Lucy Kaplansky:
Unzipped

An interview by Ralph DiGennaro,
December 1999

She clatters into the crowded Upper West Side cafe on wooden clogs, somewhat flustered and apologizing profusely for being late. The meeting was scheduled for 4 p.m. It was just 4:05 p.m., but Lucy Kaplansky is still sorry her guest had to wait. She is wearing tight-fitting, stonewashed straight-leg jeans, a colored T-shirt and a lightweight cotton checked jacket that is a bit too big, which kind of gives you the idea it may belong to her husband, Rick Litvin, a New York University professor with whom Kaplansky co-authors just about every song she writes.

Her hair, normally a cascading tangle of charcoal-black ringlets, is pulled back and knotted behind her head. Her eyes are unadulterated by make-up and there's a fading coat of red covering her pouty lips. Kaplansky sits at a quiet table adjacent to the bar and orders a tall cranberry juice "with lots of ice and a slice of lemon" and finally settles down and relaxes, ready to talk about her new record, her newly revitalized career and the almost guilt-provoking fun she had on tour with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, the other two-thirds of the trio collectively known as Cry Cry Cry.

Indeed, ever since Kaplansky's third record, Ten Year Night, was officially released by her independent label, Red House Records, her life has not been the same.

On radios across the country, Ten Year Night received huge amounts of airtime. WFUV, the Fordham University radio station in the Bronx, New York, that anyone interested in quality music listens to if they can get the signal, talked up the album as if station deejays like Meg Griffin were on the Red House payroll. For her part, Kaplansky is decidedly giddy about the record's success, but also believes that she has finally made a record of which she can be unabashedly proud.

"I made exactly the record I wanted to," Kaplansky says between sips of cranberry juice. "I'm reluctant to characterize the record as anything bigger than it is, but it's done much better than the last one. ... Where this will all lead I don't know but right now I feel great. Everybody seems to really like it and it has been a thrill for me. I was afraid that people would consider it too rock."

When Ten Year Night was released, Red House made sure that a plethora of promo copies got in the hands of reviewers, deejays and music industry notables well before. Whether or not it was part of an intelligent marketing and promotional strategy by Kaplansky's record label to let out so many advance CDs, it nonetheless worked. A major buzz about the record began in the cyber community that quickly spread to acoustic-oriented radio stations. In what seemed like less than a heartbeat, Ten Year Night was eclipsing in airplay and industry chatter many other artists' records released around the same time, including new works by John Gorka, Ellis Paul, Cliff Eberhardt, Terri Allard and Lynn Miles, to name just a few.

"Red House has been done a great job promoting this record," Kaplansky says. "They've done everything they could possibly do in letting everyone who is anyone know about it. And for that I'm very grateful. Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and it's especially important for an independent record company that doesn't have a ton of promotional dollars to spend.

"Getting my records heard on the radio is very, very so important to me," she confesses. "WXPN didn't play any of my last record for reasons I've never known. Now, I was just there at the station doing a live interview and I find it incredibly exhilarating. It feels great that they made it possible for so many more people to hear Ten Year Night. It was painful to me when they didn't play my last album. But I'm getting increased spins probably because the stations got great response from listeners."

There is little doubt that the ranks of Lucy Kaplansky fans around the country are swelling day by day. Recently, Kaplansky sold out a concert in Huntington, N.Y., only mildly promoted by the local Folk Music Society. With virtually no exposure save for some brief articles in local newspapers a week before the show, more than 350 people packed a small Congregation church in this small Long Island community, albeit one that is credited for being musically aware. People had to be turned away.

Kaplansky is the first to credit her involvement with Cry Cry Cry as a strong factor in giving her own solo career a decided leg up. It is not without a particular irony that the folk trio, originally a brainstorm of Williams, was founded and conceived with the purpose of fostering awareness of lesser-known songwriters among wider audiences.

But a funny thing happened on the way ... the Cry Cry Cry record and subsequent tour, which reportedly was in the top 50 of the most successful grossing musical tours in the country, has greatly enhanced the popularity of Williams, Shindell and Kaplansky. And in the process, it prompted renewed sales of each individual singer's own existing records.

"There is no question that the Cry Cry Cry tour has exposed me to a much larger audience," Kaplansky admits. "And the fact that it has triggered new sales in our own records has been a wonderful, added perk. The tour was really good for all of us, not just the artists whose songs we covered on the album."

With all the rehearsals and studio time it took to record that album, along with the enormous tour schedule the trio embarked at the end of 1998 (40 shows in all, along with a handful of festivals), one wonders how Kaplansky found the time or energy to make Ten Year Night, much less have it turn out as good as it did.

"I'll tell you when I found the time," Kaplansky says with a laugh. "Cry Cry Cry did not do anything between late June and early November 1988, and that's when I went into the studio. But we did it almost entirely live and live albums are incredibly quick to make ... we did it in two weeks, with one more week to mix. What made things a little difficult at that time was that I was still playing my solo gigs and couldn't find the time to write the last few songs. 'One Good Reason' was the last one written for the album."

Kaplansky quickly points out that she took a great deal of experience into the studio this time around, along with a healthier dose of confidence. And while it was still tremendously hard work, she says the difference in the record reflects her increased amount of creative control. "There's a learning curve that comes with how to make a record, and it comes partly from what I absorbed making my second record," she explains. "I learned how to do things live; even though it sounds like a band, and it is a band, it's still live. "And I'm so much more confident about my singing and my perspective on what sounds good and what doesn't. I 'm proud to say I can nail a vocal now in one or two takes. I was very outspoken with my producer when a song didn't sound good to me. I had a lot of creative input that way. For the first time, I was totally creatively involved. I wasn't just the singer. On my first record I didn't know anything at all. Shawn (Colvin, who produced Kaplansky's first album) knew it all. So I left it all to her."

While Kaplansky's music has always been generously flavored by country, she is still considered to be a folk singer by the music establishment, a label she is not all that comfortable with despite the support she has always enjoyed from folk audiences.

"We've had this discussion before," says Kaplansky. "I don't even know what folk music is any more but I do know what is on this record is not it. In fact, it's closer to country than anything else. Folk is purely a marketing category used by music retailers. I'd be perfectly happy to be removed from the folk bins in a music store. The word just doesn't have any meaning to me anymore."

Does this mean audiences can expect to see fewer shows with just Kaplansky and her aging Martin guitar? Recently, she played a one-night gig at New York's Bottom Line with bass player, drummer and lead guitarist, an ensemble configuration not unlike the one that played on the new record, although the musicians were different.

"I want to play with a lot more musicians in the future," Kaplansky reveals. "This is a reflection of who I am now, musically. I had a blast working with the band in the studio. Singing and playing with those guys was just an incredible experience. We hung around together morning noon and night for two weeks. I kind of miss them."

Something that probably won't change in Kaplansky's foreseeable future is the way she crafts her songs, a process that includes input from her husband at various stages of a song's completion. Apart from the discernible musical advancements on Kaplansky's new record, her song lyrics reflect a certain maturation as well, descriptive and passionate as they are.

"The majority of the songs on the album I had partly written myself and Rick helped me finish them," she says. "Either that or I would have the beginning and he would help flesh out the rest. The song 'This Is Mine' came from a poem Rick had written. He's incredibly gifted, especially with words. I trust his ear and I trust his talent."

So much does Kaplansky trust the creative mind of her spouse that she let him come up with the title of one of her strongest biographical song she wrote about the both of them. The song title also became the name of the record, "Ten Year Night."

"After hearing 'Ten Year Night' for the first time, Richard (Shindell) asked me what lines Rick had contributed to the song," recalls Kaplansky. "I told him, 'He wrote just one line, Ten Year Night.' Richard said, 'That's a great line.' And he's right. Rick and I have gotten much better at turning a lyric or two into a full song. These new songs are collectively stronger and like anything else, things get better with practice."

Kaplansky was relaxed, knowing she had a day or two off before getting on the road again. The following week she would be playing eight gigs in nine days, with not a day's rest in between, with many more to follow. She says she knows she will have to slow down soon, even though there is no free time in sight. It is a schedule she admits wreaks havoc on her home life and stresses her and Litvin's relationship at times, despite his seemingly unyielding patience and understanding.

"It's so much harder on him since he's the one left alone at home all the time," says Kaplansky, the ubiquitous smile vacating her face "But he's happy that things are going well. It's a gift, being able to do what you love to do without worrying about paying the bills any longer. I'm making a living now, which certainly wasn't true a couple of years ago. It feels good."

Kaplansky also reports that the Upper West Side apartment she and Litvin share just a block away from the cafe she is now sitting in will continue to be home for the foreseeable future. "Rick's work is here, and we still love New York," she says "But would we love a country house somewhere in the middle of nowhere ... maybe."

When questioned about her own taste in music, Kaplansky is reluctant to name who she is listening to at the moment, admitting that she is less than thrilled with the majority of the music that she hears. It's a surprising response considering the fact that Kaplansky is arguably the most sought-after harmony singer in the folk/rock/country/pop music universe.

"I am incredibly picky," she says. "I don't like a lot of what I hear. I actually don't listen to too much acoustic music anymore because I'm disappointed a lot. To me, Steve Earle and Richard Thompson are brilliant. But it seems the older I get, the more I prefer rock. Go figure."

[ by Ralph DiGennaro ]