The Universal Language of Brooklyn’s Babel Loft
Sisters Marva and Myriam Babel breathe new life into the idea of a communal space.
Over a meal at New York City’s famed Carlyle Hotel, the folk-music legend opens up about activism, songwriting, and always seeking balance.
WITHIN THE PANTHEON of legendary folk musicians, few have been as varied and deeply influential as Judy Collins. Among peers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and Leonard Cohen, Collins paved a uniquely unpredictable path. After training as a classical pianist during childhood, she took inspiration from songwriters such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and learned guitar, making her way to New York City’s Greenwich Village. In the early ’60s, buoyed by the wave of folk and protest music, Collins emerged as one of her generation’s finest interpreters of song, known for her remarkable, crystalline voice, bright blue eyes, and an uncanny shape-shifting ability to take on any manner of material and make it her own. The release of her first album in 1961, at the age of 22, marked the beginning of a career that now spans seven decades.
Though she first gained international acclaim for her singular takes on other people’s songs (Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” are icons of her repertoire), Collins proved to be a formidable songwriter in her own right, across almost every conceivable genre. An outspoken social activist, she appeared with anti-war groups such as the “Yippies,” famously singing in the courtroom in support of the “Chicago Seven,” who were on trial for their role in an anti-Vietnam War protest during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. She is also a celebrated writer, documentary filmmaker, and muse (Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was written about her). In addition to numerous accolades, in 2017 the Library of Congress selected Collins’ rendition of “Amazing Grace” for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being culturally, historically, and artistically important.
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At a time when many of her peers have either retired or become nostalgia acts, Collins remains as busy and resolutely forward-thinking as ever. In 2019, at the age of 80, she scored her first number-one album on a Billboard chart with “Winter Stories,” a collaboration with Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld. Two years later, she followed with “Spellbound,” her first-ever studio album of all original songs.
When she meets me at New York City’s venerable Carlyle Hotel for a late lunch at Dowling’s (“I have a long history here, both as a performer and a diner,” she jokes), Collins is an energizing presence. A few days after our meal, I see her perform at Town Hall, where, accompanied by the Harlem Chamber Players, a 15-piece orchestra, she runs through her iconic 1967 album “Wildflowers” in full. After noting that 60 years have passed since she first performed at the venue, Collins appears genuinely delighted. “Amazing to still be here, isn’t it?” she jokes; “83 is the new 25.”
You are very much a tried-and-true New Yorker, but you sing so beautifully about the mountains and Colorado. Do you still feel the push/pull between the city and the country?
No, no. I love to be in the mountains, don’t get me wrong. And I always try to get back to Colorado to ski or go hiking for a couple of weeks during the year. But I love New York. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I don’t think I could do what I would have to do if I moved back [to Colorado]. You know, get a house, get some dogs, get a maintenance guy to take care of all the trucks and stuff I’d need. I don’t think I’m up to it.
You came to New York City in the ’60s and have experienced the city through many ups and downs. How do you feel when people say it isn’t the same place it used to be?
I don’t complain, ever. The city is still a magical place, and it’s been through magical transitions ever since it started. It’s always been very mixed, very busy, very artistic, very unpredictable. That’s what makes it so wonderful.
Here’s a more important question — what should we eat?
The chicken paillard is what I would normally have because I love it. That and a salad, probably. Not the lentil soup. Maybe they have some other kind of soup? I’ll have the chicken paillard and a salad. Oh, and some coffee.
I’ll have the same, actually. So, this must be an exciting time for you. Your next run of international touring is about to begin, yes?
Yes, but I've been out on the road since May of 2021, and it’s been very constant. We’re working with orchestras for these “Wildflowers” shows, where we play the record all the way through. We’ve done five of them so far with different orchestras. We will have the Harlem Orchestra with us on Saturday here in New York. Then we’ll be with orchestras all over the country and all over the world, actually, for the rest of this year. This show in particular is getting a lot of attention, and it’s been wonderful to do it because it’s so different. Many of these songs I haven’t sung in years, so it’s very exciting.
Speaking of “Wildflowers,” I happen to have my vinyl copy with me. I should note, this copy was actually my mom’s, and then it became mine. I’ve moved all over the country with this record in my collection.
Oh, that’s very nice to know. Let me see. … Should I sign it? I just happen to have a pen in my purse.
Yes, please! When you think about this record — or, rather, the time in your life when you were making this record in 1967 — what comes to mind?
When I look back, I mostly think about all the work. I was thinking about work all the time, and it was always a struggle to find out what would be next. That’s still what my life is. It’s all about the struggle of what’s next, plus the touring in between, plus my social life.
That’s been a big piece of my life — always keeping journals and trying to figure out exactly how you write a good song.
It’s important to make time to have a real life.
Yes, I actually spent the morning getting the rest of my month organized because I have so many friends here in the city, and I really need to spend time with them. I need to go out to dinner. I need to see shows. But back in those days, this was not something I did. I worked too much, and I was always struggling. Did I go to parties? I think I must have. I socialized with people in the record business, and I had a small batch of friends, many of whom were also involved in some aspect of the business. But mostly it was work, work, work.
I’m a very social butterfly, but I really have to be working all the time at something, either on a book or a new record or writing songs. That’s what happened with my most recent album, “Spellbound.” My husband said, “Why don’t you write a poem every day for a year? Then you’ll have 365 poems, and you’re bound to be able to harvest songs out of it,” and that’s exactly what happened. Actually, “When I Was a Girl in Colorado” came last; it just popped out, and I somehow didn’t have any problems with it. Sometimes you have problems with songs that can go on for years. Back in 1966, Leonard Cohen said to me, “I just don’t understand why you’re not writing songs.” Ever since then, that’s been a big piece of my life, always keeping journals and trying to figure out exactly how you write a good song.
When you did start to write your own songs, how did it feel?
Well, it’s a very vulnerable position writing and recording your own material, but it came very naturally. The first three songs that I ever wrote are on “Wildflowers.” “Since You Asked” was first, and then came “Sky Fell,” which I always thought was kind of a stupid song. I like it now, actually. After 30, 40, 50 years, it eventually took on a gravitas of its own. Then the third one was “Albatross,” which I've always played. It’s always stayed in my performing repertory.
One thing people often mention about your early records, which were a mix of other people’s songs and your own material, is how radical they were. You have always made pretty radical song choices.
My own choice of songs came from growing up with my father. He was a singer and a pretty good songwriter too. My mother always said to me, “You didn’t come by this by yourself, this ability to pick and choose.” He also had a radio show, and he would do things like read [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and Dylan Thomas. He’d tell Mae West stories. He’d tell jokes. He’d do anything to keep his audience in his hand. I always remember that.
When choosing material, you have to think about what this is going to sound like in 30, 40, 50, now 60 years. The albums are still very strong because they knit together in a way that is unusual, and they’re not all the same. I’ve done albums of all Dylan songs, I’ve done albums of all Lennon-McCartney songs. But most of my records, particularly those early ones, are radical because of the song choices, which were things I picked for a variety of reasons, but the primary reason was that they all fit together like a puzzle.
In those days, there were always two or three of my own songs on my albums, pretty much consistently, but I was trying to find a place to fit my songs amidst the work of Jimmy Webb, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Paxton, all of these songwriting giants. It’s been an extraordinary journey to discover and be able to record those songs. I was always a song junkie. If I heard something I liked, I had to learn the song. My father would come home and sing something from “Guys and Dolls,” a song like “My Time of Day,” which is still one of my favorite songs. “My time of day is the dark time. A couple of deals before dawn, when the street belongs to the cop and the janitor with the mop.” I mean, what a song! One of these days, I’ll record it.
Out of curiosity, have you been to Tulsa to see the new Bob Dylan Center?
No, but I’ve always had plenty of Dylan in my life, so I will go at some point.
The Woody Guthrie Center is also really interesting. They have all of Phil Ochs archives there, which made me think of you.
Oh, Phil Ochs. I started recording his songs early on. I remember that Phil called me one day. It was St. Patrick’s Day morning. I was making green cupcakes for my son to take to school. Phil and I were recording that day; I can’t remember what song. He came to the door and said, “You have to get dressed. We’re going downtown to the Yippies press conference.” That’s how I got to meet the Yippies. I don’t complain about many things, but I will complain about Aaron Sorkin not putting this in the movie he made about the Chicago Seven because it was history-making: I stood up in front of the jury and the gathered members of the court and, when I was asked, “What did you do when you went to the morning opening celebration of the Yippies?” I opened my mouth, and I started singing, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” An officer of the court came up and put his hand over my mouth to stop me from singing.
It’s an iconic moment. Didn’t they get really angry with you for doing that?
The judge said, “There is no singing in my courtroom. You have to observe the protocol.” Really, it’s too bad they didn’t include it in the film because it was a great opportunity for a young female singer to have a role in showing what I did. The various clerks and the people who were expert witnesses and so on were saying things like, “Well, Ms. Collins, we all know you’re such a great singer, but we just don’t do that.” It was a song about what the Yippies, and the protest, and 1968 were all about. It was for the people that were beaten up and put in jail and what these guys were fighting for. I really admired them so much. I thought the world of them.
Do you feel like there were repercussions for your politics or activism?
No. My father was very political. He always spoke out about Vietnam and about McCarthy, and he had a lot to say about politics. We learned that from him. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to take some action or do something or speak about it and not bury it, so I never regretted it. I always assumed that that’s what a grown-up does — to talk honestly about what’s going on in the world. It’s your responsibility.
That spirit really informed so much of the music people were making in the early ’60s.
The period when I was starting out and when “Wildflowers” was made was a watershed moment. Hollywood and the great entertainment industry had been moving for a long time like a big iceberg, slowly and expensively. To succeed as a singer at that time, you had to have an orchestra to accompany you. You needed costumes. You needed to travel around to perform, along with all your stuff and a crew of musicians who could travel with you. You needed thousands of dollars. Then, all of a sudden, there was one person on the stage — Bob Dylan singing “Masters of War.” It threw everyone for a loop. Not that we weren’t already politically launched, but that moment when he came out as the single performer with just a guitar, it radicalized the world. So I hope we still hold on to some of that. As much as we can, we can still be personally radicalized.
People must also always ask you about Leonard Cohen.
Oh yes. I was actually in a movie about Leonard called “Hallelujah,” so I got to finally spill the beans about how I’d never had an affair with him, but I got to sing all his songs. I was the first to sing everything he wrote, actually.
Did everybody always just assume that the two of you were a couple? That’s so predictably sexist.
A lot of people think so because he had affairs with all kinds of women, many of whom I knew.
There is a video I’m obsessed with of the two of you singing “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” on your 1976 television special. I’ve probably watched it a million times.
Oh, I know, it’s so sweet. For my 80th birthday, a friend sent me three pictures of me with Leonard. The last one shows us kissing. It’s the only time I ever did that, and it didn’t lead to anything else. I was not interested in him at all. I liked everything else about him. I thought his songs were fabulous, and I was very taken with him in all kinds of ways, but not in the romantic way.
You have a long relationship with Joni Mitchell, obviously. Seeing footage of her at the Newport Folk Festival, surrounded by all of these women she has helped inspire, was a jolt of optimism that I needed, especially at a time when it’s been so easy to get bogged down by the awful news cycle.
Oh, you mustn’t do that. Don’t get bogged down. There is so much that’s good in the world, so much that’s positive and provocative and artistic and interesting. I mean, why is this world balanced the way it is? I think about that a lot. But there is a balance. The world is a complicated place. It’s just as important to seek out the good, just as it is our responsibility to call out the bad.
I always assumed that that’s what a grown-up does — to talk honestly about what’s going on in the world. It’s your responsibility.
[Our meal arrives, including some beautifully plated chicken paillard.]
That looks divine. That’s a paillard like no paillard I’ve ever seen. The one at Fiorello’s is very good, but this is very interesting looking, isn’t it?
Yes, this is gorgeous. Do you like to cook?
I used to cook a lot, and now I really don’t anymore. I just order from every Zabar’s in New York City. I had been an excellent cook when I was younger. Whenever I was in the country, I would start out the weekend with a huge pot of vegetable soup and a chicken in the oven with everything on it. I just don’t have the time anymore. I’m away so much, so my husband Louis has to just fend for himself most of the time.
Does he usually travel with you?
No, not unless I’m driving from show to show or playing down in D.C. or something. He has business there. He designed the Korean [War] Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. He’s also written a book about his experiences with designing the memorial. He’s very, very smart and a wonderful artist, but thank God he doesn’t sing. [Laughs]. We’ve been together for 45 years now, which doesn’t seem possible for an old hippie like me, but we do well together. We have a very good life, a very happy life, and it works out great. It’s a great partnership. We were together for 18 years before we decided to get married. He was in the hospital with appendicitis, which was awful. I was in the hospital with him, and they wouldn’t tell me if he was going to be okay.
Because you weren’t married?
Exactly, even though we had lived together for 18 years at that point. So what do you do? I came in and said, “What would you think if we got married?” He was on painkillers and totally out of it, and he’s like, “Ah, OK. But it won’t keep me from dying.”
Wow. That’s intense!
Isn’t it? Still, it took us three more years to put the wedding together. We were married at Saint John the Divine here in New York. I usually sing there on Christmas and at Easter, so I’ve had a long relationship with them. I always sing “Amazing Grace” and a Pete Seeger song and maybe one of mine.
Should we order dessert? I don’t know if I can do it.
Hmm. Do you know what I think I’d like? A cappuccino with a lot of foam on it.
You must get a lot of random invitations to come and sing at things.
I do. Some I take, some I don’t. When I had COVID last May, I was supposed to sing at Madeleine Albright’s funeral at the National Cathedral. I was too sick, and it really devastated me not to be there. But I did sing at her funeral at the U.N. a few weeks later, so it made me very happy to be able to do that. She and I were very close. I met her during the Clinton years. When Audrey Hepburn died, she [Albright] called me up and said, “I want you to start working for UNICEF and be a representative.” I said, “Well, I’m not Audrey Hepburn, but I’ll give it a shot. We went to Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, during the [Bosnian] War and then after. I also went to Vietnam. It was a wild experience to do that.
I also think it’s admirable that you have written so honestly about your own sobriety, especially at a time when doing so was not the norm.
We didn’t have much to work with in understanding those things when I was younger. When I was in Texas recently, after the show, somebody brought me their copy of the [Alcoholics Anonymous’] “Big Book” to sign. They told me they were 35 years sober. I’m actually 45 years sober now. I got sober four days after I met my husband Louis. I was on my way to treatment. He didn’t know how drunk I was. It’s hard to believe.
I think I need sweetener. [To the waiter:] You don’t have any stevia, do you? Oh, you’re an angel. Thank you. That’s my favorite. This other stuff is really just cleverly packaged rat poison.
I’m so looking forward to your show this weekend. I’m still thinking about the fact that you didn’t release an album of all original songs until you were in your 80s. For lack of a better word, I think it’s just incredibly cool.
Well, in part it was because of the pandemic. I had written 365 poems and began to harvest new songs out of those poems. When the pandemic came, I had time to go into the studio and get everything organized for the album. It was all there. I didn’t have to worry about whose song I was going to sing for once because they were all my own. I always wish I could pick up the phone now and call Leonard and say, “Leonard, I finally did it.” I think he would be pleased.
Built in 1930, The Carlyle is not only one of New York City’s most venerable luxury hotels, it’s also simply one of the coolest. Home to Café Carlyle and the famous Bemelmans Bar — the iconic space where some of the world’s finest jazz musicians and cabaret stars give intimate performances — the hotel also offers incredible fine dining at Dowling’s and fantastic spa experiences courtesy of Valmont, who also have a boutique within the building. If you are looking for a classic New York City getaway with all the modern bells and whistles — or just a very chic space for a martini — you can’t go wrong with The Carlyle.
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T. Cole Rachel is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media. He is currently an editor-at-large at Departures.
Sinna Nasseri is a photographer and documentarian born in Los Angeles and based in New York City. In 2020, he traveled to 35 states documenting the U.S. election, pandemic, and social movements for the New York Times, Vogue, TIME, and the New Yorker.
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