Carol Lipnik Incarnates the Beauty of Imperfections with Folk-Cabaret Releases

Navigating dilapidated ruins of a once-bustling Coney Island, New York on her blue banana-seat bicycle was like entering some kind of parallel universe for Carol Lipnik. Surrounded by deteriorating rides and sideshow spectacles shut down for the season, those earlier amusement park visuals of her youth, a vaudevillian carnival era of haunted houses and other mysterious figments of her imagination, remained ingrained in the singer and songwriter, and carried on into her performance and music, including Lipnik’s two recent releases, EP Blue Forest and album Goddess of Imperfection.

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Channeling a more Avant-Americana roots landscape throughout Blue Forest, on Goddess of Imperfection, partially written along with Mexican composer Tareke Ortiz, Lipnik flips the scene, embodying the augmented realities of characters, visuals, and sonics of her own cabaret. Live, Lipnik’s full-bodied performance art shifts around music made solely with pianist Matt Kanelos to playing around a full band, a sonic spectacle that earned the artist the Broadway World New York Cabaret Award for Best Alternative Cabaret Show in 2015. 

Lipnik, who recently finished mastering another EP, Wild Cry, featuring a recording of Michael Hurley’s 1964 fairy tale folk tale, “The Werewolf Song,” and recorded a cover of David Byrne’s “Heaven,” spoke to American Songwriter about all the lingering spirits and incantations around her dual release, the beauty in imperfection, Joni Mitchell, and pulling the perfect rabbit (song) out of the hat.

American Songwriter: You were able to put out two recordings this year, the album Goddess of Imperfection and the EP Blue Forest. How did you prepare for releasing two different bodies of work at the same time?

Carol Lipnik: I finished the two works and had planned on releasing them a year apart, but was thwarted by the pandemic. There was then a shift in the pandemic, and I just impulsively seized the opportunity. It’s like having twins, and I’ve been promoting them like that and doing double duty, but it feels exciting. It’s exciting to get back to performing. I’m like a horse set free on a beach.

AS: Many of the songs on Goddess of Imperfection were written with Mexican composer Tareke Ortiz. How did his experiences and heritage influence your musical collaboration?

CL: Tareke and I set out to blend our sensibilities, and we found that we shared a common love for the imagery of ghosts—my love for Coney Island (where Lipnik grew up) spook houses, and Tareke’s love for Mexico´s Dia de Muertos. These celebrations of ghosts are simultaneously playful and spooky, terrifying and beautiful. We created a cultural ghost-stew. The rhythm of the title song, “Goddess of Imperfection” is based on the Huapango—supernatural love stories are traditionally the subjects of songs in this style. The song is an incantation, a tongue-in-cheek pushing back against the pressures of perfection, an embracing of the beauty of the imperfect, and the chorus is a soaring, operatic vocalize.

AS: Other tracks were written with David Cale (2020 Obie Award-winning playwright, performer, and songwriter). Did his experience in theater make the songs more theatrical? How else did that collaboration influence your work?

CL: David loves writing songs, and he and I both love performing the songs we write in a theatrical way. [It’s] much closer to performance art, or sung monologues, so it was a very natural collaboration. First, we wrote “A History of Kisses,” a melancholic and nostalgic rumination on loves lost, enduring love, and passing time. … It all slows down, the hits and misses, all flow down into a history of kisses. The song begins with a quote from Yeats, [which is] more apt than ever: The ceremony of innocence has drowned.  

David then said he wanted to write a song about a poacher, and he sent me the start of a haunted story of forbidden love, and how the heavy burden of secrets we keep weighs down our souls and isolates us, and with much of David’s work, there is a shocking twist ending.

AS: The song “Non-Violent Man” feels very timely for 2022, yet it was written a few years ago. Does your interpretation of it change over time? Is the way you sing it influenced by current events?

CL: Matt Kanelos (pianist and arranger) and I were rehearsing and he asked if I’d like to hear a song he just wrote. He played me “Non-Violent Man.” After I picked my jaw up from the floor, I told him I would do the song and keep it from the male character’s perspective. 

We had a three-and-a-half-year weekly residency at Pangea, a wonderful Bôite in the East Village in New York City, and almost every week sadly, the song would reflect some terribly violent incident, reflecting the constant flow of chaos and brutal masculine toxicity. It was like we were channeling the zeitgeist with that song. It’s quite an emotional ride getting into the head of that song and performing it. The line Time is broken, the killer’s now a child continues to resonate so hard, but the song is also pure medicine, with the most beautiful, naked vulnerability, and tenderness at the heart.

AS: On Blue Forest, the only non-original song you recorded was “Thrice Toss These Oaken Ashes,” which was written in 1617 by the poet and composer Thomas Campion. What was it about that era that appealed to you? Why did you gravitate towards this particular song?

CL: I am always on the hunt for a wonderful song. I’m like a snail or a hermit crab looking for a beautiful song-shell that I can inhabit. My brother, Lawrence Lipnik is a great musician specializing in early music ever since were little. While I was listening to The Beatles, he was listening to the countertenor Alfred Deller singing renaissance songs, so these songs were always on rotation at home, and the song is burned into my psyche. The witchy “Thrice Toss These Oaken Ashes” by Thomas Campion is incredible. It is a series of spells and incantations to get someone to love you, and there is a humorous earthly twist ending.

AS: Blue Forest was produced by Kyle Sanna (known for his work with Yo Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, Seamus Egan Project, and Kinan Azmeh’s CityBand). How was your collaboration with him?

CL: Kyle is a dear friend of Matt Kanelos and he played some shows with us and plays guitar and synths on “Goddess of Imperfection,” so we’d been working together for a while when he signed on to produce Blue Forest. We had a very free and easy collaboration. Kyle was open to all my ideas, and we tried many things until each track felt right. He also brought in the fantastic percussionist Mathias Künzli to do some beautiful and subtle overdubbing.

AS: Some songwriters often labor over creating music and lyrics, while others say they’re more of a conduit for the muses and can channel the music onto paper. Where do you fall on that spectrum?

CL: For me, the process is still a complete mystery. When I sit down to work, it’s like I’m an aspiring magician looking for a rabbit in a hat. Sometimes I pull out a complete rabbit. Sometimes there is no rabbit. Sometimes [it’s] just the ear of the rabbit.

My favorite method, when I’m not sitting and staring, is to always carry a notebook, and write down things that strike me throughout my days. I’m always reading (especially poetry) and writing down lines and ideas that strike me, then I compile the best from all these notebook jottings into one notebook that I call my seeds notebook. I can then just open that book at random when I’m ready to write a new song and find all these culled promising lines and ideas, sit down at the piano and attempt to channel the words, melody, and chords into a song. Every once in a blue moon they come out almost whole, like my songs “Hope Street” or “A Pure Dose of Mercy,” and that always feels like a miracle, like I’m channeling the mysterious divine, something coming in from outside myself, bigger than myself.

The song “Tick Bite” [off Blue Forest] is a perfect example of this process. I was in the country and got bit by a tick, but I was prepared for this scenario with antibiotics and my husband said “you’ve got the medicine.” I then opened my seeds book and saw The flame that burns within you is the same flame that burns you, so I quickly added You’ve got the venom / And you’ve got the medicine all the while riffing on a tenor ukulele and song-speaking the rest of the infant lyrics. I pulled out a wonderful rabbit.

Then there is the long honing process which can be very pleasurable if you’re on the “write path”…

AS: Your music is very influenced by the nature. How does nature play into your storylines?

CL: When I am in nature I can disappear and be in an incandescent state. I live near the Hudson River and spend a lot of time walking by the river and losing myself to the water, and the sky. It releases and untethers me from psychological pressures. It gives me perspective and makes me realize how small and unimportant I am. I like to put a backdrop of the natural world throughout my work to put the ego of the song, the character of the song, in that same true spatial context. 

AS: You’ve cited Joni Mitchell as an influence. Is there a particular era of hers that inspires you the most?

CL: I love and respect Joni Mitchell’s artistry so much that I hate to pin down a period as there are so many gems on all of her albums. That said, I adore the ghostly tremulous quality of her soprano on “Song To a Seagull,” and unabashed yodeling of “Woodstock” on Ladies of the Canyon, the linear structureless philosophical thought cycles of Hejira, the opened curtain heart of Blue, the escape of For the Roses. The driving mystical title track of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

I love the way she turns the sounds of words into the meanings of the words, turning them into a melodic onomatopoeia, her incredibly conversational phrasing, and the way she is a master of presenting contradictory thoughts and beliefs together as one. It is so real, so human to be in such a perpetual state of contradiction.

AS: Where do you see yourself situated in current pop culture?

CL: I’ve always been a bit of an outsider, just doing my own thing and not trying to be like anyone else. I am in the realm of poetic song in which the poetry and the song and the singer are intertwined. If you are looking to get lost in a dreamworld of song, rather than swiping social media, then I’m your stop. 

Photos: Albie Mitchell

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