Time seems to have passed by Judy Collins: To listen to her sing now, you'd think you were hearing the same unmistakable voice that first caught American ears half a century ago. It seems to have made an impression on Don McLean, the famed bard behind "American Pie," who began touring with Collins in 2013.
"He said, 'You know, I'm not so interested in the business anymore.' He was rather disgruntled; let's put it that way," Collins recalls. "Within a few months, he'd started writing songs again, saying, 'You know, working together with you has been an inspiration.' And I said, 'Working together with you has been an inspiration.'
Collins says they never stopped talking. When she mentioned she was thinking of recording an collection of duets, McLean replied, "That's a great idea. You're gonna laugh, but I'd like to sing 'Send in the Clowns' with you." Her response? "I'm not laughing."
Judy Collins spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about singing with McLean and 11 other artists, including Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald, Glen Hansard and Bhi Bhiman, on the new album Strangers Again. Along the way, they discuss her radio DJ dad, what she learned from babysitting and a life-changing decision about housekeeping she made at 17. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.
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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES?")
JUDY COLLINS: (Singing) Who knows where the time goes? Who knows where the time goes?
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Time is a thing that seems to have passed by Judy Collins. That was her singing in 1968. She has a new album now, nearly 50 years later. Do you think her voice is even better?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RACES")
COLLINS: (Singing) Well, if I win some races, that don't mean I'm the fastest. And it don't mean I'm better than anyone.
SIMON: Her new album is called "Strangers Again." It features 12 duets of songs that are instantly familiar and some relatively new. Judy Collins joins us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
COLLINS: Oh, it's my pleasure, Scott. Thank you.
SIMON: Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald, Glen Hansard, Ari Hest - tell us about how you selected your duet partners.
COLLINS: I have always wanted to do an album like this. And I was doing dates with Don McLean - I still am. So I mentioned it to him, and he said, you know, that's a great idea. He said, you're going to laugh, but he said, I'd like to sing - I'd like to sing "Send In The Clowns" with you. So I said, I'm not laughing - look. That would be divine.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEND IN THE CLOWNS")
COLLINS AND MCLEAN: (Singing) Don't you love farce? My fault, I fear. I thought that you want what I want. Sorry, my dear. But where are the clowns?
COLLINS: (Singing) Quick, send in the clowns.
COLLINS AND MCLEAN: (Singing) Don't bother. They're here.
SIMON: There is something utterly gripping in this recording, if I might put it this way, about two legends - you and Don McLean - with your history, your eminence in music - singing this song to each other, that you don't get if the duet was between a couple of 25-year-olds.
COLLINS: Don and I - we didn't really know each other, so it was suggested that we tour together. We thought, oh, what a wonderful idea. We got together, and I'll tell you, we have never stopped talking since two years ago. And he said, well, I'm not so interested in the business anymore. He was rather disgruntled, let's put it that way. Within a few months, he'd started writing songs again, saying, you know, working together with you has been an inspiration. And I said, working together with you was been an - we never stopped talking. We get together, we laugh, we share. So when he said that - let's sing "Send In The Clowns" together - I said, well, I'm not laughing. No, I'm crying. I hear it, and I get very weepy.
SIMON: Another extraordinary song on this album is the duet you record with Bhi Bhiman of the Leonard Cohen classic, "Hallelujah."
COLLINS: Oh, I love it.
SIMON: Let's listen to that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")
COLLINS: (Singing) You say I took the name in vain. I don't even know the name. But if I did, well, really, what's it to you?
COLLINS AND BHIMAN: (Singing)There's a blaze of light in every word. It doesn't matter which you heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah. Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah...
SIMON: What was it like working with Bhi Bhiman on this?
COLLINS: Oh, it was wonderful. I love Bhi Bhiman - singing with him on this song. He's so young. And when I met Leonard, I was that young (laughter). But Bhi Bhiman is so fresh and so interesting, so it - the contrast on this song, to me, is quite delicious, don't you think?
SIMON: Yeah, it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")
COLLINS AND BHIMAN: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah...
SIMON: We're talking on the radio. I got to throw you a question about your father, if that's all right...
COLLINS: (Laughter) Yes.
SIMON: ...who was on the radio - gifted man, but he had some challenges in life. Can I put it that way?
COLLINS: Oh, yes, yes.
SIMON: Beginning with his blindness, but also some self-inflicted challenges. At this stage of your life, what do you see in yourself that traces back to him?
COLLINS: Everything. It all started with him. My sister said the other day, you know, Daddy was always happy when he got up. I mean, it didn't matter how drunk he was the night before. He was happy. He was singing. He would sing a Dorothy Fielding (ph) song, you know, (singing) grab your coat and get your hat (laughter).
And that's how I got all that. But he was disciplined and he was - he was hungry, you know what I mean? He was hungry for literature. He was hungry for experience. He was hungry for new songs. He always found the greatest songs in the shows that would come to him. He was hungry, and I think that's where it all starts.
As an artist, first of all, you must love what you do. And you must be hungry to get it out to the world. And it doesn't matter if they're two people the audience or two thousand or two million. You do the best. You do your best.
SIMON: Can you put - do you think - a different, dare I say, deeper, kind of feeling into a song than you could when you first became famous?
COLLINS: I work harder than ever in my life. I do many of the same things that I did. I don't drink anymore, and I don't smoke anymore - oh, thank you, God. And I have a different life, but I live in the same place that I've lived for 45 years. And so much has not changed. However, tragedy comes along and the times you want to say forget it - I've never said that. I've never said, forget it, I can't do this, except when my son died. And that was when Joan Rivers called me and said, you can and you must and, in fact, you cannot cancel all your shows, which I was going to do. But she said, if you don't continue working, you're not going to heal . You know, my son killed himself, and I really had not expected - I mean, it was a terrible shock. It's always a terrible shock - suicide, particularly. And when she said that to me, of course, I said, of course, of course you have to work because you won't get out of it until you go through it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I GO")
COLLINS: (Singing) I will climb the rise at daybreak. I will kiss the sky at noon, raise my yearning voice at midnight to my mother in the moon. I will make the lay a long defeat and draw the chorus slow. Send this message down the wire and hope that someone wise is listening when I go.
SIMON: This is not the most important question I've asked, but, when you're on the road a hundred dates a year, how do you do your laundry?
COLLINS: (Laughter) Somebody else does my laundry.
SIMON: Oh, all right, OK (laughter).
COLLINS: I decided that when I was 17 (laughter).
SIMON: Live a life on the road where someone could do your laundry.
COLLINS: Really, it is part of that answer. I was never going to do my own housekeeping. I'm a very good housekeeper. I am a Type A. My mother taught me that. And, you know, I used to babysit and if I'd go to somebody's house that wasn't pristine like the way ours was, I would come home to my mother and we'd dissect that situation, you know, (laughter) to make sure that we understood exactly what was going on with that dysfunctional family.
SIMON: If I heard this right, you used to be a babysitter.
COLLINS: Yes, I did.
SIMON: Did kids come to you and say, Judy, sing me a lullaby?
COLLINS: Oh, yes, they did.
COLLINS: (Singing) I've a dear little dolly. She has eyes of bright blue. She can open and close them and she smiles at me too.
Only if the eyes were brown, I wouldn't change the words.
SIMON: Oh, I bet that did it, didn't it?
SIMON: What a...
COLLINS: They went right off to sleep.
SIMON: You know, I feel a little heavy-lidded myself now.
COLLINS: I hope I don't put everybody to sleep in such a way.
SIMON: No, but you certainly won't with this new album. Judy Collins - her new album, "Strangers Again," is out next week. Ms. Collins, thanks so much - wonderful speaking with you.
COLLINS: It was a pleasure. Thanks, Scott.
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.