Lui Collins is a much beloved New England folk singer, someone who came into the musical scene in the 1970’s and made a distinct impression and indelible mark in the hearts and minds of music fans. Listening to Lui is like wrapping yourself up in your most comfortable quilt before a dancing fire – her music is lilting and evocative and most of all, inviting. It’s like being in the room with a good friend who just happens to be musical. Lui’s folk concerts may not be as numerous as they once were but she’s still making a huge impact on the lives of children and parents in New England and beyond. This interview sheds light on her recording career and concert tours, as well as her passion for children’s music and how she’s spread the Lui Collins magic into an amazing music curriculum.
To learn more about Lui Collins, visit her website.
Here’s a video of Lui Collins singing Julie Snow’s “Baptism of Fire.”
And here’s a video of Lui’s beautiful rendition of “The Ballad of the White Seal Maid.”
You began your music career in the 1970’s. How would you compare the scene then with what’s happening these days?
That’s a big question, a lot has happened since the 1970’s! Hmm… a nutshell view? First of all, with the technology being so different now, it’s a whole new ballgame. When I started, the medium was vinyl and you needed a professional recording studio to record on the 2″ analog tape that was used in those days. Having a record label backing you was pretty much a necessity. And you had to work for a few years to build a strong enough repertoire and audience to attract the interest of a record label. But a lot was happening then. There were new folk clubs opening up. A bunch of small folk labels were founded in the 1970’s, including Rounder, Philo, Innisfree, which became Green Linnet, Flying Fish, Shanachie, Alcazar. Some of the labels had their own studios. They had distribution to get albums into stores, and connections to get airplay on the vast network of folk radio shows across the country.
Many of those radio shows have since disappeared, some with the commercialization of public radio stations, and most of the stores are gone. Some of the labels have gone out of business or merged with others. But then along came Red House in 1981, and Waterbug and Signature Sounds in the 90’s. Folk networks emerged, the short-lived Hey Rube! in the early 80’s, the Boston-based Folk Arts Network, and then the Folk Alliance was born. The first international Folk Alliance conference I went to – the 4th year it was held – was in Calgary in 1992, and there were about 500 of us there. The last one I attended, six years later in Memphis, had grown to 2000 attendees. We now have CD Baby, and we have YouTube and iTunes and Spotify and Pandora. You can create your own recording studio in your home. You can release a CD on your own and promote it on the internet. And this growth has happened fast.
From the audience member’s point of view, everything was expanding back in the 70’s. Traditional music was exploding, exciting new artists coming along, like Stan Rogers (with Garnet, and David Alan Eadie), who’d just blow your socks off. There were the British Isles bands – Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Richard and Linda Thompson, the Bothy Band, Silly Wizard – all blurring the line between folk and rock, and making what was simply great music. Over the past few decades the folk world has continued to embrace new sounds, from Ani DiFranco to Anais Mitchell to Antje Duvekot. New labels, Red House, Waterbug, Signature Sounds, have emerged.
One of the things I’ve always loved about the folk world is that most of the people who are involved in it are there because they love the music. This was true in the 70’s and, as much as I live on the outskirts of what you might call the “scene” now, I believe this is still true. They may be musicians, presenters, booking agents, radio programmers, small labels, producers, recording and sound engineers, writers, reviewers, or audience members, but they’re all there for the music. As passionate as the musicians are about their music, so are the rest of the people who make it possible for them to continue doing the work they love. I think that whatever your part is in this intricate web – and every element had its challenges in the 1970’s and has them now – if you survive for the long term, it is because you find a way to keep that deep love of the music alive.
When you first started singing in college, did you play all cover tunes? Which songwriters did you play during that time?
I started out in high school playing Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel etc., and by college had added Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, James Taylor, and others to my list of covers. Joni Mitchell was probably the most influential writer for me. I discovered her the day I returned from a year in Brazil as an exchange student, and still remember sitting down and listening straight through her first album following along with the lyrics on the back of the album jacket. I sang a lot of her songs – mostly the unknown ones, but some of her big hits too. I learned to use open tunings from listening to her albums and tweaking my strings to match what I was hearing. I spent hours poring over her guitar parts and recreating them.
Tell us what led you to gain the confidence to write your own songs?
I didn’t really begin writing myself until the last year I was in college, after I’d abandoned my serious classical music theory major to study sociology. And perhaps because of that, who knows? But also, I think my playing-by-ear approach to the open tunings helped get me writing. I’d just sit and mess around with the tunings, finding chords that I liked the sound of, or taking a Joni Mitchell chord and putting it in a different setting – I think all of that put me into an intuitive place with music that hadn’t existed in my classical music world, and that must have helped with the writing. The first song I wrote that I actually dared to play for other people was my song “The Mushy One,” that I wrote in the spring of 1973. I was so shy about singing it for people that I would apologize for it by calling it “the mushy one,” and the name stuck. I think putting a disclaimer on it helped me get past myself to share my writing with others, but then the feedback was great, and I’m sure that helped give me courage to continue writing, as well as sharing my original writings with others.
I’ve always felt that I wasn’t a serious songwriter. I’m not disciplined about it. I’ve always written when the mood struck me – unlike serious writers like Jack Hardy, who sat down and wrote a song every day. During some of my more unhappy years I wrote more than at other times. In recent years I’ve written a lot, but almost entirely for my music curriculum. Nothing like a deadline for spurring motivation – more about that later.
Your early albums deal with a lot of natural themes revolving around life in New England. As your songwriting got stronger, did you feel that you had more to share with your fans?
Interesting question. In the summer of 1986, when my son was almost a year old and was needing surgery, I was finding it incredibly hard to gather energy for concerts. The stress on the family since Tim had been born with club feet was great, and it made sense that my attention was elsewhere. But I saw it as a sign that I needed to stop performing. I decided to honor my commitments through the fall, but decided I needed to do something to motivate myself to play the remaining booked concerts. I did two things: 1) I set aside all concert income that fall to buy a grand piano, and 2) I began singing only my own songs in concert. I ended up, oddly enough, loving my remaining concerts that fall. Tim’s surgery came right after the last one. I announced my retirement, ignoring everyone’s advice to just take a sabbatical, and thought I was done with music forever. I never was sure if the reason I enjoyed those last concerts so much was because I knew I was stopping, or because I was singing my own songs. It’s interesting to consider this in light of your question, did I feel I had more to share because I was singing my own songs? Quite possibly. At any rate, forever lasted for a year and a half, and then I was back on stage, writing, and recording again.
Johnny Cunningham produced your album, “There’s a Light.” He was quite a character from what I’ve been told. Do you have any memorable Johnny stories?
Yes, Johnny was definitely a character, and a dear man. I loved working with him, both in the studio and in concert; he was brilliant, and he was funny. Wendy Newton, at Green Linnet Records, had recommended him to me as a producer. I still remember Johnny saying, in our first phone conversation, something like: “I think you’ll find that in the studio, less is more.” And then I said something to the effect of: “Great, you’re hired, when do we start?” And indeed, he did have a light touch in the studio and was a joy to work with. He’d come up with some far-flung idea and I’d look at him like he was crazy (think electric guitar power chords on the traditional shape note song “Ecstasy”) and he’d say, “Trust me,” and promise me that if I didn’t like the result, we’d pull it. And he was always right on, all of his seemingly weird ideas were perfect. I’m very happy with the arrangements on that album. All were guided by his intuition for the individual song, so some songs are produced very sparsely and others are lush and thick. It was a joy co-writing the horn and trumpet parts on “Ecstasy” and the oboe descant on “There’s a Light” with him.
It was easy to see Johnny as his public persona, as he was on stage with Silly Wizard, with his fast fiddling and his rapid-fire sense of humor, and the way he and brother Phil would play off each other. And he lived hard and fast in a lot of respects. But underneath all that, he was a dear man, kind and generous and insightful. One interesting story about Johnny that I think shows this lesser-known side of him happened shortly after we completed recording “There’s a Light.” We were both at a Green Linnet party given by Wendy at her home. Johnny and I were talking, and out of the blue – for me anyway – Johnny asked, “Where is your anger in your writing? Why don’t you write about your anger?” I was quite taken aback. At that point in my life I never would have said I was angry. I remember being stunned by his question, and thinking to myself, “What does this man – who has just worked very intimately with me on a big project – what does this man know about me that I don’t know about myself?” I sat down in in a window seat nearby and somewhere found a piece of paper and began writing down whatever came into my head. “I am a river, you’ve dammed me, my world flows politely, so shallow…” My only memory of the rest of the party was of sitting in that window seat writing, letting my thoughts pour out of me onto the paper, in what was to become my song “Invocation.” I wrote down the words like taking dictation, having no idea where they came from, and no idea what they meant. That song, that question of Johnny’s, opened the floodgates. I continued to write over the next several months, the songs that would make up my darkest, most introspective, most serious, most personal of all my recordings, before or since, “Moondancer.” Where was my anger, indeed.
I loved the upbeat, fast paced, funny Johnny. I love the beautiful music that came out of his fiddle and out of his soul. But the gentle, intuitive and insightful friend is the Johnny I sorely miss, and the Johnny without whom the world will never be the same.
I’m interested in your working relationship with children’s book author, Jane Yolen. How did that come about?
Back in the early 80’s, an audience member brought me a typed out copy of Jane’s poem “Ballad of the White Seal Maid,” and gave it to me after a concert I gave in the Mystic, CT area. I took the poem home and set it on my desk without reading it. The next morning when I got up, I picked it up, and as I read it for the first time, I heard the melody, fully shaped, in my head. It was as if the words dictated what the melody should be. There was publishing information at the bottom of the page, and I called the publisher in New York to locate Jane. The person I spoke with didn’t know Jane and asked if the poem might be from a children’s book, since that was an entirely separate part of this enormous publishing company. Amusingly enough, I said no – it didn’t occur to me that Jane might have written such a beautifully complex poem for children. I started singing the song in concert though, as I’d fallen in love with the poem and loved singing it, and of course I credited Jane for the lyrics whenever I sang it. One night after I sang it at the Camden Harbor Inn, in Camden, Maine, Gordon Bok came up to say hi, and told me, “That book was dedicated to me!” I was thrilled that he knew Jane, and he gave me her phone number. I called her, and we got together. Fortunately, Jane loved my version of her poem, and gave me permission to record it.
We became friends, and I came home from each visit to her with a pile of books for my children. I would read them Jane’s stories and poems at bedtime, and very often the poems grew melodies. While I was putting together the songs for my children’s album “North of Mars” (title from one of her poems, by the way), Jane sent me a collection of some of her new water poems — two of them came together into one song for the album, “Two Stones, One River/Reflection.” It’s a very pensive song. I remember sitting at the piano working on it one day, wondering if such an introspective, quiet song would really work for children. I got up from the piano thinking about that. As I walked from the living room toward the back of our house, I passed through three rooms. In each room I walked through was one of my children, and as I passed them, I heard each one of them humming the song. Yup, I thought, that’ll do.
And I think that’s one of the things I have learned from Jane. Not to underestimate what children think about, what they understand, what they are capable of. All these years later, my three children treasure their collections of Jane’s books, which we read over and over. Jane’s poems can be found on three of my albums, only one of which is geared toward children. We’ve also done concerts together, alternating poems and songs, and that is a great joy.
Tell us more about your shows with Jane Yolen.
Over the past several months we’ve put together a concert focused around Jane Yolen’s poems with Jane reciting, and musicians Donna Hébert, Max Cohen, Molly Hebert-Wilson and myself singing and playing versions of Jane’s poems we’d set to music. Donna and Max and I had such a good time playing together that we’re continuing as a trio. We’re finishing up a recording with Jane et al of parts of the Away With the Faeries program we did in October.
Did your work with Jane pave the road to your current work with children? Tell us about Upside Up Music!
My friendship and work with Jane certainly informed my ideas about children’s music, but it was a long and winding road before I came to teaching. It was the fall of 2002, and I was single parenting my younger daughter, who was in high school at the time, and my traveling for concerts was hard on both of us. Vic Lally, a concert presenter and Music Together teacher, invited me to visit his classes, as he thought it’d be a good match for me. On my way out to watch him teach, I listened to a tape he’d sent me. I was immediately struck by the unusual tonalities and meters, the breadth and overall quality of the music, and thought, “They’re doing this for babies? I could teach this!” What I saw in Vic’s classes just confirmed what I’d heard on the tape, and I was convinced this was right for me. Within three weeks I had completed the initial training, and I had begun teaching by the following spring. I’ve found that I love teaching both the little ones and their parents – I think having that combination is what makes it perfect for me. I teach in three small hilltowns near my home in western Massachusetts, and I’ve established a scholarship program to make my classes available to all families who want to share music with their children.
I’d been teaching Music Together for five years when a few of my families approached me. Their children had aged out of Music Together, and they wondered if I would continue teaching them music. I agreed to try it out that summer of 2008 to see how it would go. I had a blast working with those “big” kids, and that fall I plunged into researching and developing my Kids’ Jam Family Music Workshop curriculum. Over the next three years I researched and wrote songs, arranged and recorded them, and made songbooks to go with them for eight seasonal collections of Kids’ Jam songs. After the first year, I brought Anand Nayak on board to help with the recordings. Anand is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist and the guitar (etc.) player for Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem. He had produced my album “Closer” and had been a joy to work with. I was thrilled that he wanted to collaborate again on the Kids’ Jam recordings. We recorded everything with the two of us playing live in the studio. Over a period of two years, we recorded eight albums of 15-18 songs each, and it was sheer delight throughout.
I am now in the midst of adapting the Kids’ Jam collections, to create a 3-level homeschool curriculum. It’s called Upside-Up’s Music at Home. I have a handful of “guinea pig” families doing Level 1 this year, as I create it. It’s a challenge keeping up with writing the lesson plans and making support videos on top of my teaching schedule, but I’m loving the work. And actually it’s nothing next to the deadlines I faced in the early stages of creating Kids’ Jam. Now that was crazy!
The great thing about all the teaching and curriculum development I’m doing is that I have such a sense of rightness doing this work. The teaching itself is tremendously satisfying. I treasure the relationships I develop with families over a period of years as their children move up through my classes. But I think what it comes down to, for me, has to do with my own relationship with music. I’ve always loved it. I think it’s magic. I think it touches our deepest core in ways we can only begin to understand. I see the effect music has on children. To nurture music in the children in my classes is a joy. And to nurture it in their parents, regardless of their past experience with music, is an added bonus that feels very right and good.
I have progressed to Level 3 of my Music at Home curriculum.