Joan Baez is on the line, time off in Brisbane – she’s just walked around the “beautiful botanical gardens, on a gorgeous day” – and after her Australian shows she’s here in New Zealand. I don’t really know where to start because I’m talking to Joan Baez. The Joan Baez who was so crucial in assisting Bob Dylan as he assimilated with the folk movement then towered above it, Joan Baez who marched on the front lines of the Civil Rights protests and was chosen by Dr. Martin Luther King as song-serenading siren, her “voice of an angel” providing the lullabies needed so the good doctor could get some rest before making his I Have A Dream speech.
Joan Baez has just recently been awarded Amnesty International’s highest honour (the Ambassador for Conscience Award for 2015), Joan Baez shared a helicopter ride with Janis Joplin into Woodstock and performed We Shall Overcome at that famous festival. Joan Baez stood alongside Nelson Mandela and stood up for so many people and against so many injustices, Joan Baez was an early anti-Vietnam speaker, an anti-Death Penalty activist, spokesperson for women’s rights, for LGBT rights, for environmental rights. Joan Baez the singer/songwriter too – you almost add it as afterthought when you power through that CV, writer of Diamonds and Rust, singer of so many songs, song-stylist, re-inventor of songs…
It’s impossible to know where to start when Joan Baez is on the line, aside from pleasantries about Brisbane’s walks and weather. So we start where she last left me – spellbound at a Joan Baez concert just two years ago.
“I’ve immodestly decided to return after two years, I figure I don’t know how long I’ll be doing this but we really liked Australia and New Zealand so we figured we’d come back”. Baez, 74, says she “absolutely loved it” and has loved finding songs special to New Zealand and Australia to perform. Last time in New Zealand she performed the waiata Purea Nei. Performed it in Te Reo, nervous but essentially flawless. On the Australian leg of this tour she learned Goanna’s 1982 hit, Solid Rock, and “spoke it, in poetry, my son [Gabriel Harris, her touring percussionist] played the digeridoo and it was that same kind of connection” – she adds that she’s very excited to perform in New Zealand again and to attempt a local song once more.
“It is about that connection – I’ve spent a good part of my lifetime trying to get to people and there is no other good way to honour the culture of others than to learn something on their behalf”.
I tell Baez that seeing her live made me realise that you don’t need to be the songwriter to be the storyteller.
She says, with regard to a new album she’s starting, “songs do sometimes choose me – it’s a no-brainer, and other times I live with a song for a while, or discover a songwriter that becomes a goldmine”. Current goldmines for her are Richard Thompson and Tom Waits, wise choices and so much gold in them there hills…
She says she hasn’t been writing lately but still enjoys learning songs – again that word ‘connecting’ comes up, she has to “feel a connection within a song – to a song”.
In terms of the shows for this tour Baez acknowledges that there are “compulsory” songs for her to sing – “from Turkey to Buenos Aires there would be people so unhappy if they didn’t hear certain key songs. I know that – and there’s no greater thrill when you’re on stage than to know you’re giving people what they want to hear”.
She says The Boxer has been a loyal singalong encore but her version of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down “is very popular down your way – I’ve just been reminded – so that’s in the show of course”.
To keep it fresh “we meet before the tour to eliminate a few songs, add a few and to change the arrangements of certain songs – just enough to make them fresh for us, fresh for audience members returning”.
Baez says she’s “as interested in what an audience projects back, that tells me how I’m going, I’m happy doing anything that makes my audience happy”.
For Baez the twin roles in her public life – activism and performing on stage – are discernible but inseparable, they are extensions of each other, they are her extending herself, they are ways to connect (that word again), it is, she says, “all about the connection”. And it’s been that way as long as she can remember. The same motivations are there for her.
“The same thing that started me doing this is what keeps me doing it, when I started when I was 15, and that is some kind of feeling that there’s a calling beyond just singing though nowadays I sing more for the joy of just singing unless driven to be constantly participating in something full on. I keep finding my place and settling into it – which is the foundation of non-violence and finding something relevant to be involve in”.
A brief mention of news around the Oregan shooting has Baez finding that “possibly the good thing in this is that we can still be shocked, when we really are not shocked by that stuff then we’ve grown such a hard skin it will be difficult for anything to touch us”. She talks about the “hippie town” her son lives in, “it’s lovely, you don’t have to lock your doors and people are kind to one another and say hello in the street but just recently on one of their walking paths a community member was shot to death and you think, ‘Oh my god it’s contagious!’ so I think that what we try to do in the face of all of it is live a decent life and try to find your little victories in the middle of the big defeats. Maybe even more so now, for if that’s all we can do right now then that’s what we must do right now”.
Baez says looking back over her own letters to her parents she recognises that she “had a calling that went way beyond legislative activities and ended up having more to do with civil disobedience which is where a country has to end up if it is going to make serious social change”. She says this requires a risk-taker and “for whatever reason I seemed willing to take those risks – it’s been a radical life, wrapped up in non-violence as would always be the way for me, it’s all to do with the people on the other side being my brothers and sisters”.
When asked to assess her legacy, the role she has played in music, in protest, as a conduit, a supporter, a footnote to something much bigger sometimes, Baez says “it’s sort of corny now that everyone says ‘blessed’ but I do feel blessed, aside from talent and gifts and anything you can say like that I have to say, ‘Woo, I ended up in the right place at the right time with the right tools and I met these amazing people’, so it is just like one big, fat blessing”.
She has two memoirs already but says, “there is another one in here – I better put it off just long enough so there won’t be a fourth. It is on the backburner, it started edging towards the front-burner when I thought that singing was going to be too difficult and then I found this woman who has been helping me, now singing is less difficult and more fun”. Trying to write a book will also have to wait, because painting is Baez’s other creative outlet. She says “one day I just decided I wanted to get my hands in the paint so I found a local teacher and said, ‘I don’t care what we do here I just literally want to get my hands in the paint’. You know it was like finger-painting to begin with and then it turned into painting, and now 90% of it is portraiture and they’re there on the website for people to see and I would love to have an exhibit one day and would be happy selling them, they’re not something I need to hang on to”.
Getting the hands in the paint feels like another need for connection, to feel something, to be bonded to something. Baez believes that painting is something separate from singing, but her approach has been the same – learn by herself first, then worry about training after. It’s also a great way to “cope with an overflow of output and ideas”.
Singing assistance in recent years (“I had to admit I was mortal”) has been another really important step, the learning was “anti-instinctual”, with every technique going against the way she taught herself. “I had never learned how to breathe properly, and the way I was controlling that voice that was coming out was something I then had to learn to drop and learn new tools for. It was very discouraging as I didn’t like the sound – but now it’s the only sound. It’s never going to be that vibrato that I long for but now, with the help of a teacher, I’m enjoying what’s coming out. What it is – really – is 50 years of a life”.
And so we get back to that storytelling theme. And the importance of a life and a life’s work informing the banter, the songs, and even the songs of others. Even the interview process.
“Storytelling is one of the only things we have left – nobody wants to hear this political crap!” Baez says with a laugh and then recounts being on Australia’s Q&A show “the day the PM was dumped” and the other quests on the show “were ranting on and they were self-righteous and patronising and boring and I was happy to be there as someone who couldn’t take part in that conversation so I brought in whatever I could offer. I don’t care about facts and figures in a situation where I am being interviewed publicly, I like to talk about stories, I like to share stories. I like to share of myself”.
So I have to ask about the story behind Diamonds and Rust. It’s refreshing to hear her call it her best work, no cover-up, no palming off, no lie about how there’s something better that the public just didn’t click with.
“That song started off as another song and then I received a phone call and I had the melody and the words changed after being distracted – those words came from a deep place. And it is by far the best song I ever wrote. You can’t pretend that Diamonds and Rust isn’t head and shoulders above the others, even though I like the poetry of some of the other songs I’ve written. It’s a song with no real structure too, I like hearing people discuss how it’s something of a rule-breaker”. She breaks off to chuckle and then says, “that song’s the one. That’s really the one”, before changing tack slightly, “it’s a bit like watching people, when asked the question ‘When did you start this comeback?’ – we don’t like this word. I’ve heard other entertainers say, ‘What do you mean comeback I never left?’ but the fact is if the perception of you has temporarily diminished so radically that when you become visible again it’s a comeback, then, it is a comeback!”
We talk about the Dark Chords on a Big Guitar album as part of Baez’s “comeback” – she says “I was a little bit out there at the time – not paying attention shall we say – and this album was very important as it is what grounded me again in music”. Those songs were important for Baez in recognising her ability, once again, to tell the stories of others through songs, to tell part of her story through the songs of others, to reconnect with an audience.
“For years I never listened to any of my own work, actually until about 15 years ago or so and I listened to the early stuff – and now I can say how magnificent I thought that voice was. I guess somebody said something nice about the albums or something and I figured I should take a listen, see what they were talking about and I thought, ‘Gee, this is great’, so I kept listening. I do look back on the early voice as if it was somebody else – but I know them”.
“At some point the vocal chords are going to go completely – so when people say you should sing forever I know that’s not going to happen. I won’t want to go on until I’m 95 like Pete Seeger. He could do that”.
Joan Baez says she remembers Wellington fondly from the show a couple of years ago – “it really was a special night, and we’re looking forward to giving you another special night, fingers crossed”.
And then that’s it. A few moments to talk about an inspiring lifetime. A tremendous privilege to have talked to Joan Baez – the show, last time, really was so very good.