| 4.7°C Dublin

'If you're an artist, you never retire. Why would you stop painting or singing?'

She has sung definitive versions of songs from everyone from Joni Mitchell to Bob Dylan over many decades, but octogenarian Judy Collins has no plans to stop any time soon, writes John Meagher

Close

Looking at life: 'It's the song that I sing that people love and recognise and I love that they do,' Collins says of the Joni Mitchell classic 'Both Sides Now'

Looking at life: 'It's the song that I sing that people love and recognise and I love that they do,' Collins says of the Joni Mitchell classic 'Both Sides Now'

Looking at life: 'It's the song that I sing that people love and recognise and I love that they do,' Collins says of the Joni Mitchell classic 'Both Sides Now'

Judy Collins does not 'do' retirement. While most 80-year-olds are in the second decade of their post-work life, she is doing what she has always loved to do: recording new music and touring the world.

The legendary singer - and, for once, such a description is entirely apt - turns 81 in May but she fully intends to play around 120 shows this year. She jokes that she gets a little uneasy if she doesn't average one gig every three days or so.

And she is showing no signs of stopping. "I think retirement was invented by corporations who don't have to pay people for having experience," she says, with feeling. "Corporations created retirement so they could fire people without incurring the wrath of God. They pretend it's people's choice, but it's not.

"Does a rancher or farmer retire? No. And, if you're an artist, you never retire. Why would you stop painting or singing or writing? You don't give up your art."

She says she intends to keep going until she falls over. Collins released her first album in 1961, the year she moved from Denver, Colorado to New York. She has lived in Manhattan ever since, although on the day she chats to Review she is on tour in England - travelling between Hastings and London.

"It is a wonderful privilege," she says, "to be able to go and sing to people. It's one way we go out of our worries and troubles, to do something uplifting, to see someone singing, to go to a museum."

Collins is a songwriter of considerable distinction but she is most famous for her extraordinary interpretations of other's songs. It was she who recorded Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now' before its writer had - and so brilliant was her version, that many people believe she helped send Mitchell on her way to widespread recognition.

She was pivotal in the early career of her friend Leonard Cohen, too. After all, it was she who first recorded Cohen's 'Suzanne', and its success inspired the shy poet to release his own version.

She has sung definitive versions of songs from everyone from Jimmy Webb to Bob Dylan and her latest album, Winter Stories, features a recording of the Joni Mitchell classic, 'River'.

It's a song she has performed live for half a century. "Don't ask me why I never recorded it before," she says with a chuckle. "I was probably trying to find the right setting for it and it's perfect for this album."

Officially, Winter Stories is Collins' 28th album, but she says it's really her 50th, give or take one or two. "There's so much stuff that I haven't released with major labels," she says, "but I bring those albums on the road and sell them at my shows."

The new album - which was released in November - was recorded in conjunction with Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld and the bluegrass band, Chatham County Line. It's a wonderful album - replete with Collins' own compositions and those of others.

She's especially happy with a version of 'Northwest Passage', the folk song written by the late Canadian artist, Stan Rogers. "It's almost an anthem in Canada. That story of Lord Franklin and his attempts to find a northwest passage [sea route above Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific] has intrigued me for a long time." Her voice, both in song and in speech, seems entirely unaffected by the ravages of time. She says she has been very careful to look after her vocal cords - and she advises all fledgling singers to do the same. "Your voice is supposed to last you for your life," she says. "But a lot of singers lose it."

She risked damaging hers irreparably in the early years. "I was drinking and smoking a lot," she says, "and that plays havoc with your voice. I realised that if I didn't do something about it I would be in serious trouble."

Several of her musician friends recommended the same voice trainer - Max Margulis. When Collins stopped procrastinating and eventually phoned him, she was shocked to discover that not only did he live in the same apartment building, but on the same floor.

"I studied with him for 30-odd years," she says. "I was regular and I kept working on it. Mostly, he practised something called bel canto, which means 'beautiful singing'. It's not taught very much any more but it's really the great secret of why I can sing the way I do."

In essence, Margulis instilled in her the importance of being in the moment when singing, to not take the voice for granted, and to allow it plenty of rest.

The best thing she did, however, was give up the vices that had been so important to her in her 20s. "Giving up smoking and alcohol really helped," she says. "I was smoking until 1970 and drinking until 78 and after that I really felt that my voice was in a better place."

Collins hails from Irish and English ancestry. Her descendants crossed the Atlantic before the United States had even come to existence. Her father was especially proud of his Irish roots. "He really didn't like the English side," she says, with a hearty laugh. "He really had no time for them." And, she adds, he called his first-born son, Michael. She is only too aware about what the name 'Michael Collins' means in this country.

Her first exposure to Irish culture came in the early 1960s when she met the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in New York. "Those guys were just wonderful," she says. "Such great singers. You would listen very carefully when they sung - they could transport you with their voices."

All four are deceased now and Collins is of an age where the majority of those artists she knew when she first came to New York are no longer alive.

She was especially saddened by the death of Broadway producer Harold Prince, who was behind some of the biggest musicals of the 20th century. "I had been so close to Hal and I would spend time with him and he would tell me how important my version of 'Send in the Clowns' was and how it kept that musical [A Little Night Music] going for so long."

'Send in the Clowns' was written by Stephen Sondheim and the great singer-songwriter for theatre turns 90 in March. Collins and Sondheim are still in touch. "He's a wonderful man," she says, "and what an amazing writer he has been."

She doesn't see so much of Joni Mitchell any more. Mitchell has been dogged by ill-health in recent years and is thought to favour a life out of the spotlight now. "Joni has written some of the very greatest songs in the canon," she says. "And they will endure."

'Both Sides Now' is among those masterpieces. "It's the song that I sing that people love and recognise and I love that they do," she says. "And it's a song that has stood the test of time. I knew the minute I heard it that it would. I thought, 'That one's a keeper'."

Collins says she is as passionate about hearing new singers as she is in celebrating the old ones. "I love Ari Hest's music and I'm working with Kirsten Maxwell."

She speaks so enthusiastically about Kenny White and Amy Speace that one is compelled to immediately go out and discover their work.

"I love the fact that every day brings something new to discover, some new place to see, another song to savour. I feel lucky."

Her generation-spanning audience is lucky, too.

Judy Collins plays the National Concert Hall, Dublin, tonight

Indo Review