JOAN BAEZ: INTERVIEW
She just keeps overcoming
November 8, 2008
Never mind where all the flowers went. Where will all the protest
singers go? On Jan. 20, 2009, George W. Bush, the muse, will leave
office, leaving gripe-based balladeers with much less fodder. With
the election of Barack Obama - fairly a folk singer himself, what
with his hit ditty Yes We Can - the war-happy president and easy
target for lefty troubadours may be missed most by those who earned
their living yelling at him to leave.
Joan Baez, who knows which way the wind blows, finds humour in the
irony. "I've always been at my best when I've worn two hats -
political and musical - at the same time," says the 67-year-old
artist, who has even sung for anti-war protesters near the
President's ranch in Crawford, Tex. "So, you can say Bush was the
best publicity agent I ever had in my life."
The We Shall Overcomesinger - who plays Toronto's Massey Hall tonight
on the only Canadian stop of her current tour - has a new album, the
graceful Day After Tomorrow, produced by the outspoken Steve Earle.
The record takes its name from Tom Waits's eloquent dissent against
the invasion of Iraq, written from a soldier's perspective.
Elvis Costello and T-Bone Burnett's mandolin-sprinkled Scarlett Tide,
first sung by Alison Krauss on the soundtrack to the Civil War-set
Cold Mountain from 2003, is the album's other protest song - "Man
goes beyond his own decision/ Gets caught up in the mechanism/ Of
swindlers, who act like kings/ And brokers, who break everything."
Other tracks include ones written by Patty Griffin, Eliza Gilkyson,
and three from Earle.
Baez's disc isn't the only tuneful daisy in a gun barrel of late.
Richie Havens's Nobody Left to Crown includes a cover of Pete
Townshend's Won't Get Fooled Again, an all-purpose anthem against
just about anything. Maria Muldaur rallies with the pan-protest Yes
We Can!, and there's little doubt who the current "big fool" is in
89-year-old Pete Seeger's rerecorded Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.
Alt-country queen Lucinda Williams just issued the digital-only EP Lu
in '08, with live versions of her favourite screeds, and Chicago
hardcore outfit Rise Against lives up to its name with Appeal to
Reason. From Tennessee songwriter Todd Snider has come the offbeat
Peace Queer. And if Mavis Staples's Live: Hope at the Hideout is not
war-oriented, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Déjà Vu Live certainly
is, with pointed insurgency in the form of Let's Impeach the
President and Looking For a Leader.
As for déjà vu, Baez well remembers when the Vietnam War ended in
1975, a development that left flower-powered balladeers in a
temporary lurch. "War defined our days," says Baez, speaking from her
home in Woodside, Calif. "It was day after day after day for so long."
It's almost sacrilegious to suggest that an anti-war singer would
harbour even a twinge of regret over an armistice, but Baez is candid
on the subject. "I think anybody who was honest about what had
happened to them felt disorientated when the war was over," she
admits. "You can't help but think, 'What do I do now? How do I be
useful now?' "
As the post-Katrina deluge of melodious protests showed, there are
always causes to fight for. Baez herself has never been a one-trick
troubadour, supporting movements in civil rights, human rights and
environmental causes. Still, by the 1980s, she was without a U.S.
record deal, and began to question her role in contemporary music:
"You're so cocooned in your own style and your own crowd, and all of
a sudden you either catch on to that and try to bring yourself up, or
you do oldies the rest of your life." Baez, resolving to remain
current, hired her first manager. "I knew I wasn't ready to quit singing."
It took time, but by 1992, the singer was back on a major label. Dark
Chords on a Big Guitar, from 2003, found the barefoot Madonna
interpreting brooding material by much younger songwriters, including
Ryan Adams and Joe Henry. The cover art - Baez in sunglasses and
leather - strongly hinted at the album's modern, rock-orientated production.
Listening to Thea Gilmore's The Lower Road on the new album, you
wonder how much longer Baez will carry on. The song is a weary
curtain-closer, with lines about parts being played out, about
rolling on and going home. Yet this is a woman who lives with her
96-year-old mother. Genes predict a long future for Baez, who also
has a backyard tree house to keep her young. "I have to clamour to
get up it," she says, referring to the regular exercise involved in
spending time above ground. And while the voice is a notch lower than
the crystalline tone of decades ago - "gravity," she says - Baez
functions fine artistically.
Yet she maintains her career is closing. "It gets harder and harder
to sing as you get older," she explains, with a light laugh. "There's
more maintenance and coaching, and I'd like to enjoy some of these
years, without working."
So, the fight is almost done for Baez, and a new U.S. leader offers
hope that a war has its end in sight too. But don't cry for
out-of-work protest singers. If Baez is anyone to go by, they shall overcome.
Obama Win Gives Baez Something To Sing About
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008
The iconic folk singer Joan Baez opened her Wednesday night concert
at the Birchmere with a civil rights anthem that suddenly sounded
celebratory: "We Shall Overcome," the old protest song whose message
of resolve and sweeping social change played like a valedictory in
the wake of Barack Obama's election.
Forty-five years ago, at the Lincoln Memorial, Baez famously sang "We
Shall Overcome" as she stood beside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
during the March on Washington. Now, she was heralding the ascendancy
of the country's first black president, and you didn't have to be a
graying hippie to be nearly overwhelmed by the symbolism and symmetry.
The a cappella performance was stunning, even though her clarion
soprano has lost some of its once-breathtaking power and lift. At 67,
Baez works mostly in her middle range now, but she can still sound
like an angel.
If her performance Wednesday -- though warm and comforting -- lacked
the bell-like clarity that was her signature in the '60s, there was a
good reason: "My voice is a little scratchy 'cause I screamed all
night," she told the capacity crowd, which hollered its approval. (A
second sold-out show was scheduled for last night at the Birchmere.)
Baez began performing 50 years ago in the Boston area, and
Wednesday's set was constructed as something of a
survey-cum-celebration of her long career. For more than 90 minutes,
she sang songs both political and personal, from the bright bluegrass
of one of her first recorded songs, "Lily of the West," and a
powerful cover of the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,"
to multiple songs from her latest album, "Day After Tomorrow," so new
that Baez needed to consult a lyric sheet during the Steve Earle song
"I Am a Wanderer."
Inspired by an audience member who'd asked about the first song she'd
ever written, Baez dusted off "Sweet Sir Galahad," which she
performed solo acoustic, lending a striking intimacy to the
performance. Mostly, though, she sang with a superlative three-piece
string band whose Appalachian instrumentation suited her vocals
Back in the day, when she sang on the front lines of the civil rights
and antiwar movements, Baez earned a reputation as one of the most
earnest figures in popular culture (prompting the "Saturday Night
Live" skit "Make Joan Baez Laugh"). Though there was a decided
sincerity to much of the music Wednesday night, Baez also flashed a
wicked wit -- particularly when it came to her former paramour Bob
Dylan, whose nasal singing style she mocked during a version of his
own "Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word."
In fact, Baez was in exceptionally high spirits on the evening after
the historic presidential election, peppering the 22-song set with
humorous stories about her nonagenarian mother, her friendship with
King and her reaction to Obama's victory, which was to rush screaming
from her hotel wearing an animal-print robe.
But, she said, upon seeing that there weren't many like-minded people
on the streets of Alexandria, aside from the guys in her band, she
jumped into a taxi and headed into Washington. She wound up in the
celebratory scrum near the White House, hugging strangers and still
wearing that robe.
We shall overcome, but we shall not overdress.
Visions of Joan
On a terrific new album produced by Steve Earle, folk legend Joan
Baez revisits the life-affirming balladry of her debut.
By JON BREAM, Star Tribune
Last update: November 7, 2008
They seem an unlikely pairing -- Joan Baez, the crystalline-voiced
queen of folk, and alt-country hero Steve Earle, the once-notorious
"last of the hard-core troubadours."
But at 67, Baez is winning rave reviews for her terrific, eloquent
new collaboration with Earle, "Day After Tomorrow."
An oft-married, recovering drug addict, Earle, 53, has a reputation
as an opinionated, confrontational, cantankerous sort. But like Baez,
he's also an activist who has crusaded for justice and peace.
"They say he's gruff, etcetera, but he was a pussycat with me," said
Baez, who comes to Minneapolis for a concert Thursday. "I didn't have
a whole lot of resistance to just about anything he brought up. He
picked [the musicians], he's worked with them, he knows how they get
along with each other. They just had an intuitive knack. I knew with
him there wouldn't be any fuss, there wouldn't be any diva business."
Baez doesn't recall when she discovered Earle's music. "Long enough
ago that I can't remember," she said. He was her opening act on tour
a decade ago, and she started performing his song "Christmas in
Washington," which she recorded in 2003. A year later, she gave him
an award in England.
The idea of his producing her album was hatched over lunch by Earle
and Baez's manager. She said she instantly agreed because of Earle's
musicality and because "both of us are planted in the earth."
Earle provided three of his own songs for the album, and Baez, with
the aid of her manager, chose tunes by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello,
Eliza Gilkyson and Patty Griffin.
"It wasn't a bunch of protest songs," said Baez. "The feeling was to
have it be a bookend to the very beginning of my career. And it kind
of is. It has the feeling of the ballad days, but it's completely
'I live in the cup-half-empty'
"Day After Tomorrow" is her 24th studio album.
Legendary Joan Baez voices hope for tomorrow
By LEN RIGHI, McClatchy
First published in print: Thursday, November 6, 2008
From the outset of her career a half-century ago, Joan Baez has
possessed a distinctive, spine-tingling three-octave voice.
A vessel of purity and a tower of strength, her soprano helped spark
the folk revival of the early 1960s and supported the decade's civil
rights and peace movements with transcendent versions of "We Shall
Overcome" and "Amazing Grace."
It enthralled hundreds of thousands at the Woodstock music festival
in 1969; made pop hits of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and
"Diamonds & Rust" (a look back at her ill-fated affair with Bob
Dylan) in the 1970s; opened the U.S. segment of Live Aid in
Philadelphia in 1985, and overcame a power outtage ordered by
communist authorities at a music festival in Czechoslovakia in 1989
because she dared to greet members of a dissident human rights group.
Baez is now 67, and in September she released, "Day After Tomorrow,"
the 24th studio album of her career and her first in five years. On
it, Baez applies her still-formidable instrument to 10 Spartanly
arranged songs by the likes of Tom Waits, Eliza Gilkyson, Patty
Griffin, Elvis Costello and Steve Earle, who produced and contributed
three tunes, two specifically written for the disc.
In a phone conversation from her home in Woodside, Calif., where she
lives with her 96-year-old mother, Baez says keeping her voice in
singing shape "is a lot of work. Early in my career, nothing was
difficult. Then gravity moves in."
Baez sounds a little embarrassed discussing the subject, but she
plows ahead. "If I didn't have coaching, I couldn't do what I do,"
she says. "I had a voice coach for 22 years. Then he died, so I
started to use tapes he had made. I thought that was enough, but I
realized it was impossible. I now work with a lovely woman. She's
friendly, and we have a very happy relationship. But some of the
exercises she makes me do. ... I see her once every two weeks, and
when I can't, I have two mini-discs that I use and I drag in
something from my (deceased) teacher and a couple of others in
between that didn't last."
Before she performs live, Baez says she exercises for 20 or 30
minutes. "It's always very humiliating," she adds sheepishly. "I
never used to have to practice singing when I was young. I used to
just open my trap and out it came."
Baez's voice is more than up to the challenge on "Day After
Tomorrow," even though she admits having to work harder on some songs
than others. "'The Lower Road' (by British singer-songwriter Thea
Gilmore), I loved it the first time I heard it, even though I still
don't know what it means," says Baez. "But there were a couple of
notes I had trouble with."
Conversely, Baez notes, she was immediately attracted to the CD's
title track, written by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan. "I knew
it was right for me," she says of the touching ballad about a young
American soldier longing for home, "and it was easy to sing."
Asked how she came to work with Earle on "Day After Tomorrow," Baez
says that about a year ago, the roots rocker and her manager "had
dinner somewhere. He came back and asked, 'Do you two guys want to
work together on an album?' My answer was an immediate yes."
Baez first met Earle when he opened a concert for her 10 years ago,
"and after that I got to know him in little bits and pieces." The
casual relationship changed when Baez started performing Earle's
"Christmas in Washington," which she recorded on her 2003 studio
album, "Dark Chords on a Big Guitar." "Of the songs in my concerts
that got the two or three strongest responses, 'Christmas' was one of
them, and it didn't matter which country," says Baez. "And then I
started singing (Earle's) 'Jerusalem,' " which she included on her
2005 live album, "Bowery Songs."
In choosing which songs to record, Baez says her manager, Mark
Spector, "does the serious hunting. He goes through every single
thing. I've learned over the years to trust him."
For "Day After Tomorrow," Baez started with a list of about 20 songs.
She recorded 13 tracks before deciding on the 10 that made the cut.
Baez identifies Gilkyson's haunting "Rose of Sharon" as "possibly my
favorite song to sing. When we became conscious of what this album
was going to be about looking for something new that felt old
that really fit the bill."
Asked about Earle's "God Is God," which declares "I believe in God,
and God ain't me," Baez answers, "At first I didn't understand what
he meant. Then Steve told me, 'It's recovery-speak, you know,
a-power-greater-than-myself.' ... He said, 'I don't have no problem
with God.' I found that refreshing. Some people think it's a touchy,
girly thing to believe in God."
Baez calls "Scarlet Tide," co-written by Costello and T-Bone Burnett,
"this little gem. I don't remember how it found its way into my life.
It's very clearly an anti-administration song. We took out a few
words to make it less specific."
Baez says she is relieved that Dubya and his cronies are finally on
the way out, and believes if Barack Obama is elected, "there's a
possibility that compassion and sacrifice will find their way back
into our vocabulary.
"He gives younger people a chance to identify with someone in
politics, including my son (Gabe), who could care less about
politics. He's really intelligent and really eloquent, which may be
why he loses the election. He's a statesman. Plus, he gives me the
feeling I had when (Martin Luther) King spoke. I'm not comfortable
endorsing anyone, but I believe he's a person I could sit down with.
He has picture of Gandhi in his office."
Though not known for her sense of humor "Saturday Night Live" once
ran a skit with a game show titled "Make Joan Baez Laugh!" Baez
chuckles when asked if she has seen the folk-music mockumentary "A
Mighty Wind." "I saw bits of it on the (tour) bus. It is very, very
funny, but it also pushed a lot of other (emotional) buttons at the same time."
Did she recognize anyone in the movie?
"Oh, yes," Baez replies, playfully and coyly.
But unfortunately, this time her voice remains silent.
Legendary singer Joan Baez says she's finally happy
By Shanon Cook
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Joan Baez is in a celebratory mood. And rightly so:
She's survived 50 years in show business.
The legendary singer, who rose to fame during the folk movement of
the 1950s and 1960s, is marking the occasion with a new album called
"Day After Tomorrow." Produced by Steve Earle (whom Baez likes to
call "Mister Gruff"), it's a collection of bluegrass-tinged songs
reminiscent of her early repertoire.
"We were looking for songs that feel like now but sound like back
then," she said.
Earle penned one of the album's standout tracks, "God Is God," which
he describes as "recovery speak." Baez also covers "Scarlet Tide," a
song written by Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett for the 2003 film
At 67, Baez finds her voice may not have the sheer power it did in
her 20s, but her political spirit is intact. She passionately
expressed her support for Barack Obama during the presidential
campaign, the first time the self-described pacifist has taken sides
in party politics.
"I haven't heard an orator like that since King," she said. Baez knew
the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and famously sang the protest song
"We Shall Overcome" to a massive crowd at the Lincoln Memorial during
King's 1963 March on Washington.
Baez spoke to CNN about sustaining her voice and finding happiness in
her 60s. The following is an edited version of that interview, which
was conducted before Tuesday's election.
CNN: What did Steve Earle bring to the table with your new album?
Joan Baez: Oh, everything but the voice. Spirit, some songs. His
gruffness to my non-gruffness. He worked fast, really fast, and I
like that. And he brought the musicians. I don't know who to choose
for musicians. We were a good match.
CNN: Is there a song on the album that speaks to you more than others?
Baez: I guess the ones I go back listening to are "God Is God" and
"Rose of Sharon." "Rose of Sharon" sounds exactly like an old folk
song. I wouldn't have guessed in a million years that it's contemporary.
CNN: How does it feel to be embarking on a new tour at such a
politically charged time?
Baez: I've never seen this country this politically charged. I
realized something this morning. I was watching Obama on TV and I
thought, "I really love this guy." I love what he's capable of, I
love that he's genuine. He's a statesman, and he's brilliant. People
say do you think he can change America? He already has. ...
And I know most of the things he'll have to do I would battle him to
the death. He's going to be commander in chief of the Army, Navy and
Air Force, and I'm a pacifist [laughs].
CNN: So you would almost prefer that he didn't run for president,
that his talents could be applied in other ways?
Baez: Yeah. I've thought that, yeah. Part of me wishes very strongly
that Obama would be outside the system and his hands would be less tied.
CNN: In the '50s and '60s, you lived and breathed the causes you
rallied behind. When you look at young musicians today, do you feel
they're attaching themselves to charities or causes because it's hip,
rather than meaningful?
Baez: I think it's probably a combination of things. I think people
are afraid of risk so they'll [only] go so far. But I don't think
people have felt the urgency that we felt in the '60s. But it's
there. The urgency is there. There's a need for community, but we
don't feel it.
CNN: Why is that?
Baez: That we don't feel it? Because we live more and more
separately. Kids are walking down the street plugged in [to personal
electronics]. The only place there's community really is in the
ghetto, where they need each other and they know it. We need each
other, and we don't know it.
CNN: You look back at all the causes you've rallied behind, and there
have been so many. ...
Baez: It makes me dizzy.
CNN: [Do] you feel emotionally wrung out?
Baez: No. It's the opposite. What happens is it starts generating
energy for myself.
There's some part of me that's wiped out. I feel that sometimes.
CNN: Do you find you have to work harder to keep your voice in shape?
Baez: Oh God, yeah. It was very humiliating to find out that I was
like everybody else in the world and that I had to get coaching. And
now it's a real issue. I have to do [vocal exercises] every day,
especially on tour. It's pretty exhausting.
CNN: Would you say that life in your 60s is easier than life in your
20s and 30s?
Baez: Oh God, yes. ... I was a highly neurotic kid, not particularly
happy, which probably accounts for all those beautiful songs, those
beautiful sad ballads. I found my home there.
And as the years went by and as the therapy went on I was holding
together. And then at around 50, I decided to fall apart and find the
pieces and put them back where they should've been. And I did. And I
did what I thought was impossible, which was really drag the stuff
up, look at it, go through all that and then each time I did that ...
it became a daily thing with the therapist ... to find out something
huge. Go through the terror, go through all of it and then by the end
of the week something had changed a little bit. This went on for a
number of years.
So I am now in a stage nothing like where I was before then. There's
no stage fright now. Just the joy of singing.
CNN: You're happy being single, aren't you?
Baez: Yeah. After all I've been through, I don't want to risk [pats
her heart]. I mean I feel so extraordinary, so much better. And you
know if something walked into my life that feels right ... the
question is, am I ready to see it or not? I'm sure it's wandered by
me a few times. But at some point maybe I'll be ready to see that in
which case it would be a good thing. ...
[In] Buddhism there's no real happiness without the struggle. But the
struggle has to defeat you in a way [before] you get to be like the
Dalai Lama. You know those monks all giggle? All the time! They've
got it figured out. Because things are what they are on Earth, and
you be as good as you can, and you die, it's the next life. So what's
the big f****** deal?