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Folk singer Lucy Kaplansky brings her truthful songs to HopMonk

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If You Go

Who: Lucy Kaplansky

When: 8:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 13

Where: HopMonk, 224 Vintage Way, Novato

Tickets: $25 to $35

Information: 415-892-6200, www.hopmonk.com/novato, lucykaplansky.com

Folk singer and songwriter Lucy Kaplansky, known for her honest and heart-rending music, has made some pivotal decisions in her life. After graduating high school in Chicago in the late 1970s, rather than attend college she went to New York’s Greenwich Village to be part of its resurgent folk scene.

There, she became friends with other young folk singers, including Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, also on the precipice of success.

The New York Times heralded a 21-year-old Kaplansky as a future voice of folk, saying that if the record business had been healthy, it would be easy to predict success for her.

“I was this incredibly neurotic kid, and I couldn’t handle any of it,” she said in a November phone interview from her home in New York. “I couldn’t let myself pursue it, couldn’t let myself have what I wanted.”

Kaplansky went back to school, became a doctor of psychology and worked in Manhattan with mentally ill patients at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital. She also started a private practice.

Yet she longed to sing, to write songs, to perform.

Kaplansky, 59, recalls the moment during a therapy session that she decided to come home to music.

Colvin had become well known, and Kaplansky was saying she wouldn’t want that kind of fame, money and success.

The psychologist said two words that changed her life: “Why not?”

Kaplansky didn’t have an answer. “I was lying to myself,” she said. After realizing a career in music was what she most desired, there was no turning back.

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life, to say, ‘I have to go back to singing.’ I had no idea if I could get anywhere, how good I was. I just didn’t know. I knew I had to do it because if I didn’t, I’d never, ever, forgive myself.”

Kaplansky’s debut album, 1994’s “The Tide,” gained wide notice in folk circles and showcased her luminous voice.

She followed that with 1996’s “Flesh and Bone,” another mix of originals and covers, including novel interpretations of songs by Elvis Costello and Richard and Linda Thompson.

Kaplansky took another quantum leap in 1998 when she teamed with Dar Williams and Richard Shindell to form the short-lived folk supergroup Cry Cry Cry.

Their harmonies were enticing, and the selection of under-the-radar covers, such as Greg Brown’s “Lord, I Have Made You a Place in My Heart,” enthralled their fans.

“Some of the best songs I’ve ever had the pleasure of singing are on that album,” Kaplansky said. “We all get a kick out of each other. When we first started doing gigs 21 years ago, I couldn’t believe the response we got.”

Cry Cry Cry toured last year to mark their 20th anniversary. Kaplansky also has collaborated with other like-minded folk singers, including John Gorka and Eliza Gilkyson in the trio Red Horse.

Kaplansky’s most recent album, “Everyday Street,” came out last year to rave reviews. It was her first release in six years.

The opening track is a duet with Colvin called “Old Friends.” The album feels intimate, like one of Kaplansky’s acoustic shows. That’s no accident.

If You Go

Who: Lucy Kaplansky

When: 8:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 13

Where: HopMonk, 224 Vintage Way, Novato

Tickets: $25 to $35

Information: 415-892-6200, www.hopmonk.com/novato, lucykaplansky.com

Rather than record with a full band, Kaplansky enlisted longtime collaborator Duke Levine to play a number of instruments and had Colvin and Shindell sing harmonies.

“It’s the most acoustic album I’ve ever made,” Kaplansky said. She sells it only through her website (digital download or signed CD, lucykaplansky.com) and at her shows.

The thoughtful lyrics reveal Kaplansky’s insight into human nature. One standout song is “Sixth Avenue,” an ode to her daughter written when the girl was 10. Here’s a sample: “So I let you cross Sixth Avenue. Soon the crowd is all I see. I keep on looking, I can’t let go, and I know you’re not looking for me. Just how it’s supposed to be.”

Kaplansky said her goal is to write good songs.

“What does that mean?” she asked herself. “Interesting, emotionally challenging, truthful, not cliché, that’s what I strive for.”

“Her songs are co-written with her husband, filmmaker Rick Litvin. She collaborated, in a way, with another member of her family, too, her father, renowned mathematician Irving Kaplansky, who died in 2006.

“My dad wrote songs starting in 1937, when he was 20. I heard them my entire life growing up.”

Twenty years ago, Lucy Kaplansky told her husband she needed some light and funny material in her shows.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you do one of your dad’s songs?’ I sing them because people like them. They’re funny and clever,” she said.

Kaplansky compared her father’s wit to that of the humorist and songwriter Tom Lehrer. As it so happens, Lehrer was one of her father’s math students at Harvard.

“I love Tom Lehrer’s songs, but they’re too well-known,” she said. “If I had discovered Tom’s songs and nobody had heard them, I would do those, too.”

Kaplansky is always adding to her repertoire. A month ago she was listening to Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky” in her car for the first time in ages.

That night she sat down at her piano during a sound check, figured out the chords and played the song during her show. “I’ve been doing it in my shows since then.”

Kaplansky said she’s reached a stage in life when she’s mostly content. Though it’s harder to make a living as a musician, she appreciates every moment.

“I don’t take for granted that it’s not going to last forever,” she said. Every time she comes home from a successful gig, she tells her husband, “It’s not over yet!”

Michael Shapiro is author of “The Creative Spark,” a collection of interviews with musicians, writers and other artists. He covers travel and the performing arts for national magazines and The Press Democrat. Contact: www.michaelshapiro.net

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