BWW Cabaret Conversation: CAROL LIPNIK, BWW's 2015 Best Alt-Cabaret Show Award Winner, On Collaboration and 'Accessing The Thing'--Second of a Three-Part Series
"What I aspire to give people is an emotional release," Carol Lipnik told me. "A journey, a poetic and sonic LSD trip." Lipnik aspires to transform her audience. She is not looking to lull people into some comfortable numbness, although at one point during our conversation she whipped out her phone, fired up a karaoke app, and dialed up the Pink Floyd classic "Comfortably Numb," which we sang together at our lonely table in the back of Walker's, a TriBeCa tavern.
"On my new CD Almost Back to Normal," she continues, "the songs are about a kind of free falling. There's a joy in weightlessness." As with every conversation with Lipnik, it all comes back to Coney Island, her childhood proving ground. "Today, everything has the feeling of falling apart, like we've gone past the tipping point. We're on a giant roller coaster--the Cyclone--and we've been going up to the top. There's an element of menace and danger. Things are out of our control."
In Part Two of my interview with Carol Lipnik, BWW's 2015 New York Cabaret Award-winner for Best Alt-Cabaret/Musical Comedy Performance, we continue talking in-depth about her creative process and artistry, as she finds herself cresting a wave of success, surfing her moment as she emerges, fully formed, into the New York City cultural conversation. This installment explores her important and revelatory artistic relationships-- with club owners, musical collaborators, and with her audience. She is currently in the middle of a residency at Joe's Pub, where you can catch her the next two Thursday nights at 7 pm with musicians Matt Kanelos on piano, and Kyle Sanna on multiple instruments, including guitar and lap synthesizer.
Remy Block: One thing I have noticed every time I'm at one of your shows is your connection with the audience. You make it a point to engage with people.
Carol Lipnik: The audience is part of it, so it's a collective experience. And when all the gears are turning and it's all working, it's really fun. There's one song that I've been performing by a remarkable songwriting outsider named Michael Hurley called "The Werewolf Song." For me, it's about the feral quality of human nature from the point of view of a werewolf. The chorus of the song is howling. I have the audience howl along with me, and we're doing real wolf howls, not fake wolf howls. It's very deadpan, it's absurdist, but it's so emotional. I'm hoping that it's a cathartic experience, but at the same time, it's a hilarious experience. That's the key to my work: It's never takes itself too seriously, but it also is very serious, and isn't that how life is all the time? When I'm performing, I like to leave the ego behind. I'm happiest when I've disappeared into the world, whether it's the sky or a body of water, or a poem or a book or musical performance journey . . . I'm happiest when I leave myself behind.
RB: How do you recognize that state?
CL: It feels like pure love. But it's a lonely love. Because there's no place for you in it. But it feels like love. It feels like a form of ecstasy. Like when people go to the beach, why do they feel so ecstatic? Because it doesn't have anything to do with them.
RB: To be able to be that free on stage, you must have an incredible amount of trust in your pianist, Matt Kanelos. How did you two find each other?
CL: There was a place in Hell's Kitchen called Zipper Factory [which closed in early 2009]. I went to see him play and he did a version of "Across the Universe" that was exactly what I would imagine, so I asked him if he would be interested in doing a project of cover songs with me. The first one we tried might have been "Gypsy Wife" by Leonard Cohen. And it was just like magic, from the very first note. I was like WOW this guy is amazing. It's all about the black sky, the universe, the starry sky, the black hole in the universe . . . he is accessing some black hole somewhere. It's deceptive, because he seems like such a sweet, nice, kind, good, simple guy, but he's got access to this thing. I don't know what it is . . .
RB: You have access too. I never thought about it like that, but you have some kind of access . . .
CL: We are both accessing this thing.
RB: Do you feel like you've always had that access? Or have you had to develop it?
CL: I've always had access, for sure. I was the dreamy shy kid always looking at the sky. Growing up in Coney Island, I loved wandering by myself on the boardwalk, looking at all the abandoned rides, the decaying rides. The older I get, the less self-conscious I become, and the less self-conscious I become, the easier it is to access this thing. I'm getting wiser, and I am realizing I can be less self-conscious and less shy. I'm liberating myself. I definitely have the access . . . it's like in The Shining: You have the Shining! Matt and I have the Shining. He's an incredible collaborator.
RB: How long have you been working together?
CL: About four years. I decided I was going to make a new record; I had enough material, so the original project changed. We have quite a lot of cover songs that we do, but it turned into Carol songs.
RB: Matt writes songs too?
CL: Matt is a wonderful songwriter. He has several CDs and the last one in particular is beautiful with haunting, abstract, poetic lyrics. You know his song "Nonviolent Man?" [See video, below.] It's just a great song, right up there with "Hallelujah." The lyrics are devastating. Every time I sing it there's been another shooting, and the lyrics haunt me: Time is broken/the killer is now a child/and the animal protects you in the wild/the chapel doors are open/will you take my broken hand/is it in you to love a non-violent man. All these mass shootings where the killer is a child, and that shooting in the chapel . . . It's the zeitgeist, and he just nailed it simple and exquisitely.
RB: Men need liberation; aren't they still stuck in the old expectations of masculinity . . .
CL: . . . Chest pounding . . .
RB: They need to love non-violent versions of themselves.
CL: That's exactly what the song is about. And he nailed it.
RB: That makes me see him as a very evolved man.
CL: The third collaborator on the record unfortunately doesn't live in New York.
RB: The cellist . . . no, the violinist?
CL: Jacob Lawson, the violinist. We've worked together for a very long time. But he's in Florida right now. He also has access. The choices, the arrangements he plays on the violin are just exquisite, matching my voice. We have a way of thinking together. When I'm singing, we are one mind: the choices he makes match my choices, while we're making them! It's rare to find a musician like that. Matt's the same way. If Jacob lived in New York, we'd be playing together as a trio. But the recording he produced is gorgeous. He produced the Cloud Girl CD too. Love it!
RB: Your sound has changed a lot. Recordings in the 2000s sounded more Brechtian, carnivalesque . . .
CL: With Matt it's more like classical art song, that's what this current project is all about.
RB: Do you feel like there's a new momentum with the new work?
CL: It's really hard in New York . . . Stephen [Shanaghan] and Arnaldo [Caballero Y Cespedes], the two owners of Pangea, have given me this beautiful gift of a weekly residency. They love my music, and they really understand it. People have a hard time understanding it. So I have a platform where people can come and see me every week, and that's how people are finding out about me right now. I also feel like a BLOSSOMING right now. My life is a giant cocoon that I've built and now I've got my hammer and my chisel and I'm chiseling my way out and emerging.
RB: What else has spurred this blossoming?
CL: I started studying with a voice teacher. About two years ago, I met this woman--she was the oval coach on a project I was involved with. She's like a little bird, but she terrifies me. I can't get away with anything.
RB: You never studied with a voice teacher before?
CL: I was always afraid of voice lessons because I thought they would have me sing Broadway style. Barbara teaches Diamanda Galas [an American avant-garde composer, vocalist, pianist, organist, performance artist, and painter] and when I heard that, I thought, this is the one for me! So many great people study with Barbara; I never know who is going to be before me or after me. One day, lo and behold in walks Diamanda Galas. I was star struck!
RB: What's a lesson like?
CL: First we make a lot of sounds. We do scale-y kinds of sounds. It's funny because the lessons are in her bedroom, and the keyboard is on her bed. The way she works is she wants you to be yourself, your best self, to make the sounds you want to make without hurting yourself. I don't know where I would be without her. I've learned so much about my voice. To be able to sing the way I sing and not have any vocal strain is a miracle. I have a four-octave range, and I'm using every inch of it. Each song has high operatic stuff and very low growly stuff. I can sing for hours and hours and hours. She has taught me so much about breath support and placement. Being relaxed is very important, which goes hand in hand with losing your self-consciousness. If you think about your body all the time, find where you're tense and relax it, you're a lot better off!
RB: Relaxation is so underrated.
CL: The Power of Relaxation-now, who wouldn't want to read that book?
RB: I want to be that book.
CL: Everybody needs it-that's what meditation is all about.
RB: Do you have a spiritual practice?
RB: Between your residencies of Pangea and Joe's Pub, what are you doing to transition?
CL: We started working with a third person named Kyle Sanna. He's a multi-instrumentalist, a guitarist and he also plays lap synthesizers. He's a beautiful musician, completely amazing. I can say to him, with that song "Crow's Nest," I'm the crow and you're the shadow of the crow, and he will do that.
RB: How did you meet Kyle?
CL: He and Matt Kanelos have worked together as a combo for maybe 10 years. It's not going to be a traditional band sound. It's going to be very atmospheric; it's going to be colors. The sound at Joe's Pub is going to be all about the voice and the colors and the atmosphere that supports the voice--like the sky, like the stars in the sky, and I'm the tree, maybe, and they're the wind and the stars. I don't have to tell them very much at all. He and Matt are selected, so they can give me what I need. Each show will be different in it's own way.
RB: Tell me more about how you and Matt have incorporated Kyle into the mix.
CL: We just finished this new song. Here were my instructions: Matt you're the designated driver, I'm doing LSD, and Kyle, you're doing mushrooms. And they did it! Matt's piano playing has been described as "Debussy on opium." There is a spaciness to his playing. He honors each note. There's the conception of the note, and then the pregnant note gives birth to the note, and then it fades and dies, and then you give the note a burial ceremony. I told him that as a compliment, and he got very upset and said "Oh man, I'm too precious about my playing," which was really funny. He's very devoted to sound. He's in his art, maybe more in his art world than in the other world--I wouldn't say it's the real world, just the other world.
RB: Sometimes it's hard to tell which world is more real . . .
CL: I love the concept of the shaman and that there are many different voices in each one of us, and that I would be able to access any one of the voices of artists that I love and encompass them. Sometimes I might be Screaming Jay Hawkins. I won't sound like him, but that's how I think I sound in that moment. Maybe we're just catching the spirits, like a dream catcher . . .
RB: Better than catching the flu . . .
CL: "When I was child I had a fever [RB joins in] my hands felt just like two balloons . . ."
Carol Lipnik, with Matt Kanelos and Kyle Sanna, plays at Joe's Pub, Thursday March 10th and 17th, at 7 pm. You can buy Carol's new CD "Almost Back to Normal" on her website, MermaidAlley.com.