True story: In late January 1991, along with about 25,000 folks peacefully protesting Desert Storm in front of the Federal building in San Francisco, I got to hear Joan Baez sing in person for the first and only time. To say the 75-year-old Baez, who lives in Northern California, has a beautiful voice is not merely an insult to understatement. It's like saying the Beatles were just a rock band.
Baez burst onto the pop and folk scene in 1959, and for the next few decades was one of the best-known female vocalists in the world. Her covers of "House of the Rising Sun" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by The Band will make the small hairs on the back of your neck stand up, as will her Any Day Now record, which she did in 1968 with ex-lover, Bob Dylan. Even though her voice has changed over the years, she's still one heck of a singer.
Flash ahead 25 years, and that beautiful voice is on the other end of the phone for a quick chat as Baez' November 1 appearance at Celebrity Theatre draws near. Here's what she had to say.
New Times: Joan, is your latest tour dedicated to our lord and savior Donald Trump?
Joan Baez: Well, I think you can probably answer that question.
I assume you've been following the news ...
I’m shamelessly addicted to the gossip. (laughs)
I can imagine. What do you make of all this?
In my wildest dreams, I could never have dreamed up the scenario we’re living through now. It is surreal. If he had gotten to the White House, we would be in seriously Hitlerian territory.
Can music heal us?
I think there are songs that can be sung to soothe the weary soul. I just started looking at a new song by Josh Ritter called “I Carried The Flame.” It goes through the black historical imagery and keeps coming back to “I carried the flame.” All of a sudden, it has more meaning than it did even six months ago.
Music shows solidarity, and it informs. I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed doing the most during my lifetime is putting those things together. I think that courage is contagious. Violence is contagious, but so is courage. Music can go alongside of the people who are taking the action and showing courage.
You're very well known for your cover songs. How do you decide what you want to sing? Do you know right away that a song is for you?
I think if I know that I’m interested, then I immediately start [learning it]. First I try to learn everything because I do it all by ear and I try to get everything down so I can transpose it to a key I can use.
How have you gone about choosing songs in your career?
The first 10 years, it was really mostly ballads and then some country and western, and then, of course, Dylan. Then I started writing about 10 years into the career. That was another whole phase, and I did that until about 25 years ago, when I started using other people’s material again. It’s always a song hunt.
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I’m going to make an album next year, so I kind of see which way the compass is pointing, and it looks as though [it's] pointing to songs that are kind of quirky and mystical and under the radar. At least that’s how it’s going right now. I can sometimes see right away if a song is going to work for me and sometimes not. Sometimes I have to work at it for awhile. When there’s no pressure, I dawdle, but if there is someone who says I need four songs by x amount of time, then there is a concentrated effort.
In the beginning, I didn't have to do anything. I'd just pick up a ballad and sing it. But now, I don't have that voice anymore. I don't have a soprano. Now I have an alto, and it's pretty rough around the edges. It's a different voice, but I like it. I like the low parts, but I'm not fond of the high parts I can't sing anymore. It's that fight with gravity, and it's in full gear.
I can totally understand that.
It's nice that someone some inkling of what I'm talking. Usually people say, "Oh, you should sing forever." I think, oh God, you have no idea. Sometimes my voice just wants to quit which isn't that far off now.
Do you still enjoy the recording process?
I do. I really do. I don't think I'll be recording many more. We're recording a new album now. If we can make it as good a bookend to the first one I did in 1959, I'll be really happy.