ON “REUNION” KAPLANSKY KEEPS IT IN THE FAMILY
On her latest album, “Reunion,” Lucy Kaplansky sings about her parents, her cousins, her daughter, and, naturally, herself. Then again, she is singing about you too.
As Kaplansky’s longtime producer Ben Wittman notes, “It’s funny how she is hitting these bigger themes at the same time she is going deeper and more personal in her writing.”
“Reunion” is Kaplansky’s most assured record to date, bounding from the delightful Amy Correia cover “Life Is Beautiful” to the stinging kiss-off “Gone Gone Gone” without swerving off course. The theme of “family” serves as a compass as Kaplansky charts a course from “Scavenger,” a song about a refugee rebuilding life on the move, to “Sleep Well,” a tender goodbye to a mother.
Kaplansky, who plays Friday and Saturday at Club Passim in Cambridge, says she does not think about a grand scheme when it comes time to make an album, but in this case there’s no denying how well all of the songs on “Reunion” fit together. She attributes that mostly to groove.
“I’ll start with a batch of songs that I’ve written and songs [by other people] that I just love. I’ll do a lot of songs live first and make sure a song is something I can pull off vocally and emotionally,” she says. “It’s about working your way into it and finding a groove.”
Kaplansky, who detoured from music into a psychology career before returning to songs, released her first album in 1994, joining a blossoming singer-songwriter scene that included Richard Shindell, Patty Larkin, Eliza Gilkyson, Dar Williams, and John Gorka — all frequent collaborators with Kaplansky to this day.
Wittman, who attended the New England Conservatory and performed in a variety of musical projects around Boston before moving to New York City in the ’90s, met Kaplansky when he was producing an album for songwriter Jennifer Kimball. Kaplansky was singing harmony vocals on that project, but Wittman found out about her writing and became interested in producing an album for her.
“Ten Year Night,” released in 1999, was their first project together, and one that set up a working model Kaplansky has used ever since. Boston guitar aces and Wittman associates Duke Levine and Kevin Barry form the core of Kaplansky’s studio band with Wittman on drums.
Levine, who spent several years in Mary Chapin Carpenter’s band and most recently stepped in as lead guitar player for the J. Geils Band, says he likes working with Kaplansky because she approaches her projects with a clear vision but lets the music take its shape once she introduces material to the band.
“She’s a modern folkie,” Levine says. “Even though she writes a song from her own specific experience, it ends up being universal. She makes it so everyone can relate. Musically it’s so together.”
Wittman refers to his work with Kaplansky as a musical family, and it’s more than metaphor. For several years Kaplansky’s husband, Richard Litvin, has been her co-writer.
“He’s a filmmaker, so he knows how to tell a good story,” Kaplansky says of her husband. “We have a lot of respect for each other, and I believe him when he tells me something is working or not.”
The partnership flows both ways in the music. “Scavenger,” the powerful opening track on “Reunion,” began as a Litvin poem that Kaplansky helped recast to accentuate its themes of love and family. When she was struggling with the song that became the album’s title track — a tune rooted in the stories of her father and uncles — Litvin redirected Kaplansky’s focus to the family reunion she attended that triggered the memories in the first place.
“I’ll See You Again” is the album’s most tender song as it traces a marriage from courtship to conclusion, weaving in references to the Noel Coward song of the same name as a means to conjure love, loss, and remembrance without a whiff of maudlin chintz.
“I don’t want to be sentimental. Sentimental is bad,” she says.
Kaplansky is just as good at finding the heart in others’ songs as she is in exposing it in her own work. Kaplansky revels in Gilkyson’s musician’s tale “The Beauty Way” and testifies in the folk gospel of “This Morning I Am Born Again,” a Woody Guthrie lyric set to music by Slaid Cleaves.
Kaplansky’s most daring cover is “I’m Looking Through You,” since many listeners will have the Beatles tune pretty well internalized.
“I’ve been doing that song for years,” she says. “We had an hour left in the studio and I said let’s blast through it twice and see what we get. Well, it worked. It’s not studied, and the guys are incredible on it. It’s a risky thing, but the trick was to not think too hard about it.”
And that may be the hallmark of “Reunion,” a record that has a sense of direction yet never feels like it is forcing an idea, instead unfolding on its own. That’s sort of how the music arrives in the first place.
“I don’t write songs with a pad and pen. I will sit with a guitar or at a piano and just let words come out,” she says. “It’s amazing how it works.”