A FEW MINUTES WITH… Carolyn Shapiro on Her Debut Release, “Where I’m Supposed to Be”
SARATOGA SPRINGS – On October 1st, Carolyn Shapiro debuted as a recording artist with her album, Where I’m Supposed to Be. Though short in its length, this acoustic album is filled to the brim with incredibly enjoyable moments. With such a display of strength in her songwriting abilities, this listener is beyond impressed. With four original tunes, and two covers – one being of another local artist, Ciarra Fragale – let’s jump right into this album.
The album begins with a riveting duet between violin (Connor Armbruster), and banjo (Shapiro). Between each vocal stanza, the interludes feature music that is based off the tune’s intro; an arrangement style often seen in old folk standards. As the song develops, the violin plays higher in its register, which displays a nice sense of forward movement. Throughout the majority of the song, bass (Jon Stewart) is heard softly in the background. In my view, it helps to subtly ground the piece. Following is the title track of the record.
With a vocal that takes place front and center, it is nice to hear the violin, cello (Raquel Velho), and banjo serving as light accompaniment. Aside from her ability to weave great arrangements of original Appalachia-inspired folk songs, this track also showcases Carolyn’s talent in writing an effective bridge. Though the song is mainly about enjoying where you are, and enforcing a sense of being in the moment, the bridge brings about tension by having the narrator question if they’ll ever be satisfied with their lot in life. Just as the tension is brought up, it soon is heard resolving by one final chorus before the song’s conclusion.
“I’ve Endured,” track three, originally composed by Ola Belle Reed, serves well to demonstrate Carolyn’s vocals as it features an a cappella intro. The rest of the song’s interpretation hinges mainly on banjos and vocals, while also having a nice, but solemn and contemplative lyric about the trials of the narrator’s life. There is some great guitar work performed by David Rabinowicz on “Better Days,” track four. The track, an overall rollicking acoustic song, is greatly lifted by this performance, and it is perhaps my favorite off the record.
The last of her original pieces, “Honeydew,” track five, is far and away the most instrumentally lush of the entire batch. Performances of pedal steel, acoustic and electric guitars, performed by Jon Stewart, can be heard on this track, as well as backup vocals by another local artist, Angelina Valente. As the song swells, these particular performances, in this listener’s ears, only grows. Finally, near the end of the song, drums, performed by Steve Candlen can be briefly heard before it broke into an a cappella section. Ending the song is one final return to the chorus.
Covering a song from another local artist, Ciarra Fragale, is an interesting way to end the record, but Shapiro definitely pulls it off. With “If Looks Could Kill,” Shapiro, using her arranging abilities, is able to create a new and refreshing version of this track. While the song’s essence is preserved, Carolyn certainly makes it her own, and in all the right ways, too. Near the ending of this song, a riveting flute part performed by Steph Lahson is heard.
Though there are several arranging techniques that Carolyn seems to prefer in writing and recording this album, none of them ever seem to be particularly overused. As the album finishes, I am left wanting to hear more, which, in this listener’s view, means Shapiro did her job, and did it amazingly well. I would definitely recommend this record to anyone who is a fan of folk music.
After listening, I reached out to Carolyn, and it was a pleasure to have a chance to discuss her new record, as well as learn some of her influences and plans for the future. Continue on with this article to read our conversation, and click the link at the end of the article to check out the album for yourself!
Lucas Garrett: Hey, Carolyn! Thanks for taking the time to sit down for a chat! So many folks know you from your work at Caffe Lena, but now they get a chance to hear another side from you as a recording artist. How does it feel releasing your debut album?
Carolyn Shapiro: It feels so good to finally share this piece of my self. These are the first songs that I ever wrote so being able to put this out into the world has felt both significant and humbling. The fact that people are listening and that these songs touch them in some way is the greatest honor. I’ve definitely experienced a lot of imposter syndrome as a musician. I have so many talented friends and I’m surrounded by the best of the best at Caffe Lena and I never believed I deserved to share my music. Being able to release this EP has helped to debunk these myths I created in my head and heal this self-destructive side of myself that has held me back in the past.
LG: You have such a refreshing sound on this record, as well as style. Who are some of your creative influences, and what originally inspired you to pick up the banjo as an instrument?
CS: I have so many creative influences. On the more traditional side of things, I have been greatly influenced by Ola Belle Reed, Hedy West and Lilly Mae Ledford. These women were pioneers in folk music through the 20th century and set the stage for other women to follow in their footsteps. Everyone who plays at Caffe Lena has also played a huge part in my music. I first started writing songs after I started my job there four years ago. Every day of my life was suddenly immersed in music and I soaked up every performance like a sponge. Not to mention being able to meet so many of my role models and get to know them on a first name basis like Allison DeGroot, Aubrey Atwater, Bruce Molsky, Kaia Kater, Amethyst Kiah and Abigail Washburn. I absolutely would not be where I am as an artist without the inspiration and support of this venue.
I picked up the banjo when I was 21. I started taking lessons with Trish Miller and John Kirk when I was a senior at Skidmore College. I had been getting into bluegrass music and needed a few extra credits so I thought “what the hell I’ll try that.” To my disappointment, I walked into the first lesson and no bluegrass was played. Instead I learned about old-time music and fiddle tunes and clawhammer. But I stuck with it anyway. It took me a few years to really understand the importance of this style of music and the traditions that were being shared with me. Looking back on it, I’m so happy this is the path I ended up on because it eventually led me to Caffe Lena and has made me a part of something so much bigger than myself.
LG: There are a lot of great sounds on this record. Can you elaborate on how this album was conceived and recorded? Take us through the process.
CS: These being my first songs and this being my first record, the whole process was a huge learning experience and it changed me in so many ways. I had the opportunity to work with some amazing folks who made this process truly remarkable. Jim Mastrianni was the mastermind behind the majority of the album (Tracks 1-5). I first started working on the record about 3 years ago with my friend Stanley McGaughey who recorded a demo version of the album in his beautiful home in Shushan, NY. Pretty much everything was redone with Jim but we decided to keep the banjo and vocals for Honeydew because there was something really special about that recording. Jim recorded, mixed and mastered everything in his studio while we coproduced all of the songs. There were songs that he ran with while others I took the reins. What I love most about Jim’s work are the details he bring into a song. He helped to evolve each of these tracks into something so much more than I could have conceived. We mostly recorded in his studio at the end of 2019, beginning of 2020. Luckily the album was just about finished by the time the world locked down. But I didn’t actually get back to recording the final pieces until March 2021. I wanted to wait for the pandemic to end, but surprise, the pandemic didn’t end and I decided to finish it remotely. I’ve Endured was actually one of these home recordings, which I absolutely adore. Recording at home gave me a chance to get comfy with myself and the process. I had the space to capture these perfect moments I don’t think would have been possible in the studio. Karl Bertrand (of Let’s Be Leonard) produced the final track on the album. I gave him full creative range on this song and he created something I describe as a “banjo space adventure” with fiddle flute and some weird haunting harmonies.
LG: I’ve always enjoyed hearing you perform live. With a new album out, how do you plan to promote the work? Are there any live shows coming up that we can look forward to attending?
CS: I plan on having an album release show at Caffe Lena this winter. I’m just beginning to perform again after the entire pandemic which is really exciting. My next show will be at the Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn on November 10th. I’m working on some dates around the capital region that will be announced soon. But until then, you can always hear me at Caffe Lena’s Open Mic Night every Monday along with so many amazing local performers.
LG: it’s been great getting to know your singer-songwriter side! Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we wrap this interview up?
CS: I just want to thank everyone who has listened and shared the album. I’m so humbled by all of the support and I can’t wait to get back to recording and performing live.
LG: Thanks again, and the best of luck to you with your debut album!