Judy Collins Sings Lennon & McCartney

One of the major interpretive singers of the 1960s, Judy Collins has recorded songs by such celebrated songwriters as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger. Yet over the course of her illustrious 47-year career, she has recorded only one song — “In My Life” — by the most legendary songwriting team of them all: John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” says Collins, who recorded “In My Life” in 1966 and included it on her groundbreaking album of the same title. “I think I was meant to wait and do their songs all at once.” She is referring, of course, to her new CD, Judy Collins Sings Lennon & McCartney, her 44th album, which is due on her own label, Wildflower Records, on July 17th. Sung in Collins’ pure, angelic soprano, the 12 tracks, all familiar classics from the Beatles’ colossal catalog, sound just as inspired today as they did 40 years ago. “I just chose what I like,” Collins says, “though we did limit the selections to Lennon and McCartney. These are their short, sweet, perfect songs.”

Hence, the listener is treated to “Blackbird” (“divine, haunting, and next to ‘In My Life,’ probably my favorite Beatles song,” Collins says); “Penny Lane” (“the images are so evocative”); “Norwegian Wood” (“it brings me right back to the ’60s and all the dreams we had”); “Good Day Sunshine” (“so lighthearted, we needed a lot of that in those days”); “Hey Jude” (“very uplifting”); “Yesterday” (“a gorgeous song”); “The Long and Winding Road” (“such a bitter sweetness about it”), and “We Can Work It Out,” which takes on new meaning in 2007 given the political climate in the world. “That song is very relevant because it talks about a way to do things differently,” Collins says. “That we don’t have to be angry and mean to get our way.”

“What’s going on in the world today culturally and politically, well, I have a feeling that’s why I did this album now,” she continues. “We’re faced with so many of the same problems. I mean, it’s an enormous struggle for us to get clear of this awful condition that we’ve inadvertently brought upon the planet. Once again, we have to figure out how to live with it and what to do about it. We were in the same boat 40 years ago.”

It’s not surprising that Collins, a longtime social activist, would be searching for solutions. She is a relentlessly creative spirit — a modern-day Renaissance woman who is also an accomplished painter, actor (she appeared in Bob Balaban’s theatrical production of The Exonerated in 2003), filmmaker (her documentary about her classical piano instructor, conductor Antonia Brico, received an Oscar nomination in 1974), record label head (founded in 1999, Wildflower Records releases not only Collins’ albums, but also those of half a dozen artists she has signed), and in-demand keynote speaker for mental health and suicide prevention organizations, a role she took on after her only son killed himself in 1992. Collins wrote about the healing process in 1998’s Singing Lessons and 2003’s Sanity & Grace, two of seven of her published books, which include novels, memoirs, and self-help guides. Her new book, The Seven T’s: Finding Hope and Healing in the Wake of Tragedy, published in May, also helps guide readers through grieving the loss of a loved one who has died under tragic circumstances.

Through it all, Collins, who has been open about her past battles with depression and substance abuse, has lived a life informed by a positive outlook. “It’s not what happens to you, it’s the attitude you bring to it,” she says. “I’m a firm believer in a positive attitude, no matter what. I cannot live in a negative space.” That natural optimism comes through on her interpretations of Lennon and McCartney’s songs, which she says “possess a level of deep spirituality that I have always appreciated. It’s nourishing music. When I was recording the album, I felt sorrow, happiness — all the things they wanted us to feel. I felt lifted away from my troubles; that’s what art does, and they did it on every album. It was very good for me to get away from my own writing, to let that sit for a while, and get deeply involved with the fun of this album. We recorded it in three days.”

Collins, who played most of the piano on the album, produced it herself along with her engineer, with input from her keyboardist Russell Walden. It features the playing of bassists Tony Levin and Zev Katz, drummer Tony Beard, and guitarist Larry Campbell — all highly respected session musicians. “We had a ball,” Collins says. “My main thing was I wanted the songs to sound as close to my memory of them as possible. I listened to the original recordings a lot and then I stopped because I didn’t want to be terribly influenced by them. After a certain point, you sort of get the feel and let your own imagination take over.”

Indeed Collins, who launched her recording career at the age of 22 with her 1961 guitar-based folk debut A Maid of Constant Sorrow, has been going with her gut ever since she released 1966’s lushly orchestrated In My Life, which featured such songwriters as Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill, and was considered a major departure for a folk artist. That album paved the way for Collins’ work over the next decade. On her 1967 album, Wildflowers, she began to record her own compositions and earned her first gold record and major hit, the Grammy-Award winning “Both Sides Now.” By the 1970s, she was known for her versatility and range, scoring hits with both the traditional Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway ballad “Send In the Clowns,” which also earned her a Grammy Award in 1975. Over the years, Collins has continued to release albums, including several beloved Christmas records in the ’90s, as well as 2005’s Portrait of An American Girl, which featured several of her own compositions. But with Judy Collins Sings Lennon & McCartney, she revisits the interpretive gifts that made her a star.

“The thing I love about classic songs is that they work anytime, anywhere,” she says. “And you have to be very careful about what you choose to sing because you might have to sing it for 45 years, like I have with ‘Send in the Clowns’ and ‘Amazing Grace.’ I kept that in mind as I went through the Beatles’ catalog. Yes, all the songs are great, but which ones can I have longevity with? They’re almost karmic choices because they have to last long if you’re going to be around as long as I have.”

(May 2007)