It’s a joy to observe how music is passed on in families, generation to generation. I relished the moment when I heard my son play songs from Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman album while finishing his homework. This came to mind during a recent interview with New York singer songwriter Lucy Kaplansky, who is co-billed with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Feb. 11, and also will perform at “On a Winter’s Night” shows with Cliff Eberhardt, John Gorka and Patty Larkin at City Winery in New York, Feb. 23; City Winery in Philadelphia, Feb. 24; and the Newton Theatre, Feb. 26.
Kaplansky said that some of her favorite older songs are now being played by her daughter. “I continue to be inspired by the Beatles,” she said, “partly because our 19-year-old daughter is in love with their music and plays it in the house and in the car all the time, and it never ever gets old … And yes, she is a huge music fan, especially The Beatles! During the pandemic she learned to play a ton of Beatles songs on guitar, bass and drums.”
Kaplansky writes personal, poetic lyrics and creates sensitive portraits in her songs of love, loss, family and change, and demonstrates an appreciation for the streets of New York’s Greenwich Village. “Keeping Time,” from her 2018 album Everyday Street, describes sharing her neighborhood with Philip Seymour Hoffman and his children. “Janie’s Waltz,” a delicate song of gratitude, portrays the beauty of an ordinary day near Waverly Street with her daughter. She sings:
Every day I discover the world with you.
We’ve got nowhere to go and no one to meet
I’ll follow you wherever you lead
Oh, on our everyday street.
Amazed by a tiny blowing leaf
You have to chase it and pull away from me
Snow is left from that storm last week
So many treasures buried underneath.
Growing up, Kaplansky was immersed in the music of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin and Gilbert & Sullivan because her father played their songs on the piano. “My dad was a math professor at the University of Chicago, but he was also a very talented pianist and I grew up listening to him play the songs he grew up with,” she said. “I learned to sing a lot of them, too. I was the best singer in the family. Someday I’d like to make an album of me singing some of the standards I grew up with.”
She points to Steve Earle as an artist that inspires her. “I have loved Steve Earle’s music for many years,” she said. “He’s just a brilliant songwriter and I love the way his albums are produced.” When she is not writing and playing music, Kaplansky loves to read novels, as well as nonfiction. “During the pandemic I read so many books,” she said.
She also wrote many songs, and some of them will appear on her upcoming album Last Days of Summer, which she hopes to release in March on her label, Lucyricky Records.
Last Days of Summer will follow the acoustic, soulful Everyday Street, which features multi-instrumentalist Duke Levine (J. Geils Band, Mary Chapin Carpenter) and harmonies by Shawn Colvin and Richard Shindell.
“Old Friends,” the stirring opening song from Everyday Street, is a duet with Colvin about their enduring friendship that started in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the ’80s. Kaplansky reflects on the friendship, singing “And If I’d never met you, so much I never would have done/All those gigs you got me/All those great country songs/The record we made gave me this path I’m on/The way you showed all the boys a girl could sing and write a song.”
The original songs on Last Days of Summer were co-written with her husband Richard Litvin, mostly during the pandemic, in Cape Cod.
“A couple of the songs reference the pandemic directly,” Kaplansky said, “such as ‘Elmhurst Queens Mother’s Day,’ which is a reflection on the catastrophe that befell New York early on in the pandemic — as we watched from afar from the safety of Cape Cod — as well as the bravery of those on the front lines.”
There will be several covers on the album, including Jackson Browne’s “These Days” and “Ford Econoline” by Nanci Griffith, who died in 2021. “I sang harmony with Nanci many times over the years and appeared on a couple of her albums,” Kaplansky said.
Her new song “Mary’s Window” (listen below) was partly “inspired by the last presidential election, the turmoil leading up to it and the joyful beginnings of a new presidency,” she said. It’s a brilliant depiction of the ordinary moments in a woman’s life in the context of an extraordinary time in our country when Mary voted, opposing “lies and hate.”
The album is more elaborately produced than the last album, Kaplansky said, “so there are bass and drums on a few songs, for instance. The new songs simply lent themselves to a more varied, rich production.”
Kaplansky, who moved to New York to play music in the early ’80s, said it has been a great place to raise her daughter, who is now studying theater production at NYU. “She’s loved growing up here and wanted to stay in the city for college,” Kaplansky said.
Kaplansky interrupted her musical career to study psychology and practiced until 1996. “I was getting too busy with music to keep a practice going,” she said.
I asked if her training is reflected in her music. “The way I see it my training and experience as a psychologist made me much more knowledgeable and perceptive about what makes people tick — their conflicts,” she said, adding “that knowledge has impacted the way I see the world in general, so it couldn’t have helped but come out in my songs.”
Her songwriting process with Litvin is varied, she said: “If I’m the one who starts with an idea, it’s usually lyric-driven with kind of a working melody. Sometimes I’ll use the melody of an existing song at first. I spend about an hour every morning working on it, then I leave it till the next day and let it percolate. Somehow, if I do this long enough and often enough, songs get better and better and eventually something gets finished.”
Her song “Ten Year Night” (listen below), from her 1996 album of the same name, is one of the most eloquent and romantic and hopeful songs about enduring love. It makes me cry each time I’ve heard Kaplansky perform it live.
We’re 10 years older, I know we are
Than the night we met in that downtown bar
You thought I was some kind of star, that’s what you said
I felt your skin, I felt the heat
As you pulled me out into the street
And you kissed me there till I was weak ’cause I asked you to
And later on on your kitchen floor
Two flights above the grocery store
I felt things I never felt before, and I still do
She considers the folk group Cry Cry Cry, which she formed with Shindell and Dar Williams, a highlight of her career. The group released an eponymous, powerful album with gorgeous harmonies in 1998 and contributed their version of Tom Paxton’s evocative ballad “The Last Thing on My Mind” to the compilation album Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the ’60s. Their melancholy and moving rendition take me back to a different era on Bleecker Street when the area was less polished and artists could actually afford to occupy its apartments.
Cry Cry Cry “was so much fun, musically and personally, and also happened to be very successful,” Kaplansky said. “The whole experience was a thrill.”
Kaplansky enjoys both solo performances and playing in a band. “Collaborating is such fun, and such a creative opportunity for harmony singing, which I just love,” she said. “But playing solo is fun also because I’m in total control of the show.”
New York is bustling again with crowded in-door dining and the return of some live events. Kaplansky just returned there, too. “Honestly, the city feels very much the same, other than the outdoor dining structures,” she said. “There are tons of people who are out and about and you almost wouldn’t know there was a pandemic.”
Though some venues have closed, she added “I’m very grateful that so many venues survived the pandemic, and that there are still places for me to play. I’m excited to see audiences again and get busy with shows. It’s been strange and frustrating to have new songs that I haven’t been able to perform.”
For more about Kaplansky, visit lucykaplansky.com.
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