She had contemplated recording it for many years.
“I never really had the nerve,” she said. The song seemed to be owned by “the guys,” as she put it. “And then I thought, what the heck?” Collins’s version is unlike any other. In translating the masculine country anthem into her gossamer voice, she has dismantled and rebuilt the song into a testament to female resilience. After hearing it, the recordings by the other versions sound somehow muted. It’s Judy Collins’s song now.
Collins turned 80 this year. The news release in advance of the event read: “Judy Collins Celebrates 80th Birthday on May 1, Forecasts Another Prolific Year.” Her family assembled a fantasy dinner party of guests to fete her, including Gloria Steinem, Robert Caro and Joan Baez. “You have to see the jacket that Joan bought me for my birthday,” Collins said, disappearing into her closet and returning with a pink sequined number. “It’s hysterical,” she said. “She and I would never have worn this.” But a lot has changed since then.
Last year, Baez released what she said was likely to be her final album. “I asked my vocal coach many years ago when it would be time to stop,” she said, “and he said, ‘Your voice will tell you.’ And it has — it’s a muscle, and you have to work harder and harder to make it work.” Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen are dead. Joni Mitchell rarely surfaces publicly, and she will not answer Judy Collins’s letters. A whole generation of artists has fallen silent, but Collins is still singing. She is transforming old songs through her voice, and through that process she doesn’t just revive them — she remakes them.
“I notice that in old cultures, when someone is ill, they say we have lost our song,” Steinem, who has known Collins since the ’60s, wrote in an email. “Judy’s magic is that she gives us back our songs.”
There is a tendency to cast older artists as shadows. We go to their performances and listen for an echo of the star in their prime. But Judy Collins is the thing itself. “I’m a better singer now,” she said. “A much better singer.” Recently she kicked off a stretch of shows at Joe’s Pub in New York City with Fjeld and Chatham County Line. She emerged onstage in a pink sequined top — she owns multiple pink sequined tops — and a warm, daffy persona. She introduced Fjeld, and then, as she coolly tuned her guitar, she asked him, “Where is Norway, exactly?”
When they launched into “Mountain Girl,” I noticed that the men onstage looked as if they were engaged in a strenuous form of exercise. But Collins was still. Her guitar appeared to be made of air. She chased the song’s highest high notes with the relaxed air of a woman, in her environment, summoning her cats. When Collins sang her “Highwayman” — “I am still around, and I’ll always be around, and around, and around” — I felt transported, not into the past, but into Judy Collins’s present.