As a child Collins studied classical piano with Antonia Brico, making her public debut at age 13 performing Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos.
However, it was the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and the traditional songs of the folk revival of the early 1960s, that piqued Collins' interest and awoke in her a love of lyrics. Three years after her debut as a piano prodigy, she was playing guitar. She eventually made her way to Greenwich Village, New York City, where she busked and played in clubs until she signed with Elektra Records, a record label with which she was associated for 35 years. In 1961, Collins released her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, at the age of 22.
At first, she sang traditional folk songs, or songs written by others, in particular the social poets of the time, such as Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. She recorded her own versions of seminal songs of the period, such as Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn". Collins was also instrumental in bringing little known musicians to a wider public (in much the same way Joan Baez brought Bob Dylan into the public eye). For example, Collins recorded songs by Canadian poet Leonard Cohen, who would become a close friend over the years. She would also go on to record songs by singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, and Richard Farina, long before they gained the national acclaim they would later achieve.
While Collins' first few albums comprised straightforward guitar-based folk songs, with 1966's In My Life, she began branching out and including work from such diverse sources as The Beatles, Cohen, Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill. Mark Abramson produced and Joshua Rifkin arranged the album, adding lush orchestration to many of the numbers. The album was regarded as a major departure for a folk artist, and set the course for Collins' subsequent work over the next decade.
With her 1967 album Wildflowers, also produced by Mark Abramson and arranged by Rifkin, Collins began to record her own compositions, the first of which was entitled "Since You've Asked". The album also provided Collins with a major hit, and a Grammy award, in Mitchell's "Both Sides Now", which reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Collins' 1968 album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, was produced by David Anderle and featured back-up guitar by Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills & Nash), with whom she was romantically involved at the time. (She was the inspiration for two notable songs by Stills: the Buffalo Springfield's haunting "Bluebird", and the CSN classic, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"). Time Goes had a mellow country sound, and included Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon" and the title track, a Sandy Denny song which has since been covered by several artists. The album also featured Collins' composition, "My Father," and one of the first covers of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire."
By the 1970s, Collins had a solid reputation as an art song singer and folksinger, and had begun to stand out for her own compositions. She was also known for her broad range of material: her songs from this period include the traditional Christian hymn "Amazing Grace", the Stephen Sondheim Broadway ballad "Send in the Clowns" (both of which were top 20 hits as singles), a recording of Joan Baez' "A Song For David," and her own compositions, such as "Born to the Breed".
In 1976, Collins posed nude for the album "Hard Times For Lovers".
In more recent years Collins has taken to writing, producing a memoir, "Trust Your Heart" in 1987, as well as a novel, "Shameless". A more recent memoir, "Sanity and Grace" tells the story of her son, Clark, and his death from suicide in January 1992. Though her record sales are not what they once were, she still records and tours in the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand. She performed at US President Bill Clinton's first inauguration in 1993, singing "Amazing Grace" and "Chelsea Morning". (The Clintons have stated that their daughter Chelsea was named after Collins' recording of the song.)