Judy Collins is more than the voice of a generation. The flute-like sound of her soprano voice has accompanied our culture from the civil rights movement to the present day, and she’s collaborated with the greatest musicians in this country’s history. When she comes to Suffolk Theater to perform on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, she’ll bring with her a lifetime of experience.
Collins has released more than 50 albums over the course of her career. When she started out, she was singing other people’s songs, making them her own. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” first met critical acclaim through Collins’s mellifluous voice. And as important as songwriting has become to Collins over the years, she still puts equal weight on the songs she re-interprets.
“I only started writing after I’d been making records for six or seven years,” she explains over the phone, her voice in the interview as identifiable as if it were streaming through the radio speakers. “I didn’t see any reason to write.”
Leonard Cohen, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and won a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010, wrote many of Collins’s early hits. But one day, Cohen asked her why she didn’t write any songs of her own.
“I went home and immediately recorded ‘Since You’ve Asked,’” she says.
Collins believes you need to bring the same kind of energy and ingenuity to a song someone else has written as you would to a song you write yourself. In 2013, she went back to her homeland to create a PBS broadcast concert and album of Irish traditional folk songs and her own hits, performed only as Judy Collins could perform them, called Judy Collins in Ireland. The album included an interpretation of “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?,” along with classics such as Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” and Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” “My job is to turn every song into a Judy Collins song,” she says.
Collins is fresh off a fertile period of songwriting, and the new originals will appear on an album she’s just cut with Ari Hest.
“New material always comes from an accumulation of your own experience,” says Collins. “You just have to get to the piano or the piece of paper and start writing, and it happens.”
She makes it sound easy, and perhaps that ease is what comes through in her voice. But Collins isn’t resting on her laurels. She’s been collaborating and innovating for decades, and continues to seek fresh inspiration from up-and-coming artists.
On her last album, Strangers Again, she worked with some old friends and new artists. “There was a lot of love on that album,” she says. “People are crazy about it and I’m crazy about it. It’s done very well, and it feels good to be back with the grown-ups.”
Some of the artists who worked with Collins on Strangers Again include her old friends Jeff Bridges and Willie Nelson. She also worked with newer artists, like Glen Hansard.
“It was wonderful to be able to work with all these artists, most of whom I know,” she says, “with some new faces on the horizon of music. I love the songs and artists and we had a great time!”
Collins is also finding a source of inspiration on the Great White Way.
“I’ve already been to see Hamilton three times and am planning to go see it again next month,” she says. “It’s inspiring, and I’m always keeping my eyes open for what’s happening.”
When she comes to Suffolk Theater, Collins will treat the audience to some of her new songs, but she won’t leave out the old favorites.
“I’ll do a few from the new CD,” she says, “and some old classics, like ‘Send In the Clowns,’ ‘Both Sides Now,’ maybe ‘Amazing Grace.’ Every day is different and every performance has to be a fresh approach or else it’s not fair.”
Judy Collins plays Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on Thursday March 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets $50–$75, suffolktheater.com. This event will sell out.