As the sun sets on her touring days, and the 50th anniversary of her historic performance at Woodstock sits just on the horizon, it would be tempting to use this time to reflect on the extraordinary life and career of Joan Baez. But the music icon and tireless activist has far too much to look forward to. On the eve of her 78th birthday, she is celebrating a Grammy nomination for Whistle Down the Wind which earned a nod for best folk album. Her first studio disc in a decade debuted at number four on Billboard’s Americana/Folk Albums chart upon its release last year, and features songs written by Tom Waits, Anohni, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Josh Ritter, and more. Baez also remains hard at work pursing social justice and reform — most recently by raising money for the devastating Camp Wildfires and serving as an Ambassador for the Innocence Project to combat wrongful criminal convictions.
Eager to begin her new chapter, Baez spoke to PEOPLE via telephone from her home in California, where she has enthusiastically embraced painting. Her colorful canvases are as vibrant as her powerful crystalline vocals, which have given fervor to civil rights anthems like “We Shall Overcome” and “Oh Freedom.” They’re also as warm as her speaking voice, which brims with humor as she cuts the occasional self-deprecating remark or insightful joke. Over the course of the wide ranging conversation, she touched on her first Grammy nomination in nine years, post-touring plans, and a lifetime of activism.
Congratulations on being nominated for a Grammy this year! What was your first reaction to hearing this news?
Well I’ve never spent a whole lot of time thinking about it, so I would call it a pleasant surprise. It’s a collaborative process. It all kind of comes together when you’re looking for new songs to record. My manager does the bulk of the work — he has a giant pile of CDs by his desk. When he finds something he thinks is plausible he listens at least 50 times before I even hear it.
It sounds really corny but the song choose me. The president song for example [“The President Sang Amazing Grace”], was a no-brainer. It was politically, musically, and lyrically perfect for me. The same for “Another World.” Those two songs really gave the album the depth that it has. Pretty songs, a pretty album, but it wouldn’t have the meaning that it has without them.
People like Tom Waits, though, he has never failed me. I don’t have to ask him for something new, it’s all relatively timeless. I almost chose three Waits songs for this record but thought that was overdoing it.
Aging is serious issue, especially if you’re known for your voice. My career has really been around my voice rather than playing guitar or writing songs. It’s something that remains a question for me; if I’ll be able to keep my voice up after I finish touring. Will I be able to keep it in tune to go out and do 20 minute sets somewhere? I don’t know that yet, and I don’t know if I feel like practicing four of five times a week when I would rather be painting. That’s what I want to do after this tour.
I would love to hear more about your paintings.
Painting is a rechanneling of my artistic vision. I started painting about seven years ago, and turned it into portraits. Every portrait I have done so far is of someone who has made nonviolent change. It’s a perfect tool right now, to have that be my next step. I entered a contest at the National Portrait Gallery for a competition they have every three years, and I made semi-finals! Cross your fingers. If I get selected it will be hung in the gallery for a year.
This is really the first time in my life I’ve been serious about it. I turned a little shed next to my pool into a studio.
Is this your final tour? Do you have big plans for after it’s over?
I think so! I mean, I’m not an idiot. I know I’ll miss everybody. I’ll miss the bus, the dancing, the travelling, being with my son [Gabe Harris, Baez’s touring drummer]. I talked to Linda Ronstadt a little while ago and she said that she hated it all! The bumpy bus rides, the hotels, all of it. Not me, though. We have a wonderful time.
After I wrap the tour I plan on just resting, staring out the window. I’ve never just stared out a window! My Buddhist inclinations will have a better chance than they have. I don’t particularly like meditating but I realize how important it is, so I just do it. And I’ll have more time for that. I’m an elder — that’s the polite way to say it — I won’t live forever, and I think that death is a really important part of one’s life. In this culture we don’t study it enough, or get used to the idea, or consider it a beautiful event. I don’t know what I’ll feel like when I’m 90. I mean, I’ll probably be 100 like my mom.<
You’ve been an activist for your entire career. When did you first get involved? What does civil disobedience look like during a Trump presidency?
I first got involved in nonviolent action through my parents when I was 15. They were picketing a war movie, and I went with them. I was constantly surrounded by talk of violence and nonviolence, and for whatever reason, at a very early age, I thought that nonviolence was the only thing that ever made any sense. I have two gifts, one is my voice, and the second, bigger one is how I chose to use it, and I choose to use it in a way that made personal growth sort of extraordinary. It gave me wings.
We are all going to die sometime, so I never minded being in situations that are dangerous. I think I was immune to it, I was either too stupid or my system protected me. I never got freaked out. I think one of the prescriptions I have for now, for all of us, is to remain in denial a lot of the time. And when you come out of that, think of something constructive to do for somebody else. It’s the only way we are going to make it through this, if we organize.
I admire a lot of the smaller movements happening right now. We don’t hear about them because this just isn’t the atmosphere where they get picked up. Reverend Barber takes his flock down to the border, makes statements there, and ends up going to jail. That’s huge! And we don’t hear that much about it. There’s a trick in getting to the point where you not only do the thing that’s sacred to you and important for the world, but somehow making it public and able to grow into a movement. That was a trick of Gandhi and King and others. They had an innate sense for how to get that done. That’s a gift that’s rare, and we need that. Everything begins small. When they say, “Oh you’re just preaching to the choir.” I say, “Well, the choir is what gets things done!” I would rather sing to the choir than to sing to a bunch of morons who are really never going to change their minds.
—Interview by Haley Zoller