Judy Collins an American singer, songwriter, musician and director, chats with Kevin Cooper about living in Greenwich Village, her movie Antonia: A Portrait Of The Woman, her latest album Spellbound, and her October 2023 tour of the UK.

Judy Collins is an American singer, songwriter and a musician with a career spanning seven decades.

She is also an Academy Award nominated document director and a Grammy Award winning recording artist. Her discography consists of thirty six studio albums, nine live albums, numerous compilation albums and twenty one singles.

Collins’ debut studio album, A Maid Of Constant Sorrow was released in 1961 and consisted of traditional folk songs. She had chart success with Hard Lovin’ Loser from her fifth studio album, 1966s In My Life, but it was the lead from her sixth studio album 1967s Wildflowers, Both Sides Now, written by Joni Mitchell, that gave her international prominence. For that song she won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance.

Her biggest success came with her recording of Stephen Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns from her tenth studio album 1975s Judith, which earned her a Grammy Award nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance.

In 2019 Collins’ rendition of the song Amazing Grace was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by The Library Of Congress.

In 2019 at the age of 80 she scored her first number one album on an American Billboard chart with Winter Stories and in 2022 she released her first studio album of all original material, titled Spellbound, which earned her another Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album.

One the day of the first night of her tour she took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.

Good afternoon Judy, how are you today?

Hi Kevin, I’m very well thank you, but more to the point how are you?

I’m very well thanks for asking and let me say that it is a pleasure to finally be speaking to you.

Thank you so much and let me say that I am so glad to be back here in London.

Before we move on, let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s a pleasure and let me thank you for being so interested in what it is that I am currently up to here in the UK.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Oh God, life at the moment is treating me fantastically well; in fact I have the best life that one could ever hope for. I am so excited to be performing here in London later this evening; it really is a wonderful treat.

We must talk about your latest album, Spellbound.

Oh good (laughter).

I have been playing it now for a few weeks and I have to tell you that I love it.

Thank you, that is so good to hear as we love it too. I have to tell you that I am very proud of the album because as you know it is the first time that I have actually done a complete album of my own work. And I have to say that these are very exciting times.

A lot of your fans are saying that it is your best work to date; would you agree with that?

Well, what can I say; I think that it is up there with the best. I personally feel that it is an album that holds its own, don’t you think?

I have to say that I totally agree with you. I feel that each track has its own legs and can stand on its own. I love it.

I am really so very pleased that you feel such warmth towards the album. Thank you so much and I will be singing some of the songs off it tonight.

You briefly mentioned that it is the first album that you have written in its entirety. Why has it taken you so long?

Oh, I don’t know (laughter). To be totally honest with you I have never really thought that it was important for me to do that. Other writers have written some great songs which I was looking for and I was finding them and I’m still finding them. Having said that, I simply thought that it was the right time for Judy Collins to do something different.

Have you been pleased with the reaction to the album?

Yes, I have, I truly have. The album was nominated for a Grammy which made me very happy. We got to go to the Grammy’s this year and trot around with everybody and it was so nice being able to keep up with the times so to speak. It was a great night and really great fun.

Well, I have to tell you that at this moment in time I have four go to tracks. They are Hell On Wheels, Arizona, So Alive and Shipwrecked Mariner. I think those four tracks are absolutely fabulous.

You like four of them (laughter). That’s great, that’s such a lot.

Putting you on the spot, do you have a favourite track on the album?

I have to be totally honest with you and say that I really do love the title track, Spellbound. I also love a good mystery, so I also love Thomas Merton because that song is a mystery. Thomas Merton was most probably murdered; that really is a terrible thing but it’s the truth. I honestly do believe that somebody shot him twice in the head to be exact. So, in answer to your question, I like that and I like So Alive a lot. I have to say that I am also getting into Wild With Mist; it’s all about a chance meeting and I am having a good time with it I must say.

From writing to recording, how long did it take you to complete the album?

Well, being totally honest, we started working on the album back in 2019, when we managed to get a couple of sessions in the studio back then, and then we came back to it after Covid having three more sessions in New York. I have to say that because of circumstances which were totally beyond our control it did take a while for us to do this album, but it really was fine. We all had fun whilst we were working on this album and that is what it should all be about; having fun whilst making music.

Do you enjoy your time spent here in the UK?

I absolutely love being here in London (laughter). This time around I am staying in the Savoy Hotel, just up the street from the Strand which was the first ever hotel that I stayed in here in London, so that is very exciting for me (laughter).

Have you ever thought about relocating to London from New York?

No, I don’t think that I would ever go that far, because as you know, I’m a New Yorker and I have had my share of New York and I absolutely love it. We had a hard time during Covid, just as you here in the UK did, and so it’s nice to be back out on the road and me being able to finally catch up with old friends here in London. I think that we are finally coming back into shape which is great.

Lots of people think that London is all hustle and bustle but having spent time in New York I feel that London is the calmer city out of the two, would you agree?

(Laughter) well I live on the Upper Westside of New York, so I am actually out of the hustle and bustle most of the time which really is wonderful. I still get to see the things that are exciting, I get to go downtown to see plays, plus I still get to socialise with my friends so for me, New York is pretty much the way that it always has been which is multi-cultural, exciting, and most importantly, home.

You mention that you are going to be performing some of the new songs on the tour, how many have made it onto the set list?

Well, I think that Spellbound and Hell On Wheels will both certainly make it, and Grand Canyon and Arizona could both have a good chance of making it on there. It will be a very full concert which will hopefully be full of a few hits (laughter).

Having written and recorded so many great songs, just how difficult is it for you to put a set list together?

(Laughter) well I have to say that it is not that difficult simply because I always try to make them different from one another. They always have to be different because I don’t want to repeat myself, God forbid (laughter). The last time that I was here I performed at the Barbican with a full orchestra, and I did The Blizzard. I won’t probably sing The Blizzard tonight, but then again, I might, who knows (laughter). The hits will pop-up here and there.

I think that you are teasing me a little (laughter).

Well Kevin, a little teasing never hurt anyone (laughter). I will, of course, be singing Both Sides Now, Amazing Grace and Send In The Clowns so the hits will pop-up and I think that people will be glad to hear them.

In 2017 your rendition of Amazing Grace was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.” Just how did that feel?

That felt absolutely wonderful and then here in the UK Pat Atherton who was a young cleric, took it out into the streets and played it in front of Charring Cross Hospital in an attempt to give some healing to the doctors and nurses who were working there and after that it went viral. Shortly after that, my record company decided to re-record the song with a thousand voice choir, which we did, so all in all it was a very extraordinary experience. Coming right up to date, around three months ago now, the early morning New York news programme broadcasted a story about John Newton and the young man who had written a book about him and his demise, was on the show with me. They went into detail about where John Newton had gone in order to write that song. It really was quite an extraordinary presentation.

Whenever I think of Judy Collins, I automatically think of Send In The Clowns.

Well, that will happen tonight, I’m sure (laughter).

In your opinion, what makes it such a wonderful song?

I have absolutely no idea; I’m not a musicologist so I really don’t know. I just know that when I first heard the song it hit me right in the heart and it always has and I think that everybody feels the same about it. It hits every last one of them right in the heart.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

That’s easy; it would have to be getting up this morning in London (laughter). That most certainly has to be the highlight so far (laughter).

During your career you have won numerous awards, which has given you the greatest pleasure?

I was nominated for an Oscar for my 1974 movie, Antonia: A Portrait Of The Woman who was the first female conductor in the world. Antonia was a Dutch/Italian woman; she was an unwanted child who was bought to the United States from Holland. The movie that I made about her told of her struggle against gender bias within her profession. It was nominated for an Oscar back in 1974, and I have to say that I think that I am most proud of that.

The movie changed her life and actually gave her a career which really was wonderful. I think that if you are in a position to do something for somebody else than that is truly wonderful. The wonderful thing about the movie is that back in 2003, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. That really did make me feel wonderful, knowing that the movie will live on forever.

I can’t speak to you without asking you what life was like back in the day living in Greenwich Village.

For me, it was very exciting with a lot of sex, drugs and rock and roll (laughter). I always like to say that I didn’t do too many drugs because I was convinced that they would interfere with my sex and rock and roll (hysterical laughter). Living in The Village was wonderful; it was full of songs, great songs, that I was able to record. For six years I didn’t write or record any of my own songs until I met Leonard Cohen. When I got introduced to Leonard that really was, for me, a world shattering event (laughter).

On that note Judy let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been delightful. You take care and I will see you when you get up here to Birmingham.

Thank you, Kevin; it’s been wonderful to finally get to talk with you.