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Folk musician Joan Baez on the new documentary 'Joan Baez I Am A Noise'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The opening moments of a new documentary film show an artist with one of the most extraordinary voices of all time working with a vocal coach to get through a farewell tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE")

JOAN BAEZ: (Vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED VOCAL COACH: How's that feeling?

BAEZ: I have to just - to - knocking the vibrato out of some of these...

UNIDENTIFIED VOCAL COACH: Yeah.

BAEZ: ...Give me a little longer time with them. (Vocalizing).

SIMON: The film uses that 2018 tour by Joan Baez to also bring us along on a journey through her life in the public eye since she was a teen. Her publicized loves and - what do they call them now? - uncouplings and her uncovering of what she calls a kernel in her childhood that she needed to crack. "Joan Baez I Am A Noise," directed by Karen O'Connor, Miri Navasky and Maeve O'Boyle. Joan Baez herself joins us now from California. Thanks so much for being with us.

BAEZ: It's so my pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: This film is searingly and, I bet at times, uncomfortably personal. Why did you want to do it?

BAEZ: A number of reasons. I wanted to leave an honest legacy of myself, and I trusted - Karen O'Connor has been a friend of mine for years, so I knew where to put my trust, and I was right in doing so. I think mainly wanting to be honest and straightforward because - you know why? 'Cause I got nothing to lose now.

SIMON: As we noted, you have been famous since you were a teenager.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE")

THEO BIKEL: Very rarely does it happen that a performer emerges...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE")

SIMON: Theo Bikel...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE")

BIKEL: ...That is a beautiful...

SIMON: ...Introduced you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE")

BIKEL: ...Human being as well as a great singer and musician. Such a one is Joan Baez.

SIMON: Newport Folk Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE")

BAEZ: I just sing when I feel like singing, feels sort of like exploding. So I'll explode. (Singing in French).

SIMON: There's film of you in your childhood, your sisters, Pauline and Mimi. There you are, vibrant young daughters of a distinguished physicist and devoted mother, happy, smiling. What do the films not show?

BAEZ: Well, they show that side that's real as well. But what I uncovered after so many years of this - mysterious interruptions in my life of anxiety, panic attacks, etc. I've been to therapist for years who helped me live with it and get around it and make it a little better. And then I thought, you know, this is something that it's - there's something in there I need to get to. And my sister Mimi just called one day and said, you know, I think something terrible happened in our childhood. Do you want to look into it the way I will in therapy? And eventually I said yes. And we both discovered some very deep trauma from childhood. And we were - our bodies and brains were reacting to that our whole lives without our knowing it because it was all unconscious, subconscious.

SIMON: I don't want to be oblique about this - inappropriate behavior, abuse.

BAEZ: Yeah - abuse, trauma.

SIMON: Your father said it never happened.

BAEZ: Yeah. And I believe with all my heart that he and my mom have no memory of it at all. The mind is an extraordinary thing to have blocking something out if you really don't want to deal with it. I mean, I had blocked it out for 50 years. And then the journey was really quite something. And how do you forgive, and how do you - you know, how much do you believe? How much do you blame other people? And all of this is an attempt to get better so that I'll have a life - you know? - a really whole life rather than fragmented. And the fragments came as - you know, I was diagnosed with multiple personalities. And so through them - as each little entity inside you holds a memory or memories - when they're allowed to come up to consciousness or to come up for air, they really do explain to you what their trauma was, which means it was mine, and they carried it for me.

SIMON: There's a phrase that stayed with me, and forgive me if I get it as a paraphrase, but you say you weren't very good at one-on-one relationships but very good at one on 2,000.

BAEZ: Trying to deal with intimacy and my incapability of really having an intimate relation with somebody for more than a week, you know? And I always thought that I could and I would; and this time it would be better; and this time I would react to somebody positively for a long, long time. And I couldn't. And I mean, it's clearer now that when your trust is blasted apart when you're little, it's very difficult to learn to trust later in life. Safe enough behind the guitar, singing with 2,000 people, very comfortable. I mean, not really intimate, so I'm kind of kidding. But it was way easier for me than it was trying to have something real with another person.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE")

BAEZ: I tell you what I'll do. I'll do Bobby Dylan singing Joan Baez, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

BAEZ: OK. (Impersonating Bob Dylan, singing) Word is to the kitchen gone.

SIMON: Can I ask about Bob Dylan? I'm not going to beat around the bush.

BAEZ: Sure you can (laughter).

SIMON: All right.

BAEZ: You ask whatever you want. Yeah. I think probably Dylan broke my heart 'cause it was so shattering and it having been such a huge thing. You know, it was huge. The music was huge, the politics, the - you know, the closeness, when we had it. I think that's fair enough to say.

SIMON: You were both young, early in your careers. I admire, revere Bob Dylan as a genius. But what we see of him with you, it's just hard to like him.

BAEZ: Oh. Yeah. You know, for my own self, when I looked at that footage, the first thing I thought was, we still both had our baby fat when all this stuff was going on. We were really young. I don't know what was going on in his mind. And I spent, you know, many, many years being ticked off and resenting and all that stuff. And then one day I was painting his portrait, Dylan as a young boy, young man, and I put his music on, and I wept for about 24 hours in gratitude that what I did get from him and how extraordinary in those years and the songs. And I have not had one iota of resentment since that little epiphany, happy to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE")

BAEZ: (Impersonating Bob Dylan, singing) A lover for your life and nothing more. But it ain't me, babe. No, no, no, it ain't me, babe. It ain't me you're looking for, babe.

SIMON: Joan, may I ask, are you happy now?

BAEZ: You know, somebody said the other day, what's the best decade of your life? And I said, this one, bang, like that. Yes. I have a piece in here that I wouldn't - you know, I couldn't have for decades and has developed over the last few years to be even more so. And with that, this massive creativity since I quit touring has come out in every other way. So, yes, I am quite happy now.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE")

BAEZ: (Singing) Oh, fare thee well. I must be gone and leave you for a while.

SIMON: I have to ask you about one more thing.

BAEZ: Sure.

SIMON: There's an entry you made, I think, in a notebook when you were 13. It says, someday I intend to be like Gandhi.

BAEZ: (Laughter).

SIMON: Gandhi, an important figure to you, given your activism, your commitment in nonviolence. Joan, Mahatma Gandhi, God bless him, couldn't carry a tune.

BAEZ: (Laughter) He carried his own tune, and millions of people heard it.

SIMON: (Laughter) Oh, you one-up me there.

BAEZ: Oh, good.

SIMON: I thought I was being so clever.

BAEZ: Well, you were. I was just more clever than you were in (audible).

(LAUGHTER)

BAEZ: Oh.

SIMON: Joan Baez, though I probably don't need to say that. She is the star of the new documentary, "Joan Baez I Am A Noise." Thank you so much for being with us.

BAEZ: Oh, thank you, Scott. Such a joy to talk to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN BAEZ I AM A NOISE")

BAEZ: (Singing) And you'll... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.