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Judy Collins on discovering Leonard Cohen and late-night calls with Joni Mitchell

Andrea Warner

This article was originally published in May 2013

Judy Collins walks into the third floor studio at CBC Vancouver and immediately gravitates towards the small electric piano at the window. She sits down and sings a few bars, smiling, at home, before moving to her place at the microphone for our interview. She’s a seasoned pro — after all, she’s been in music and doing press in one way or another for more than six decades. If a topic goes on for too long, she’ll gently but firmly instruct the interviewer that it’s time to move on, but she does it with a smile that removes any sting.

At 74 years old, Collins, who’s best known as one of the key figures in the '60s folk music scene, is still touring all over the world (including a stop in Vancouver on May 9th at the Chan Centre), singing songs and telling stories from her remarkable career. In an interview with CBC Music, Collins took us through two highlights of her folk days: discovering Leonard Cohen and a late night phone call with Joni Mitchell.

You’re probably one of the first American musicians to fully embrace Canadian folk singers and tear down that geographic barrier, and I think that’s one of the only real musical bridges that’s sustained.

That’s interesting, I never thought of that, but I guess it’s probably true. I was always intrigued by and impressed by the writers. It has to do with the songs. It wasn’t a political statement in any way. I was mad about the songs and always was attracted — when I met Leonard, in 1966, he came to my house and was sent to me by one of our mutual friends who said, ‘This guy has just written some songs and he wants you to tell him whether you think they’re songs and whether there’s any point in sending them around to various singers, and he’d like to start with you.’

When he came to see me, he sang a few songs to me and of course I started recording him right away, and actually launched his career. But there was something about the writing — and I’d already recorded “Someday Soon” and Gordie’s song, you know, “Early Morning Rain,” and also I’d recorded “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” or, if I hadn’t recorded it, I wanted to. There was something about the writing. About a year and half after I first recorded Leonard, he said to me, ‘Why haven’t you ever written any of your own songs?’ There was something about the way he wrote that felt like he gave me permission to write.

I don’t know exactly how that happened, but I felt some kind of psychic interchange with his way of writing and what I would write. When he asked that question, I went home and started noodling and wrote “Since You Asked,” which I wrote in about 20 minutes. Then I wrote a song called “Albatross,” bit and very complicated song, but it’s a story song, a kind of literary musical journey which was very different from anything I’d ever recorded before, certainly. It had more in common with what Leonard was doing. There was a freedom within the literary musical content that he was doing, which I felt about some of these other writers, too, that broke down certain rules.

How did your relationship with Joni Mitchell come about?

Joni Mitchell I met on the telephone for the first time. I didn’t know who she was, she was working in the Village and Tom Rush had taken a shine to her, so consequently everybody in the Village knew “Circle Game,” because he’d recorded it and loved it and was always talking about her. But I hadn’t met her, didn’t know anything about her, so when she sang this song to me in the middle of the night on the phone, I was just entranced. I said, ‘I’ll be right over, I have to sing it.’

Then, of course, we got together socially and she would sing me all these songs and I was just, oh, man, I was over the moon. All of them I wanted to record! It took me 40 years to record the song about the midway and “Chelsea Morning” I recorded I think in 1970. In a sense, it’s the same relationship I have with Leonard Cohen’s music. I just think practically everything he wrote is without comparison. It just reaches a level that’s so high. And I think that about Joni. Her writing is transformational. That’s the most important aspect of my relationship with Joni Mitchell, right there.

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