An interview with Randy Kaplan, a Los Angeles- based musician, writer, storyteller, poet and artist

"People who can appreciate poetry and music in this way gain empathy and compassion for other people."

Randy Kaplan: Once Upon a Time in Bluesland

In his songs for children and their families, Randall Leigh Kaplan blends American Roots, Country Blues, and Comedic Storytelling. Randy Kaplan is a songwriter known for his incisive lyrics and songs that blend American roots, folk, alternative, and pop. As indebted to I.B. Singer, John Ashbery, and Woody Allen as he is to Robert Johnson, John Prine, and Dave Van Ronk, Kaplan intricately finger-picks his way through his own compositions as well as Tin Pan Alley gems, obscure Broadway numbers, Rap classics, and Country Blues songs.

Randy spent many years in Los Angeles performing with his band "i" and traveling the U.S. solo. He has released twelve records, four geared towards children. He collaborated on CLEAVE, a new musical comedy, with Brian and Erin Schey which was performed to much acclaim at the Boulder International Fringe Festival in the summer of '08. Randy is from Long Island, New York but has lived in Los Angeles and Lawrence, Kansas. He helped shape the LA Coffee House scene of the early 90s performing on bills with the likes of Dan Bern, Eleni Mandell, Danny Peck, and Chuck E. Weiss and later with his band “i” at venues such as The Roxy, The Whiskey, and The Troubadour. Randy's fourth not-JUST-for-kids CD, Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie, consists of Randyized versions of classic Country Blues and Ragtime numbers originally performed by the likes of Robert Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Mississippi John Hurt, and many more.  (Photo by Laura Heffington)


Interview by Michael Limnios


What characterizes the sound of Randy Kaplan? How do you describe your philosophy about the music?

Well, over the years I've moved away from the electric guitar and focused mainly on the steel string acoustic guitar. My favorite stuff to play and to listen to is solo ragtime and blues guitar players who sing great (and old) songs. I'm not usually interested in listening to solo guitar players who simply strum chords and sing. I like to hear intricate guitar work, orchestral arrangements, and the expression of one person in a direct and intelligent way. When I make recordings, of course, I employ other instruments. I feel that this texture makes up for the fact that the listener is not seeing me or hearing me live. Sometimes I'll bring up guests in a live setting but I'm most comfortable by far with my guitar (and harmonica) alone.


                                                                                   Photo by Laura Heffington

What does the BLUES mean to you & what has offered you? What have you learned about yourself from the music?

I feel a deep connection to the bluesmen of the first half of the 20th century. I'm not sure why this is exactly. I was raised in the suburbs of Long Island, NY and have no obvious connection to the Deep South or to the people who pioneered America's roots music. Yet I do somehow feel a direct link to them. As most musicians and artists would say, I have always perceived myself to be somewhat of an outsider, looking in and observing life. I often feel distressed by the modern world and detached from its inhabitants. When I listen to the recordings of old bluesmen, though, I feel connected to something vast and I know that I am part of something that goes on and on. This is a great gift that the Blues has given me. In addition to all of this, I've learned that I can accomplish things that seem overwhelmingly difficult at first. Many ragtime guitar arrangements (when I first hear them) sound way beyond my capabilities. Yet after a week of practice I have been able to play most of the ones I set out to learn. And once I learn them they don't sound as difficult; I have to remind myself about how I felt when I first encountered them. This gives me a sense of accomplishment and pride and happiness.


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD storyteller, poet and songwriter?

Funny, yesterday I was playing a concert and I realized that I played three songs in a row about kids who were underdogs and/or being bullied. So, in a sense, those experiences I went through as a child eventually paid off by allowing me to write stories and songs about them. I was a tiny kid (4'9" in 9th grade!) whose outside did not reveal what was within. Kids like that want to get their insides out there into the world and sometimes it makes them writers, artists, poets, musicians.


                                                                               Photo by Alexandra DeFurio

Poetry and music, can these two arts confront the “prison” of the spirit and mind?

Yes. Every person is obviously in a prison of self, of sorts. Yet we take it on faith that we all experience the world somewhat similarly. If it weren't for great poetry and music it would be much easier to doubt this premise. When a poet is able to even approximately express the most nuanced and subtle turns of consciousness we feel connected to not just him or her but to all of Humanity. People who can appreciate poetry and music in this way gain empathy and compassion for other people.


What is the relation between music, poetry and philosophy?

Well, great music is not just a snappy little melody. No, great music contains an entire outlook, a real philosophy, a historical context, a point of view. All of that might not be apparent on first listen but it's there and it's ready to be decoded. I like some direct poetry (like Billy Collins), for example, but I also like what appears at first to be obscurantist poetry (John Ashbery). The latter type seems like code for those nuanced states of consciousness I mentioned earlier. Sometimes it's frustrating when you can't crack the code and there are bound to be conflicting interpretations too. But this is the world of ideas and the life of the individual who treads in this realm is certainly much richer for it.


What would be your first decisions as minister of education and culture?

I would integrate the teaching of history with the teaching of music, philosophy, and literature. I would have the kids learn something specific really well so that they could later apply what they know to more general cases or other works in the same vein. Nowadays, it seems to me, the general idea is taught and it is much harder to apply that to the specific later on. For example, I would have kids who are studying the mid-20th century learn, in addition to the political history, a specific and relevant musical work, a work of fiction, a poem, a play, and a film. They would learn how to integrate all of this into a vision of the time.


                                                                                   Photo by Laura Heffington

You have traveled all around the US. What are your conclusions about the local music scenes and ways of life?

That's true. I've traveled through every state in the U.S. (except Alaska) and performed in most of them. I've had a full range of experiences. Some nights, I've played to only my girlfriend and the club owner and a bunch of empty chairs. Other nights, the places were packed to the rafters. The crowds have varied greatly too. Some venues were filled with respectful good listeners, others with rowdy hecklers. Music scenes around the country... New York City has every type of music every night of the week. There are little isolated music communities too but I was never a part of any of them (at least with my non-kids music). The closest I came to that in NYC was the anti-folk movement of the Sidewalk Cafe of the mid-90s. Lach ran a nice open mic night there at The Fort at the back of the cafe. It was an anti-Hoot, very irreverent. Lawrence, Kansas has a great local music scene. A lot of very interesting indie bands and jazz groups. Ska and reggae too. I record all my records in Lawrence as a lot of my friends live there. And they are GREAT musicians. Mike West and Katie Euliss of Truckstop Honeymoon, Tom Johnson, Bradford Hoopes, Colin Mahoney, guys and gals like that. The music scene in LA in the early 90s was great. I ran an open mic at a place called Highland Grounds. All kinds of acts played there, including Beck, Eleni Mandell, and Dan Bern. There was a vibrant folk scene there and at other places like The Iguana Cafe, Mama Pajama, and The Breakaway. Nowadays, there's a good kids' music scene here in LA but I'm not really in the non-kids scene anymore. McCabe's Guitar Shop has always been a first class venue for all kinds of roots and acoustic music. Some other cities and states stand out in my memory as good scenes (or at least good gigs for me when I was there): Atlanta, GA; St. Augustine, FL; Eugene, OR; Denver, CO; New Orleans, LA; Cambridge, MA.


What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? What was the best moment of your career and what was the worst?

My favorite shows have been ones I've done for kids. The first time I played at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica was very special. I'd seen a lot of my heroes perform there over the years (Dave Van Ronk, Loudon Wainwright III, guys like that) and then there I was on that same stage. As far as jamming goes, my favorite times have been with a friend or three, trading songs. I've done this a bunch with Dan Bern, Mike West, and Myshkin. Andrew Vladeck, too,and Andras Jones. As far as worst moments go, looking back at this one gig I'm gonna tell you about now, it seems more funny than bad. I was playing at a place called the Florabama. It was on the borderline of Florida and Alabama in the Deep South of the U.S. I arrived there in the late afternoon and I went in to check out the joint. There were multiple rooms, each packed with loud and drunken revelers. I didn't know what to expect when I came back that night. Well, it was just as it was in the afternoon only much louder and much drunker. I decided to play my most upbeat and fast songs. I was performing solo. Acoustic guitar. Harmonica. Voice. I went up there and sung and strummed my heart out. I didn't even get to my fingerpicking stuff. My then-girlfriend was with me and I had to watch guys trying to pick her up the whole time I was playing. The first of my three sets finally ended and when I got off the stage, the manager came over to me, put his arm around me, and said, "That was pretty good, Randy. But for your next sets, think more upbeat." I said, "That was about as upbeat as I get. It's all sad slow ballads and blues from here on in." It was a long night.


Do you remember anything funny or interesting from The Roxy to The Troubadour to The Whiskey A-Go-Go at 80s?

Yes. In the early 90s I started a band with Brian Schey, Sherri Solinger, and Byron Thames. We were called the Randy Kaplan Band but then my band mates wanted a proper name for the band. We eventually settled on the lowercase letter i. We played at The Roxy, The Troubadour, and The Whiskey and, more often than not, our band name was left off the marquee. I guess they thought it was a typo. I remember one time the letter i was simply added to the end of the other band's name before us. I guess it was our fault for picking such a ridiculous band name. I considered it Borgesian, though, and existential.


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about music and life? What is the best advice ever given you?

Well, my dad always told me to drive as if everyone else were about to lose control of their vehicles and drive into mine. That's pretty good advice to keep in mind out here in L.A. The Southland is filled with terrible drivers. My dad also taught me a lot about integrity, compassion, and honesty - mostly by expressing those values through his actions. My pal Dan Bern (I'm sure y'all know him; he tours around Europe a lot) taught me a lot about songs. He is the most original thinker working in song today. He taught me some nifty harmonica tricks too. Fran Banish gave me my first ragtime and country blues fingerpicking lessons and that set me off on a great path. Mike West taught me not to be such a perfectionist lunatic at recording sessions. He reminded me that a record is a "record" of that specific time, not a collection of definitive versions of those songs for all time. My good friend Scott Bernstein started out as my acting coach and he taught me just about everything I know about improvisation, writing, and acting. (He was Melvin Belvin on TV's Happy Days.) He has also taught me, by example, perseverance, gratitude, self-investigation, and artistic vision. My wife Julie has taught me an awful lot about myself and about human interaction. My son Ry has taught me about pure love and dedication. The list goes on. My sisters are infinite founts of wisdom and love as are my mother and stepfather. Some clergymen and radio talk show hosts come to mind too. And I learned a lot from my grandparents and extended family growing up.  (Photo by Laura Heffington)


What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Oy vey. My father used to try to convince me to have a backup plan. I scoffed at this because I knew what I was put on Earth for. I would suggest that unless you know for sure what you're here for and it involves the arts, get a backup plan. Nothing wrong with making a good living and being obsessed with an artistic pursuit too. It worked for William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. If you can handle those double duties then go for it. I could not, unfortunately. I can barely balance my checkbook. I'm stuck in this crazy world of music and art. I love it here. But it is a bit scary. But for those who decide to really go for it, I'd suggest coming as close to mastering your craft as you can before going public. Don't do it for the quick-fix recognition or the fleeting fame or iffy money. Do it because you have to do it and do it well. Learn as much as you can about what you're doing and about its history. Don't worry about being part of a group at first or with having a website or putting out a record, &c. Just do the work. For longer than you even think you have to. All that other stuff will then come flooding in. Don't jump the gun!


What is your “secret” DREAM… and what is your nightmare? What turns you on? Happiness is……

My semi-secret dream is to publish a novel. My nightmares are many. I've gotten it under control, but I'm naturally a catastrophizing imaginer.


Some music styles can be fads but the Blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the future of Blues.

Blues music is simultaneously primitive and complex, just like us humans. Maybe that's why we relate to it so viscerally. I hope that the original blues masters (well, the ones we know about at least, the ones who have been saved from oblivion) will always be vaunted, revered, and listened to. These are our iconic and nearly mythological musical ancestors.


Is there any similarity between the Blues nowadays and Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, and Muddy Waters’ blues?

I don't follow current Blues trends closely enough to have an informed opinion. I mostly gravitate towards folks who are singing the old songs of the old masters. Certainly, most modern Blues music sounds more like Muddy Waters than Robert Johnson or Blind Blake. But there are a few guys around who seem like they've just stepped out of a time machine, like their calendars read 1920 just a few minutes ago. The main guy that comes to mind who fits this description is Frank Fairfield. Man,that kid can play.


Which historical personalities would you like to meet? How you would spend a day with Mississippi John Hurt? What would you say to Walt Disney? What would you like to ask “East Village Beatnik ghosts”?

It would certainly be something to go back in time and sit in a roadhouse or at a picnic where Robert Johnson or Blind Blake or Blind Boy Fuller were performing. Seeing those guys in the flesh and hearing them live and watching their hands play their guitars would be out of this world. Mississippi John Hurt spent most of his time farming or sitting on his porch or playing at parties in his hometown and the surrounding area. That'd be Avalon, Mississippi. I would love to sit on his porch with him, drink a beer, play guitar, and watch the sun set over the fields. I'm not sure I would enjoy any of the farming, though. Walt Disney? Hmm, I guess I'd thank him for giving me some good childhood memories. I still LOVE the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland and Disneyworld. (At Disneyland it has two chutes, Disneyworld only has one.) As for the "East Village Beatnik Ghosts," I think I may be one of them. Yup, I lived in the East Village in the 1990s. I worked at a restaurant, sung music at night, and did a few of the other things associated with East Village Beatniks. So, what I would ask myself is, Why did I choose such horrendously filthy apartments to inhabit? And the answer would probably be, Hey, at least you got some songs out of it (Roaches and Shampoo Me, for example).


What's been your experience from “studies” with Lightnin’ Bodkins? Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory of him? How did you get the idea for the “Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie”?

Well, I see Lightnin' Bodkins as one of those mythological figures I wrote about earlier. It's just that this guy blessed us with his "presence" for an all-too-short hour or two. Lightnin' shows how the world filters through us all and comes out a bit different. Perhaps his memories are biased just a little bit. But how could they not be? As Jorge Luis Borges says, the first time we remember something we are really remembering it. But the second time we remember it we are remembering the memory. And don't even think about all subsequent times! As far as the idea for Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie goes, I found that children really appreciated it when I included a blues or ragtime number in my set. Since I love playing this type of music, I thought; Why not make a whole concept record in this vein? Then my friend Scott Bernstein, who is my creative consultant on all of my records and projects, suggested the interstitial dialogues with Lightnin'.


You have a pretty interesting drawing project. How did you come up with it?

I have always drawn, much less now than when I was younger. It was just another way to get the images in my head out there into the world. Another attempt to connect to people, to make someone laugh or understand something I wanted to say. My style probably is accidental and comes from an inability to draw naturalistically. I gave up on being one of those amazing illustrators who can draw the world recognizably. So I look at an object and let my imperfect lines flow. I let my conceptions of things go in my eyes and out my hand. And it's always different on the page than it is either in the world or in my head. So, more filters are at work here. Mostly, I draw for entertainment. Growing up, my friend Adam Malawista and I used to have "Draw Fights" where we'd take turns drawing characters and then having them annihilated by the other person. It would continue until someone won (created an inescapable situation for the other person's character) or we ran out of room on the page. Later, I'd draw to make the waitresses I worked with laugh during busy shifts at Yaffa Cafe in the East Village.


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Wow. Every period is interesting in anyone's life, isn't it? Right now I have a wife and a kid and this is definitely very interesting! But as far as writing and philosophizing goes, past periods are of the most interest simply because a degree of objectivity about them is now possible. Childhood is an endless resource for psychological speculation. When else was I such an innocent character? I was so present then. The world was the other player. Or was it all just one thing, me and the world? I find that past periods are still filtered through the present day, though. If I'm in a good state of mind, looking back on even the most harrowing or depressing periods of time is not so bad. It seems bittersweet. But if I'm in a bad state of mind, looking back on joyful times also seems bittersweet, at best. We humans are very strange.


From a musical point of view, what are the differences and similarities between the kids of the past and those of today?

Well, what's most magical about children is that, most of the time; they haven't become bitter or developed negative world outlooks yet. They are all close to being creative geniuses. It is amazing to interact with them. Their senses of humor are mostly razor sharp and even their heckling doesn't hurt, because they don't say things out of malice, but out of honesty. I imagine that kids have always been like this. The difference, though, is exactly when, age-wise, this innocence ends. I suppose there are different types of innocence. Like, in the past, children usually grew up more quickly in the sense that they had to work earlier. Also, lifespans were shorter so, relatively, they were older psychologically then than they are now at the same biological age. Yet, in the past, children seemed to maintain their non-cynical natures for longer. Even listening to the live children's albums of Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie, the children seem more innocent. And yet, the subject matter covered by Leadbelly's and Woody Guthrie's songs wouldn't pass muster with today's censors. We're all so politically correct now and afraid of certain subjects. Hmm. It's certainly a complicated affair, isn't it? Also, today, there is a difference between kids in different locations. The children I've sung to in the Midwest of the U.S. are different that the children I've sung to on either the East or West Coasts. Kids in New York or Los Angeles seem to be more self-conscious and seem to have more pressure on them to be "cool." I sang at a school in Kansas, for example, and I was nervous because there were kids there that were ten, eleven, twelve years old. I thought, Woah, they're gonna hate me because they're in that stage where they think they're too cool for stuff like this. But, much to my pleasant surprise, they enjoyed the show. They participated in the songs just as 6-, 7-, or 8-year-olds on the coasts would!


What is the “feel” you miss from the past years? Do you think the younger generations are interested in the blues?

With all of the equipment and home studio programs available now, anyone can record anything. So I miss the feeling of how special it was when something was actually committed to tape. Even when I was starting out in the music business, we recorded to tape. We did everything in one take. Or at least the take we used was one complete take. Editing was done by physically slicing the tape and then putting it back together. Now, voices, guitars, and every single sound can be manipulated to the point where you're not quite sure what or who you're really hearing. I miss that authentic acoustic sound, and all the glitches and mistakes that go along with it! And I hope I've interested the younger generation in the Blues with Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie (which, admittedly, was recorded on a computer using ProTools and edited quite a bit! Oh,the hypocrisy).

Randy Kaplan's official website


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