Joan Baez Talks ‘New Way of Expressing Myself’ on First LP in a Decade
Singer also discusses retiring from the road, and the “pretty fucking gloomy” outlook that inspired her new album ‘Whistle Down the Wind’
By Jonathan Bernstein
When Joan Baez, who recently announced that she’d be retiring from the road at the end of the year, began choosing music for her new album, she slowly found herself connecting to songs with a very specific set of emotions. “The direction this album went is that  is going to be my last year of formal touring, and so there was a feeling, maybe not even spoken, but there was a strong feeling that it’s time to move on,” she tells Rolling Stone.
The resulting album, Whistle Down the Wind, Baez’s first in a decade, is a moving reflection and summation of Baez’s life as a singer, musician and activist. Baez has gathered a collection of covers and original songs written for her by a cast of songwriters ranging from legends like Tom Waits and Mary Chapin Carpenter to indie darlings Anohni and Josh Ritter to lesser-known roots songwriters like Zoe Mulford, Tim Eriksen, and Eliza Gilkyson.
“What’s happened, and I didn’t do it on purpose, but the songs have become mine,” says Baez, who turns 77 on Tuesday. “That’s when I know I’m on the right track.”
The album, due March 2nd, was produced by Joe Henry (Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg, Allen Toussaint) during a series of sessions at Los Angeles’ United Recording Studios. Rolling Stone is premiering the title track and lead single to Baez’s new record, originally written by Tom Waits for his 1992 album Bone Machine, below.
We recently spoke with Baez about her new album, her struggles with maintaining her voice and what might be next for her.
It’s been almost a decade since your most recent record. How long has this new album been gestating?
It’s been about a year, a year and a half. It starts off as a thought in my head and then my manager just tells me to start looking. I just run into certain songs that are just no-brainers. I’m very excited about this new album, I have to say. I don’t always get this big a rush for a new record, but I recognize this as something totally different. Since the last album, my voice has changed so much, and it’s not necessarily my choice. It’s just what happens as you get older. Vocal cords need more and more work and they can never go back to what they were. So I have a new range and a new way of expressing myself, and it really reflects a lifetime of singing, among other things.
Do you feel like you’re continuously learning new things about your voice?
Absolutely, I have to. I have to reinvent. I’m sure I thought I was reinventing 10 years ago.
One of the most arresting moments on the new album is “The President Sang Amazing Grace” by Zoe Mulford. Is it true that you discovered that song by hearing it on the radio?
I heard it on KPFA [in Berkeley]. I was just driving and I heard that song and I just pulled over. It’s so expressive of my thoughts and feelings, which are pretty fucking gloomy, but she did it in such a beautiful way that’s as dark as it is beautiful. In the concerts recently it’s been for me probably the highlight. But I think with this batch of new songs there will probably be more than one highlight.
How did you connect with Josh Ritter?
He’s traveled with me before. He’s opened for me on the road, so I just asked him. I said, “You got anything up your sleeve?” I can’t remember which one he sent first, but I went, “You got another one?” And a couple hours later he had sent me another song. He’s just amazing. Really lovely, he’s just lovely. “Silver Blade” goes back to “Silver Dagger,” which is on my first album, which was in 1959 [laughs]. Josh made it sound like an old folk song, same with “I Wish the Wars Were All Over.” They just sound like little pieces of old folk songs.
Has Tom Waits ever specifically written a song for you?
No, I’ve just found his music and I know that if I scratch the surface, I’ll come up with something. I wish he would write something for me, but he didn’t have to write “Last Leaf” for me; it was just there. It’s a song about the timing in my life and it makes me laugh. But also, I am the last leaf on the tree for lots of folks.
How often do you want to tweak songs others have written, either lyrically or musically?
I leave them be, but sometimes, for instance, on “The Things We Are Made Of,” I simply couldn’t play what [Mary Chapin Carpenter] was playing. Her arrangement is much more complicated than anything I could do. I was in the studio and I was counting on the musicians and I said, “Why don’t you just do this and I’ll sing to it.” It worked beautifully. Those guys, by the way, when you get in the studio and they’re that high quality of musicians, it’s just like a ride. When we work together it’s just like a unit on a freight train because it moves so fast, really fast.
You’ve said that 2018 is going to be your last full year of proper touring. Do you feel like you’re done making albums as well?
I’ve left that more open than the touring because you just can’t … you never know. Maybe you’ll say, “Oh, my God,” and you’ll want to do an album in other languages or some special project. But I doubt that I’ll do this process again of finding songs and doing a whole album. Number one: It’s too hard to sing. It’s so difficult to sing. Nobody can really imagine the effort it takes to keep up with these vocal cords. They don’t do what I want them to do anymore. When I stay in the low range, they do, pretty much. And I like the sound. But I can’t do shit in the upper range anymore. I can kind of pop up there and get back down but the notes that I would sing before, nothing like that will ever happen again.
“Nobody can really imagine the effort it takes to keep up with these vocal cords. … I can’t do shit in the upper range anymore.”
That must be …
It’s frustrating! It’s frustrating until I remember that I don’t need that, and that what I have is still unique, although it’s different. And that in a way it is a reflection of this funny life of mine, that it would be silly if it were still this vocally pure soprano; it really wouldn’t fit now. I am more ragged. I am more at peace, but I’ve also had a long life of raggedy stuff. And it comes out in the voice.
John Prine has said that he felt like his old songs became new again when he had to relearn how to sing them after his voice dropped an octave following neck surgery. Have you had a similar experience with your older material?
Yeah. I like that he said that. And also, almost all of us have tuned a guitar down half a note. Ones that even play better than I am even use a different key, but I just crack the whole thing down half a tone. And who knows, if I kept going I might have to do another half-tone down. I remember working with the Indigo Girls and we were trying to keep the pitch up; we were these four women who are past the point where we can really easily stay on pitch in a higher key. But the soul that’s there really can’t be beat, with me and the Indigos and Mary Chapin it’s something that happens, and whether or not our vocal cords are really having problems, it’s really magical.
There’s such a deep soulfulness to these new songs that shines through when you sing in this vocal register.
That’s important to me coming from somebody I assume is considerably younger than I am.
Is it possible to pick a single song that best sums up the record?
I think it would be “Another World.”
Why that song?
I’m thinking about that, whether it sums up the record or just how I feel. It’s funny because this record is like my very first records, in that there’d be these very socially conscious songs and then there’d be these pure ballads, songs that are just beautiful and aren’t trying to tell anybody anything. But other songs have deeper meanings, so I don’t know the answer. If I’m feeling folky, it’d be “Silver Blade.” If I’m feeling political, then it would be “Another World.”
Do those moods change for you all the time, feeling folky or political?
Yeah, they kind of do. The concerts are even more complicated, especially now, because I’m sort of winding things up, and people want to hear the old stuff, which we do anyway. That’s always difficult, but I think it’ll be easier with this new album, because the songs are all listener-friendly.
Did the fact that this is your last year of touring affect the types of songs you chose for Whistle Down the Wind?
I’m absolutely sure it did, and I also think a lot of it was unconscious.
On Songs like “Last Leaf” and “Be of Good Heart,” there’s a real sense of acceptance. You sound very at ease with where you are in your life.
Well, it’s true. By now, you could either shoot yourself or you could get peaceful. I’m choosing the latter.