Folk singer Judy Collins made her recording debut in 1961 with “A Maid of Constant Sorrow.” She’s now 79 years old and has since released nearly 40 albums. Collins is a national treasure, and she’ll be performing at Aura in Portland on Saturday night.
I can’t remember the first time I heard Collins sing. Her voice has simply always been a part of my life. I certainly remember being a kid and seeing her on “The Muppet Show,” where she sang, among a frankly bizarre gang of puppets, “Send in the Clowns.” Once in adulthood, I came to understand what an important artist she was – and continues to be.
Collins’s fifth album, “Wildflowers,” from 1967, features her rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” She won a Grammy Award for best folk performance for it, and it’s one of countless examples of why Collins is considered to be one of the most striking vocalists of the past several decades. In 1976, Stephen Sondheim won a Grammy for song of the year for Collins’s recording of his poignant ballad “Send in the Clowns.”
Collins said in a telephone interview from her longtime home in New York City that fans can expect to hear both of these songs at her Portland show where she’ll be accompanied by her longtime pianist Russell Walden. Collins added, that along with the hits, she’ll likely throw in some tunes from her 2017 “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim” album, as well as a few from “Stills & Collins,” an album she made with Stephen Stills that also came out last year. “I’ll probably do ‘Everybody Knows’ (Leonard Cohen) and ‘River of Gold,’ ” the latter which she wrote herself, she said.
Besides her esteemed career as a musician, Collins has authored 10 books, including “Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength” (2003) and “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music” (2011). The latter is not only a comprehensive look back at her career, but also a candid portrait of her alcoholism.
Her latest book, published last year, is called “Cravings: How I Conquered Food.” A few days before my scheduled conversation with Collins, I tracked down a copy of the book at a local shop and, no pun intended, devoured it in two days. Food addiction is a very real struggle for me, and I couldn’t wait to read Collins’s spin on it.
“Cravings” is a riveting and enlightening read that weaves her life story in with chapters about diet gurus whose programs she has acquainted herself with through the years. Collins also traces, in unflinching detail, the origins and manifestations of her eating disorder.
The book’s introduction includes these passages: “As an active, working alcoholic with an eating disorder, I yearned for serenity and was tormented for much of my life by longings, addictions and painful crises over food: bingeing, bulimia, weight loss and gain. I was determined from an early age that I would never get fat. I would rather die. I have a condition that I have learned is an illness, like alcoholism, like other addictions. It is not a moral failing, but a true disease.”
Collins said her motivation to write “Cravings” was to help people who share her struggle. “I wanted to talk about what I’d been through so that people would know that there was an easier, softer way than bouncing through every diet known to man,” she said.
Collins believes that the issue of addiction being an “allergy” is something that people don’t talk about. “You’ve got a lot of talk nowadays about gluten-free this and gluten-free that, but really it has to do with the five foods that are in alcohol that turn alcohol into an addictive substance and that turn our bodies into a brewery, and they create the allergy and the compulsion,” she said.
Those five foods, Collins said, are sugar, grain, flour, corn and wheat. She avoids them all and sticks to protein, vegetables, salad and fruit, and her meals are always carefully planned. “I wanted people to know, in short, that the allergy piece is the same piece that has to do with why alcoholics cannot stop drinking and that there was another way to look at this,” she said.
For Collins, the answer was getting into a 12-step recovery program, which she’s been part of for more than three decades. “It’s free, and if you know what to stay away from, you can help yourself make clearer decisions. … Eating disorders are frightful, and they’re just as dangerous as alcoholism, and many people kill themselves because they’re either obesely overweight, anorexic or bulimic.” Collins said she would be happy if even one person reads “Cravings” and finds some help in it.
I asked Collins if she thinks that her music career wouldn’t have survived had she not dealt with her alcoholism and food addiction. She said she wasn’t sure but that dealing with one’s health and one’s artistry certainly goes hand in hand. “I do believe that many of our lives are involved with rehabilitation,” she said. “Life is rehab. You’ve got to be learning at all times, and if part of that is getting new habits to restructure the old habits, then that’s part of it.”
What’s next for Collins? She continues to play several shows a year, and her productivity would impress at any age. She’s writing a lot of songs, will do more shows with Stephen Stills and is brainstorming about her next book. “I’m trying to figure out what’s next because I like to have a book going. It may be about addiction, it may be about recovery, it may be about my father, I don’t know, but I’ll settle on one of these projects one of these days.” It came as no surprise to hear that Collins is also working on a Broadway show.
8 p.m. Saturday. Aura, 121 Center St., Portland, $40 to $65, 18-plus. auramaine.com