Most musicians wait their entire lives for the type of break Lucy Kaplansky had at the age of 21: a glowing review in the New York Times that said she was destined for stardom.
But instead of capitalizing on it, Kaplansky did the exact opposite. She gave it up. “I was too conflicted on some unconscious level,” she said. “I had to run away. At 23, I told myself I don’t want to be a singer. It wasn’t until years later—10 years later—that I realized that was a lie. I had to go to school and become a psychologist to realize it was a lie. Once I realized that, it became immediately clear that I had to go back to music.”
Growing up in Chicago the daughter of a professor/pianist father, Kaplansky was performing in bars before she even left high school. By age 18, she’d left for New York City. At the time, around 1978, several musical movements were going on in lower Manhattan, but the one that caught her attention was the folk revival. Greenwich Village was abuzz, and it was an irresistibly romantic lifestyle for young singers and songwriters like Kaplansky, Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin.
“We hung out at Folk City, drank too much,” says Kaplansky. “I was 20. I was a kid. It was fun.”
However, Kaplansky found herself collaborating with others, like Colvin, more than doing her own thing. She pursued a career in psychology—she has a doctorate degree—and worked at a hospital with chronically mentally ill patients and started a private practice.
But even during that time, she never abandoned music completely. Her old friends—Vega, Nanci Griffith, John Gorka and especially her old singing partner, Colvin—would pull her into the studio and out for shows. “Once I decided not to be singer, I got the best gigs I ever had. Anyone with a brain could obviously see that I still wanted to be singer.”
One listen to Kaplansky’s music and it’s easy to understand why her friends wouldn’t let her be. Her strong-yet-feminine voice has rare warmth and insight, and easily complements other vocals. And her easygoing style and open willingness to collaborate makes her the perfect singing partner.
Colvin was the one who eventually pulled her back into music for good. Kaplansky harmonized with Colvin on her Grammy-winning album, Steady On. Colvin wanted to tackle producing an album, and she wanted Kaplansky to record that album. The demo tapes made it into the hands of Red House Records—home to many quality singer-songwriters like Loudon Wainwright III and Kaplansky’s former New York folk friend, John Gorka. Red House loved it and signed her right away.
But getting back into music full-time wasn’t that easy. “It’s absolutely the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I was just in a state of anxiety for months, wondering if anybody would remember me, if I could get shows.”
That was only the half of it. Kaplansky, who’d mostly accompanied others and sang their songs, found herself at the age of 34 having only written about three songs. It was like completely starting over.
Apparently she overcame her self-doubt and fears. Her Red House debut, The Tide, was warmly received and she soon signed with a booking agency to hit the road—permanently giving up her job as a psychologist. The following album, Flesh & Bone, garnered even more critical praise as her songwriting abilities strengthened. Her ’99 effort, Ten Year Night, won the Association for Independent Music’s best pop album of the year.
Sure, it may seem like small achievements compared to the Grammys and MTV Video Awards. Kaplansky, like her underground coffeehouse crew, is a National Public Radio darling. They’re the artists who do Austin City Limits and appeal to an older adult acoustic crowd. But they also possess something most of today’s popular artists don’t: musical skill and talent.
Kaplansky is the type of singer who idolizes troubadour Steve Earle and gets invited to guest on Bryan Ferry’s next album. Her latest album, this year’s Every Single Day, is another triumph for her as a performer. Once again, she walks the line between alt-country, pop and folk with a delicate balance of infectious melodies and sultry-yet-innocent vocals.
And she writes powerful songs about heady, humanistic issues. “Guilty as Sin” takes on infidelity: “As if we never kissed/You cross another off your list/But I know where you’ve been/I know where you’ve been/Guilty as sin.” While “Song For Molly” is a sad ballad about her aging grandmother: “It’s a dirty trick this growing old.”
Every Single Day also finds Kaplansky writing lyrics with her husband, film professor Richard Litvin. She admits it can be difficult at times working with someone she’s so close to, but over the years, they’ve come to respect one another’s opinion. And she still covers other performers’ songs, including Earle’s “You’re Still Standing There” on this album.
“The connection to your own songs is absolutely different,” Kaplansky says. “It’s a very visceral connection. It’s been a great thrill that people have liked my songs. On the other hand, I love to sing great songs, and a lot of great songs are not by me. On the whole, I prefer to collaborate with other artists. It’s more fun, more gratifying than when I’m alone.”
And then she pauses to add, “But when you’re on stage alone you get all the attention.”u
Lucy Kaplansky with Alice Peacock. Fine Arts Auditorium, University of Utah, Friday Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. Tickets and information: 339-SONG and www.IAMAweb.org.