meta-scriptLiving Legends: Judy Collins On Cats, Joni Mitchell & 'Spellbound,' Her First Album Of All-Original Material | GRAMMY.com
Living Legends: Judy Collins On Cats, Joni Mitchell & 'Spellbound,' Her First Album Of All-Original Material
Judy Collins

Photo: Brad Trent

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Living Legends: Judy Collins On Cats, Joni Mitchell & 'Spellbound,' Her First Album Of All-Original Material

Judy Collins has been musically active since pre-Beatlemania, but she's still surprising us: her GRAMMY-nominated album 'Spellbound' is her first-ever album solely composed of self-penned songs.

GRAMMYs/Jan 11, 2023 - 04:49 pm

Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com caught up with Judy Collins, the venerated, GRAMMY-winning singer, songwriter and interpreter whose career spans seven decades — and whose album Spellbound is nominated for Best Folk Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

Judy Collins never went away, but in 2019, she landed back in the public consciousness — largely for cat-related reasons.

That came by way of an illuminating New York Times profile conducted at her ritzy Upper West Side apartment where she's resided for more than 50 years. Therein, the legendary musician — among other things — hopped on a trampoline, displayed her wig collection and gleefully dug out a pink sequined jacket that Joan Baez bought her. 

Then, yes, there were the three Persian cats: Rachmaninoff, Coco Chanel and Tom Wolfe, two of which were captured in an unforgettable photo. 

But anyone serious about music would be remiss to sum up Collins as per her quirks and idiosyncrasies. After she planted a flag with her 1961 debut album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, she rose the ranks to become one of the great singers, songwriters and interpreters of the 20th century. She recorded "Both Sides, Now" before Joni Mitchell did; ditto Randy Newman’s "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." The astonishing bona fides roll on and on.

These days, Collins is on the road promoting 2022's Spellbound, her first album of all original material, which is nominated for Best Folk Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs. Previously, Collins had sprinkled originals into her albums: "sometimes quite a few, sometimes half a dozen, sometimes three or four." 

Why did she never release anything like this in seven decades? If one is tempted to think the industry pigeonholed her as an interpreter, they'd be wrong. "It wasn't ever a matter of marketing in any way," Collins tells GRAMMY.com while on tour in Salem, Oregon. "I've done what I want to do, and that's been my own desire of working in a way I want to work: not having anything imposed on me."

This self-determination has been the throughline of Collins' career, and dictates the parameters of Spellbound's concepts and expressions. There's a song about nearly crashing a car ("Hell on Wheels"), a Trappist monk who died under suspicious circumstances ("Thomas Merton"), and, in general terms, Collins' misspent youth ("Arizona").

But that's hardly the extent of the 83-year-old's ambitions. Never one to rest on her laurels, Collins cites a variety of other projects set for the rest of the year and beyond: a Broadway show; a documentary film; more albums; an orchestrated version of her 1967 album Wildflowers.

This living legend spoke to GRAMMY.com about her old associates Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Jacques Brel; her still-developing artistry, and the road ahead in 2023. (And, yes, the kitties.)

This interview has been edited for clarity.

I'm going to lead with the most pertinent question: how are Rachmaninoff, Coco Chanel and Tom Wolfe doing?

[Laughs] Well, they're fine. They're 12 years old now and thriving. Coco is a lounger, and Rachmaninoff is an eager beaver for everything. And Tom Wolfe is just interested in writing a book.

I've never heard a cat described that way. Anyway, I'm sure you've been asked many, many questions about why you chose to produce an album of original material at this point. I'm more interested in what you chose to write about — how you landed on certain components of your 83-year life that you want to translate into song.

Well, I have the luxury of writing about my life a lot. Writing poetry and songs has been something I've done since 1966 when Leonard Cohen said to me, "I don't know why you're not writing your own songs."

I started by writing "Since You've Asked" [from Wildflowers] and have continued to write probably 60 to 70 songs that have been produced on various albums of mine.So, it was time for me to face up to writing a whole album. Actually, I wrote many more songs than a dozen. I am still in the process of refining a number of those songs and writing more, because the songwriting thing sort of hooked in, in 2016 when I started writing songs with Ari Hest.

He and I wrote a few songs on an album called Silver Skies Blue, which got us a GRAMMY nomination [for Best Folk Album at the 2017 GRAMMYs]. It was his first, and it was my first in 40 years. Not many people can say that. In fact, I hold the record in time between GRAMMY nominations. It's a funny, odd distinction to have, but I'm the only one who has it.

They should give out a GRAMMY for the biggest gap between GRAMMYs.

Exactly. Either that or a Guinness record.

Back to the particular themes on Spellbound.

Well, a lot of things came up. I mean, it's all very personal.

I was reading Thomas Merton a lot during the pandemic, and there's a song about [him]. Primarily based on the fact that he did not die of accidental causes. They think there's pretty good proof that he was murdered, probably by the CIA. So, that song is particularly important to me.

"Hell on Wheels," which is going into a whole new rock and roll dimension in my concerts, is about an incident that happened to me in Colorado. I've been working on that song for a long time. It's a story of getting my learner's license, driving on a dirt road in the mountains, and having a near-catastrophe.

"Spellbound" is something I wrote about my experiences in Hawaii. I started going there in 1966. I went on my first tour in Japan with Mimi Fariña, Bruce Langhorne and Arlo Guthrie, and we came back through Honolulu and stopped for a few days. I've been to Hawaii a lot since then, but it was very much a memory of what it was like then and what it's like now.

"Arizona" is a song about my misspent youth. I think it's a very strong song. We recorded it in 2019. So, my subject matter ranges over lots of things.

**You've been a strong songwriter this whole time. Was there a measure of pigeonholing in the '60s and '70s? Like, You're mostly an interpreter; let's market you that way?**

No, no, no. It wasn't ever a matter of marketing in any way. I've done what I want to do, and that's been my own desire of working in a way I want to work: not having anything imposed on me.

Regarding the not-so-distant future, what's creatively churning for you?

I'm working, of course, on the new songs. But at the same time, I have a wonderful band set up for the moment. We're not only working on the songs for Spellbound, but we're learning a recent song by Ari Hest, which I think is a great hit. He's a great writer, and he has miles to go before he's done.

We're working on a Broadway show; we're working on a documentary film; we're working on other albums. We're going to do the orchestrated version of all the songs on my 1967 album Wildflowers, because a whole bunch of orchestras, including the Boston Pops, want to do it with me.

So, one of the things I have to do is keep listening to those songs and learning the French and Italian again. It'll be very exciting. It'll happen starting [this month].

What do you remember early on in your life regarding finding your voice — whether that be your physical voice or artistic voice?

It was so easy because my dad was an entertainer: a singer, a wonderful pianist, a wonderful performer. So, I was around the whole process from the time I was born. He had already started his radio show in Seattle in 1937, and I was born in '39.

So, I was raised with all the Phi Gamma and the Fiji Brothers gathering in the house to sing quartets and old English and Irish and Scottish folk songs, and my dad singing all of the Great American Songbook. I just took to it naturally. It was a natural part of everything in my life. Music was the essential part of it.

**What do you remember about making  Wildflowers?**

Well, first of all, "Both Sides, Now" is on that album, and my first three songs: "Albatross," "Since You've Asked" and a song called "Sky Fell." I had sort of buried it with no ceremony, but it's a good song. I like it.

Judy Collins performs at the Newport Folk Festival

*Judy Collins performing at Newport Folk Festival in 1967. Photo: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images*

This album can act as a portal to some of the great artists you interpreted and associated with back then. What was your first impression of Mr. Cohen?

Oh, dazzling. But thank goodness I never got involved with him romantically. That was a great gift. 

The night before last, we were at Freight & Salvage, a club in Berkeley just on the other side of the bridge in San Francisco. The producers and directors of the [Leonard Cohen documentary]  Hallelujah were there. They're become friends of mine because I'm in that movie talking a lot about Leonard, and he was an amazing man. 

Did you stay close to him through the rest of his life?

Oh, yes. All through.

He seemed to die as he lived: hilarious, dark, philosophical.

Very dark, very funny. Very serious. Lighthearted, but with a dark edge.

**You covered "Michael From Mountains" and "Both Sides, Now" on Wildflowers. What do you remember about your early association with Joni?**

Oh my goodness. Such a wealth of beautiful songs. She is just amazing to me. An astonishing artist, an astonishing person. Very courageous and very blessed.

And then we have Jacques Brel.

He was an amazing writer. My first introduction to Brel came because [music businessman] Jack Holzman came to see me in the hospital in Denver — recovering from tuberculosis, actually. It was 1962, and he brought me an album of Jacques Brel. I was there in the hospital, but I had a record player, and I put that on the turntable and was just blown away.

Boy, oh boy, I met him. I heard both of the concerts that he did at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1966 and 1968. And then, of course, I got to know him because my manager, Harold Leventhal, presented him at Carnegie Hall. Also, I got to hang out with him in Paris and get to know his wife in Brussels.

So now, on Wildflowers, of course, I recorded "The Song of Old Lovers." I had to relearn that, which is fine.

For those who haven't seen you live, what can they expect from the tour you're currently on?

Well, I do some of the hits — "Both Sides, Now"; "Someday Soon"; "Send in the Clowns" — but I do a whole handful of the new songs: "Spellbound," "Girl in Colorado," "Thomas Merton." So, I sort of give them a review, plus some brand-new things to worry about.

You're looking back on your career, but you're still constantly developing as an artist. What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Getting up this morning, having breakfast, getting ready to work. Gee whiz.

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A Brief History Of Hip-Hop At 50: Rap's Evolution From A Bronx Party To The GRAMMY Stage
Rappers Chuck D, Professor Griff, Flavor Flav and DJ Terminator X of Public Enemy in 1988

Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

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A Brief History Of Hip-Hop At 50: Rap's Evolution From A Bronx Party To The GRAMMY Stage

Aug. 11, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. To honor the legacy and influence of this now global culture, GRAMMY.com presents a timeline marking the genre's biggest moments.

GRAMMYs/Aug 11, 2023 - 02:28 pm

This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, a cultural movement that rose from humble beginnings in New York to fuel a worldwide phenomenon.    

Scholars may debate whether its roots precede Aug. 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc debuted his "merry-go-round" technique of playing funk breaks back-to-back to a roomful of teenagers in the Bronx. However, there’s little doubt that this event sparked a flowering of activity throughout the borough, inspiring DJs, breakdancers, graffiti artists, and, eventually, pioneering MCs like Coke La Rock and Cowboy.  

The music industry eventually caught wind of the scene, leading to formative 1979 singles like the Fatback Band’s "King Tim III" — the funk band featured MC and hypeman Timothy "King Tim III" Washington — and the big one: the Sugarhill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight."   

Today, rap music is the most popular genre of music, led by superstars such as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Future, Eminem, and many others. Despite its massive success, many artists retain their strong ties to communities of color, reflecting the genre’s origins as a form rooted in the streets. 

To mark hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, press play on the playlist below, or head to Amazon Music, Apple Music and Pandora for a crash course in this quintessential stateside artform — further proof of the genius of Black American music.

At the 65th Annual GRAMMY Awards, the Recording Academy showcased the breadth of hip-hop's influence via a star-studded, generation-spanning performance. Curated by Questlove and featuring legends such as Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C., Ice-T, Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, Nelly, and GloRilla, the 2023 GRAMMYs' hip-hop tribute showed that hip-hop remains one of the most exciting music cultures — and will likely remain so for the next 50 years. 

A Timeline Of Hip-Hop's Development 

1973 – On Aug. 11, 1973, Clive "Kool Herc" Campbell DJs a back-to-school party organized by his sister, Cindy Campbell, in the rec room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York. The event is widely considered to be the beginning of hip-hop culture.    

1979 – Longtime R&B star and producer Sylvia Robinson launches Sugar Hill Records with her husband, Joe. She discovers their first act in New Jersey, a trio of rapping teenagers — Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee — and brands the Sugarhill Gang. The Gang’s first single, "Rapper’s Delight," sells millions of copies and becomes the first global rap hit.    

1982 – Co-written by Duke Bootee and Melle Mel and produced by Clifton "Jiggs" Chase, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s hit single "The Message" becomes a turning point in the genre. Bootee and Melle Mel’s stark descriptions of poverty signal to fans and critics that hip-hop is capable of more than just party music.    

1984 – Russell Simmons’ Rush Management organizes Fresh Fest, a groundbreaking arena tour featuring hot rap acts like Run-D.M.C., Whodini, Kurtis Blow, the Fat Boys, and Newcleus as well as b-boy crews such as the Dynamic Breakers. Held during the next two years, it signifies hip-hop’s growing popularity.    

1986 – After bringing frat-boy chaos as the opening act on Madonna’s Virgin Tour, Def Jam understudies the Beastie Boys collaborate with producer Rick Rubin on Licensed to Ill. Spawning the hit single "Fight for Your Right," the album is certified diamond in 2015. 

A Brief History Of Hip-Hop At 50 - beastie boys

Beastie Boys in 1987 | Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

1987 – Thanks to a remix by the late DJ/producer Cameron Paul, rap trio Salt-N-Pepa get teens everywhere twerking — and worry parents and school administrators — with the electro-bass classic, "Push It."   

1988 – Public Enemy release their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Reportedly featuring over 100 samples and focused on Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Professor Griff’s revolutionary lyrics, it’s often cited as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.    

1989 – DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince win the first hip-hop GRAMMY Award for Best Rap Performance for their 1988 hit single, "Parents Just Don’t Understand."  

1988 – Thanks to lyrics criticizing law enforcement and depicting raw life in Compton, California, N.W.A spark national controversy with their influential second album, Straight Outta Compton.    

1991 – Ice-T appears in New Jack City, becoming one of the first rappers to headline a major Hollywood film. That same year, he appears on the Lollapalooza tour with his metal group, Body Count, and performs an early version of "Cop Killer." The song becomes a flashpoint in the 1992 presidential election.    

1993 – Wu-Tang Clan release their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). With nine members led by rapper/producer the RZA, the highly unique Staten Island-based collective spawned dozens of solo albums and affiliated acts over the following decades.   

1996 – Naughty by Nature earn the first GRAMMY Award for Best Rap Album with their third album, Poverty’s Paradise. The 1995 set includes a major radio hit in "Feel Me Flow."    

1996 – After dominating most of 1996 with his fourth album, the diamond-certified double album All Eyez on Me, 2Pac is killed in Las Vegas. The unsolved murder of one of the greatest rappers of all time remains a watershed moment in music culture.   

1997 – Days before the release of his diamond-certified second album, Life After Death, the Notorious B.I.G. is killed in Los Angeles. The slaying of two of hip-hop’s biggest artists prompts soul-searching across the music industry and inspired Biggie’s friend, Puff Daddy, to release the GRAMMY Award-winning hit, "I'll Be Missing You."  

1997 – After writing and producing hits for MC Lyte and Aaliyah, Missy Elliott debuts as a solo artist with Supa Dupa Fly. With production help from Timbaland and kinetic music videos, Elliott establishes herself as one of the most innovative acts of the era. 

A Brief History Of Hip-Hop At 50 missy elliott

Missy Elliott | Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images 

1998 – After scoring multi-platinum hits with the Fugees, Lauryn Hill strikes out on her own with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The diamond-certified album earns her several GRAMMY Awards, including Album Of The Year.    

1999 – Dr. Dre releases 2001, cementing his legacy as one of the most influential rap producers ever. The album features numerous collaborators, including longtime homie Snoop Dogg and rising lyricist Eminem.    

2001 – On Sept. 11, Jay-Z releases his sixth album, The Blueprint. It becomes a career highlight for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame rapper, and a breakout moment for rising producers Just Blaze and Kanye West.    

2003 – Hit-making duo OutKast split their double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below into separate sides for Big Boi and Andre 3000 — the latter focusing on singing instead of rapping. Their fresh approach results in a diamond-certified project and a GRAMMY for Album Of The Year.    

2008 – Lil Wayne mania peaks with Tha Carter III, which sells over 1 million copies in its first week and earns him a GRAMMY for Best Rap Album.    

2010 – Nicki Minaj releases Pink Friday. The hit album makes her a rare female rap star during a dearth of prominent women voices in the genre.    

2017 – By landing a Top 10 Billboard hit with "XO Tour Llif3" and topping the Billboard 200 with Luv Is Rage 2, Lil Uzi Vert signifies the rise of internet-fueled trends like "SoundCloud rap" and "emo rap."   

2017 – With his fourth album Damn., Kendrick Lamar not only wins a GRAMMY for Best Rap Album, but he also becomes the first rap artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music, leading to the fanciful nickname "Pulitzer Kenny."    

2018 – Cardi B releases her debut album Invasion of Privacy, scoring Billboard No. 1 hits such as "Bodak Yellow" and "I Like It." As the best-selling female rap album of the 2010s, the LP won Best Rap Album at the 61st GRAMMY Awards in 2019, making Cardi the first solo female rapper to win the Category.  

A Brief History Of Hip-Hop At 50 cardi b

Cardi B at the 61st GRAMMY Awards | Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Recording Academy 

2020 – In early 2020, rising star Pop Smoke is killed in Los Angeles. Months later, his posthumous debut album, Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon, tops the charts, signifying the rise of drill as a major force in hip-hop culture.  

2021 – At the 63rd Annual GRAMMY Awards in 2021, the Recording Academy introduced the Best Melodic Rap Performance Category, formerly known as the Best Rap/Sung Performance Category, to "represent the inclusivity of the growing hybrid performance trends within the rap genre." 

2023 - At the 2023 GRAMMY Awards, seven-time GRAMMY winner Dr. Dre became the recipient of the inaugural Dr. Dre Global Impact Award for his multitude of achievements through his innovative, multi-decade career. Dre was first presented with the award at the Black Music Collective's Recording Academy Honors ceremony. 

50 Artists Who Changed Rap: Jay-Z, The Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem & More

The 2023 GRAMMYs Nominated For Three Emmys: See The Categories Below
LL Cool J, Flavor Flav, Busta Rhymes, Lil Uzi Vert, Nelly, Spliff Star, Queen Latifah, Ice-T, Chuck D, Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, Grandmaster Flash, and Black Thought at the 2023 GRAMMYs

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for the Recording Academy

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The 2023 GRAMMYs Nominated For Three Emmys: See The Categories Below

In an awards show crossover to remember, the 2023 GRAMMYs telecast has been nominated in three prestigious categories at the 2023 Emmy Awards.

GRAMMYs/Jul 12, 2023 - 07:20 pm

An Emmy for the GRAMMYs? It's happened before, and it could happen again.

The 2023 Emmys nominations list has been revealed, and Music's Biggest Night is well represented.

The 2023 GRAMMYs have been nominated for Emmy Awards in the Outstanding Production Design For A Variety Special, Outstanding Lighting Design/Lighting Direction For A Variety Special and Outstanding Sound Mixing For A Variety Series Or Special categories.

Looking for more GRAMMYs news? The 2024 GRAMMY nominations are here!

In the first category, the 2023 GRAMMYs compete with "The Oscars," "Encanto At The Hollywood Bowl," "Carol Burnett: 90 Years Of Laughter + Love," and "The Apple Music Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show Starring Rihanna."

The second category also contains "Encanto At The Hollywood Bowl," as well as "2022 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony," "75th Annual Tony Awards," and "The Weeknd Live At SoFi Stadium."

Also nominated in the third category are "Bono & The Edge: A Sort Of Homecoming With Dave Letterman," "Elton John Live: Farewell From Dodger Stadium," "Saturday Night Live • Co-Hosts: Steve Martin & Martin Short," and "Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concert."

Check out the complete list here, and watch this space to see if the GRAMMYs will take home the world's most prestigious TV award!

2024 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Full Nominees List

Meet Tobias Jesso Jr., The First-Ever GRAMMY Winner For Songwriter Of The Year
Tobias Jesso Jr. at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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Meet Tobias Jesso Jr., The First-Ever GRAMMY Winner For Songwriter Of The Year

"I felt the weight of what it meant," the man behind the curtain of massive songs by Adele, Harry Styles, Marcus Mumford and more says about his win in the brand-new GRAMMY category.

GRAMMYs/Mar 2, 2023 - 11:10 pm

Tobias Jesso Jr. wanted to know how to write a hit song, so he read How to Write a Hit Song. Not that he needed to figure out how to break into the mainstream: he had already written a tune with Sia and Adele that cracked the Billboard Hot 100. But in an effort to take his young career seriously — that of writing behind the curtain for the stars — he cracked open the book at a café.

Just then, a voice: "What the hell are you doing?" He glanced up. It was Sia.

"She was like, 'Why are you reading that?' and I was like, 'I honestly don't know,'" Jesso remembers with a laugh. "I think I just put the book away from that point on and was like,
OK, I don't need the books. And I just felt like there's been a different one of those lessons at every step of the way where I'm just like, Man, I think this is what I got to do, and then I just figure it out."**

Since that exchange, Jesso has written with a litany of contemporary stars: John Legend, Shawn Mendes, Pink, Haim, Harry Styles — the list goes on. (As per the latter, he co-wrote "Boyfriends" on Harry's House, which was crowned Album Of The Year at the 2023 GRAMMYs.) 

And at said ceremony, he received a historic honor — the first-ever golden gramophone for Songwriter Of The Year. As Evan Bogart, Chair of the Songwriters & Composers Wing, recently toldput it to GRAMMY.com: "We're looking for which songwriters have demonstrated, first and foremost, that they're considered a songwriter first by the music community. We want to recognize the professional, hardworking songwriters who do this for a living."

Read More: Why The New Songwriter Of The Year GRAMMY Category Matters For The Music Industry And Creator Community

Clearly, Jesso fits the mold, and possesses technical chops worthy of How to Write a Hit Song. But his realization — that he can literally throw out the rulebook — speaks volumes as to his flexible, collaborator-first and fun-first process. 

"I get into a room and I really want to enjoy the people, and the songs will come if we're all just being honest," he tells GRAMMY.com. "If you take a few days or weeks to get to know somebody, all of a sudden, your songs are deeper." 

And while working his interpersonal and collaborative magic, he keeps his ears and imagination open — a momentary trifle can become the heart of a song. It happened with Cautious Clay's "Whoa," which came from messing with some, well, whoas. 

"It was a little silly at first," says Jesso,the songwriter whose first output was "inappropriate" high-school joke songs. "But now it wasn't silly anymore."

GRAMMY.com sat down with Jesso about his creative beginnings, the experience of working alongside pop titans, and how his inaugural GRAMMY win for Songwriter Of The Year happened during the happiest, most creatively fruitful period of his burgeoning career.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

How did it feel to take home the golden gramophone — the first ever in this category?

It felt tremendous. It felt amazing. It's such an honor to have received it, and I felt the weight of what it meant. I get really stage frightened, and so I kept telling myself there's no way I was going to win, just so I wouldn't be nervous or anything like that. 

But weirdly, when I did win, I was very not nervous. I don't know how to put it, but it was the opposite of what I thought I would feel. I don't know if I've never been awarded something so prestigious. My elementary school did a piece on me after I won the GRAMMY, and it was sort of largely a "We didn't see any talent at all" kind of thing.

So, I'd say "tremendous" would be probably the one word I would feel most aptly describes it. I'm just really, really proud of the category and its creation, and super lucky to have been a part of it at all. Especially in the year that it comes out. I was baffled that I was nominated. 

I had already felt like that rush of whoa, this amazing thing happened when I was nominated. And then winning was the next level of completely beyond what I could have ever expected.

How does the win help chart the next stage of your career?

As a songwriter, your job is to serve the artist. Your job is to serve the artist — the person who the song's for. And I think because of that, most songwriters have a very serve mentality, which generally doesn't work out well on the business side of things for you. 

I think if you took all the producers in the world and took all the songwriters in the world and tried to look at which ones are more business savvy, I'd say nine times out of 10, it's probably the producers. 

I think a lot of people — artists or songwriters among them — have imposter syndrome, feeling like they don't really know whether they belong there or they're just lucky or they have what it takes for the next one, even. If they know they had a good run or whatever, they're always going back to the well and praying that there's something in there. 

And I think this GRAMMY is almost like having a symbol of a really good run — a really good, fertile time of creativity or something. TI think the way I see it is sort of a symbol of this period of time where I had a lot of ideas, and worked really hard, and managed to somehow win this thing, which is, for me, is huge. It means a lot. 

For the songwriting community to have the award to look forward to, to have this symbol of Hey, you can be creative as a songwriter and just be a songwriter who doesn't sing and doesn't produce, and [the fact] you can get this prestigious symbol of your gifts that the world will now recognize — I think that's a wonderful thing for songwriters to have.

Take me back to the beginning of your career writing songs, either for yourself or others. The first time you really embraced this magical act of creation.

I was such a lazy songwriter for so many years because I always loved writing songs, writing songs with my friends in high school and stuff like that. But I never really wanted to play an instrument, and I never really wanted to sing them myself. 

I think probably back in high school, in 1998 or '99, it was because they were joke songs. So I probably didn't want to sing them because they were inappropriate or something. I always wanted to. The beginning for me was definitely a sort of moment of hearing Tracy Chapman when I was like, Oh, this is what I'm going to do. Not be Tracy Chapman, but write songs.

From there I was really lazy and I just tried to do as little as possible, but I had this sort of confidence that I was somehow good at it. So, I would sometimes have my friends who played guitar or my friends who played piano, or whoever was around, do the music part for me, and I could just kind of pipe in and direct where I felt like my skillset was. 

I started writing on piano for the first time when I was 27. That was a big moment for me where I was. I feel like I finally figured it out. It took me a long time: I still don't know how to play the piano, but I know I'm going to figure this out now.

I made a lot of mistakes along the way with bands and with albums or whatever. Things that just didn't exactly go the way [I planned them]; my gut was eventually telling me it just wasn't right. And then, when I started playing piano, it just finally all felt right, and I didn't think too much about it. I just sort of started doing it. 

During that time, I unfortunately had to sing to get my album out, which was sort of a means to an end. But as soon as I was able to, I ducked away from that and started writing. Then I just had a new job. I was like I got promoted or something. 

As you honed your ability and developed your craft, how did you follow that chain of connections to be able to write for who you've written for?

It's funny because Adele was the first person I worked with — [but] not in a professional way where managers and stuff like that are involved, and it's not just a friend of mine from high school or something. She was sort of my blueprint for how those things went.

I couldn't have gotten any luckier than with Adele, because her blueprint for how to do a writing session is the most pure in the game. There's nothing to hide behind. There's no producer in the room. She came to my friend's grandparents' where there are no mics; there's no studio equipment at all. There's a piano. And she just goes, "Great, let's write a song."

I don't know that that even exists much anymore. There's not even a microphone to capture what's going on, let alone one of the biggest players in the entire world doing it — just showing up, being like, "Let's write a song." And there's nothing to record her. I thought that was really cool. I'm like, "That's how I write songs. I just sit in front of a piano and just do what I think I like." And she was like, "And me too."

So, that's how we got along real great off the bat. And then from there, I would say it was just the most epic amount of failures and trial and error to figure out what the hell I was doing in every different session. I mean, I was treading water at times, and I felt like I was smoking crack sometimes, because I was so creative in a certain scenario I didn't expect to be creative in or something like that.

I think it's just this kind of learning process. There are a lot of people who are typically geared towards one style of writing. You're the country guy or you're the pop guy, or you're the ballad guy. And I could see that I was getting typecast. I was starting to get typecast, especially early on in my career because ballads, that's just the tempo that's naturally within me. It's sort of my soul tempo to just slow things down. I can write much easier in that tempo. I'll always sort of naturally progress there.

But I wanted to push the limits of that, and I wanted to figure out a way to get out of that typecast. And so I tried as quickly as I could to pick people who would be like, "Please don't play a ballad."

And when I started doing that, it was, again, trial and error. I think Niall [Horan of One Direction] was the first person I worked with who was in the pop world, and he was very much an acoustic singer. So I think that I was going into that session thinking I wanted to do upbeat pop. So I don't know — you get in the door and then you just try to acclimate yourself to the environment and help out as much as you can.

I think that's the best way to put it, because you never know what you're going to be doing. You never know what the artist is going to want from you or not want from you. A lot of the job is just figuring all that stuff out and then trying to just have fun while you're doing it. I think it's just that good energy, good attitude, and good people tend to sort of gravitate together.

How would you characterize the state of your artistic journey at this point?

I would say it feels the richest, in the sense that I'm the happiest I've been working.

I've found my rhythm — my perfect work-life balance kind of thing — so I can spend time with my son. And I think because of all of the time I've spent writing songs and how many songs come out, which is not a lot compared to how much you spend writing, you kind of learn that the relationships you make in the room are really the things that you really take out of it. It can be a lot more than, "I'm just a songwriter here to serve this artist" or whatever.

Lately, probably because of all the time I've spent doing it, I get into a room and I really want to enjoy the people. And the songs will come if we're all just being honest. We all know why we're here. We don't need that pressure in the room, and we don't need the A&R sitting in the room. We can get a song, but let's just be honest and really enjoy each other's company for a while.

And I think once that starts happening, it's way, way more fruitful in the long run. Because if you take a few days or weeks to get to know somebody, all of a sudden, your songs are deeper.

As a songwriter, your job is to point out metaphors or parallels — and things that could spark some interest in an artist's mind. And the better you get to know somebody, the more amazing the writing process can be.

That's been happening a lot in my recent sessions with Dua [Lipa] and Harry, another just amazing person. He is a great guy, but we haven't done that much writing together, but we know each other mostly through Kid Harpoon — Tom [Hull], who's the best.

I'm getting to know the people, and that's the most important part for me — I'm working with the people I want to work with. That's my journey now. I'll always work with new people, but I don't need to work with people I don't really vibe with or listen to. That's not really my interest anymore, especially if I'm in it for the right reasons. I'd say it's just more intentional, and I'm being more honest.

When you walk into a room to write with somebody, what are the first steps, or operating principles?

My operating principle is: Do I want to get to know this person, and do they want to get to know me at all, or do they just want to write a song and not want to open up?

If it's somebody who seems very open to talk, that's usually a good sign. And if not, then you just do what they want. You start writing a song and that's fine too. Sometimes there's great, catchy stuff. It's not always the deepest stuff.

Maybe they're the ones writing the lyrics, so maybe it is. But my operating principle is kind of, if I'm having a good time and everyone's having a good time, we're doing something good. We're not writing a bad song. We're just not. If we were writing a bad song in this room of professionals, we wouldn't be having a good time.

And when you're having a good time, good ideas do come. Even if they are silly at first and they're more openly accepted, and everything in the room is flowing better when those channels of enjoyment are sort of open, and everyone's laughing and having fun and dancing and being silly, that's how you get creative.

I don't know of many songwriters who are just dead serious. I've maybe met a couple. So I think my operating principle is to have a good time. That's going to be the funnest day, no matter what. It's probably going to be a better song for it if you're having fun and you like the people and they like you, and everything's going well.

Why is it crucial that the Recording Academy honor not only public-facing creators, but those behind the curtain?

I won't speak for myself as much as just the amazing people who I've worked with. You can't understand what kind of work has to go into a song. It's so funny, because it's a three-minute thing that sounds like most people can do it in an hour or something, but some of these things take months of work to get right.

I think it's really important to acknowledge everyone involved in each of the processes, because to give credit to just producers and artists, and then it's like, "Yeah, but the storytellers aren't even in the room," is like the congratulating a director and an actor, and then being like, the writer is s—. It's like, what? The movie wouldn't exist without them!

That just wouldn't happen. So, it feels like the right thing. I'm a bit overwhelmed and still a bit in disbelief, but it's snowing in LA, so miracles do happen.

What would you tell a young songwriter who wants to roll up their sleeves and do this?

I would say just be a good person and keep learning. Everyone's not perfect at the start. But if I had to give one piece of advice that was super, super important to me, is the good guys are winning in the end sometimes.

Like I said, the friendships and the artists, you don't want to come in being a d—. And I don't mean that strictly for men. I just mean whoever's coming in, you want to be a nice person. I think there's a lot of good people, and there's a lot of bad people too. You find your crew — energy finds energy.

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Bobby McFerrin Honored With Recording Academy Special Merit Award
Bobby McFerrin

Photo courtesy of the artist

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Bobby McFerrin Honored With Recording Academy Special Merit Award

After racking up 10 GRAMMY Awards and worldwide acclaim, McFerrin said this when the National Endowment for the Arts inducted him into its 2020 Jazz Masters class: “My pursuit of music has always been about freedom and joy.”

GRAMMYs/Feb 27, 2023 - 07:08 pm

Whenever Bobby McFerrin sings, freedom reigns. It twists and shouts; caresses and soothes; howls and coruscates.

After racking up 10 GRAMMY Awards and worldwide acclaim, McFerrin said this when the National Endowment for the Arts inducted him into its 2020 Jazz Masters class: “My pursuit of music has always been about freedom and joy.”

The son of two incredible singers, Sara Cooper (a former vocal professor at Fullerton College) and Robert McFerrin (an operatic baritone who was the first Black American man to sing at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera), McFerrin seemed destined to become a star. He sang in church choirs while growing up in Los Angeles. He studied music at California State University at Sacramento and Cerritos College in Norwalk, California. Afterward, he played piano and organ with the Ice Follies and in pop bands. And in 1980, he toured with the iconic jazz singer, Jon Hendricks.

McFerrin was 31 years old when he released his debut LP in 1982. But his artistry sounded fresh and fully developed. He contorted his four-octave voice in an array of colors, textures and improvisational shapes, liberating the role of a jazz singer.

McFerrin’s reputation as an ingenious and fearless virtuoso grew. His 1984 sophomore LP, The Voice, marked the first time a jazz singer recorded an entire album without any accompaniment or overdubbing. In addition to showcasing marvelous interpretations of songs by James Brown and Billy Strayhorn, it also revealed McFerrin to be an engaging composer through such infectious songs as “The Jump,” and “I’m My Own Walkman.”

A year later, his guest appearance on “Another Night In Tunisia” from the Manhattan Transfer’s LP, Vocalese, earned McFerrin his first two GRAMMY Awards. The following year, he won a GRAMMY for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male for his stunning rendition of “Round Midnight,” featuring pianist Herbie Hancock from the movie soundtrack, Round Midnight. His collaboration with Hancock also garnered McFerrin another GRAMMY win in 1987 for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male for “What Is This Thing Called Love?” from the LP, The Other Side Of Round Midnight.

For all of McFerrin’s exhilarating virtuosity, he imbues it with vast emotional range, especially humor. He can infuse his improvisations with the madcap kinetic energy of a Tom and Jerry cartoon chase scene, then pull the amorous heartstrings with a tender ballad.

Of course, the lyrics that McFerrin became most famous for are from his sanguine 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” which catapulted him into superstardom. The song won three

GRAMMY Awards — Song Of The Year, Record Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male.

That enormous success didn’t impede McFerrin’s flair for adventure. He brought a quixotic spark to his records and projects that broke the conventions of jazz singing. He collaborated with classical music heavyweights such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist W.A. Mathieu and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra; he has created elaborate vocal choirs such as 2010’s VOCAbuLarieS with composer Roger Treece; and delved deep into the Negro spiritual canon on his enthralling 2013 album, spirityoual.

Nearly 40 years after winning his first GRAMMY, McFerrin’s continued boundless musicality is a true embodiment of artistic freedom.

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