Three Singer-Songwriters United In Harmony

by NPR Staff

Weekend Edition Sunday,
August 1, 2010
11 min 45 sec



For the past quarter-century, Minnesota-based Red House Records has provided a home for acoustic musicians and talented singer-songwriters. Three such songwriters met last year at Red House's 25th anniversary tour and have just released an album together. Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky call themselves Red Horse, and their self-titled album features songs written by members of the trio alongside other classics.

Gorka says he loved the idea of singing each other's songs. He sings lead on Kaplansky's "Don't Mind Me."

"I love trying to inhabit someone else's lines and trying to make them come to life with my voice," he tells Liane Hansen, host of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. "It's just a fun thing just to be the singer, rather than the writer."

Kaplanksy says she loved hearing Gorka sing her song, and although she typically sings lead, it wasn't hard for her to switch to harmony.

"Lucy is one of the great singers and one of the greatest harmony singers ever. We have a little running joke. … I refer to Lucy as the dominatrix of folk harmony," Gorka says, laughing.

A Harmonious Dynamic

Kaplansky admits she is very bossy when it comes to harmonies. They worked on their parts long-distance — Gorka in Stillwater, Minn., and Kaplansky in New York. They say they sent thousands of e-mails and dozens of MP3s to get the tracks just right. Kaplansky doesn't have a home studio, so she used her iPhone instead. She sang parts into her phone and e-mailed them to Gorka and Gilkyson.

The two switch roles with "Blue Chalk," on which Kaplansky sings the song written by Gorka. He says he fully trusted both Gilkyson and Kaplansky to sing his songs well.

"I had total trust in their musical choices, their lyrical choices," he says.

In the spirit of Red House, the record's instrumentation is sparse — elevating the harmonies and emphasizing the vocals.

"I think the idea was the guitar and vocals at the center of things and the harmonies as the glue," Gorka says. "With certain songs, we added more things because it seemed to serve the song better."

"Wayfaring Stranger" closes the album. It's a traditional song, which Kaplansky says they all have loved for many years. Although it's a somber song, she sang it at her wedding. And in one of their many e-mail correspondences, she remembers Gorka writing that it would be nice to do a familiar song in these tough times.

"It just seemed like the perfect way to end the album," Kaplansky says.

Related NPR Stories

John Gorka: Building A Bridge Of Folk Music May 28, 2009
Lucy Kaplansky On Mountain Stage July 14, 2008
Eliza Gilkyson and a Dog Named 'Tootsie' Nov. 22, 2007 .



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Heard on Weekend Edition Sunday August 1, 2010

LIANE HANSEN, host: For the past quarter-century, Minnesota-based Red House Records has been providing a home for acoustic musicians and talented singer-songwriters. The label's roster is long and impressive. Here are just three popular names on that list: Eliza Gilkyson...

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. ELIZA GILKYSON: (Singing) I pulled out of shaky town, growing up country, sinking down...

HANSEN: John Gorka...

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. GORKA: (Singing) If you're traveling in the North Country Faire, where the winds hit heavy on the borderline...

HANSEN: ...and Lucy Kaplansky.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. KAPLANSKY: (Singing) All these things I carried her. Longing a child ...

HARRIS: When they appeared on the Red House Records 25th anniversary tour together, these artists decided to make a CD.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. GILKYSON and Mr. GORKA and Ms. KAPLANSKY: (Singing) I'll give to you, now you give to me. I'd like to know what youve learned...

HANSEN: It's called "Red Horse," and it was released last month on the Red House label. Eliza Gilkyson is currently on tour and unavailable for an interview, but John Gorka is in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio. Welcome to the program, John.

Mr. GORKA: Thank you for having us on.

HANSEN: And Lucy Kaplansky is in our New York bureau. We've spoken before, so I'll say welcome back.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: Thank you very much.

HANSEN: The interesting thing about this is the fact that you're performing songs written by other members of the trio. John Gorka, you sing lead on Lucy Kaplansky's "Don't Mind Me."

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Mind Me")

Mr. GORKA: (Singing) Don't mind me. I'm just a bit maniacal about you and do well when I'm without you. Don't mind me. Don't mind me, you could love me...

HANSEN:: Why did you want to sing Lucy's song, John?

Mr. GORKA: Well, I love the idea of doing each other's songs. I hadn't heard of that sort of thing done before, except for one record that Eric Andersen did with Rick Danko and a guy named Jonas Fjeld - but that was only on one song. But I loved the idea of singing Lucy's songs. I've sung with her on some of these songs, and I love trying to inhabit someone else's lines and try to make them come to life with my voice.

(Soundbite of song , "Don't Mind Me")

Mr. GORKA and Ms. KAPLANSKY:: (Singing) Come on, baby, please. Play your song for me. Play your song.

Mr. GORKA: When we were thinking about picking these songs, I thought, what song would I not mind singing for the rest of my life? So that would be a really good one. I love the tempo of it, having it be an up-tempo song. I love the lyrics. And so, that's one I wouldn't mind singing for the rest of my life.

HANSEN: Lucy, did you have certain, concrete ideas about how you wanted John to sing it?

Ms. KAPLANSKY: Not really. I mean, I love John's singing, and he could sing the phone book, as far as I'm concerned. So when I heard him sing this, I got chills. So no, I did not. I knew he would sound incredible.

HANSEN: But was it hard for you to not be the lead singer, and go to harmony?

Ms. KAPLANSKY: Oh, no. It's great, actually.

HANSEN: John, you were going to say something.

Mr. GORKA: I was going to say - yeah, Lucy is one of the great singers, and one of the greatest harmony singers ever. We have a little running joke. I don't know if you can say this on the radio, but I refer to Lucy as the dominatrix of folk harmony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KAPLANSKY: It is Sunday morning - a little risque.

Mr. GORKA: So I always joke with her that I'd like her to be very strict with me when it comes to doing my parts.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: And I am. I'm extremely bossy. He calls it strict.

Mr. GORKA: Yeah, she's very strict, and I love that.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. KAPLANSKY: (Singing) Gonna sting you with a kiss from my lips. Gonna sting you with a piece of my mind. Gonna sting you with a taste of my gift. Then you're mine, then you're mine, mine...

HANSEN: You worked on the basic tracks for this while you were apart. John, if I'm not mistaken, you were in Stillwater, Minnesota. Mr.

Mr. GORKA: Yeah, right near there, yeah.

HANSEN: You were there?

Mr. GORKA: At home.

HANSEN: At home? And Lucy, you were in New York.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: Yeah, and I did it at my producer, Ben Whitman's, studio in Brooklyn.

HANSEN: So I want to know: Did you talk to each other during that time, or was it done in a cone of silence?

Ms. KAPLANSKY: Oh, we talked, as John said...

Mr. GORKA:: We talked.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: But we emailed a thousand times.

Mr. GORKA: Yeah, thousands of emails, and dozens of MP3s. It was a very interactive kind of a thing. It just was from a distance.

HANSEN: Lucy, as bossy as you are, you sing John's song, "Blue Chalk." And so, John, I mean, you know, given that Lucy is a dominant harmonist, did you have concrete ideas about how you wanted her to sing it?

Mr. GORKA: Yes. I just wanted her to sing whatever she came up with because I knew it would be great. I have a total trust in that.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: This is why I love John.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Chalk")

Ms. KAPLANSKY: (Singing) So I wonder how she's doing. I hate it when the rumors fly. They give off such a strange sense of mission when you're helplessness on high. She would never run from strangers...

Mr. GORKA: My part on that, on the "Blue Chalk," Lucy's engineer, Ben Whitman, was going to be leaving town to go to Canada for the summer, and it was her last day of mixing. So I got this email saying, is it possible to do your part now?

Ms. KAPLANSKY: Like, right now.

Mr. GORKA: Right now.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: And didn't you put, you forgot - the one thing you forgot to bring with you was a stand for the microphone, so you...

Mr. GORKA: Oh right, yeah.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: ...put your mic in your shoe?

Mr. GORKA: Yeah, I got a picture of that on my phone, but I don't know how to get it off my phone. But yeah, I used my shoe as the mic stand. It worked out great.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue Chalk")

Ms. KAPLANSKY: (Singing)

HANSEN: I'm speaking with Lucy Kaplansky and John Gorka, who appear on "Red Horse," a new recording on their Red House label. I know you both don't like to speak for other people, but because Eliza Gilkyson can't join our interview today, why don't you tell us what is it that she brought to the project.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: So many things, and such a beautiful spirit. She's just a spectacular, extraordinary person, an incredible voice. I mean, she's truly one of my favorite singers anywhere.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. ELIZA GILKYSON: (Singing) Let me sit beside you, take a long look at you. I will memorize you, so I always find you. Smile at me...

HANSEN: There is very sparse instrumentation on this record. It's mostly voices. I mean, the music is there, but you're not doing big horns. You're not doing anything like that. Was the sparseness of the instrumentation intended to elevate the harmonies?

Ms. KAPLANSKY: Boy, you said that really well. You said that better than we ever said it.

Mr. GORKA:: Yes, thank you.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: That was exactly what our intention was.

Mr. GORKA: Can we write that down?

HANSEN: Yeah, you can use it in another interview, if you want. I'm not interested in credit. Ms. KAPLANSKY: We'll quote you. Mr. GORKA: We will.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: Yes. That was the idea, to elevate - good word - the harmonies and just the vocals in general, to really emphasize harmonies and vocals up front.

Mr. GORKA: Yeah. I think the idea, you know, was vocal and guitar at the center of things, and the harmonies to kind of be the glue to all of our songs, to give it that consistency all the way through. (Soundbite of song)

Ms. GILKYSON and Mr. GORKA and Ms. KAPLANSKY: (Singing) I came at night to (unintelligible). A dozen hills aflame. He had another hand to hold. Beneath the mains we carved a hold, it was another name...

Ms. KAPLANSKY: One thing I just want to add is, we had actually never all sung together - ever - the three of us together. So, it was a bit of a leap of faith. I had sung with John; John had sung with Eliza; Eliza and I had sung together over the years. And the way this even happened was that Eliza - my memory is that Eliza emailed and said, do you want to do some gigs with me and John? And my husband said, why don't you make an album? And it was that sort of simple. And the first time - I think I put a third part on one of the songs, was the first time any of us heard the three of us together.

Mr. GORKA: Yeah, that's right.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: And I wrote to Eliza and John and said, guess what? We sound really good together. So that was lucky.

HANSEN: What song was that?

Ms. KAPLANSKY: Oh my gosh. It might have been "Wayfaring Stranger." I'm not sure.

HANSEN: Yeah. "Wayfaring Stranger," interestingly enough, is one of the bookends of this CD. It's a traditional song. The first track on the album is one by Neil Young, "I Am a Child." It's sung by Eliza Gilkyson. And Lucy, you take the lead in "Wayfaring Stranger." Was it because you all sounded so good when you sang this that you included this, or is there another reason why this is the tune that ends the CD?

Ms. KAPLANSKY: I think we all have loved that song for many years. That song has a kind of funny history for me because, you know, it's a very - sort of somber song about someone who feels lost and alone and is thinking about their parents, who are gone. And I actually sang it at my wedding, which is kind of an interesting choice. So I'd been singing it for years, and it just felt like... I remember John said - in one of these thousand emails - it would be nice to do something that's familiar. In these tough times, people might want to hear something that's familiar. Of course, it's a very well-known song. And it just seemed like the perfect way to end the album.

(Soundbite of song, "Wayfaring Stranger")

Ms. KAPLANSKY: (Singing) I'm only going over Jordan. I'm only going over home. Im only going over Jordan. I'm only going over home.

HANSEN: Lucy Kaplansky and John Gorka - who with Eliza Gilkyson, appear on "Red Horse," a new CD on Red House Records. John Gorka joined us from Minnesota Public Radio, and Lucy Kaplansky joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you both.

Ms. KAPLANSKY: Thank you so much.

Mr. GORKA: Thank you for having us on.

(Soundbite of song)

HANSEN: And if you want to hear songs from "Red Horse," visit our website,

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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