Joan Baez is on the cusp of an Australian tour, her second in two years after a 25-year absence. At the same time, the influential singer is preparing to record what will be her 25th studio album, which, Baez explains, presents new challenges half-a-century after her debut.
“I used to be able to sing anything,” Baez says frankly of her internationally beloved, but well-used vocal cords. “You know they’re a muscle, and they start to atrophy at a certain point so you have to work them like mad,” she says. “So it’s harder in a way to get in the studio because you want it to be perfect.” The two rituals have their similarities, with the unenviable task of compiling set lists from her enormous repertoire dwarfed only by the task of selecting new material from the seemingly never-ending pool of new songs being written around the world. As Baez explains, the act of curation is perhaps the most time-consuming part of the recording process. “I make records in the studio really fast,” she says. “The difficult part is the songs. I have people who look for me – I don’t trawl around in coffee shops trying to find songs,” she jokes. “I really do have someone give me a pile of what they think might work, and then I listen to that and I choose the ones that make some sense to put together for an album,” she says. “In my mind the whole time is how am I going to do this one to make it really worthy,” Baez explains. Looking back on her career, it’s staggering to reflect just how much the work of Baez and her peers resonated at the time – especially given how fragmented popular culture has grown in the internet’s wake. “In the 60s they crossed over, from counter culture it became culture,” she says. “And that was to do with the times and it was to do with the berth of talent that came from the States and over the ocean,” she recalls, citing the creative impact and resonating message of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and John Lennon. “We won’t get that 10 years back, but I think there are possibly songs out there being written which do not have a way to be heard,” she laments. “Everybody in the world is making a CD.” In the 1960s, the sentiment of a single Dylan song could tap into, and mobilise, the pent-up anxieties and hunger for change of a generation. Now, the mainstream potential of protest music seems unable to cut through to the same degree as the political centre continues to be dragged to the right. As Baez points out, it’s happening in many countries. “I think we just have to plough through it,” she says. “What makes me mostly sad and angry is that they [conservatives] know how to talk, they have access to all the newspapers and the liberals and progressives have not caught up with that, we just haven’t,” she laments, echoing George Lakoff, the US linguist who has explored the success of the Right in taking ownership of popular values to complement their own agendas. “As he [Lakoff] points out there are 50 conservative think tanks, and we have two, I think,” she says. “So it’s a long road to home. “We have to learn so many things of how to deal with this language and the access they have – I mean that in the way is a lot of our work,” she says. “Something like Give Peace a Chance… it’s just so weak you know? But how you get something strong and non-violent and put that across is very difficult,” she says. “People listen to me because I’m me, but it’s difficult for some to comprehend progressive or liberal ideas.” Musically, at least, Baez has grown from those folk roots, but there’s still something about that musical tradition that runs deep. “I just did Cambridge Folk Festival in England and it was so comfortable to be in a crowd of folkies – mind you there were 10,000 of them, but it was home,” she recalls. “I started off by singing Freight Train and all this old stuff from the coffee shops, and that definitely for me is home.” Although grateful for the enduring elements of her international audience who have grown with her, for Baez the still-gestating passions of younger generations adds a new edge to live performance. “I think that we all want a younger audience because it gives us the illusion that we’re younger,” she laughs. “And I owe something to the public which has been faithful for all these years,” she says. “But at the same time, and I’m happy to say that in a lot of countries the young people have some knowledge in their minds of what the dictators their parents lived through were like,” she says. “Then they have just enough problems with their governments now that the combination makes them want to come to the concert.” Joan Baez Festival Theatre Monday, October 12 joanbaez.com