Judy Collins wasn’t born performing on stage. Though the way the folksinger remembers it, she came pretty close.
“I had my first stage appearance at three years old. I sang ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas,'” she tells New Times over the phone. “But I was always musical. My dad had a radio show for over 30 years, and he was singing ‘Danny Boy’ and all these Irish songs to me when I was in the womb. And then I started studying piano at five.”
After scoring her first paid gig as a musician at 19, she decided to hit the road and has barely stopped performing in the 60 years since. Her latest tour brings her to the Parker in Fort Lauderdale on Friday, January 14, where she promises to play all the hits like “Both Sides Now” and “Send In the Clowns,” but she’s also exceptionally proud to play some new tunes from her forthcoming album, Spellbound, due out on February 25.
She recorded Spellbound over two years, starting in 2019 and working throughout the pandemic. The album is the 29th in her career, but it’s the first on which Collins wrote every single song.
The songwriting, she says, comes relatively easy to her now, but when Collins started, it never crossed her mind to write her own songs.
“I always wrote songs ever since Leonard Cohen asked me why I wasn’t.”
In 1961, at the age of 22, she moved to New York and found herself smack dab in the Greenwich Village folk scene interpreting songs by a young Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton. It was a conversation with another legendary songwriter that finally got Collins penning for herself.
“I always wrote songs ever since Leonard Cohen asked me why I wasn’t. The first song I ever wrote was ‘Since You’ve Asked,'” she says.
That track appeared on her 1967 album Wildflowers, along with her take on a trio of Cohen compositions.
“That first song was written in 1966 when I had already recorded half a dozen albums,” she remembers. “I learned good taste in music from my father when I listened to the songs he put on his radio show. After recording all these great songs by masters like Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie something was embedded. But if you’re going to be creative, you have to follow your own path.”
When asked what inspires her songwriting, her answer is simple: “Life. You have to sit down at the piano, close the door and turn off the phone.”
She takes a varied approach toward writing, usually coming up with the music first, followed by the lyrics. Though, occasionally, she works in reverse.
“In 2016, I wrote a poem every day,” Collins says. “I wrote 365 that year. Maybe six songs came out of all those poems once I took them to the piano to see if they could go anywhere musically.”
Though Collins has written lyrics about topics as varied as immigration and architecture, she has also served as a muse, most famously for the Crosby, Stills & Nash classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
Collins lights up when asked about that song.
“It was Stephen Stills’ birthday two days ago. I sent him flowers in part for writing that song,” she says. “You know Stephen and I toured together in 2017. We did 150 shows together, just the two of us for two hours. At the end of every show, we sang ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ together. We didn’t do the first verse though because Stephen said it was too mean.”
Collins has had an interesting life, one that you’d think wouldn’t allow her voice to remain as angelic as it sounded on her recent live record, Live at the Town Hall, NYC, 2020. So what’s her secret to preserving her vocal agility?
“I sing every day. I try to keep healthy. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke,” Collins says. “Though I did all those things before, so maybe I’m just lucky.”