BWW Cabaret Conversation: CAROL LIPNIK, BWW's 2015 Best Alt-Cabaret Show Award Winner, Reveals the Secrets to Her Creative Process--First of a Three-Part Series
Carol Lipnik's totem animal is a crow. Or maybe a cockroach. After all, she is a native New Yorker. "When I sing," she told me, "the experience is like flying: there's a lot of darkness, and a lot of searching. Crows collect things and put them in their nest. A lot of what I'm doing is searching. When I'm writing, I'm searching to collect bits and pieces of things, like poetry. I'll find a line that will become a seed of a song."
"Crow's Nest" is the title of one of the songs on her new CD [video below], Almost Back to Normal, whose release will be celebrated with a residency at Joe's Pub, the first three Thursday's in March starting tonight (March 3, 10, 17, all at 7 pm). "I introduce it as being an anthem for crows," Lipnik reveals during one of our recent extended conversations, "but it's really about dealing with alienation and sticking to your guns, if you can hold to yourself emotionally when you feel threatened--emotionally." It was the first song she wrote during a productive retreat at the prestigious Yaddo Artist Sanctuary in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she says she was "surrounded by superstars. It's intimidating. It was my way of calming myself down. I'm a very shy person."
Born and raised in Coney Island, this redheaded native daughter identifies with freaks, especially mermaids. Lipnik seems to have emerged from the sea fully formed, putting out her first CD, My Life As a Singing Mermaid in 2000. Her record label Mermaid Alley ("where the bad mermaids hang out, smoking cigarettes") has since released five more discs (the most recent was 2012's M.O.T.H. Matters of the Heart), and she has performed in venues ranging from Performance Space 122 in Manhattan to Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum to the Hudson Opera House. Lately she has been generating enthusiastic audiences at her weekly residency at Pangea in the East Village. Stephen Holden of the New York Times recently described her voice as "phenomenal." The singer culminated 2015 with a BroadwayWorld New York Cabaret Award for "Best Alt-Cabaret or Musical Comedy Show."
Now, with the release of the CD and the upcoming Joe's Pub residency, Lipnik is storming the radars of New York's music lovers and performance art aficionados. Her combination of down-to-earthly charm and elegant otherworldly beauty culminate in exquisite folk-art songs, which combined with her transcendent instrument are an irresistible force whose time has come.
Lipnik has always aspired to be "not normal." She is thoughtful, spontaneous, funny, and serious. Over the course of two extended conversations I had the opportunity to explore in depth the combination of factors contributing to the artist's current "moment" and her enduring individuality. On a rainy and chilly February afternoon, we sat at a secluded table at Walker's in TriBeCa. While Carol munched on the smoked salmon dish she had been craving and I warmed up with French onion soup, we discussed her songwriting process (Part one here), her creative inspirations, collaborative relationships, artistic philosophies, and personal transformations.
Carol Lipnik: We're meeting on a great day for mermaids.
Remy Block: What is your connection to mermaids?
CL: I grew up in Coney Island so I grew up with freaks. I self-identified with freaks and mermaids are freaks. Beautiful freaks, but freaks. My record label is called "Mermaid Alley" because that is where the bad mermaids hang out, the ones that are smoking cigarettes. I was just on [Sandra Bernhardt's] Sandyland Radio Show on Sirius Radio and Sandra said, "Oh, you mean the badASS mermaids."
RB: Tell me about Yaddo; let me live vicariously.
CL: It's the most magnificent thing--they give you a studio space and a room and they give you meals. I got lucky because my room was my bedroom and my workroom. It had a fainting couch too, and a Steinway grand piano from the 1800s--I write on the piano a lot--My advice to all budding songwriters out there is when you have a good chunk of time to write, go through all your notebooks--and you should have a notebook with you all the time--take out all the best bits, put them all in a word document, print it out and take it with you and tick them off. That's what I did when I went to Yaddo, and I came away with 12 songs. It really is a good way to work, like tidying up your house. Going through your notebooks is work, but then you've gone through all your best bits, and you've got them all lined up, and you're not looking at a blank page-- I love the art of songwriting. For me, it's a beautiful crystalline distillation of an idea squeezed into two-and-a-half minutes. It's remarkable, so evocative and it gets your brain on a journey, but it's a distilled journey. I'm just crazy about songwriting as an art form
RB: You say that you identify with crows when you go searching for poetic inspirations for your songs. Tell me a line your crow has gone and plucked.
CL: I like to go to the library and take out random books of poetry. I'll grab one and wonder, "What's this all about?" I found an anthology of Favorite Poems. I randomly opened to a poem by Laura Gilpin called "The Two-Headed Calf." Tomorrow when the farm boys come and find this freak of nature . . . they will wrap his body in newspaper and carry him to the museum . . . but tonight he is alive and in the north field with his mother. It's a perfect summer night, the moon rising over the orchard, the wind in the grass, and as he stares into the sky there are twice as many stars. Talk about the Zen Slap! That pretty much says it all and that's all you need to know about the universe. I turned it into a song. The first part is spoken and the second part is sung. It's just basically, wow, that's it. For me, songs should always be Zen Slaps. My motto is: seduce and destroy and then heal.
RB: Do you think that's the job of the artist, or is that particular to you as an artist?
CL: The kind of art that I'm interested in creating is a bit shamanistic. The Shamanistics--that's good--The Shamanistix. It can have it's own emoticon: a mouth at the top of a mountain, instead of an eye on the top of a pyramid. Duality is very important to me. The laugh and the cry married together. Balance is important. If something is too sad, it should have some humor in it too. Otherwise it just falls off the cliff and it just lands there--splat--and no one wants to look at it.
RB: Do you mostly write on piano?
CL: I play piano and guitar and I have a collection of weird instruments. I have an Appalachian dulcimer and some strange Indian instruments. I collect a lot of instruments. I'm not proficient, but I can write on them . . . and then get people who can play, so I can just stand there and sing and wave my arms around [laughs]. So, my wish was, if only I could find an instrument that only has three strings. Then I'd only have to worry about two fingers. I was at a flea market and there was a guy standing in a booth, and he was holding a weird instrument that only had three strings. He calls it a Woodrow--you can Google it. His son makes these things, and he goes across the country selling them. It sounds like a cross between a banjo and a dulcimer. I flipped out when I saw it, and I tried it and never put it down and out came the credit card. My fiends were like, "You're crazy! What are you doing? You said you were broke!" But this is the one. I brought it home and wrote "The Things that Make You Grow [video below]. I'd have to say that was $250 well spent.
RB: Were you always on a singer/songwriter track?
CL: I started out as a painter and for a while I was a drawing major in college . . .
RB: That's like Joni Mitchell . . .
CL: Yeah! So I'm thinking in terms of painting. There's a palette and different colors on the palette. So, like the Woodrow is the pallet and the sounds are the colors and then you just put it together. When I write and when I sing, I think visually. The finished song is dependent on what the palette was. That's the good thing about writing on different instruments. If you change up the instruments, it really allows for flexibility of possibility.
Plus I love to shop! Machine Dazzle--he's an artist whose milieu is costume, but he thinks of them not as costume but as works of art. Machine knows that I love to shop, so he says I should write a Sh'opera [Laughs]. So having all the different instruments is part of the shopping . . . like a baritone dulcimer, wow. I like writing on apps. You know my song "The Oyster and the Sand" was written on one of these apps. I'll show you . . .
RB: You can just write on an app!
CL: I wrote the "The Oyster and the Sand" on Guitarism [video below]. I have it set to a 12-string guitar with some reverb--I'm the queen of reverb--maybe it was the key of C [she starts playing and singing]. I was just sitting by the Hudson River. It's nice and meditative to sit by the river. You don't have to be the weirdo playing your guitar on the park bench.
RB: You can be just another weirdo on your phone.
CL: A secret weirdo--incognito. I was sitting with this app, and I had an idea about a song that traces how a pearl is formed. I thought it was a good metaphor for a relationship. Maybe even co-dependent relationships. I started playing around with the app, and the whole thing came out, just like that! Which is amazing because a lot of times songs don't come out all in one piece. A lot of times it's a real struggle. You can just struggle and struggle and struggle, and end up just throwing the whole thing away. But every once in a while, it just comes out--poof!
RB--Were you thinking visually when you wrote that song? Did you see the images?
CL: Absolutely. It starts with a glass that falls off a table on a ship and shatters into shards. It is swept into the ocean and it turns to sea glass. It turns to sand and then it goes into the oyster, and it says, "No, I don't mean to hurt you with my splintered shadow" and "just cover me with your coats of iridescent splendor and let me live within your mantle forever and ever and ever". . . maybe not the best relationship, but . . .
CL: I try to boil the lyrics to their essence. One of the things I find so beautiful about the art of song writing is that it's almost like haiku. You can express an entire world in two-and-a-half minutes. For example, my song "Honeypot" [video below]. It was loosely inspired by Rumi [a 13th century Persian poet] and translated by Coleman Barks. He boils things down to an essence and it's that two-and-a-half minutes, but it sounds like a suite. I'll never figure out how I was able to do it. It's so mysterious, the process and the end product. You don't know how you do it, and then there it is. It's like giving birth. My babies are my songs. They're such strange babies too.
RB: Where did the title of your new CD come from?
CL: The notion of "Almost Back to Normal"-- I'm a person who has always aspired not to be normal. I had some minor knee surgery--torn meniscus. That's such a beautiful word--meniscus-it sounds like the film that goes on top of water . . . what's that word? Anyway, it was pretty painful for a while. As I was recovering from the surgery, I was collaborating with someone and we were emailing back and forth. I wrote: I had knee surgery but I'm almost back to normal--wait! That would be a great title for a song . . .
Part Two of Remy Block's conversation with Carol Lipnik will feature Carol describing the different collaborations that contribute to her creative work.