Lucy Kaplansky's therapeutic folk music

Lucy Kaplansky

by Seth Rogovoy

(PITTSFIELD, Mass., March 7, 2002) -- The title track to Lucy Kaplansky’s previous CD, Ten Year Night, was an epic love song tracing the story of a happy love affair from the highly-charged excitement of the first kiss to the reassuring contentment of a long-distance car ride years later. But when Kaplansky set out to write songs for her new album the well was dry when it came to love.

Not that Kaplansky’s personal situation changed. “Anyone who knows me knows I’m happily married,” said Kaplansky in a phone interview from a desert resort in Arizona, where she was enjoying a few days off the road with her husband and songwriting partner, Rick Litvin. “It’s kind of paradoxical, but I guess there was nothing about being in love that I was finding interesting to write about this time.”

Instead, what Kaplansky came up with for her terrific new album, Every Single Day (Red House), are character sketches, vignettes, and a few of her trademark songs of revenge, pity and guilt in the tradition of kiss-off songs like “The Thief” and “End of the Day.”

Kaplansky performs at the Berkshire Museum tomorrow night at 8, accompanied by guitarist Duke Levine, who wrote the music to the title track of Every Single Day. Berkshire singer-songwriter Adam Michael Rothberg opens the show, part of the museum’s “Originals in Song” series. For tickets call 413-443-7171 x. 10.

“There are a lot of people who have made me angry over the years, and they tend to be interesting to write about because of their pathology,” said Kaplansky, who came close to giving up her career as a singer a few years back in favor of working as a psychotherapist. “These are troubled people who’ve made my life hell for one reason or another and that tends to be interesting to me.”

Therapists, however, don’t have the luxury of telling off their patients in the direct way that Kaplansky does in song. She cuts right to the chase in “No More Excuses,” when she floats in on a British Invasion-fueled melody line chiding her subject, “You were bored so you played with your wife’s best friend/Wrecked families along the way/Then you stepped on the people who stood beside you/’Cause they looked at you the wrong way.”

But for the most part, says Kaplansky, her new songs are not vengeful.

“They’re not angry songs,” she said. “‘Guilty as Sin’ is more tragic than angry. It’s about this woman who keeps getting involved with married men. It asks why is she doing this, what is she losing. It’s more plaintive than angry -- a portrait of someone who keeps setting themselves up for unhappiness.”

Plaintive or angry, the producers of the NBC show “Ed” liked the song enough to include it in last week’s episode.

Kaplansky’s songs are distinguished by the way in which she brings the touch of the poet to her ability to get inside her character’s psyche.

“Because of my clinical training I became a more insightful, perceptive, observant person in terms of human nature and human motivations,” said Kaplansky, who has appeared on the CBS-TV “Early Show” to analyze “Survivor” episodes. “I’ve been better able to understand what it is that’s going on in people around me, which can’t help but affect everything in the way I interact with the world, including what I say about it in song.

“What I’m going for is some kind of emotional truth conveyed in a way that is interesting, and that’s different from being a psychologist. Psychologists look for emotional truth but don’t worry about how to present it.”

Every Single Day isn’t all analytical doom and gloom, however. “Don’t Mind Me” is a giddy, infectious bit of folk-pop in which the singer puts on her best baby-doll voice to deliver lines like “Don’t blame me/It’s just your burning gravity/That brings me to my knees/In front of you.” Kaplansky also turned to songs by Paul Brady, Julie Miller, Steve Earle and the Louvin Brothers for some emotional rescue and relief.

“The album had to have a balance, so whatever darkness there was had to be offset by lightness and hope,” said Kaplansky, a native of Chicago who lives in New York.

Kaplansky came to New York in the late-1970s, drawn by the burgeoning new-folk scene centered in Greenwich Village at clubs like Gerde’s Folk City. She took part in many of the early Fast Folk revues alongside then-unknown singer-songwriters like John Gorka, Shawn Colvin and Richard Shindell.

By the mid-‘80s, she went back to school, first to New York University for her undergraduate degree in psychology and then to Yeshiva University for her graduate work. While in school, she kept one foot in music whenever musician friends like Colvin, Gorka and Nanci Griffith asked her to lend her distinctive voice to their recordings. By 1992, she was Dr. Lucy Kaplansky, and she continued in private practice until January 1997, when her career as a touring artist forced her to choose between her two professions.

Every Single Day was produced by percussionist Ben Wittman (The Story) and includes instrumental help from an all-star cast of folk-rock musicians, including Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, Mary Chapin Carpenter guitarist Duke Levine, Steely Dan guitarist Jon Herington and Roxy Music bassist Zev Katz. Fellow singer-songwriters Gorka, Jennifer Kimball, Buddy Miller and Shindell – with Dar Williams and Kaplansky, a member of the singer-songwriter collective Cry Cry Cry – contributed harmony vocals.

Ten Year Night, Kaplansky’s previous album, won the AFIM (Association for Independent Music) award for Best Pop Album of 1999. Kaplansky’s other albums are Flesh and Bone and The Tide, which was produced by her former duet partner, Shawn Colvin. A favorite of public radio audiences, Kaplansky has appeared on “All Things Considered,” “Morning Edition,” “Mountain Stage,” “Acoustic Café” and “West Coast Live.” She is featured in “SOLO: Women Singer-Songwriters in Their Own Words,” a book that includes chapters by Colvin, Ani DiFranco, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow and others. Kaplansky also sings several songs on the recent album by Wayfaring Strangers called Shifting Sands of Time.

Kaplansky said that most of her finger-pointing songs are based on composites of people she has known in her life rather than on particular individuals. Nevertheless, singing them can be cathartic. “Especially when there’s someone there who knows what the truth was; then it’s really fun,” she said.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 8, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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