- March 20, 2012
American folk legend Joan Baez talks to Jeff Hemmings about touring, Brighton Pier & finally being at one with herself
Joan Baez made her first public appearance all of 53 years ago. She has since released over 30 albums; consistently championed and continues to be a prominent activist in the fields of human rights, peace and environmental justice; dated Bob Dylan and Steve Jobs, and become, in effect, the First Lady of American folk, although over the years her music has also encompassed county, gospel and pop. Despite this very long musical career, Baez has said: “Social justice is the true core of my life, looming larger than music.”
Baez’s (whose mother is Scottish) tour of the UK will take in a Brighton date and there won’t be too many more opportunities to see this hugely influential figure, who first came to these shores in her early 20s, performing at the Royal Albert hall among others places. “There is a spot on Brighton Pier where I love to go to eat,” says Joan. “The man recognises me and knows exactly what to bring me! It’s a whole fish– head and tail on, crispy and I can eat it with my hands.”
At that point she sings: “Mad Dogs and Englishman, out in the noon day sun, out in the noon day sun…
“I love travelling around the UK and the fanbase there has been a very important part of my career from very early on. The UK audience may be a bit more reserved than in the US but they are also very attentive and appreciative. It is so easy for me, I don’t have to pretend to learn another language, I like the British public… there is a lot of things to recommend it! The English public? Who is going to gripe?! It’s quite simple for me touring here. We’re going to hire a van this time, instead of a bus. If I need to I can fall asleep in the back. The drives are short enough so that we can stay in a hotel rather than getting on a bus and having a half sleep.”
Although a songwriter herself, Baez is generally regarded as an interpreter of other people’s work, having recorded songs by The Allman Brothers Band, The Beatles, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan (who she covered very early in Dylan’s career, helping him to gain a wider audience), Violeta Parra, Woody Guthrie, The Rolling Stones, Pete Seeger, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, and many others.
“I haven’t actually written any songs for 20 years, it’s one of the reasons we are having opening acts so I can steal a song! I don’t go out much, but I know there is a lot going on… When I was travelling and there were a lot of singer songwriters opening for me I was more connected with the music world. Somebody said to me, ‘what do you listen to these days?’ and I said, ‘I don’t, I like the silence!’ Everything in my house that is supposed to be high-fidelity is not working…
“Social justice is the true core of my life, looming larger than music”
“When there is a project, songs are carefully listened to, and carefully eliminated, and there is no rule that says this one works and this one doesn’t. It sounds corny, but a song picks me, because I can’t figure out why I pick it. It has to ring more than one bell.”
So, does she still enjoy touring and playing live? “My friends say that when I call home it’s the happiest they hear me! I didn’t realise that at all, but I know I like it. I know It won’t go on forever, and the things about it I do love are worth going out for a little bit longer.
“I didn’t really begin enjoy playing until 25 years ago. I was busy carrying the world around on my shoulders, and I still had lingering stage fright that I have since wiped off the scene. But now it’s a breeze, I just walk out there and play and sing. I can pin a lot of that on therapy – my life changed radically and eliminated so many phobias and uncertainties, and that cleared a path for me to walk out there and enjoy myself.”
So, does Joan feel at one with herself now? “I feel pretty damn at one with myself,” she confirms.
A key appeal of Baez is her pure and unique voice, full of vibrato, although her voice has changed over the years: “There are a lot of songs I can’t sing now because my voice has changed so radically. Technically, it’s the high, sustained notes that I have a problem with – a lot of songs
I knock down a tone or half a tone and it’s fine.”
In recent years, she has found success interpreting songs of modern songwriters
such as Ryan Adams, Steve Earle and Natalie Merchant. “We had met [referring to Steve Earle who produced and contributed to her latest album Day After Tomorrow] a few times and admired each other’s work as musicians and as activists, so working on an album together was
a natural fit.”
And, of course, there’s the ongoing issues of social justice, not only in the US but throughout the world. “I’m pretty interested in the Occupy movement, from a respective distance. My feeling is that they should go home for the winter, get warm, make plans, and come back for the spring.
I saw a film on the youth revolution under Milosevic, in Serbia. These kids were so young, and they had a non-violent movement, and they were all over the country and each one didn’t know what the other was doing. Over there they had only one goal, to get rid of a dictator. Here, it’s everything, it’s way too confusing. But a lot of things they have done so far have been wonderful. It’s the first time in 40 years that any kid here has been willing to take a risk to go to jail – that has not been on the agenda for that long…”
So, hasn’t Joan become disillusioned over time? “I would have been more disappointed
if I had bigger expectations,” she responds.
“I learned really early that the fewer expectation
I had the less depressed I’d get!”
Joan Baez, Concert Hall, Brighton Dome, Monday 26 March, 7.30pm, £39.50, 01273 709709, www.brightondome.org