Joan Baez, songwriter, musician and activist
Sleeping in my treehouse and listening to the birds refreshes my energy ...
Joan Baez is an absolute living legend! An intelligent, talented, rare, inspirational woman who has used her incredible voice to speak out against much of the injustice in the world. And, at the age of 74, Joan is still going strong. A folk singer with a beautiful voice, Joan emerged in the 1960s and was at the forefront of the American roots revival, where she introduced her audiences to the then-unknown Bob Dylan, and was emulated by artists such as Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, and Bonnie Raitt. She has performed publicly for more than 55 years and has released more than 30 albums. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a close friend of hers and in the mid-1980s she dated Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Joan was also instrumental in founding the USA section of Amnesty International in the 1970s, and has remained an active supporter of the organisation. The Weekend Edition was lucky enough to take five with Joan to find out about her amazing life ahead of her performance at QPAC on October 7.
Did you ever imagine, in the future, your music would be being streamed on Apple Music or Spotify?
We had no idea! We didn’t even have computers.
What do you miss about the early years of the industry?
The great image that comes to mind is one of myself along with two producers and a few musicians all going off to have a drink at the Irish Club. After our drink we head back to the studio and mix a song with eight hands on the mixing nobs. You had to all memorise your parts and hope that you got it all right after two or three times. However, I just love recording so today, whilst different, is still heaps of fun.
Has the way the music industry has changed been a positive experience?
In some ways it’s been positive and in other ways it has been negative. For people wanting to make a living out of their music it can be quite hard. Yes it’s good for Spotify who make a lot of money out of it, but for some musicians it is just plain tough.
You dated Steve Jobs for a little while, do you think he ever knew what he was creating?
I saw him before he died and I asked him, “How does it feel to have changed the world?”. He took a second and then looked at me quietly and said … “OK”.
What was it like playing at Woodstock? Can you take yourself back to that time and capture it in a few sentences for me?
Woodstock was amazing! There are some times in your life when you know that it is going to be an historic moment and that was one of those times. I was lucky as I had the luxury of being backstage, which meant I could eat meals and not slosh around in the mud. It was so unique because it had this explosion of talent in this incredible atmosphere. Talent like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell. The list just goes on and on.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a close friend of yours. Often nowadays we talk about the lack of leadership in society and reflect on people like Martin Luther King, Jr. as the great leaders of their time. What was he like? Who is a great leader today?
Martin Luther King was an extraordinary man and he had an extraordinary movement. There were also many people who came before him and many around his time that won’t be recognised. I was fortunate enough to have worked with him very closely. Obama is a good leader but I don’t think he has had a chance. I have never seen any president as ferociously attacked as much as he has been. When Obama was running for office, the magic that he created gave all the young people who had never experienced the feeling of the civil rights movement that feeling. King was smart enough to not run for office. Obama might go on to do incredible things after his presidency. I mean Carter did his best work out of the office.
Having had a full career of social justice work and music including many songs of protest or social justice … is the world in a better place than when you were born?
No! Absolutely not. I think it has gone through waves. Some waves have been encouragingly positive where people have actually cared about each other. I think that is the key. Caring enough to sacrifice a little. I know that through reading books there is a spot in the brain that is reserved for empathy. In the right-wing conservative, very strict brain, this spot is shrinking. Literally shrinking! This means we need to find a way to combat this in an intelligent way.
Have your spiritual beliefs changed as you have moved through the years of your life?
I was raised as a Quaker and that is what equated me to silence. Silence has always been very important to me. I have morphed in and out of Buddhist practice over the years.
Where do you draw your life energy from to remain positive? (Considering all the social justice work you have done)
Sleeping in my treehouse and listening to the birds refreshes my energy.
Who intrigues you on this planet of ours?
People who have courage. I think courage is courageous and both splendid and awesome. I also think that it is quite possibly as contagious as violence. It fascinates me.
Your father was the co-inventor of the x-ray machine. Have you ever had an x-ray and thought to yourself … thanks Dad?
No one has ever asked me that! (Laughs loudly). What I can say is that your kids never truly appreciate you. I didn’t realise how much he had done when I was a kid.
Check this out …
Joan Baez performs at the Concert Hall, QPAC on October 7, 2015