Frau Doktor Folksinger
Psychologist-Musician Lucy Kaplansky Mastered The Mantra 'Folkie, Heal Thyself.'
By David Ryder
AUGUST 14, 2000: Depending on your perspective, Lucy Kaplansky is either one of the best educated folksingers around or the sweetest sounding psychologist you've ever heard.
As one-third of folkie supergroup Cry Cry Cry, along with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, Kaplansky established a high profile for her personal journey-as-career. Now touring solo and singing her own songs, such as "Ten Year Night," the title track from her most recent solo album and a featured song on the Cry tour, Kaplansky is enjoying her career and her life with husband/filmmaker/professor and co-lyricist Richard Litvin.
It wasn't always so. At one point, Kaplansky dropped out of music. On the verge of success, with a record deal for herself and her duet partner, Shawn Colvin, Kaplansky felt she was on more of a precipice. She was terrified that she didn't have what it would take.
"All of a sudden, I decided to quit," she explains. "I was afraid of a whole variety of things: fear of success, fear of failure, fear of some of the things it would stir up in myself. So I ran away."
Instead of a music career, Kaplansky earned her doctorate in psychology and developed a clinical practice with New York's chronic mentally ill that, at the time, was less scary than facing a microphone alone.
"Singing for me has always been such an incredibly important part of who I am viscerally and how I express myself," she admits. "To not do it was like killing off a really important part of myself."
Eventually, she came to grips with all she was afraid of and how to deal with it.
"The fears were much more complicated, much more internal," she explains. "But the fear of not being good enough was pretty incapacitating. Until I understood I was running away because I was scared, I couldn't do anything about it.
"In the course of becoming a clinical psychologist, I went into serious therapy and that's where I figured it out. Basically, I didn't get over the fear. I came to the realization that I was denying myself something that I loved. As soon as I understood that, I decided to pursue it in spite of my fears. I was still absolutely petrified that I would find out I wasn't that good, that nothing would come of it, but I pursued it anyway. I'm less scared now because I've realized I have some talent."
The music was back.
"I realized I wanted to be a singer and I started knocking on doors and doing solo gigs again for the first time in 10 years," she remembers.
Kaplansky started out singing in Chicago as a teenager, before moving to New York in 1977. There she was hanging out and gigging with people like Colvin, Cliff Eberhardt and John Gorka. She sang backup harmonies on recordings for Nanci Griffith and Suzanne Vega. She joined Colvin in a duo and later cut her debut album, The Tide, which Colvin produced, ambivalently recorded while Kaplansky was in graduate school. In 1994, Red House Records signed her and released The Tide. She followed it with Flesh and Bone in 1996.
Cry Cry Cry formed in 1998, bolstered by Kaplansky's relationships from performing with Shindell and Williams. They released their self-titled album and played their first gig that December in Tucson.
"It was just so much fun," Kaplansky says of Cry Cry Cry. "Normally, I play alone every night. To be able to play with other people was such a pleasure. I learned a lot from watching Dar put on a show. I mean, she's really good at it. I learned especially from how spontaneous she is. I think as a result, I'm probably more spontaneous than I was."
Returning to their solo careers as planned, Kaplansky released Ten Year Night last year. Except for Steve Earle's "Somewhere Out There," the songs were all co-written by Kaplansky and her husband.
"The degree to which each song is co-written really varies," she explained. "He's a screenwriter, so it's not like he doesn't know how to write. For instance, there are songs where one of us has an idea and we've sat down together and written the song. Other times, he's had a lyric and I've helped him make it into a song. There're other times where I've had the bulk of a song and he's helped me finish it."
She plans to begin recording her next album this winter for release next year.
Kaplansky tries to gauge the audience and vary her concerts as needed.
"My shows aren't programmed," she notes. "This is something I've learned from John Gorka and it really works for me. I'll bring in a list of all my songs, and usually I'll have some idea of what I'll start with and what goes in the middle, but I tend to make it up as I go along."
Despite her success, Kaplansky still has lingering anxieties about performing.
"You're relating to the audience, you're singing your own songs," she notes. "You're definitely baring your soul. That's why it's so hard."
Then she admits, "I love to sing and I pretty much love to perform. So I get to do this thing that I love to make my living. That's a very lucky thing. I can't say I loved being a psychologist in the same way."
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