At 76, she’s also very young at heart. Collins performs about 129 shows each year and shows no signs of slowing down. She has a new book coming out next year, and she’s performing at SXSW this year, alongside new musical partner Ari Hest. The fact that she’ll be performing for a younger audience that may not be familiar with her work is exciting to one of folk's all-time greats.
“South by Southwest is one of the biggest friends and supporters of music in the last two decades,” Collins says. “They do a huge amount for live talent and young artists, and that’s what I’m interested in seeing. Ari Hest is coming with me. This is a very exciting new phase of my life. He and I have a new CD coming out called Silver Skies Blue, which is composed of duets that we’ve written together."
At 36, New Yorker Hest is less than half Collins’s age, but it’s typical of the artist to surround herself with fresh and exciting talent. It’s a major factor in retaining the spring that's very evidently in her step.
“I always keep in touch with new music because I’m a born fan,” Collins says. “I hear a new group coming out, I hear new songs, I hear new singers. And you know, I found people like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen and Hugh Prestwood, for instance — I was the first to record his music. Anyway, I’m always looking and always listening. I have my record label, Wildflower Records, which my new CD is on, but I’ve also had many artists on that label, including Kenny White and Walter Parks. I’ve done shows with all kinds of younger artists. I really do keep in touch. Really, I’m very young. In my taste, in my appearance, in my walk, in my talk – I don’t think there’s any truth to the idea that we grow up. We continue to grow, but I don’t think I’ll ever grow up.”
It’s been rare throughout Collins's career for even two years to pass without releasing a new album. She’s never resorted to “nostalgia act” status, never become stagnant. In addition to the books, she’s also released a string of PBS specials and has another coming out soon.
“We’re working on Judy Collins Live in Denver at Boettcher Concert Hall,” she says. “It’s called Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim. That’s in May, on Mother’s Day. I keep doing things, I keep creating things. I have a new book coming out next year, and that’ll be my ninth. I keep busy.”
She really does, and we haven’t even touched on her activism. Collins sympathized with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s Yippie movement in the 1960s, and she once wrote a song called “Che” in honor of Che Guevara. Nowadays, she’s a representative for UNICEF, campaigning for the abolition of land mines. When we ask her about the current primaries, however, she doesn’t want to be drawn in.
“I don’t talk about politics,” she says. “I’m excited about a lot of things. I’m excited about my friend Phil Saviano, who was the whistleblower featured in Spotlight, the movie about the abuse of young people by Catholic priests. Phil Saviano and I have been friends for forty years, and I’m very excited about people who speak out and tell the truth and do things with their lives. That’s my comment about politics.”
Back to music, then. While Collins is a keen follower of new artists, she’s not quite as excited about the online revolution that changed the music industry so dramatically. It has, she says, been a disaster.
“On the other hand, there are other windows that have opened that wouldn’t have been there – certainly the iTunes window where we can get hold of anything we want to hear, instantly,” Collins says. “The fact that, now, people have more of a conscience about paying for what they hear – that’s a good sign. A lot of what has happened to the music business has been the result of human frailty and greed. I think we make up for it in a lot of ways, because there’s a lot of youth, a lot of energy, a lot of accessibility."
With SXSW looming fast, what comes next for our spritely representative? On June 3, Silver Skies Blue comes out, followed by a tour with Hest. Collins will tour to support the PBS special at the end of October when it comes out. Then she’ll be promoting the new book next year.
“I’m always busy anyway,” she says. “We’ll be in
Judy Collins & Ari Hest will play SXSW at 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 19, at the Central Presbyterian Church; 200 East 8th Street, Austin.