Lucy Kaplansky ties it all together with
Lucy Kaplansky performs at Club Helsinki on Friday May 14th
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 11, 2004) – Two monumental events in the last few years changed the way Lucy Kaplansky looks at the world. And as one might expect from a singer-songwriter, her changed outlook made its way into the songs on her most recent album, “The Red Thread. ”
At once her most personal and her most outward-looking album, “The Red Thread” (Red House) explores the ties that bind the particular and the universal, a theme that Kaplansky thought a lot about in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and the adoption of her Chinese daughter, Molly.
“I didn’t even realize there was a theme running through the album,” said Kaplansky, who performs a solo show on Friday night at 9 at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394), in a recent phone interview from her Greenwich Village apartment, from where she observed first-hand the terror and destruction that visited lower Manhattan on that fateful September day.
“It’s not like we consciously decided to write all these personal songs,” said Kaplansky, who co-writes her songs with her husband, Rick Litvin, who teaches film studies at New York University.
“I had the idea to call the album ‘The Red Thread’ after writing that song, and thought that’s a good name for the album,” she said. “But I didn’t realize until the album was about to come out that that’s what the album was about.”
The theme of “The Red Thread” – that we are all somehow connected or tied together by an invisible red thread – had its origins in an ancient Chinese belief that when a child is born, an invisible red thread reaches out from the child’s spirit to all of the important people who will be a part of the child’s life.
This belief was especially compelling to Kaplansky as an adoptive parent.
“This profound new relationship, this new tie between me and my daughter, my husband and daughter, between me and my mother and my daughter – it’s a tie that somehow seems handed to us by a higher power,” said Kaplansky. “This girl is so perfect for us. We can’t imagine that somehow she wasn’t meant to be with us. In those terms, there’s something beyond the nuts and bolts, beyond the everyday life, that’s tying things together.”
Kaplansky variously explored this theme from the personal and the communal points of view in songs including the title track to “The Red Thread” and on “I Had Something,” “Land of the Living,” and “This Is Home” The attack on the Twin Towers is a haunting backdrop on the subway ride described in “Brooklyn Train,” in which “Nobody speaks, everyone stares/Remembering all that used to be there,” thereby providing “the threads that connect these faces to me.”
While most of her singer-songwriter peers stick to their own material, Kaplansky always scatters her albums and concerts with songs by her contemporaries; “The Red Thread” includes numbers by Bill Morrissey, James McMurtry, Dave Carter and Buddy Miller.
“I’m not prolific enough to come up with an album’s worth of songs,” explained Kaplansky. “I’d rather record someone else’s great songs than my own mediocre songs. And there are so many great songs out there.”
Widely regarded as one of the top new-folk singer-songwriters, Kaplansky is the folksinger who almost wasn’t. While still a teen-ager, she left her native Chicago for New York in the late-1970s because of its burgeoning folk scene, and was soon appearing with other up-and-comers including Cliff Eberhardt, John Gorka and her then-duet partner Shawn Colvin.
After a few years of struggling to break through, however, Kaplansky went back to school and studied clinical psychology. By the early 1990s, she had a growing private practice, and she seemed to have left music behind.
But she had always kept a toe in the musical waters, singing backup on many of her friends’ albums, including Nanci Griffith’s. She was persuaded to record an album, “The Tide,” which was produced by Colvin, and soon found herself in demand for more live appearances. By the late-‘90s, she closed down her practice and devoted herself full-time to music. She has five solo albums to her credit, including “Flesh and Bone,” “Every Single Day” and “Ten Year Night,” which won the AFIM (Association for Independent Music) award for best pop album of 1999. She was also one-third of the new-folk supergroup, Cry Cry Cry, alongside fellow singer-songwriters Dar Williams and Richard Shindell.
In a 2001 interview with the Eagle, Kaplansky talked about the influence her analytic training has on her songwriting. “Because of my training I became a more insightful, perceptive, observant person in terms of human nature and human motivations,” she said. “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.”
But even that enhanced insight into human motivations has its limits when it comes to music. In her songwriting, said Kaplansky, “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.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 14, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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