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Joan Baez exclusive interview

Mark Ellen / 14 February 2018

The legendary singer talks to Mark Ellen about her new album and tour, her first encounter with Bob Dylan, civil rights, and falling out of a treehouse.

Joan Baez
Joan Baez

Where are you now and what can you see out the window?

I’m at home in California. Out the window I can see a lot of grass sparkling from the recent rain and a lot of trees, oak and hawthorn, that are confused about the winter as we didn’t really have one. And a rose garden that’s still asleep. And I can see the treehouse, which is in need of reparation. But then again so was I when I fell out of it six years ago. I was on the ladder on the way up and slipped and cracked my pelvis so I’m a little more careful now. But I do love sleeping up there under the stars.

Your new album, Whistle Down The Wind, is your first for ten years and features compositions by Tom Waits, Josh Ritter, Joe Henry and Mary Chapin Carpenter among others. What do you look for in the songs you pick?

My manager sends me songs as suggestions and I can usually tell very quickly if it’s a song that going to ring any bells for me. Occasionally there are songs I think are perfect and work on and then realise it isn’t happening for me. Some are no-brainers like The President Sang Amazing Grace [about the highly charged moment Barack Obama lead the singing at a memorial for the victims of a shooting in a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015]. I mean that is a real show stopper.

It’s so moving that the President actually did it. To see this moment of absolute truth and decency and empathy is something we’re severely missing in the political atmosphere we have now. That gives it an extra poignancy I’m sure.

You’ve said you were ‘a neurotic lonesome teenager’, which is hard to imagine.

I’m glad that’s hard to imagine! Well, we weren’t extrovert and my family travelled all the time so I was always in different schools, which doesn’t help the confidence of a child growing up. There was a lot of neurotic stuff and we never quite fitted in anywhere. But I dealt with it and I’m over it!

You were playing on the club circuit aged 17 and were on the cover of Time magazine by the age of 21. Why did your career take off so fast?

How about talent? [laughs.] I didn’t think there was much competition and I didn’t think of the others as rivals. I respected Judy Collins who’s still a good friend but I was very sure of myself. I knew the strong reaction I’d got straight away in the coffee shops and clubs and, later, in the press.

I’d started out doing rhythm and blues on my little ukulele, and then my aunt took me to see Pete Seeger when I was eight and that made me start listening to folk music and Harry Belafonte and Odetta. I loved opera but I really loved the earthiness of folk music.

I remember looking out at the crowd knowing this was an historic moment.

What do you remember of that August day in 1963 when you sang We Shall Overcome to the 250,000 people who’d marched to the Lincoln monument in Washington to campaign for racial equality and hear Martin Luther King deliver his ‘I have a dream’ speech?

I remember looking out at the crowd knowing this was an historic moment. And being very hot and nervous in my little dress. And going around from perch to perch watching it all take place. It was pretty overpowering, my knees were shaking. I’d played to 15,000 people at Newport Folk Festival [in 1959] but this was extraordinary. I’d played rallies in Mississippi for the Civil Rights Movement, places where black people couldn’t get to the counter in a white restaurant, but Washington was the icing on the cake.

Do you think you and Bob Dylan appearing at that event helped usher in the golden age of folk music, which had ten years of chart success from that moment on?

You mean folk music for the masses? I’ve never thought of that before but I suppose it did. It was a kind of stepping stone.

In his memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan records his impressions of first meeting you: ‘She had a voice that drove out bad spirits and when she sang she made your teeth drop. I couldn’t stop looking at her. I didn’t want to blink.’ What were your first impressions of him?

(Laughs) I met him in Gerde’s Folk City [legendary New York club] and I was bowled over, this kid in his dirty little jacket with the weird voice. I knew he was going to amount to something amazing.

Is your song Diamonds And Rust about your relationship?

Well, it was originally about something else but then Bob rang me from a phone booth somewhere in the mid-West and read me all the lyrics he’d just written to the song Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts, and my song morphed into something different. I knew I had something great.

You turned down $50,000 to advertise Coca Cola in 1963, a staggering sum of money at the time. Was that an easy decision or a hard one?

I didn’t believe in advertising anything and I never have.

Very easy. I didn’t believe in advertising anything and I never have. If I’d done it, it would have made it clear that, like most entertainers, I was mostly interested in making money. Nowadays it’s just taken for granted and people do it but to me it’s selling your soul.

Is there one review you’ve never forgotten?

Robert Shelton in the New York Times, reviewing that appearance at Newport in 1959 when I was 18. He used the expression ‘achingly pure soprano’ and then Time magazine began writing about me, and the big international hoo-ha started at that point.

I’m not a soprano any more, interestingly. My voice is much lower. It’s readjusted itself to have another life and another range. I was about to quit singing five years ago as it was too hard and I didn’t like the sound I made. But I went to an ear, nose and throat specialist who sent me to a vocal therapist who got me making noises I actually liked. And I have alarms on my phone that go off to remind me to drink water, which helps maintain it. So now I pack myself off on tour with a new toolkit.

Have you got a daily routine?

The repetitive stuff is Pilates and stretching, and walking my dog for 45 minutes a day. I’m lucky to live across the street from a big field. She went blind recently so if I see her heading for a tree I shout and she veers out of the way.

I do a lot of painting and spend time with my granddaughter, Jasmine. Last night I drove up to have dinner with her as she’s leaving to go back to boarding school. She’s 14. I don’t like being called ‘grandma’ as it makes me picture some old lady with her grey hair tied back in a bun fetching cookies out of an oven so she calls me the Spanish for ‘grandma’, which is abuela

What’s been your greatest achievement?

Raising my son. Raising him ‘wrong’ but ending up very close to him.

How do you mean ‘wrong’?

Well most parents think they did everything wrong but in my case I was missing in action way too much. Always out on tour. But he understands that. He got fed up with my guilt. He said, ‘Why don’t you stop worrying about this? You’re the only one who could have done what you did.’

Why do you have a gold tooth with a diamond in it?

The diamond fell out three days ago! I was chewing on something and I felt this strange sensation – ‘Oh dear, my fillings are falling out!’ And it was the diamond.

One of my teeth cracked and I was so horrified about the idea of having another tooth put in, that I thought a gold one would make it more interesting. Then I thought adding a diamond would make it even more interesting.

Who’s the most impressive person you’ve ever met?

I met Martin Luther King and Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. The list goes on.

You were born in 1941. What’s the best thing about being the age you are now?

The key thing is to do all the things that you can do now that you couldn’t do before

I’m having a great time of it, a very very creative time. And even if it weren’t creative it would be good anyway. The key thing is to do all the things that you can do now that you couldn’t do before – in my case having the time to paint.

You’ve got to keep moving and feeling motivated. My advice is lower your expectations, as if you raise them you can get a bit dizzy. And meditate. This is the only quiet time in my day where my brain has slowed down. We’re all run by our brains instead of us running our brains and that sets up my day. I’m a little less frenzied.

You’re playing in the UK in the spring. Is this, as rumoured, your final tour?

It’s the last year of official formal touring, getting on the tour bus and going for six weeks. After that, I can show up at a folk festival and sing for 20 minutes but I don’t want to be giving an hour and a half concert any more. You just can’t do that forever.

Joan Baez tours the UK in March and May. Whistle Down The Wind is on Proper Records.


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