NEW YORK CITY: No one can set up a song quite like Ethan Lipton. At a Wednesday evening concert at Joe’s Pub, Lipton was regaling the audience about a vacation he took in which he and his wife house-swapped with a couple in Asheville, N.C. “It was the best vacation of our lives,” he told the crowd. “This next song is the direction to those people’s house.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Lipton isn’t just a singer/songwriter; he’s also a playwright and performer with an Obie for his music-theatre show, No Place to Go, which told the story of a playwright who finds himself out of a day job when his company relocates to Mars.
No Place to Go ended up with many places to go, as Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra (the illustrious name he gives his 10-year-old backing band) recently wrapped an international tour. They’re back performing once a month at Joe’s Pub, where No Place to Go premiered, and they’ll be in residence at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia June 21–July 2 to develop and present a new music-theatre work. Meanwhile, Lipton’s play Red Handed Otter is rounding out a well-received run at A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago (through May 24).
As if that’s not enough activity, Lipton and his band have a new album, Raw Milk, due out on May 26 (listen to exclusive preview tracks below). Unlike No Place to Go, which is available as an album, these new songs aren’t linked by a narrative, though the attentive listener will pick up two reprises about not wanting to learn new skills. Lyrically wry meditations on aging, modern relationships and the difficulties of being an artist are delivered against the backdrop of the Orchestra’s signature jazz, blues and folk hybrid.
Below, Lipton talks about how autobiographical his work is, and how writing songs is not so different from writing plays.
So why don’t you want to learn new skills?
Oh, goodness gracious, that’s a good question. Because they’re difficult. Because I probably don’t like change very much, and I like the illusion that I know what I’m doing. New skills are a challenge to all of that.
You write plays and songs. Do those two skills feed on each other?
For me they’ve complemented each other. I think writing plays is very sort of architectural and constructed, and playing music, playing songs, is much more temporal in some ways, and the challenge is always being in the moment. As far as the storytelling in each, they complement each other. A lot of my songs have small stories in them, and obviously plays have stories in them.
How true are the scenarios you describe in the Raw Milk songs?
There is a lot of truth in them: I do have dogs and I do vacation in Asheville, N.C. But then I’m always liberal with the details, because you don’t want the truth to get in the way of a good song or a good line, or the thing that feels true. The thing that is true in my actual life, like any creative person, is not always the thing that feels truest in the kind of artistic format.
I think one of the things that I always liked as a playwright, that I also like as a songwriter, is trying to ask the audience to do some reading of the experience, to do some figuring out, to kind of lean in and do a little bit of work. I think as an audience member, that’s what I find to be most satisfying. So it’s always something that I try to leave space for in the songs.
With playwriting, you’re asking the audience to examine fictional characters, whereas in songwriting, you’re asking the audience to examine you.
Yeah, in the songwriting, I’m kind of turning myself into a character. It’s different from being a purely confessional songwriter. I am often saying things that are from the heart and I’m interested in speaking from that place. But I’m not representing it as myself. There’s this little bit of distance, which I think is more intimate in some ways because it gives a little bit of freedom and it invites people to imagine themselves in that character. The character looks like me and he talks like me and he’s talking about problems that interest me. On some level, it’s a little bit of showbiz or fiction.
I notice that artistic struggle is a common theme in your songs. Is that a fruitful topic for you?
I try to speak from where I am in the world. We’ve kind of always tried to wear the wrinkles in the shirt and the truth about where we are, because—I don’t know, that’s just how I relate to the world. It’s hard to imagine trying to convince people that things are easier than they actually are. It doesn’t seem very interesting. I don’t feel that being an artist is any sort of burden or a genuine problem. It’s a great opportunity and a wonderful thing to do with one’s life. But the guy I like playing in our songs is a guy who’s flummoxed by lots of little things. And the making of art is part of that.
I’ve noticed a number of playwrights who are moonlighting as singer/songwriters and bandleaders.
You’re right. What’s going on? Well, I can’t speak for the others. Young Jean Lee did a show with a band, Future Wife. Nick Jones also plays music. I think it’s a couple of things: One is that the gestation period for a song is so blissfully brief, as opposed to a play. And the gestation period for playing a gig versus trying to get a play produced—also very, very different. But then also just creatively, I think it comes from a slightly different place.
Hopefully, if you’re a playwright, you’re that kind of sensitive someone. But it involves a lot of just minutiae and kind of finding yourself wrong all the time. It requires a lot of stamina. It makes you adopt a kind of neutral position to it, because you know that all plays are going to get revised a million times. Songwriting is an opportunity to be a little bit more in the moment, a little bit more emotionally vulnerable, perhaps.
And maybe we all want to just be doing something else, I don’t know. It’s the official curse of creative people: We all have fantasies of doing something else.