Judy Collins and Ari Hest: A Musical Partnership

In this exclusive interview, the pair talks about their intergenerational collaboration

Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

In January 2013, Judy Collins, then 73, had had virtually every soul-broadening experience a woman could have. Like the song she is most famous for, her harpsichord-infused 1967 cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” she’d seen life from “win and  lose, but still somehow” she prevailed.

A piano virtuoso as a child in Colorado, Collins had suffered depression. As a folksinger in the 1950s, she’d followed her English professor husband from college to college — and, during their divorce, briefly lost custody of her son Clark because judges then looked down on “working mothers.” Clark had been born when Collins was 19.

She marched for civil rights in the segregated South, helped build Second Wave feminism along with friends Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong and Marlo Thomas; and, by recording their songs, launched the careers of Mitchell and Leonard Cohen while debuting her own first compositions, the poignant “Since You Asked” and “Someday Soon.”

Collins endured a serious drinking problem for years — and for decades after, helped countless people maintain sobriety. She lost Clark to suicide in 1992 and wrote one of her several books, Sanity and Grace, about the tragedy. She had been happily married for 16 years to industrial designer, Louis Nelson. (They have now been together for 41 years.)

‘What a Voice!’

Yet on that day in early 2013, as she prepared to take the stage at a New York club, The Cutting Room, with 34 albums to her name, there was one thing Collins had never done: composed, sung and recorded with a partner.

Also at the Cutting Room that night was singer-songwriter Ari Hest. Then 32, he was almost 41 years younger than Collins. He had been hired to open for her, but they’d not yet met.

Still, Hest’s birth owed a poetic debt to Judy Collins. His parents, both musicians (his mother was a cantor in a temple; his father, an arranger and sax player) had fallen in love to Collins’ “Since You Asked” and used it as their wedding song.

A baritone who often soulfully uses falsetto, Hest was raised in the comfortable New York City suburb of Riverdale. He graduated from NYU in 2002, the year that Collins was celebrating 40 years as a performer.

Hest wrote sophisticated, thoughtful music — from folky ballads to more passionate numbers which, as one reviewer put it, are about “a refusal to give in to darkness.” He released two Columbia albums (Someone to Tell  in 2004 andThe Break-In in 2007) before the label dropped him. In 2012, he released Sunset Over Hope Street and The Fire Plays on a different label.

As they were singing, Collins says, she felt, “I can’t imagine anybody in my life that I can sing with like this, and I’ve been singing for a long time.”

Sitting in her dressing room, Collins listened to the little-known young opening singer. “I thought, ‘What a voice!’” says Collins, who was about to go on tour soon. “I knew I wanted to ask him to come with me, to be my opener.” (Of her quick decisions, she says, “I don’t analyze; I utilize.”)

“I was so excited to meet her that night,” Hest says. “I had grown up exposed, through my parents, to sixties and seventies music: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon  and Judy.”

When Collins asked Hest to join her tour, he was deeply flattered.

A Rare Musical Match

Before the tour started, Collins did her homework on Hest. “I listened to his album The Fire Plays and was struck by a number of the songs,” including the melancholic title song, she says. “There was something very mysterious and interesting about his writing.”

During the tour, on the stop in Ireland after a great show in Alaska, Collins asked Hest if he wanted to sing with her.

“I thought she just wanted me to do harmony on her set. But it turned out she wanted us to do The Fire Plays together,” he says. “It was an amazing experience, opening the show at an Irish castle, singing my song with Judy.”

Collins says that her elegiac soprano and his emotionally rich lower tone “brought something so deeply personal in the match of our voices. It was a match that does not come often in life but when it comes, you know it — and it can have nothing to do with age. It comes from the heart.”

As they were singing, Collins says, she felt, “I can’t imagine anybody in my life that I can sing with like this, and I’ve been singing for a long time.”

When Collins listened to Hest’s song, Strangers Again,” she thought the eloquent ballad “was one of the best love songs ever written.”

Later, Collins recorded that song with Hest, and doing so inspired her to record a series of duets of other songs with men who were her peers in age and fame: Willie Nelson, Michael McDonald, Jackson Browne, Jeff Bridges and her former beau, Stephen Stills. The album, Strangers Again, and featuring her duet with Hest, was released in 2015 and a critically acclaimed hit.

“I had never done a duet before!” she marvels. “Oh, maybe I had sung with Joan Baez decades ago; but hearing Ari sing and listening to his discography, I got very turned on to my own songwriting. It was like waking up to something.”

Leonard Cohen had encouraged Collins to start writing songs 45 years earlier; now, getting to know Hest’s work inspired her to compose again. She began “writing more songs than I’d written in the previous fifty years.”

The Power of Cross-Generational Partnerships

Collins’ long success is stunning, especially for a female popular performer. She has just had a resurgence: Her new album, Winter Stories, with Jonas Fjeld and the Chatham Country Line, was recently Billboard’s No. 1 on the Bluegrass charts: her first No. 1 in 55 years. Her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” on the album has been critically acclaimed.

That rare endurance has been based on certain positivity lessons, as Hest has gleaned. “I’ve noticed how she emphasizes the strengths of her performances instead of harping on any mistakes. That was an important, but difficult lesson for me as I’ve tended to be hard on myself if I’m not flawless all the time. I’ve worked to be more like Judy that way,” he says.

Hest continues, “I’ve learned so much from Judy. She doesn’t waste a day. She’s always pushing herself to create and she’s been doing this for such a long time.” Although Collins is four decades older, Hest recognizes that “her schedule is much more rigorous than mine. It’s been inspiring and motivating to me.”

Clearly, Judy Collins deeply believes in cross-generational partnerships.

“We need younger people in our lives!” she says. “Fresh blood, new ideas, younger spirits. It’s necessary! It’s very, very important to keep talking to each other!”

Collins learned that from her own youth. In her early twenties, she says, “I was always talking to my wise and much older manager, Harold Leventhal.” During some of those long-ago drama-and angst-laden days, Collins recalls, “Harold and many older people told me, `Don’t give up! Keep going!’ It was so helpful!”

Bonding Over Shared Experiences

Candor and self-revelation are also practices Hest learned from his much older musical partner. “Judy has invited me to be open about things I am going through. She’s gone through quite a bit! Her talking freely about it all draws me in more. I’m basically an introvert, but when I’m around her I lose that personality trait a little,” says Hest.

The two have talked about Hest’s having been dropped by Columbia Records. Collins says, “What idiots they were to send him packing!”

She also shared with him her own bad experiences from when she was younger. Coincidentally, Collins says, “Columbia dropped my 1989 album, Fires of Eden, from its catalogue a few weeks after it was released.”

Hest says, “When you go through a difficult experience with a record label, it is a comfort to know that others — longtime pros — have had similar experiences. In that way, we bonded.”

He added, “It’s kinda funny that it was the same label that we both had struggles with,” and they both laughed.

‘Like Family to Me’

In 2016, the pair wrote and recorded an album together, Silver Skies Blue.

They often worked at Collins’ New York apartment. “Ari and I were looking over each other’s shoulders, adding lines when the major part of a song was thought out by one of us,” she says. “The other would consult and change, with generosity.”

Hest says that during the writing of the album, and in the whole process of their collaboration, “Judy became like family to me.”

In fact, “There were many moments during the years I’ve known her when [our connection] had nothing to do with music,” adds Hest.

Hest and his wife, Chrissi Poland, also a singer-songwriter, have a one-year-old daughter Nova. “I send Judy pictures of my daughter weekly, I tell Judy how she’s doing and every time we’re in the city (the couple lives in Massachusetts) during Judy’s off-tour time, we try to meet up,” he says.

“There were many moments during the years I’ve known her when [our connection] had nothing to do with music,” adds Hest.

“I feel like an aunt to Nova,” Collins says enthusiastically, adding “Chrissi is wonderful. Louis and I have become very close to them.”

Once or twice, during a writing session that turned into a conversation about young children, Hest says, “Judy has talked to me about her early memories of her son.” He pauses. Because of Clark’s suicide, that bittersweet memory “was something I never expected to get to with Judy,” he says.

Collins stayed calm and reflective when sharing those memories with Hest. She has become such a lodestar for dealing with this type of grief that other mothers of prominent men who died by suicide have reached out to her.

By contrast, “I immediately burst out in tears,” Collins says, “when Ari told me that `Since You Asked’ was his parents’ wedding song.”

When Hest introduced Collins to his parents, he recalls that “because she’s so approachable, whatever jitters they may have had disappeared. They felt comfortable with her and have since then had conversations with her outside of small talk.”

At the Grammy Awards

After the release of Silver Skies Blue in 2016, the pair toured together and were a hit. “I think people liked the contrast of ages,” Collins says.

Toward the end of  2016, Collins and Hest learned Silver Skies Blue had been nominated for a Grammy Award as Best Folk Album. It was Hest’s first Grammy nomination and the first for Collins in 44 years.

At the ceremony in February 2017, they walked the red carpet with their spouses, Collins’ sister and other family members.

Hest says Collins made him less nervous, and she says “Ari made me feel that I belonged. The time, the day, the dress — even the air in Los Angeles: it was perfect.”

For Collins and Hest, their intergenerational musical partnership has led to a deeply rewarding collaboration. And amidst everything else they are doing creatively — which they have inspired one another to do — the pair continues to write together.

By Sheila Weller
Sheila Weller is the author of eight critically acclaimed books, including three New York Times bestsellers including Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon -- and the Journey of a Generation and her latest, Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge. She has won nine major awards for her magazine journalism.

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