Carol Lipnik’s Extraordinary “Normal” Songs

Carol Lipnik / Photo by Albie Mitchell

Singer/songwriter Carol Lipnik doesn’t need a giant metallic lion and a football game or an elaborate The Sound of Music-themed extravaganza to make a memorable impact. Her incandescent voice gets the job done with no need for gimmicks.

She is about to begin a residency at the intimate cabaret space at Pangea, in Manhattan’s East Village. The “cozy and elegant” venue might very well be the ideal place to hear Lipnik perform. She is utterly natural and comfortable on stage; even when showing off with acrobatic vocal flourishes, it feels authentic and effortless.

Lipnik also has a new CD—her sixth—called Almost Back to Normal. It is a collaboration with pianist Matt Kanelos and with producer Jacob Lawson, who plays violin on the album. She describes it as her “haunting new art-song collection […] of tersely intense songcraft and longer-scale, psychedelically-tinged mood pieces.” It’s also beautiful, powerful, funny and a remarkable demonstration of musical prowess and vocal skill.

The Coney Island native began her artistic career as a painter, but has been writing songs of palpable originality and singing with her agile, versatile four-octave voice since the 1990s. The subjects of her songs can be quirky or surprisingly concrete, but they reveal a deeply emotional and metaphorical resonance. For example, you might find yourself bemused by the opening to “The Oyster and the Sand”: “You are the oyster / I am the sand / you formed me into a pearl / now that’s who I am.” Nevertheless, it unfolds as a gorgeous, complex song about relationships, and not just relationships involving bivalves. You can listen to “The Oyster and the Sand” here.

Lipnik begins her residency at Pangea this Sunday, March 8, performing every Sunday this month at 7pm. Supported by the excellent Kanelos on piano, she sings mostly songs from Almost Back to Normal, but there are also some surprises in the program. Each week, she’ll be joined by a special guest luminary:

March 8: Justin Vivian Bond
March 15: John Kelly
March 22: Nick Hallett
March 29: Sweetie

It’s a small space, which makes for a lovely, intimate show, but doesn’t make for very many tickets. Call Pangea at 212-995-0900 to reserve. (There’s a $20 cover plus a $20 food and beverage minimum.)

You can also listen to and buy Almost Back to Normal through Lipnik’s web site.

Story continues below.

And now, 5 questions Carol Lipnik has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

I did a show and there were these hippy-like characters inappropriately doing serpentine dances to my music the whole show. When the show was over they asked me if I would be willing to trade my CDs for chocolate mushrooms since they were low on cash.

Uh… ya-ah!

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

I think the most idiotic question people ask me is a question I also ask other songwriters, which is a chicken or the egg type of thing: What comes first lyrics or melody? It’s really so mysterious and there is no formula — it’s different every time — the best case scenario is it all channels out together in one whole piece, but that rarely ever happens. I wish I knew the speedy secret formula!

Story continues below.

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

Some guy once came up to me after a show and asked me how much money I made from music that year…

4) You incorporate an extraordinary range of vocal effects into your songs, from a simple style that’s almost talk-singing to what sounds to me like operatic coloratura — and a lot more in between. How do you decide which songs get which vocal treatment? I guess what I’m really asking is: How, in your song “Crow’s Nest,” did you discover that you were capable of, and then go on to develop, that thrilling caw passage? (Listen to “Crow’s Nest.”)

Pinhole photo of Carol Lipnik for
the cover of Almost Back to Normal
Photo by Stefan Killen

I just didn’t think and it happened. (I find I’m capable of a lot of things when I don’t think — like writing backwards and balancing a spoon on my nose).

I studied to be a visual artist (and did not find my singing voice until later in life), so I approach each sound, phrase or note exactly as a different color on a great pallet, and the melody is like the silhouette of a line drawing. I let the colors and the characters take hold of me and make the sounds that communicate their spirit.

Ha! Maybe it’s like the ritual of cave drawings — I don’t draw the animal; the animal draws me — when I wrote my song, “Crow’s Nest,” I was feeling very shy and alienated in a social situation away from home and I wrote it to comfort myself. I call it an anthem for crows, but it really is an outsider’s anthem. Since I sing it as a crow, the cawing is inevitable. It came out in a flash of insight, you just ride with it and disappear into the song. Also, lots of times I find that words are not enough to express what I feel, so I just wail or trill. Wordless communication is so great!

Story continues below.

5) During your show you described one song as a “mad opera alien clown invasion […] Hank Ballard by way of Klaus Nomi” and another as “a Victorian Pierrot doll trying to capture the moon.” Is this just what popped into your mind while you were on stage? Or is this how you generally think of those songs? Do the charmingly specific descriptions come while (or before) you’re writing or preparing the songs, or do you wait until you’ve performed them for a while before thinking to characterize them so colorfully?

Ha! No, actually these are truly all different characters or vistas or moods that I am channeling and fleshing out in song — probably they are all “spirit” aspects of my id.

When I sit down to write and my mind is clear, someone (or some thing) in there takes hold; it’s just like a musical seance and I have to be ready to channel it.

The Pierrot puppet keeps my tragic song, “Oh, The Tyranny,” about hopeless longing, in a white clown vein. I love white clowns, as hopeless as they are, you can never take them too seriously — they just revel in their misery, and never can be happy. I truly can relate to that!

“The Twist” is actually my take on a Kristian Hoffman arrangement of the Hank Ballard early R&B rock song that he created for Klaus Nomi. I went crazy with delight when I heard it for the first time. It’s so renegade and gawky at the same time. My brother (who sings the countertenor voice in medieval and renaissance music) and I used to listen to Klaus Nomi all the time. He influenced me a great deal. I find the character in this treatment of the song to be quite menacing and mischievous — I play it like The Cat In The Hat leading a children’s circle-jerk in an alien outer space way, broadly humorous, unhinged and terrifying.

Bonus Question:

6) Your new CD is called Almost Back to Normal. Where were you that was away from from normal? Did you have a nice time? Is getting almost back to normal a good thing, a bad thing, or is it complicated?

Well, the heartbreaking joke of the title is that we’re never gonna be back to normal. I love channeling delusional characters — it’s delusional to aspire to normal or think you can ever get back there, to be caught up in the tyranny of the standard of normal. Though, after an illness, the notion of normal can be a very sweet and tender thing.

I had some knee surgery last year and told a friend that I was almost back to normal and had that “Oh that will make a great song title!” flash. It seemed perfectly metaphorical for so many challenges we face now. When the cultural anesthesia wears off, can we ever fix the environment or income inequality?

Oh, the elusiveness of normal; I think normal is to go out, watch the sky and listen to birds without feeling consumed by your own pain.

Our bodies are breaking down and we’ve ruined the environment, communications with people we love are tarnished or lost. We can aspire to a better standard, but the bar keeps getting lower and now I am that sad white clown again, but that sad clown never gives up hope!