Leonard Cohen asked a simple question: Why aren't you writing your own songs? He was baffled that Judy Collins was satisfied singing other people's music. She answered by composing "Since You Asked," a song she included on her 1967 Grammy-winning album Wildflowers.
Nearly 50 years have passed and Judy Collins is still creating new music. Her 2016 album, Silver Skies Blue, which she co-wrote with singer-songwriter Ari Hest, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album this week.
Collins is in Cincinnati for two shows at the Ludlow Garage Friday and Saturday. It's her third appearance in Cincinnati this year, following a benefit for Ohio Cancer Research in October and a sold-out show at the Ludlow Garage in August.
Despite all that whirled in her world this week--the thrill of her first Grammy nomination in 40 years, her excitement about new projects, her unease about America's future--Judy Collins also wanted to talk about her friend Leonard Cohen, the songwriter who died last month who profoundly changed her life.
What inspires you to create new songs?
I'm an artist. I never stop. The answer is to be constantly and forever curious. That's the most compelling state of mind to be in, if you decide to be an artist. It's all up to you. You have to be a self-starter all the time.
You're 77 years old now, performing 130 shows a year. You're creating new music. You're publishing a book in February. And you're still a social activist.
I've always been an activist. I've always been an artist. Our job, as artists, is to give inspiration to people, to keep positive, to keep working on our artistic choices in life. We can't let politics stop us. We have to keep working for the things we believe in. We have keep our eyes sharp. We have to support the people who are working for good, even more so now.
It must be interesting to witness a new generation of folk singers emerge, young people with their own messages.
Folk music is a genre where people can tell stories and tell the truth. That's a huge part of its attraction. There are some wonderful, wonderful new songwriters around. I think that's because more people are interested now in songs as a social and artistic conduit.
While we're talking about songwriters, I want to ask about Leonard Cohen.
I met Leonard in 1966. He called me. He was an unknown, a very obscure poet. He couldn't pay his bills and he wanted to do something to bring in some money, so he thought he'd be a songwriter. I recorded his first songs. And after I had recorded a number of them, he said, "I don't understand. Why aren't you writing your own songs?"
By then, I had been recording for six years. I had access to the very best songs in the world, the very best songwriters in Greenwich Village. My forte was taking somebody else's song and making it more popular. That's why Leonard came to me. He was a very smart man. Deeply, deeply spiritual, and also deeply grateful. He said to me many times, "You did it. You made it possible for me to make a living in this business. You changed my life. "
But if Leonard had not asked me that question, I would have never written my own songs. He changed my life, as well. I was lucky. I got the benefit of being able to sing his music and to know the man. It was very profound. Highly unlikely. Very mysterious, I think. And unusual.