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Folk artist Lucy Kaplansky writes as a psychologist on 'Last Days of Summer'

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

OK, parents, trigger warning here about the first song on Lucy Kaplansky's newest album - our producers cautioned me to get a tissue. And boy, I needed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST DAYS OF SUMMER")

LUCY KAPLANSKY: (Singing) Last days of summer are coming on fast. Was hoping August wouldn't end, but it never lasts. She’s filling boxes with blankets, books and clothes - no longer a child, unafraid, ready to go.

SIMON: Oh my. Children love you. They grow up and leave you. Roots, wings and all of that is among the utterly human episodes that Lucy Kaplansky shares on her new album, "Last Days of Summer." She joins us now from Cape Cod.

Thanks so much for being with us. And how do you expect me to go on after that song?

KAPLANSKY: I know. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

SIMON: That's all right. Why did you decide to lead with this song on your album, which, by the way, is utterly beautiful and effective?

KAPLANSKY: I think it was the song that kind of encompassed the main experience I was having at that time because, you know, yeah, there was a pandemic. And yeah, there was an election. But the big thing in my life was that my daughter was about to leave home. And it was sort of all-encompassing and very sad for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST DAYS OF SUMMER")

KAPLANSKY: (Singing) But I’ll miss that girl in her room, safe and mine. Life is a circle strewn with goodbyes. After 18 years, how can it be just one week more till we carry those boxes to her new room on the seventh floor?

SIMON: Help us understand the process of turning those kinds of anxieties into a song, something that's inside you that you want to share with others.

KAPLANSKY: This was percolating in me after 18 years of having her home all the time, kind of forever.

SIMON: Yeah.

KAPLANSKY: All of a sudden, that was going to end. Like, I knew for years it was going to come to that. But then it was a couple of weeks away. And that's literally what I started writing. Like - and it happened, of course, to be the end of summer also, which is also kind of a sad time. And I just started writing last days of summer coming on fast, which is exactly how I felt. But unconsciously driven - for me, that's the way writing happens.

SIMON: What causes you to write a song, do you think?

KAPLANSKY: Emotional truth is the most important thing for me when I listen to songs. And so I think if something's moving me, there must be some emotional truth there. I have to feel something about something and just start expressing and literally pick up the guitar and just kind of singing words.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY’S WINDOW")

KAPLANSKY: (Singing) Mary’s looking out at the empty streets of her town.

SIMON: Let me ask you about "Mary's Window."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY'S WINDOW")

KAPLANSKY: (Singing) February morning, rain's falling down.

SIMON: Which is a very pointed song, takes place in a small town and certainly seems to take on politics in America today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY'S WINDOW")

KAPLANSKY: (Singing) The sound of goodwill, kindness and care. And Mary knows she'll always belong there. But now this country of hers has been ravaged and cleaved by all this sickness and hatred and bigotry fueled by the lies of the fools who would lead, lies told for power, malice and greed.

SIMON: Oh, this is a strong song.

KAPLANSKY: Thank you.

SIMON: What did you feel was important to present there and say explicitly, not just poetically?

KAPLANSKY: This was during the pandemic, obviously, when things were very dark. Daily interactions that are so important to our mental health and well-being - all of a sudden, poof, it was gone. And then I think that was causing a lot of suffering. And then I started thinking about how older people - the older generation - had survived so much - World War II, the Great Depression. And they survived and stood up together - Rosie the Riveter and all that - and fought back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY'S WINDOW")

KAPLANSKY: (Singing) They'd put differences aside, reach out to each other, lend a hand when it's needed to their sisters and brothers.

There was a big election coming - the presidential election. And I started thinking about that in this context of standing up together and fighting back to get our country back. And my father-in-law, who I think was 90 at the time and therefore at high risk for contracting deadly COVID - everyone was telling him, vote absentee, vote absentee; don't go there. He lives in a swing state - an important one. And he was hellbent on standing there in line in person so that his vote would count that day. The goodness of people is more powerful than the acrimony and the bitterness and the bigotry. And I do believe that.

SIMON: Dr. Kaplansky, you were once a clinical psychologist, right?

KAPLANSKY: I still am. You can call me doctor. No one ever calls me that. It's nice to hear it.

SIMON: Does this mean you're going to send me an invoice after the interview?

KAPLANSKY: Would you like me to (laughter)? Happy to.

SIMON: Let me tell you about my childhood first. You think you see characters in your songs differently because of your training? Is that possible?

KAPLANSKY: I think I see everything in a different light - the whole world. I mean, people's interactions, people's motivations, people's conflicts has just become more sophisticated and more nuanced. And that can't help but show up in my writing.

SIMON: I want to ask you about another song. I really liked your cover of Nancy Griffith's "Ford Econoline" - woman embarking on a road trip - maybe it's not just a road trip - in a Ford Econoline.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORD ECONOLINE")

KAPLANSKY: (Singing) She had a husband on her bumper. She had five restless children. She was singing sweet as a mockingbird in that Ford Econoline. She's salt of the earth, straight from the bosom of the Mormon Church, with a voice like wine...

SIMON: What do you see in this character you've given voice to?

KAPLANSKY: A brave, tough woman who's not going to let anybody keep her down. It's a little like my own story. My mother, who's gone now - I would never talk about this if she weren't - when I told her when I was 17, I wanted to be a singer, told me basically, you don't have what it takes, which was devastating. And I went out on my own and showed her that I did have what it takes. And then, of course - and she ended up being my biggest fan. That character in the song is saying, I'm not going to listen to you. I am going to go around the country and sing. You can't stop me. And that's, I guess - thank you for that, Scott. I hadn't thought of that.

SIMON: You'll be getting an invoice from our office.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: And I'm afraid our time is about up, Lucy Kaplansky. I'm kidding.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORD ECONOLINE")

KAPLANSKY: (Singing) Well, her husband was a gambler. He was a Salt Lake City rambler. And he built a golden cage around his silver-throated wife. So many nights, he left her crying with his cheating and his lying. But his big mistake was in buying her that Ford Econoline.

SIMON: Lucy Kaplansky talking about her new album, "Last Days of Summer."

Thank you so much for being with us.

KAPLANSKY: Thank you so much. What a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORD ECONOLINE")

KAPLANSKY: (Singing) With a voice like wine cruising along in that Ford Econoline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.