Stepping out of the Stillwell Avenue subway station on Coney Island is like arriving at the end of the world, the roller coasters and the Wonder Wheel rising like leviathans over the lip of the known universe. The neighborhood’s mid-twentieth-century dilapidation created many of its uncanny spaces, like those depicted in Walter Hill’s 1979 cult favorite The Warriors, in which the run-down theme park provides sanctuary for the scrappy, tired gang of the title as they return home after an all-night trek from the Bronx. That’s how singer-songwriter Carol Lipnik describes the Coney Island of her youth: a place at its nadir, but nonetheless an asylum from the foreboding world beyond its borders. “I really developed this appreciation for the aesthetic of ruin,” she says. “Desolation. Strangeness. Being a redhead, I felt even more like an outcast — and Coney Island is sort of the land of the outsider, the freak.”
Despite actually being a matter of just a few miles, it feels as though Lipnik has come a long way from her Coney Island roots. Her decades-long career as one of New York’s most inventive singers and performance artists now brings her to Manhattan, where she performs regularly in the East Village, including a residency at Joe’s Pub throughout March. Still, she carries with her the sensibilities of her home base back in Brooklyn, the great heights and vast depths her otherworldly voice finds both on stage and on her latest record, Almost Back to Normal. A colorful shawl draped around her shoulders, her hands dazzlingly bejeweled, Lipnik commands her audience like a sort of downtown Joni Mitchell — a witch whose sound is as powerful as it is strange.
Lipnik hasn’t always conjured mood through song (though Mitchell has long been an influence on her work). She studied visual art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the Arts Students League in Manhattan and describes her early work as being “very dark and spacey,” much like the music she now creates. “I knew in the back of my mind that I had this voice,” she admits, naming singer-songwriters like Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan as forces that ultimately shaped her aesthetic. (Listening to those artists was “a revelation to me that music could be poetic,” she says.) Her training in visual arts proved useful, too, as it eventually established her musical process. “I approach the melody that I’m singing as an outline,” she says, “and it’s very much like drawing — but drawing with your voice. It comes from the same impulse, only I can just do it in real time with people sitting there.”
Although you can get a taste of Lipnik’s abilities on her records, her live performances give the fullest accounting of her powers. She often sings in intimate cabaret performances, which allows her to connect completely with the audience before her — this despite struggling with stage fright before each of her shows (“A little bit of bourbon helps,” she quips). Lipnik finds a way to put herself at ease on stage through the process of vanishing — a technique she pulls from the memory of being enveloped by open sky and ocean out on Coney Island. “It’s a glorious feeling,” she explains, “to know that you’re that unimportant.”
More important to Lipnik are the characters created by her songs, figures she can inhabit within a different space and time. “Once I’m on the stage, something takes over me: I get to be an actor,” she says. Despite the sense that she’s hovering a few feet above the rest of us — an impression abetted by her relaxed persona, fiery red hair, and tendency to speak in metaphor — she grounds herself, and her work, in the present. “I sing a lot about nature and desolation and the feral quality of human nature — a big subject now, as we’re seeing in this election [cycle].”
That savage impulse rears its head when Lipnik sings her song “Crow’s Nest.” “You can shake this tree,” she chants, “but you can’t make me ever come down.” In lieu of a chorus, she looses a piercing, lonely, outsize blast of sound, a banshee’s wail that, she explains, comes from two distinct places: “a Russian-Jewish thing…the ‘oy, oy, oy, woe is me,’ ” as well as her sense of humor. “There’s something comical about being on a stage in front of a roomful of people,” she says, pointing up a comparison between the need for attention and the wild stubbornness of which she sings. When Lipnik performs Harry Nilsson’s “Life Line,” the goofily romantic ditty transforms into a sorrowful dirge. “Hello-lo-lo-lo,” she sings, the echoes of a siren trapped in a cavern of loss, her only way out to call to a lover to save her. “Is there anybody else here?”
We often search for an external push to keep ourselves moving forward, to keep from getting frozen in place. It’s the thing that allows us to quiet the voices inside our heads, the inner critics that stifle us. “It all comes back to the same thing: self-consciousness,” Lipnik says. “Self-consciousness is the devil. When you disappear, you have no self-consciousness, so those voices of self-doubt are not yelling in your head.” Disappearing, the chance to float away through song, is what keeps Lipnik alive and kicking — and the adrenaline rush is addictive. “It’s sort of like riding the Cyclone, you know?” she says. “The whole time you’re riding and thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m going to die!’ And when you’re done, you’re like, ‘I want to do that again.’ ”
Catch Lipnik at Joe’s Pub on March 10 and 17.