Judy Collins: I didn’t write songs until after I met Leonard Cohen.

Singer, songwriter, muse and folk survivor, Judy Collins' career has spanned six decades – but, as she tells The Big Issue, she has always been an old soul.

At 16 I was already I was an old soul. I was desperate about my music – always learning, listening, practising classical piano for two hours a day. One day when I was almost 16, I turned on the radio and this guy was playing folk music. I just flipped out over these songs and I called my father and said, I have to have a guitar. And from then on it was The Gypsy Rover and Barbara Allen instead of Beethoven. And I was going on my father’s radio show and going up to the mountains to the folklore centre meetings and listening to people singing Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs. It was a very exciting time.

Oh boy, I was a very productive, active teenager. I was the eldest of five. I had to help my mother with the chores and I had to babysit to earn the money to buy all these folk records from the local store; The Clancy Brothers, Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, all these old Irish and Scottish folk songs. My two best friends were dancers and so we developed a performance of The Gypsy Rover which we played all over town – at the Rotary Club and Lowry Air Force Base and Fitzsimmons General Hospital [in Colorado]. We were going to take this thing to Vegas!

I think I’d like the 16-year-old Judy if I met her now. She was very bright. She was a bit of a flirt. She was very intense. She hated her nose – she put a clothes pin on it when she went to sleep. She talked a lot and she was always practising or having to do something. I’d like to have her as a niece or granddaughter or something. She was always interested in everything. But she had also tried to kill herself when she was 14. I would like to say to her, everything is gonna be great. In spite of the fact that you were born with alcoholism in your genetic makeup – my father was an alcoholic, everybody we knew drank – your discipline will keep you from destroying your career before it happens. In spite of your depression, and the fact you’re always worried about your weight, and about food, in spite of the fact that you drink, everything’s going to work out fine.

By the time I was 19, I was in Boulder, Colorado, I had my little son Clark, my husband was getting his degree and I was working for pennies at the university administration office. I called my father and he got me an audition at a club called Michael’s Pub. It was a college hangout, so it was jam-packed, smoke-filled every Friday and Saturday night. Well, I was shaking in my boots. I dressed like the gypsy rover; I was wearing a pixie outfit with tights and boots and a little silk red top. My hair was very short – my husband had put a bowl on my head and cut my hair. I was very nervous but you know, once I opened my mouth… I mean, I’ve been performing since I was five years old. I started to feel great. And after I was finished, Mike Bisesi, who owned the club, came up to me and said, oh my god. I said, what’s the problem? He said, well, you were great. And I said, is that a problem? And he said, yeah, I’m probably gonna have to hire you.

Do I think 19 was too young to be married with a baby? I don’t think I had a choice. There was no way that I was going to make a plan that I could write down and then do. That’s not the way life is. I trusted my impulses. And I was very, very disciplined. From the age of five I had to practice every day, do my homework, do my chores. A lot was expected of me. That’s the way we were brought up. My father was blind, and he did everything himself. And he wanted us to succeed and to have great grades, and to show up and be stellar performers in our communities. I think that all that time growing up, that’s what prepared me for this 60-year career.

I started out listening to other singers and learning songs. My first two albums were traditional songs. Then I moved to New York City and started listening to Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. I didn’t write songs until after I met Leonard Cohen. And he said, why aren’t you writing your own songs? I was the only person in the New York folk community who did not write her own songs. When I started it was slow. I wrote maybe three or four songs a year. Now I’m writing songs every week.

I never did get involved with Leonard Cohen romantically, thank you God.

The first song that I wrote after Leonard asked me that question was Since You’ve Asked. And of course, it became very well known. People know it, they sing it at their weddings. What amazes me is that I didn’t ever even think of writing a song before then. I mean, it never crossed my mind. I was always trying to write good short stories at school and I wrote journals, but it never occurred to me. I was raised listening to other people’s songs. And my piano teacher was a person who thought if you weren’t Mozart you just shouldn’t even try. Now I look back at the songs that I’ve written – songs that Peggy Lee and Nina Simone sang – and it’s very hard for me to believe I was able to do that.

Leonard [Cohen] was the real deal. Oh boy. We had a mutual friend in New York – she went to school with him in Montreal – and she would talk about him over dinner. This would be around 1964. She’d say, Leonard is wonderful, we love him. But he’s never going anywhere because he writes these poems and they’re so obscure and nobody understands them. And then she called me one day and she said, Lenny wants to come and see you and play you his songs. I said, are they obscure? And she said, yes, they are. I said, oh well, send him over anyway. So he came over and… he was very good looking. So I thought, well, I don’t care if his songs are obscure – though I never did get involved with him romantically, thank you God. And so he said, I can’t play the guitar and I can’t sing and I don’t know if these are really songs. And then he sang me ‘Suzanne’. And ‘The Stranger Song’ and ‘Dress Rehearsal Rag’. And I said, Leonard, these are songs, and I’m going to record them tomorrow, so just don’t worry anymore.

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

In 1968 I was in LA and I had just met Stephen Stills [Collins was in a relationship with the singer/songwriter best known as a member of Crosby, Stills and Nash]. My album was actually being mixed when this motorcyclist came roaring up to the door at the studio and threw this little tape down on my producer’s desk and said, you have to record this, Sandy Denny’s new song ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’. Then he ran out the door. So we put it on and listened to it, and said, oh my god – of course we’ve got to record that. That’s what we’ve been waiting for. It’s an amazing song. I love it so much. And I got to know her and I loved her too.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my son [Clark Taylor, her only child, took his own life when he was 33]. He was the best. He was so funny and he always laughed at the things I laughed at it. He was the best, the brightest, the funniest, the smartest, the most attractive, and had more friends than anybody and helped many, many, many, many, many people get sober. He was sober about seven years before his death. Now I have his daughter who looks like him and laughs like him and her little boy looks exactly like him too. I would say to him, there are other solutions. Even though I’m a suicide attempter and I know that these thoughts come out. I don’t think I talked to him enough about my suicide attempt, but he had that in his DNA. His father’s father had killed himself in the same way. But in the end we write our own fairy tales about our lives. And I think that was in his fairy tale.

Judy Collins and the Global Virtual Choir’s version of Amazing Grace is out now. All profits go to the WHO. 

Interview: Jane Graham @Janeannie

Image: Shervin Lainez