Joan Baez | Interview with the ‘Queen of Folk’
By Chantelle Frampton
Joan Baez is undoubtedly one of the most influential and politically charged musicians of modern time. From civil rights marches in the 1960s to performing at Women’s Marches in 2017, Baez’s music has become synonymous with activism and politics.
She boasts a coveted spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: as well as collaborations with some of the music industry’s greats, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. With the release of her first album in ten years Whistle Down The Wind and her Fare Thee Well Tour well underway, CultureHUB had the pleasure of catching up with Joan before her tour date at Belfast’s Waterfront.
You have been playing music to your fans for years. Is there a bittersweetness that the Fare Thee Well tour will be your final tour? What are your feelings surrounding it?
It probably will be, I haven’t really thought that far ahead. But, I will still be able to go sing, you know go places and do special events and even do a concert if I want. What I’m saying Fare Thee Well to is six weeks on a bus, two hours standing up and singing, all the preparation of the voice which is now just so time-consuming and difficult. I want to be able to slow down on all of that, and I think it’s been, what? 60 years that I’ve been doing this, so I think it’s really time to stop the difficult part. I do love it though. I’m settled in with my tour family, there are eight of us with sound, lights, musicians and the tour manager. It’s just a wonderful crew, so we look forward to being together, and I am sure there will be elements of this that will be difficult when we break up.
Poetry is my second love after music. I have always thought there were remnants of Walt Whitman and James Joyce in your song-writing. Are either poets of any influence to your writing? Have your influences remained the same over the years or do they change?
You know, if they’re prominent it is something that I didn’t even really notice. I don’t read much particularly, and I don’t read much poetry. It is rare that I would like it enough to keep reading. So, I would like to say that I have been influenced by the greats, but I would also have to say I’m too stupid to read. I really haven’t written anything for over 25 years so what I did back then was probably images. I would sit down at the piano or guitar and have some kind of impulse, or some kind of idea. When I wrote it just came very easily and when it stopped I considered that ‘it’ stopped, I didn’t stop it. It kind of just vanished, and I didn’t feel like going to school or learning how to write songs, I just moved onto something else. I was glad there were always wonderful writers out there.
Music was my first insight into politics and understanding the political struggles that were happening. The 60s is such an iconic era for political activism and music was a huge way to channel that. Do you think that still stands now? If not, how does it differ from the 60s?
I think what happened in the 60s was kind of an implosion because it was music and politics and talent. I mean, there was so much extraordinary talent in that period and so one of the problems when people really want to re-live that, is you can have all the best feelings and politics in the world; but if somebody doesn’t come up with ‘Blowing in the Wind’ or ‘Imagine’, then you need that anthem. I suspect it will come out, possibly even of the Florida students in the States. The ones that are so active and have actually shocked everybody into making some changes. It is usually that kind of activism and insight and excitement – that it’s possible a song would come out of that.
Following on from that, do you think musicians such as yourself have a duty to speak up about important issues for their fans?
I think the problem with saying ‘it’s a duty’ – is that it turns people off, so what I would say is that the activism mixed with the music is what has made my life worth living. Music is wonderful, and I think if I hadn’t been able to fuse it with my own personal feelings about non-violence and social change, it would have been a little bit superficial for me. They say ‘walk the talk’ and doing what it is that I’m singing about, it’s what made it valuable for me.
Your album Whistle Down The Wind is your first since 2008’s Day After Tomorrow, was there anything in particular that triggered your decision to record this – or was it a long-time coming?
It was heading towards the Fare Thee Well tour and I was thinking ‘whoops’ I need to do, and I wanted to do, another album for the ten years before it. Unless I was really triggered to do this album, then I wasn’t going to do it. Then all of a sudden it became very high on the list of things to do. So, my assistant, my manager, and friends just start digging, and you know a couple of those songs that were like miracles, I mean another world. The track, ‘The President Sang Amazing Grace’, I just happened to hear on the radio by this young woman songwriter.
Whistle Down the Wind is a stunning album, that in my opinion, channelled so much raw emotion that can be interpreted in so many ways by each listener. ‘Last Leaf’ was my personal favourite track on the album. What is it about this album that made you think, ‘yes’ this is the final album I wish to leave with the world?
You know what, I think it’s better. I think it’s just an especially good album. I mean I always have a reaction after the album is done, I’m pleased or medium pleased or very excited. This one really surpasses a lot of other albums that have come out. It’s kind of interesting because people like it in a different way. More people seem to receive it. So, you know, I don’t know. I didn’t actually say this was the last one, it’s what got printed. It probably is, but I am leaving the door open just in case something comes along and if I really want to do it then I’ll do it.
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