From the outset of her career a half-century ago, Joan Baez has possessed a distinctive, spine-tingling three-octave voice.
A vessel of purity and a tower of strength, her soprano helped spark the folk revival of the early 1960s and supported the decade’s civil rights and peace movements with transcendent versions of “We Shall Overcome” and “Amazing Grace.”
It enthralled hundreds of thousands at the Woodstock music festival in 1969; made pop hits of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Diamonds & Rust” (a look back at her ill-fated affair with Bob Dylan) in the 1970s; opened the U.S. segment of Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985, and overcame a power outtage ordered by communist authorities at a music festival in Czechoslovakia in 1989 because she dared to greet members of a dissident human rights group.
Baez is now 67, and in September she released, “Day After Tomorrow,” the 24th studio album of her career and her first in five years. On it, Baez applies her still-formidable instrument to 10 Spartanly arranged songs by the likes of Tom Waits, Eliza Gilkyson, Patty Griffin, Elvis Costello and Steve Earle, who produced and contributed three tunes, two specifically written for the disc.
In a phone conversation from her home in Woodside, Calif., where she lives with her 96-year-old mother, Baez says keeping her voice in singing shape “is a lot of work. Early in my career, nothing was difficult. Then gravity moves in.”
Baez sounds a little embarrassed discussing the subject, but she plows ahead. “If I didn’t have coaching, I couldn’t do what I do,” she says. “I had a voice coach for 22 years. Then he died, so I started to use tapes he had made. I thought that was enough, but I realized it was impossible. I now work with a lovely woman. She’s friendly, and we have a very happy relationship. But some of the exercises she makes me do ... I see her once every two weeks, and when I can’t, I have two mini-discs that I use and I drag in something from my (deceased) teacher and a couple of others in between that didn’t last.”
Before she performs live, Baez says she exercises for 20 or 30 minutes. “It’s always very humiliating,” she adds sheepishly. “I never used to have to practice singing when I was young. I used to just open my trap and out it came.”
Baez’s voice is more than up to the challenge on “Day After Tomorrow,” even though she admits having to work harder on some songs than others. “‘The Lower Road’ (by British singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore), I loved it the first time I heard it, even though I still don’t know what it means,” says Baez. “But there were a couple of notes I had trouble with.”
Conversely, Baez notes, she was immediately attracted to the CD’s title track, written by Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan. “I knew it was right for me,” she says of the touching ballad about a young American soldier longing for home, “and it was easy to sing.”
Asked how she came to work with Earle on “Day After Tomorrow,” Baez says that about a year ago, the roots rocker and her manager “had dinner somewhere. He came back and asked, ‘Do you two guys want to work together on an album?’ My answer was an immediate yes.”
Baez first met Earle when he opened a concert for her 10 years ago, “and after that I got to know him in little bits and pieces.” The casual relationship changed when Baez started performing Earle’s “Christmas in Washington,” which she recorded on her 2003 studio album, “Dark Chords on a Big Guitar.” “Of the songs in my concerts that got the two or three strongest responses, ‘Christmas’ was one of them, and it didn’t matter which country,” says Baez. “And then I started singing (Earle’s) ‘Jerusalem,’ ” which she included on her 2005 live album, “Bowery Songs.”
In choosing which songs to record, Baez says her manager, Mark Spector, “does the serious hunting. He goes through every single thing. I’ve learned over the years to trust him.”
For “Day After Tomorrow,” Baez started with a list of about 20 songs. She recorded 13 tracks before deciding on the 10 that made the cut.
Baez identifies Gilkyson’s haunting “Rose of Sharon” as “possibly my favorite song to sing. When we became conscious of what this album was going to be about - looking for something new that felt old - that really fit the bill.”
Asked about Earle’s “God Is God,” which declares “I believe in God, and God ain’t me,” Baez answers, “At first I didn’t understand what he meant. Then Steve told me, ‘It’s recovery-speak, you know, a-power-greater-than-myself.’ ... He said, ‘I don’t have no problem with God.’ I found that refreshing. Some people think it’s a touchy, girly thing to believe in God.”
Baez calls “Scarlet Tide,” co-written by Costello and T-Bone Burnett, “this little gem. I don’t remember how it found its way into my life. It’s very clearly an anti-administration song. We took out a few words to make it less specific.”
Baez says she is relieved that Dubya and his cronies are finally on the way out, and believes if Barack Obama is elected, “there’s a possibility that compassion and sacrifice will find their way back into our vocabulary.
“He gives younger people a chance to identify with someone in politics, including my son (Gabe), who could care less about politics. He’s really intelligent and really eloquent, which may be why he loses the election. He’s a statesman. Plus, he gives me the feeling I had when (Martin Luther) King spoke. I’m not comfortable endorsing anyone, but I believe he’s a person I could sit down with. He has picture of Gandhi in his office.”
Though not known for her sense of humor - “Saturday Night Live” once ran a skit with a game show titled “Make Joan Baez Laugh!” - Baez chuckles when asked if she has seen the folk-music mockumentary “A Mighty Wind.” “I saw bits of it on the (tour) bus. It is very, very funny, but it also pushed a lot of other (emotional) buttons at the same time.”
Did she recognize anyone in the movie?
“Oh, yes,” Baez replies, playfully and coyly.
But unfortunately, this time her voice remains silent.