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Remembering Longtime GRAMMY Awards Director Walter C. Miller

Walter C. Miller at the 2010 Special Merit Awards

 

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

 

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Remembering Longtime GRAMMY Awards Director Walter C. Miller

"Our thoughts are with the friends and family of Walter Miller during this difficult time. He was a powerhouse in the television business and helped to shape the GRAMMY Awards as we know it," Interim Recording Academy President/CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said

GRAMMYs/Nov 17, 2020 - 04:06 am

Today, we honor the life of Emmy-winning TV director/producer Walter C. Miller, who directed 15 GRAMMY Awards from 1984 to 2009. He also directed and/or produced many other awards shows—dating back to the '70s—including the CMA Awards, the Tonys, People's Choice Awards and the Latin GRAMMYs, as well as televised music and comedy specials for Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Bob Hope and others. The beloved behind-the-scenes force died at 94 years old on Fri., Nov. 13, surrounded by his family.

"Our thoughts are with the friends and family of Walter Miller during this difficult time. He was a powerhouse in the television business and helped to shape the GRAMMY Awards as we know it. In 2010, we had the privilege of honoring Walter with the Trustees Award. He will be greatly missed," Chair and Interim Recording Academy President/CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said in a statement.

In addition to the Recording Academy's Trustees Award, Miller earned many accolades for his visionary work behind the scenes at televised awards shows, including the CMA President's Award in 2007 and the CMA Irving Waugh Award in 2009. He earned 19 Primetime Emmy nominations and won five of them, including four wins for his work with the Tony Awards. Additionally, he won three Directors Guild of America awards and, in 1993, won a CableACE Award for his work on the "Comic Relief" specials.

"Walter was clearly the most unforgettable character I've ever met in a working capacity, and one of my closest friends outside the business," Ken Ehrlich, the longtime GRAMMYs executive producer who received his own Trustees Award this year after his final show, told Variety. "He left an indelible mark on pretty much everyone he worked with, and as they say, they just don't make 'em like Walter anymore."

"In the award show/live event genre, there really aren't superstar director names like [Steven] Spielberg, [Quentin] Tarantino, [Francis Ford] Coppola or others. It just doesn't work like that, with the exception of my friend, Walter C. Miller," Ehrlich added in a heartfelt tribute to his friend and collaborator.

"He was not only one of a handful of directors—Dwight Hemion and Marty Pasetta also come to mind—who wrote the book about multi-camera coverage of live events, an art form and mathematical logistics nightmare all its own. He also became the first man in the chair to have spread those talents across both country and pop music, directing and ultimately producing both the CMA Awards and the GRAMMYs as well as the Tonys, the Emmys, Comic Relief and dozens of other live events whose degree of difficulty left numerous other directors sitting in puddles beneath their chairs."

"Walter was an absolute television legend," CMA Chief Executive Officer Sarah Trahern said in a statement. "When you worked with him, you instantly knew you were in the presence of greatness. He brought so much innovation and brilliance to the CMA Awards over the 40 years he worked with the organization."

"Walter Miller was my friend and mentor. Everything I know about producing great television I learned from Walter Miller. Walter had a long list of accomplishments and credits and working with the biggest names in entertainment," CMA Awards Executive Producer Robert Deaton added. "He loved our artists, and in return we counted Walter as one of our own. Today we say thank you. You will be missed and rest in peace dear friend."

The 63rd GRAMMYs: Looking Ahead To The 2021 GRAMMY Awards

Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: GAYLE On The Real-Life Pain Behind "abcdefu," Nashville Beginnings And Taylor Swift
GAYLE

Photo: Acacia Evans

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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: GAYLE On The Real-Life Pain Behind "abcdefu," Nashville Beginnings And Taylor Swift

GAYLE’s very first label release became a viral smash and landed her a GRAMMY nomination for Song Of The Year. Now, the teenage star is ready for her next chapter, including a debut album and tour with Taylor Swift.

GRAMMYs/Jan 16, 2023 - 05:00 pm

If you've had an issue with an ex in the past 18 months, GAYLE has probably provided some catharsis for you.

Born Taylor Gayle Rutherford, she's the singer behind 'abcdefu,' a kiss-off anthem that offers both deep emotion and inherent irreverence. And just as much as the song offered release for many listeners, it did for GAYLE herself, too.

The pop smash was based on a real-life relationship and subsequent heartbreak GAYLE would later refer to as toxic — making the breakup tune a powerful call for independence as well as an outright display of both anger and the strength of moving on. 

"abcdefu" was also a depiction of teenage angst, as GAYLE was just 16 when she co-wrote the song as a fledgling artist in Nashville. Two years later, the song helped the now 18-year-old GAYLE earn her first GRAMMY nomination, and a coveted one at that: Song Of The Year. 

The nomination comes on the heels of monumental commercial success for the young singer, with her hit going triple platinum, topping Billboard’s Global 200 chart and garnering more than a billion streams. Along the way, she’s released her first two EPS (the aptly-titled A Study of the Human Experience, Volumes One and Two). And just recently, Taylor Swift invited her to open several dates on the superstar’s highly anticipated (and Ticketmaster-breaking) Eras Tour, which kicks off in March.

Ahead of the 2023 GRAMMY Awards, GAYLE gets candid about the song that changed her life, the creative community in Nashville and what’s next. 

Tell me about the genesis of "abcdefu" — where were you when it came together?

We were in Nashville, Tennessee. It was me and [co-writer] Dave Pittenger, along with Sara Davis, who I [have been] writing with since I was 12 and she was 15. Me and Sara were two young girls in Nashville who thought, We can curse in our songs and our moms won’t get mad at us? This is cool

We’d write songs in my bedroom, but after a couple years of writing with each other, we started teaming up with producers and writing with guitars and pianos. We started writing with Dave, who had a lot of success with country music and less so pop, so we’d just write songs on a guitar. 

Normally I come in with a vision, because I feel it’s your job as an artist to lead writers where you want to go. But it was in the middle of COVID, and this was my first in-person write in a long time. I said, "I have to be honest, I have no ideas. I really hate being that person." Dave laughed and he said, "Well, I have a bunch." Thank God for him. 

For his first idea, he looked at us, looked back down and looked at us again and was like, "ABCD F— Off!" and me and Sara just burst out laughing. I had never heard that phrase.

The song centers on a breakup where you want nothing to do with your ex. Was there a real inspiration behind that?

My actual ex and my best friend hated each other; they had beef the whole entire time [my ex and I dated]. They never really hung out and I kept them very separated. I was also in a very self-deprecating place the whole entire relationship. 

So you had all of this bottled-up energy you brought into the song?

I had written a million songs about this person, but I was really angry at him and was angry at the people who enabled him and his behavior. One of the reasons why he treats people improperly is because he was treated improperly. So I was mad at him and everyone who enabled him.

Did he actually have a dog?

He does have a dog! It’s a Shih-Poo.

Does this person know the song is about him, and have you heard from him?

I have not heard from him. I blocked him in February 2021, after hitting a point where I said, "I have to be done." It was a very specific moment in time, and I hope he has a happy life. I just want to be as far away from him as possible. I also don’t get any validation from him thinking anything I’m doing is impressive, even if he looked at the charts. 

When did you realize your life was going to change thanks to the success of "abcdefu?"

The first moment I knew something was happening was when it started to hit the Shazam charts in other countries, like Poland or South Korea. That meant it was playing in random places and people were wondering what the song was. I think it was in the top five in Mexico, and it was weird to be in Nashville and know that it was playing somewhere else in a random coffeeshop.

[When a song is rising like that,] whenever it does one thing you hope it does another thing. If it gets on a playlist, you hope it goes higher up on that playlist. So for a while I was playing that game. 

I remember the day it hit the Spotify playlist Today’s Top Hits. I was on tour with the band Winnetka Bowling League as their opener in small clubs. We were just jumping up and down backstage, so excited that it would reach that. But when it hit the radio, I knew that things were going to be different.

You’re also 18 years old experiencing all of this, but at the same time have been working at it for a while. Can you tell me about growing up with these dreams and creative goals, which you’re now experiencing the materialization of?

It’s interesting; why you get into music at 10 is a very different reason why you stay in it at 18. I’m very aware that I’m living my dreams and getting to do all the things I wanted to do as a kid, but at the same time, it’s very real, and there are difficulties that come with those things that I guess I didn’t always expect. [My success] has changed my life and benefited me in so many ways, but it also gave me new difficulties that I have to deal with. 

After this past year, what I’m grateful for is that nobody can make me do something I don’t want to do. The music that I’m making, and the things that I’m doing, I really love and stand behind. I’m trying to appreciate things that happen in the moment and not be too scared for my future as well. I know I have time. 

I just happened to put out my first song through a label that did what it did, and that is amazing. Now I want to build a career that I can stick with. So it’s very exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Sometimes it’s hard to breathe, but I’m very hopeful for the next year. 

You’ve said in the past that you feel kind of like an underdog in the sense that you’re a pop artist coming from Nashville, which is so known for its country scene. Can you elaborate on that?

It’s interesting because there is a lot of pop music in Nashville, and now more than ever, the lines are being blurred on genres. But one thing I really appreciate about the city is how the community really loves you if you’re developing and have nothing. I’ve never felt like I had more of a family than when I was up-and-coming here. I came to Nashville when I was 12, and found people I felt so connected to because we had this unexplainable and undying love and passion for music — [and we] couldn’t help but be a crazy person and move here. 

Also, Nashville for a 12 year old is very different than LA for a 12 year old. In LA, people would always tell me who I was — "You’re this, you’re that." But any meeting I ever had in Nashville was, "Tell me who you are." I needed to find out who I was there in order to work in other places. It’s a community of writers who want to collaborate with each other, and that’s something really beautiful about the Nashville scene. 

You’re now about to join Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour as an opener, one of the most culturally significant tours in many years. What does that mean to you, both personally and as an artist?

She’s been in the music industry for 15 years, so I was 3 when she got her start. As a young, female pop songwriter in Nashville, it means the absolute world that she’d believe in me enough to put me on that tour. 

She’s been such an inspiration my entire time in Nashville, especially since I started out in country music and moved over to pop. I didn’t even know that was a possibility until I saw Taylor do that very successfully. I don’t know if my mom would have even moved me to Nashville if she didn’t see Taylor Swift’s parents do it first. 

Has she ever given you advice?

It’s never been straightforward advice, but more about just the struggles beginning in music. When I met her, I genuinely was just so happy to have the opportunity to thank her for everything she’s done in the Nashville scene, and the writing community there as an iconic representative. 

I barely know what I’m doing and I feel no guarantees about my future. I’m trying to work on having a stable career. I’ve been in the music industry for a year and I’m making my first album. So it’s like, "I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m really scared and tired" and she’s like "It’s okay, baby." She is the biggest star in the world, and [she understands] that is a double-edged sword. 

She knows what it's like to be a young, up-and-coming woman in the industry with social media; it’s an exciting and terrifying time where the highs are really high and the lows are really low. For her to just take me under her wing in any way with belief, hope and inspiration and kindness [is amazing]. Because when all is said and done, [she sees] I’m just a teenage girl who really loves music. 

A Look At The Nominees For Song Of The Year At The 2023 GRAMMY Awards

Jeff Coffin On His GRAMMY-Nominated Album 'Between Dreaming And Joy,' Constant Education, Playing With Dave Matthews & Béla Fleck
Jeff Coffin

Photo: Rodrigo Simas

interview

Jeff Coffin On His GRAMMY-Nominated Album 'Between Dreaming And Joy,' Constant Education, Playing With Dave Matthews & Béla Fleck

Jeff Coffin’s legacies with Dave Matthews Band and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones are more than enough to hang his hat on. But his solo career is a kaleidoscope of ideas, connected to musical traditions from all over the world.

GRAMMYs/Jan 12, 2023 - 07:21 pm

Hanging out with Jeff Coffin is a bit like listening to his music. Engulfed in a whirlwind of musical references, you’re never lost. Music seems dizzyingly limitless when he describes it, like the fractals in the cartoon eye on his new album's self-drawn cover.

For a three-time GRAMMY winner with bona fides in two household-name bands, Dave Matthews Band and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones — Coffin has zero airs and a whole lot of music knowledge. 

Our conversation left me to check out Albert Ayler's rip-your-heart-out gospel album Goin' Home, Van Morrison's country-breezy Tupelo Honey and Charles Mingus' warped masterpiece Oh Yeah

Understanding Coffin’s background enhances the listening experience of his inspired latest release, 2022's Between Dreaming and Joy, which is nominated for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

Read More: 2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List

Featuring "Middle Eastern frame drums, Brazilian percussion, Moroccan vocals, a turntable artist, multiple horns, an ice cream truck, a Hungarian tárogató and an African ngoni" — as well as modern greats like guitarist Robben Ford, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Chester Thompson — the album feels jubilant and companionable.

It’s surprising to learn the album was recorded completely remotely. 

"It was crafted in a way that I've really never crafted a record before," Coffin tells GRAMMY.com in its New York Chapter Office, ahead of DMB's sold-out Madison Square Garden gig. So, to him, this GRAMMY nomination is extra sweet: "it's a recognition of the process, but also a recognition of the work. Not just in this record, but the 19 others before it."

If you're familiar with Fleck and/or Matthews but not so much Coffin and his musical universe, let Between Dreaming and Joy act as a gateway to all 19 — with the Mu'tet, in co-billed LPs, all of it. And read on for an in-depth interview with the musician, clinician and searcher.

Jeff Coffin

Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Congratulations on your nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs. What role has the Recording Academy played in your career over the decades?

You know, when I was in the Flecktones, we were nominated a number of times; I won three GRAMMYs with Béla. It's always kind of been interwoven with the things that I've done. 

The Flecktones were a hard band to pin down. We won for Best Pop Instrumental Album [for 2008's Jingle All the Way; we were nominated [that same year] for Best Country Instrumental Performance [for "Sleigh Ride"].

It's interesting; I remember the first time we were nominated was for Left of Cool [at the 1999 GRAMMYs]. I remember it being my first time there, and just being like, "Wow, this is unbelievable." We didn't win, and I remember thinking that I wasn't disappointed: Oh, it's OK, it's not a big deal that we didn't win. It reaffirmed that this is not why I do what I do.

You know, it's funny. [With Dave Matthews Band], it's a machine. We have like 90 people on the road with us, of course, and the band is really all about the music. We've talked about it a lot: how the music has got to come first.

Elaborate.

I think that music is a service industry. I think that first, we serve the music. Then, we serve the other musicians we're playing with, and then we serve the audience. So, we're at least fourth on the list. But by serving those others, we get served.

I talk to my students about this all the time: how important it is to recognize that circle. I think about management, and I'm thinking, Well, they're just thinking dollars and butts in seats. Which I understand: that's part of it. But I feel a disconnect sometimes in the way they approach things, as opposed to the way we approach things.

So, for me, with awards and accolades and things like that: I've had my fair share, and I'm very honored and grateful for that. But that's not why I do it. I'm not like, I'm going to do this record and submit it for a GRAMMY.

Read More: Béla Fleck Has Always Been Told He's The Best. But To Him, There Is No Best.

At this point, you've won three GRAMMYs. How does it feel to earn another nomination for Between Dreaming and Joy?

It's big for me. It really is. There was a ton of work put into it during the pandemic. Most of the record was remote, although you'd never know listening to it. It was crafted in a way that I've really never crafted a record before. So, it's a recognition of the process, but also a recognition of the work. Not just in this record, but the 19 others before it.

I've got six others in the can that I'm working on, that are basically ready to go. It was a very prolific time for me during the lockdown. So, this material on the record was culled from a lot of other stuff I had recorded also. 

I wrote about 30 or 34 new tunes, and they were all over the place from the standpoint of genre or style. So, when I put this together, I had to decide which tunes I was going to put into this pot. There are a couple that I was on the fence about initially, but I'm really glad they're on there because it kind of diverges, and then comes back into a particular space.

So, yeah, I'm just thrilled about it, and the GRAMMY Foundation <a href="https://grammymuseum.org/national-reach/grant-program/">now the [GRAMMY Museum Foundation] has been part of that. I love what they do educationally; I want to be more involved with that, because I do a lot of education work outside of touring. I've done 325-plus clinics over the years, and I've been teaching at Vanderbilt now for eight years.

Tell me more about your teaching style, and how it's in dialogue with the other parts of your career.

I've looked at people that have kind of been DIY, like Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Bobby Shew, these kinds of people. I don't try to do exactly what they did, because that's how they see things. But I've been able to kind of muddle out a career [incorporating] certain aspects of what they do.

The books that I've written are all for my students; they have nothing to do with the things that I'm working on, because I've already done it. So, the method books, the etude books — I have something called The Road Book, which is all the things you do before you leave the driveway. These are for students that are just getting out there and doing this stuff, to help them along the way.

I really respect what [The Recording Academy] has done educationally around the country and the world. I think it's awesome, and really makes a big difference. You know, music is an essential part of education on every level — not just in higher education, but deep in the schools. A lot of those programs are being cut, and it's categorically unfair.

Let's talk a little more about Between Dreaming and Joy. You mentioned that you pulled these songs from disparate sources. So what was the throughline, or thesis? What made these songs swim together in the same tank?

When I was with Béla, one of the things I remember him talking about was the sequence of a record, and talking about how it really makes or breaks a record. It's really the flow, now that I think about it. 

I put a lot of effort into putting sequences together. The middle tune, "Spinning Plates," is just me — all me, all horns. I think there's percussion on there, and it's sort of the place where you would flip the record over. It's a breath between the first and second section of the record. I did it that way on purpose.

It's kind of the spirit of the tunes that [make them] work. "Vinnie the Crow" wouldn't have worked in any other place except for opening the record.

It's very strident. It has that swagger in it.

Yeah, and it has the only co-writer on the whole record: a drummer named Alex Clayton, who was living in Nashville and a Belmont student. He's turned me on to some really great s—. He was the first person who ever told me about Anderson .Paak and Donald Glover. He's really got his ear in these different places. 

He's a very, very dear friend. We were just hanging out and were like, "Let's write a tune." He had a groove, so I put some stuff down, and just kind of went from there.

But coming back to the sequence: I want it to be a journey. I don't want it to be the same tune written seven or eight different times. I wanted to touch on the different influences and interests I had musically, but not be so removed from the other tunes that it doesn't connect.

Because there's a bunch of stuff that I also wrote that's very global music-oriented. There's this one tune written off this traditional Peruvian folk melody that wouldn't have fit on this record. It's this really elaborate thing. I've got Brazilian percussion on it. There's some Afrobeat stuff that I did with Chester Thompson. 

There's a lot of pretty esoteric stuff, too. [Turns to publicist Lydia Liebman, Dave Liebman's daughter] Stuff your pops would be way more into than this kind of thing.

Jeff Coffin

Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas

I remember something Béla said to me years ago: "I'll never be an Indian musician. I'll never be an African musician. But I can bring those elements into what I do, and have them inspire the music that I make." 

And it's the same with Dave Matthews. He's from South Africa, and he went back in his early teens and grew up there for a number of years. His music is very influenced by that music — by those dances, by that structure of music, and there's a hybrid of things that are going on there. So, to me, using the term "jam band" for a group like that doesn't do it justice at all. I don't have any idea what you'd call it.

I love when they asked Miles about his music. They said it was jazz, but they said, "What should we call it?" He said, "Call it music." I'm totally down with that, and that's how I look at it. It's just music.

It's coming from different places I'm influenced by. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, et cetera, et cetera: they're all the same spirit. That's what I'm looking for in the music that I make, the players I play with, the way I'm putting something together. I like art that is mysterious — that I don't totally understand.

We first spoke for an article about Yusef Lateef. Given the sheer range of ethnic instruments you play on Between Dreaming and Joy, it seems like you're in his lineage. Can you talk about your ongoing process of learning new instruments and weaving them into your work — choosing what's appropriate and what isn't?

Here's the thing, too: I know a lot of people who play a lot of different instruments. Michael League was playing Moroccan frame drums, but everybody knows Michael from playing bass with Snarky Puppy. And the ngoni on "When Birds Sing" was played by a Moroccan woman named Sarah Ariche, who also sang. The title is kind about her, also: what she's doing is this angelic vocal stuff.

I'm really interested in a lot of different sounds. Some of this is also coming from people like Roland Kirk. This gets into a whole other tangent, but the idea of string theory is that everything is a vibration; therefore, everything is sound.

I have the tárogató I bought from Charles Lloyd; my bass flute is Yusef Lateef's. I feel like I'm just the curator of these instruments, because I'm always like, "This is Yusef Lateef's bass flute." I don't ever say, "This is my bass flute." [Same with] the tárogató. There's kind of a spirit imbued in the instruments.

You're calling out a spirit, even when the musician is alive and well — in Lloyd's case.

Right, yeah. I bought Yusef's main tenor and bass flute after he passed. The first time I played the tenor, I recorded it; I was like, I want to hear what happens the first time. And this tune came out. I called it "Yusef." And as I tell people, he left the tune in the horn. It's a very powerful tune. My hands were off of it.

For those who might know Dave or Béla but not be familiar with your solo work, with the Mutet or otherwise: how do you conceptualize it in relation to these household names? What's the nature of that isthmus between these two massive entities?

Let me take a step back. 

So, people ask about my influences. My main influences are people like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Ornette. Then there are the people I played with all these years, having spent 14 years with Béla, Victor Wooten and Roy Wooten — Future Man. And now, 14 years with Dave, [bassist] Stefan [Lessard], [trumpeter] Rashawn [Ross], [violinist] Boyd [Tinsley] when he was in the band, [drummer] Carter Beauford, [guitarist] Tim Reynolds, and now [keyboardist] Buddy Strong. 

I mean, we are creating every single night for three hours a night — playing some of the same music, but recreating it nightly also. So, there are no more profound influences on me than those players: the people that I play with at home, that I've had in my bands, where we're digging deep in a way that is proactive.

So, when I'm listening, I'm active in that process, but I'm not participatory in that process — in the sense that I'm not making music when I'm listening to a Coltrane record or whatever. But when I'm making music, I'm participatory; even if I'm being silent, I'm still part of what's going on. To me, that changes everything.

Jeff Coffin

Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas

Can you connect this to your experiences with Matthews and the Flecktones?

I remember that when I first started playing with Béla, I was like, "I don't know any of your music; your audience knows the music better than I do." Which was the same thing when I joined Matthews: "The audience" — they still do, actually — "knows all the words."

With the Flecktones, one of things that was an epiphany for me was that I would look out and see people dancing. We'd be playing in 13 or 17 or some crazy s—, or moving time signatures throughout the piece.

But what it made me realize is that it's all on up or down. It doesn't even matter. Like, even on the Matthews stuff, there's a tune called "Rapunzel." I remember the first time we heard it, when I was with Béla because we were doing the opening dates. 

We couldn't figure out the time signature. You have four great musicians who are listening to this and just going, "What is going on?" It's in five, but if you listen to it, you would not know that it's in five, unless you're really tuning in and going, "OK, I've got to figure this out," or watching somebody's foot, given the way Carter's playing polyrhythmically over it.

But, again, we joke about this: everything's in one. Just one-one-one-one-one-one. If the pulse is there, than it's going to feel good. It's going to make a mixed meter not feel like a mixed meter, because it's going to be all pulse. 

That's why I love African music so much; it's all pulse. You can feel it in six; you can feel it in two; you can feel it in three. You can also put different groupings; you can do sevens over the top. It all works, as long as the pulse is there.

It seems that you've conceptualized your solo work as an ongoing investigation of your influences.

I think that's a great way to put it: an ongoing investigation of my influences. Not only my immediate musical influences, but my historic musical influences also, and trying to see it from above. Not just the immediacy of it, but the things that are in the periphery also.

I'm kind of going, I wonder what would happen if I did this, and drop this in there. I wonder what the sound of bass flute and bass trumpet is. The tárogató was on the new Dave record also, and it's a Hungarian instrument, It's a wooden soprano, basically. It's like an English horn.

Sometimes, I'll also give myself parameters to work within. I was doing a livestream every Friday all the way through the pandemic. There were nights when I would be like, I'm going to start writing a song at six o'clock because my livestream is at seven. I'm going to get it done within an hour, play it for them on the livestream, and maybe play along.

I tried to bring them into my process of doing what I was doing. It was really fun. It was really, really challenging. And I didn't have any idea what the f— I was doing. 

So, it's really just about exploring and trying things. There's an element of randomness to it, but also an element of focus and "Let's try this and see what happens." I've always been really into pedals, envelope filters and harmonizers. Doing double-horn stuff. I've got this triplicate flute with one mouthpiece. I've got singing bowls and bells and gongs. I'm a total bell freak. Anything I can get my hands on that I can make music from, I'm going to try it.

Jeff Coffin

Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas

You've mentioned, like, 15 musical traditions and 150 instruments in this interview. Do you ever feel like you're still getting started in learning about all the music the world has to offer?

I do, actually, yeah. I feel more creative than I've ever felt in my life. 

But here's the thing, too: I play for a different reason now than I used to. I think that's partially because I'm able to articulate my own feelings better — not only verbally, but musically. When I was younger, I was playing from a different emotional place. Today, some of the reasons for playing are the same; some are very different. But I feel like I can make decisions based on experience.

I'm still wrong a lot, by the way, which is really interesting to me. I'll listen to a couple of tracks with some people, and I'll think: OK, I know the one that I like. I'll say, "What do you guys think?" and they'll both pick the other one. I'll be like, Oh, OK, great. Let's use that one. Good thing that wasn't up to me.

A year and a half ago, I went down to New Orleans and did a record with [drummer] Johnny Vidacovich, [saxophonist] Tony Dagradi and [drummer] James Singleton [of jazz quartet Astral Project]; Helen Gillet was on the cello on one tune. It's very, very different than this record. It's open and free.

I'm trying to mix it myself, and I've been working on it for a while. I think it sounds pretty good. But I'm not a mixing engineer, and those guys are wizards. So, I'm sitting around with some people, and I'm like, "Look, man, I want your brutally honest feedback. If it doesn't sound good, I want to know, because I'm trying to mix it."

I still second-guess myself on certain things, which I think is great, because I think that's how we learn also. You've got to keep making mistakes, because after a while, you find those successes in there. I think it's Vic Wooten who says something along these lines: "The only reason you don't succeed is because you eventually stop trying."

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

Photo: Brad Trent

interview

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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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.