Interview with folk legend Judy Collins, who has – in the words of her biggest hit – looked at life from both sides now… and has somehow come through the triumphs and the tragedy. The American star, who headlines the opening night of the Wickham Festival on Thursday August 1 with her only UK date of the year, is going stronger than ever at the grand age of 80.
The Grammy-nominated singer is an iconic figure in the music industry with 56 albums, seven books, countless concerts and television shows and a voice of pure crystal which is achingly honest and heartfelt in both her music and her activism.
Yet the fact she is even still alive is a triumph to her indomitable spirit and steely inner core.
She has survived polio, tuberculosis, an overdose attempt on aspirin at the age of 14, depression, bulimia, alcoholism, drug abuse and, most chilling of all, the loss of her only son Clark who took his own life in 1992 at the age of 33 as he relapsed in his own battle against alcoholism.
Any one of those set-backs could have finished a weaker soul yet she has come out on top as she recalls life’s illusions: “Life presents you with what it presents you and then you have to figure out how you are going to handle it. And it is nobody’s fault and it is your responsibility.
“I have been very lucky in my life, I have had wonderful teachers. Amazing teachers, amazing good luck to get into treatment in 1978 and be free of alcoholism and on the road to recovery. In itself that is something that is priceless. You can’t buy it. I don’t care where you go for treatment you can’t buy this and the thing that works is actually free. I often remind people of that; it is a place to go where you don’t have to worry about your medical insurance.”
A renowned activist and campaigner, she uses her own experiences to try and help others through her music or her books or by talking so openly about subjects many would simply lock away.
“I have always been particularly involved in human rights and in issues of bringing some clarity about addiction, about suicide, the social evils of addiction and alcoholism.
“I have written a lot about all of these things since I started writing books. Primarily when my first book “Trust Your Heart” came out in 1987, for the first time I talked about my own alcoholism and my struggle with it. I have been sober for 41 years now and I have a much better perspective on what is going on. We have an opioid crisis in this country, driven by greed in part and of course a misunderstanding of addiction.
“I have an answer; I know what works. And I always try to talk about it because it doesn’t make sense to keep it secret when you know where the relief comes, where the recovery comes. Everywhere in the world we find the 12-step programme.
“There are about 500 different 12-step programmes. There is even one for Mistresses Anonymous – of which I am not one before you ask!
“It is entirely possible we could get a 12-step programme for the politics.”
Without ever mentioning Donald Trump by name, Collins emphatically distances herself from the recent racist rhetoric she feels is poisoning her home land and threatening to undo the many years of campaigning for equal rights.
“I don’t talk about Mr Whoever he is. I don’t talk about him in any public way. I leave that for my family and my friends and my voting machine.
“It’s for the entire country and for everyone who has a conscience. I don’t think there is any way to influence the situation that is causing the problem. I think we always have to go to the voters and the legal system and restore our sanity.”
In the meantime the feisty activist has taken direct action in the way she does best…. through her music. She has written a typically powerful song Dreamers which addresses the fears of the young daughter of immigrants.
But will you send her back now
To live in fear and terror
She is our only daughter
Whose dreams have been our vow
We worked to pay our way here
We gave our youth and promise
And in return you force us
To go back to the wall
This land was made by dreamers
And children of those dreamers
We came here for democracy and hope
Now all we have is hope
“I think immigration is the problem of the era and how we look at it and what we do about it is going to change our histories and bring us the justice or acknowledgement or punishment we deserve.
“I think England has a similar problem. The interesting thing however about our situation here is that we are all immigrants. Most countries like England and Scotland and so on have an indigenous population and there was none here except the American Indians and I’m not so sure about them.
“Everybody else is an immigrant, however you slice it. That’s who we are. Our particular issue with immigration is ferociously important to us and our history. Perhaps in the past it has had a guiding effect because we’ve done pretty well on it. We have run into whast seems to be a worldwide problem. Up until three or four years ago I think we handled it pretty well but we have run into a snag. I will not dignify that by clarifying it but our snag may drag us down.”
Although well aware of the UK’s own problems, Collins won’t be talking about Brexit on stage at Wickham.
“I don’t feel confident to do that. I have my own opinions about Brexit and I think we’re having a worldwide crisis over human rights. That is something we can all speak about and say we’d like to find solutions. It has to do with talking to each other, with respect and knowledge and actual facts about what is going on.
“I use my music to talk about what I think. I like to be funny so I doubt if I will get into any political discussions from the stage. If my music addresses the audience , that may say more than a few words from me would accomplish.
“I will not do the Dreamers at Wickham. I don’t believe it is proper for me to bring anywhere else a song that was drafted in response to politics in this country. I will limit myself to the hits. I will probably do “Both Sides Now”, I might do “Send in the Clowns” and lots of other surprises and some new songs that I have written.
“My old pal Graham Nash is on the same night. I don’t know how it will be structured and whether there is a chance of doing something together but we’ll see.
“For the moment this is the only UK date. I think we will be back later in the year or early next but I will never pass up the chance to come to the UK, I love it. I have English in my background, in my DNA. I have been coming to England since 1965 and I have been coming back ever since. I always try to get there when I am invited.”
After headlining the four-day Wickham Festival on August 1, Collins returns to the States for a tour as she maintains a phenomenal output at a time when most people would be enjoying a steady retirement.
She laughs: “I might be 80 but I lose the zero and keep the 8… that’s my secret. I have always toured. There were a couple of years when I was not able to work because of physical reasons but otherwise I have been out on the road for almost 60 years and it’s what I do. I’m trying to get better all the time. I write new songs, I make new records, I do television specials. I have done six new albums in the last five years. I am doing a new record right now with a group called the Chatham County Line, that’s coming out in November. Then I have a brand new album of all my own songs coming out in 2020.
“I am working on a new book too. I am always working to try and get better at it. It does not feel like hard work. They say if you do something you love and you have something to offer, you can do it all your life without having to work! I still feel that way.
“I have to live like an athlete which I do. I exercise just about every day, I eat well, I am constantly involved in creativity which keeps you awake and happy. I don’t think there is anything I would rather be doing and nothing that I know how to do any better.”
With remarkable energy as she enters her ninth decade, this remarkable campaigner will continue using her music and the power of her words to try and make a better world.
“Music and art always save people from what is going on outside their lives and it propels them to have hope. We have to keep working for what we think is right.
“That’s where both my country and yours are indelibly and gracefully surrounded with good press, good writers, responsible publications that take to task what is going on in the world and evoke the truth for us. A free press is terribly important everywhere. It is essential for keeping our democracies going and we have to support a free press and hope to God they don’t get poisoned when they tell the truth. We are indebted to responsible press. There are so many extraordinary reporters who are doing their jobs and are threatened wherever they go. We have had a terrible onslaught of the murder of journalists who try to tell the truth; that’s another are we have to think about carefully because this is a disaster that these people feel threatened.
“We are always having to work for what is right and that’s been true throughout human history and we are no different. We become complacent and then it is time to rock and roll and get busy again.”
Judy headlines the Wickham Festival on Thursday August 1 along with the Proclaimers, Graham Nash and Skinny Lister. Friday sees Level 42 top the bill while Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls perform on the Saturday. The festival closes on Sunday August 4 with a stellar line-up including Gilbert O’Sullivan, Ralph McTell, Lindisfarne, Alabama 3 and Hollywood star Kiefer Sutherland and his band. Weekend and day tickets are selling fast but are available at wickhamfestival.co.uk