Q&A: Judy Collins
Stephen Stills tried to win Judy Collins back by writing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” for her, but although their love affair ended, their friendship endured and eventually led to their new collaborative album, Everybody Knows, and current tour. Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen spoke with Collins by phone before the second half of her 51-date tour, which includes an Oct. 21 performance at The Smith Center.
How do you feel about your collaboration album with Stephen Stills?
It’s like a fairy tale and we got it done, which is remarkable. And between the time that we did the album—we recorded March-April, and then in May—I was in my shower in New York and the tendon in my pinky split, and I had to have surgery on my hand. So I'm still, of course, in recovery for that. It’s a big surgery, big deal. And they said, “After about five weeks at the end of a month you’ll go into hand therapy,” which of course I did, “And then in about five weeks you’ll be able to play the guitar.” So of course for the months that I was in the cast, in the healing Band-Aids and everything, I had a wonderful musical director who played, of course, for me, and I got my makeup person to come out with me for makeup and hair because I couldn't do anything.
And then I started hand therapy and I started to be able to play the guitar. And they said, “And then in about six or seven weeks you can start practicing and playing the piano again,” which I did, “And it’ll all come back, slowly but surely.” And I played in public a week and a half ago in a concert of mine, not with the Stills tour but with my own tour up in Oregon somewhere. And now I’m practicing every day and it’s coming back, and it will finally I think be completely healed. I can get through it, but it was in time for me to be able to go out on the first shows with Stephen, start the rehearsals in Chicago and play the guitar all the way through. (Laughs) So it’s been great.
The timing of your recovery was perfect.
It was perfect. And then of course we're on stage, we’re singing together, we’re playing, we have a great band and we’re happy as clams. We laugh all the way through it. It’s just a ball, and we end singing “Sweet: Judy Blue Eyes.” I mean, what could be better?
You’re about halfway through at this point, right?
Yeah, we're 27 shows into a 51-show tour. So we got another, whatever, 25 to do, and we start up next week again.
That sounds so grueling.
Well, this life, of course, is not for everyone. I tell people, “However talented you are, be prepared to be paid for the travel.”
Nowadays you know everybody has to tour a lot more because they can’t make any money off recording.
But you continue to be prolific and multidirectional as a recording artist, performer and author. What sparked the idea of going in this particular direction and collaborating with Stephen Stills for an album and tour?
We’ve been talking about it for a few years, and since we’ve been friends all this time we’ve gotten through a lot of … I always say we’re in couples therapy ever since we had a falling out.
Thirty, 40 years ago?
Almost fifty years ago. Oh boy. Nineteen sixty-eight was when we met and fell in love and had our wild romance, which I always I always say the rumors lasted much longer than the romance. (Laughs) But he says the reason we were friends for so many years is that we’re married to other people, which is probably true.
How can you not be friends with the guy that wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes?”
There's no way I couldn’t be friends with him.
You can’t be in the grocery store and hear “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” over the P.A. and go, “I’m still angry at that guy.”
My boyfriend that left me, Jerry Oster, he sent me a note. We’ve been friends ever since we started talking again after that relationship was over. Now we talk quite often, but he sent me a note and he said, “I saw that you're touring with Stephen,” and he said, “I don’t know if you remember this but I remember riding in a taxicab with you in 1976, and you pretending not to hear ‘Judy Blue Eyes,’ which was playing on the taxi radio. (Laughs)
So what was it like to get together after all this time? When was the first point that you blended your voices together in the lead up to this project, or the first day that you decided to get together?
I asked him about five years ago to record a song with me. I think it was probably 2010 or ’11. And I said why don't we get together and make a recording of something. First we were going to do “Four Strong Winds,” the Ian and Sylvia song. I was ready with that when he came in the door and said, “Oh no, let’s sing the Tom Paxton song.” That was the last thing on my mind, so we recorded that song here in my apartment with my engineer. We both played my 12-string guitars and it went beautifully, so we knew—what did we spend, two hours recording it?—We knew that we might contemplate doing something together and that we would be fine. But then of course we started our rehearsals in February of this year and we were kind of shocked at how well it went. It was so easy, so comfortable. We knew what we were doing.
How did you decide what material you wanted to put on recording? I have a partial list: “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” “Judy,” “So Begins the Task,” “Houses,” “Girl from the North Country,” “Everybody Knows,” “Handle with Care,” “Questions” and “River of Gold.”
The concert includes most of those songs, and “Reason to Believe.”
My intuition tells me the songs just fell into place.
That’s right. But we were, for a couple of years before that or longer, three years or so, we were contemplating what we might try to sing. I have to go back to those lists and see if we actually covered all of them. I’m not sure that we did. We had some far out ideas that we didn’t wind up doing. But what we did sounded so natural and so doable and we thought, “Let's just do the things we’re comfortable with. You know, why not?” And the surprises are things like “Judy,” which came out a tape of him recording in the studio in the middle of the night, which disappeared into somebody’s hands for 45 years and then somebody found it and sent it to Graham and it had just Stephen singing, with the guitar and the piano, a whole bunch of songs. It had “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Helplessly,” “Wooden Ships.” He had started writing with Crosby, Stills & Nash and they’re all on that album. But “Judy” he hadn’t ever done in public. My manager said, “You have to sing that song,” and then he told me that it was actually the predecessor to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which I hadn’t known.
I’ve seen footage of your recent sets and it looks like you varied them up, or at least recently you might have added more material from the upcoming album. Is that what you’ve been doing? Have you been playing around with it? It's unusual nowadays for people to not play the exact same set in the same order for every show.
Well, we’re really locked into something that works right now, but we’ll begin to tinker with it and put in substitutes. We've already added a song of his that he wrote for The Rides. I can't remember what it’s called. (Editor’s note: The song is “Virtual World.”) So there’s a new song going in of his. We’re fiddling with it but it’s pretty steady that we open with “Handle with Care” and we close with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” So that makes sense.
Is “Handle with Care” just a favorite song?
I didn’t know it, but he played it for me in January, I guess and I said, “That's sounds fantastic,” so we did it, and I get to sing the Roy Orbison line. (Laughs) Which tickles me pink because I was such a big Orbison fan.
You know the only thing that would be really awesome that might not be part of the show is, I know you still have the 1920s Martin acoustic guitar that he played “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” on for the first time to you, and it’s just occurring to me how cool it would be to see that guitar on stage.
It’s a very good idea; I’ve got it here at home and I didn’t bring it out because I didn’t want to put it on the bus because it’s very precious, but I could bring it out. It’s true. I could try it.
In your memoir Suite: Judy Blue Eyes you recount your first impressions of Stephen Stills when you met him. You describe him as possibly the most attractive man that you had ever seen. Does that imply love at first sight, or pretty close to it?
I think so. I think so.
Was he really trying to get you back with that song? I think I read that you said, “I love the song but it’s not going to work,” or didn't work. (Collins laughs) Why didn’t it work?
I was over it. I couldn’t … I was too … I don't know. The whole thing made me very shy. I was shy, you might say. And I just couldn’t … you know, it was a very chaotic, dramatic, over-the-top time I think for both of us, and I had to get back to New York and get my reclaim my life here. I was not going to stay in LA. That was part of the problem, and he was off by now with Crosby, Stills & Nash and it was just too much. I couldn’t … I couldn’t do it.
When you duet on Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” are you very conscious of how it unites two of the most important creative men in your career?
Well, yeah! I mean. It’s very true. I was so lucky. I had a relationship with Leonard that was purely platonic but absolutely had a love affair with his songs. That was very powerful. Absolutely, yeah.