Need to define the musical scope of New York songstress Lucy Kaplansky? Good luck. You might want to start with a listen to her 2007 album, Over the Hills.
Try to find another artist gutsy enough to cover tunes by Roxy Music (More Than This), June Carter (the immortal Ring of Fire) and Loudon Wainwright III (Swimming Song) in quick succession. Now add the record's title track, one of the many works that Kaplansky has co-written with her filmmaker husband, Rick Litvin. The song deals in part with the passing of her father, a mathematician and pianist whose songs Kaplansky has often performed. And let's not overlook Julie Miller's Somewhere Trouble Don't Go, which boasts harmony vocals by the composer's husband, Buddy Miller. Oh yes, there also is the Ian Tyson folk standard Someday Soon, which was popularized decades ago by Judy Collins, and Amelia, another startling original that's not to be confused by another tune of the same name from one of Kaplansky's prime inspirations, Joni Mitchell.
Talk about packing a lot into a single album. But then, Kaplansky has long been an artist of many voices and, as we will soon discover, of more than one vocation.
"I love to sing," said Kaplansky, who performs next weekend at Natasha's Bistro and Bar for her first Lexington concert in more than 15 years. "I feel I'm more of a singer than anything else. A good song, I feel, is a good song, regardless of who wrote it.
"Part of why I do a lot of cover songs is because I'm not prolific enough to have 12 songs of my own on each of my albums. And part of the reason for that is that there are so many great songs I love to sing. I started singing in the first place because of these great songs. That really crystallized for me when I discovered Joni Mitchell when I was 15 and started to sing her songs."
A Chicago native, Kaplansky, 50, moved to New York in her late teens and became part of a regenerative wave of folk artists working in and around Greenwich Village.
"Certainly I was drawn to this very specific music scene during the late '70s. Some real powerhouses were just starting to show up there, like The Roches and Suzanne Vega. Shawn Colvin and John Gorka showed up a little after me. I'm not really part of a scene anymore, although the city has been an incredibly important part of my work as an artist."
Kaplansky largely abandoned music in the early '80s, choosing to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. By the end of the decade, folk singer Lucy Kaplansky had become Dr. Lucy Kaplansky and was working with mentally ill patients in a New York hospital and operating a private practice.
A Colvin-produced demo tape soon found its way to Bob Feldman of the indie folk-directed label Red House Records. (Over the Hills is dedicated to Feldman, who died last year.) Booking agencies then beckoned for concert dates. Suddenly, the singer who left music for psychology was heading back to music again.
"I had already had left music for a long time to become a psychologist," Kaplansky said. "I completely gave it up. Then I had this revelation — ironically, through my own therapy when I was 32 — that I was really running away from the thing I really wanted, which was to be a singer. I think I had just finished my doctorate at that point.
"It was scary. I mean it was really scary. I was 32 and kind of starting at the beginning again. But I knew what I had to do. It was very hard for me to come to the decision to give up psychology. But once I made it, I never looked back. It was just so clear to me that this was what I wanted. Of course, I'm still paying back my grad school loan. But I have absolutely never looked back."
Along with a series of fine solo recordings balancing original songs co-written by Litvin with interpretative works, Kaplansky became part of several groups, including Cry Cry Cry in the late '90s (with Richard Shindell and Dar Williams) and the new Red Horse (with Eliza Gilkyson and longtime pal Gorka).
"I've been incredibly lucky," Kaplansky said. "Somehow, through a series of lucky projects — one of which was Cry Cry Cry — I've been exposed to a lot of new listeners and have been able to build a fan base. Through that, I've found that people who really like an artist are very loyal.
"So if I keep on putting out good product, they will keep buying it and keep coming to my shows. Through that, I've maintained a career without major-label marketing money or even commercial airplay. So I just hope to continue to write what I consider to be good songs and what other people consider to be good songs. I hope I can keep getting better."