At age 76, Joan Baez’s high notes don’t soar quite as high as they once did. But she remains one of the longest-lasting stars to have emerged from the ’50s folk revival, and a tireless warrior for social-justice issues going back to the civil-rights era.
Her stature is such that the “Four Voices” tour Baez will bring to Raleigh on Monday with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls sold out long ago. And by way of staying current, Baez’s first new album in a decade is due out in 2018, overseen by tastemaker producer Joe Henry with songs by Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Josh Ritter and Eliza Gilkyson.
We caught up with Baez by phone last week, calling from her home in Woodside, Calif., where she said she was “watching a windstorm.” What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: What’s the setlist like for this show?
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A: We’re discussing which ones to do, and which ones not to. There are probably seven regulars, out of which we’ll do four or five. And I’m close to the end of making my album, so we’ll do some of those songs. But there’s a lot to it. You should see the texts flying back and forth right now: Who takes what, does this one still work, how about that one? So we’re not certain yet what we’ll be doing.
Q: Given your background, can we expect some political content?
A: It would be hard not to be political right now. I don’t see how we couldn’t be. I don’t think anybody expected things with (President) Trump would get this bad. If you’re gonna be a dictator, at least be benevolent. But he’s malevolent. It’s the problem with a lot of conservative thought, especially those conservatives who have spent time in think tanks: You punish children, teach them to go out and make money and give them no breaks because if you’re soft on them, they might not survive.
Q: How is your voice holding up nowadays?
A: I like it most of the time. It is completely different. There’s no hint of those old high notes I used to hit, and I do miss that. But at a certain point, gravity takes over everything, including vocal-chord muscles. So I work at a lower range now, which feels like a more accurate representation of a life lived this long. It’s hard to keep up. I have to work very hard at vocalizing, doing a lot of squawking and breathing exercises when no one else is around.
Q: Do you think you’ll ever actually retire?
A: I’m starting my “Fare Thee Well” next year, where I’ll eventually stop formal concerts and tours. I’m not saying I’ll never sing anymore, which would be silly. But this will be a major seismic switch, to not get on the bus three or four times a year and have that be life. There are things about it I’m sure I’ll miss, and a lot of other things I won’t. Fifty-nine years, I’ve been doing this. That’s coo-coo, is what it is! Once in a while I’ll be standing onstage looking out at the audience and thinking, “It’s nuts for me to still be up here, and even moreso that you’re still coming to hear it.”
Q: How did the four of you in this group first come together?
A: When I first hired Mark Spector as my manager, my career was pretty invisible. He asked why I wanted a manager and I told him, “I want to be recognized as a viable singer in this life.” The first thing he did was get me interested in my opening acts, who were all younger. I met the Indigos, and it became clear we could sing together. And Chapin, I remember her being at my kitchen table, the four of us putting together a song. It happened very organically.
Q: After all these years, you must get a lot of people asking about things from 50 years or more ago.
A: It’s hard to keep track. My son Gabe once asked if I’d ever met Jimi Hendrix, I said no – and he pulled out a picture of me talking to Jimi Hendrix. So I can’t tell you who I have and haven’t met because it’s all just too much. There’s one well-circulated picture of me and Jimi with a giant bong, which is really funny because I never did any of that stuff. It’s photo-shopped very well.
Q: Is your son impressed with you and all you’ve done?
A: I think he is. He doesn’t say much about it, but once in a while he does and I’ll know he appreciates what I’ve done. Sometimes when I’m agonizing about not having spent enough time with him when he was little, he’ll say, ‘Mom, listen, I’m OK – and what you did in the ’60s, nobody else could have done.’ He’s 47 years old now. How is that possible? Time flies as you get older, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Who: Four Voices: Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
Cost: Sold out
Info: 919-839-6262 or ncartmuseum.org