Carolyn Shapiro – Interview – Thanks for Asking
Written by Staff on January 31, 2024
Carolyn Shapiro – Interview – Thanks for Asking – by Liam Sweeny.
RRX: Every comic book hero has an origin story. What is the origin story for the band? (points if you tell it like a comic book origin.)
CS: I always feel like I snuck in the back door of folk music. I didn’t grow up playing music or come from a musical family. The only reason I started playing the banjo was because I needed two extra credits when I was a senior at Skidmore College and decided to take banjo lessons. There wasn’t much rhyme or reason behind the choice. It was partially because I had started listening to bluegrass and partially because I thought Kermit the Frog was cool. But to my dismay, my teacher, Trish Miller, never actually taught me bluegrass. Instead she was teaching me fiddle tunes with this style called clawhammer. I had no idea what I was getting into. Trish and her husband John Kirk started bringing me to jams and introduced me to the vast and wonderful world that is folk music.
Fast forward a few years and I started going to local open mics. Performing in front of people was terrifying back then, but I loved it. The one open mic that I really fell in love with was at Caffe Lena. I started volunteering at open mic waiting tables and within a month I was offered a job as their House and Marketing Manager. I was 24 at the time and the only real qualification I had was that I loved the banjo. Working at Caffe Lena threw me right into the center of the folk world. I was watching shows every night, meeting musicians, and talking to anyone I could about the banjo. Within a few weeks, I wrote my first song. I never really intended to be a songwriter, but I couldn’t help it. I would soak up everything like a sponge and bring it home to morph into my own creation. Then I’d perform whatever I wrote at open mic the following Monday. I learned everything I know about performing from that stage. My time at Caffe Lena gave me not only the inspiration but the confidence to go out into the world and share my music. A decade ago, I never could have imagined the banjo becoming my whole world or that I’d be playing shows, recording albums, or leading a band. But it’s pretty cool that it worked out this way.
RRX: Every band’s first song is a milestone. But so is the latest song. Describe the first song/album you recorded, and also the latest song/album you recorded; what are the differences?
CS: My first album, “Where I’m Supposed To Be,” is very much a first album. It came out in October 2021 but I started working on it back in 2019. I recorded the initial demo with my friend Stanley McGaughey in his beautiful yurt in Shushan, NY. At the time, I was still very new to songwriting and had no idea what I was doing or what I wanted the album to sound like. Jim Mastrianni then took over production as we started to add more instrumentation to the songs. We recorded everything to a metronome and tracked all the parts separately. We brought in friends from around the 518 including Connor Armbruster on fiddle, Angelina Valente on backup vocals, Jon Stewart on bass and pedal steel, Raquel Velho on cello, and Steve Candlen on drums. The end result was a 6-song EP that I’m very proud of. It landed me an Eddie for Folk Artist of the Year as well as a few nominations in 2022. It also helped me really establish myself as a performer. I wasn’t just a gal with a banjo, I actually had something to show for it.
My second album comes out on February 2nd, 2024. It’s called Take it Easy and it’s about learning to take care of yourself during tumultuous times. I started working on it a year ago after I left my job at Caffe Lena. I very much needed a break from working full-time so I took a few months off to recharge and focus on my music. Jim Mastrianni recorded, mixed, and mastered the album while we co-produced the songs together. For this project, I brought in my full band featuring Connor Armbruster on fiddle, Oona Grady on bass, and James Gascoyne on guitar. We decided to record everything live rather than tracking separately to capture the magic that happens when we play music together. The result is a very raw sound that I think was missing from my first album. My favorite song is “Time To Yourself” featuring Raya Malcolm, Shannon Rafferty, and Emily Curro from the Hold on Honeys. I asked the Honeys to sing harmonies on the recording and they completely transformed the song with the most gorgeous vocal arrangement. I also had Angelina Valente playing washboard on “River Meets the Sea” which was super fun.
RRX: Like songs, every band has a unique feeling about their first show. What was your first show like? Was it your best show? If not, what was your best show like?
CS: My first show was back in 2018 at the Gottagetgon Festival in Ballston Spa. I was asked to perform as part of their “new folk” showcase alongside Girl Blue and Angelina Valente. This was far from my best show. When I first started performing, I had a lot of imposter syndrome. I was shocked I was even asked to perform. But it also felt really cool to share my songs on stage to a room full of people who genuinely wanted to hear them.
I’m not sure if this was my best show or not, but it was by far the coolest. This past summer I had the amazing opportunity to collaborate with the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company who choreographed dances to three of my songs that we performed live in the Franklin Alley in Troy. This collaboration came to be thanks to one of the dancers, Emily RS, who I actually grew up with in NJ. We were in the same kindergarten class and used to carpool to Hebrew school together but lost touch after high school. We reconnected again on Facebook when we realized we were both living in the Capital Region and working in the performing arts world. The performance itself was so beautiful to be a part of and it was such an honor to see these immensely talented dancers bring my music to life in a completely new way.
RRX: What is your perspective on the genre you play, or the genres you hover around?
CS: I play folk music which is an easy genre to be a part of because folk music can be so many things. If you ever find yourself at a folk festival you can really see that diversity. That’s what I love so much about this genre. It has history and tradition, but it has also modernized itself and forged a new path that is open to anyone. As a banjo player I often get mis-genred as a bluegrass musician even though the music I write is far from bluegrass. I love bluegrass and I have bluegrassy tunes, for instance, but I’m definitely not doing what a bluegrass banjo player is doing. I’d say I’m more song driven than genre driven. My music has so many influences that have nothing to do with folk music like pop, r&b, jazz. I’d rather write a good song than have the focus be on writing a good folk song.
RRX: It’s a lot of fun living in the present, but we all collect memories and give birth to dreams. We’re talking dreams here. Where you see yourself next year? In the next five years?
CS: I think the dream for any artist is to be able to live fully off your craft in a way that feels good. It’s definitely not easy to make it as a musician nowadays. We all have to make ends meet whether it be working a day job or playing gigs that you hate. We drive all over the place and play to empty rooms. We put our heart, soul, and dollars into musical releases and see pennies from streaming services. But we keep doing it because we love it. It’s not about “success,” in the conventional sense, it’s about connection and sharing something that needs to be shared.
In the next year I hope to play more shows in new places and share my music with more people. Maybe even go on my first tour! I hope to learn more, write more, and keep developing as a songwriter and banjo player.
My dream for myself in five years is to not have to work a day job anymore. Whether I’m touring or teaching or writing, I hope that I can sustain myself with music. I’m hoping to write better songs and have more albums under my belt. Maybe congress will get its act together and regulate streaming services so we can all make a decent living. Maybe I’ll open up for someone cool or share the stage with musicians I love. Maybe I’ll regularly be on the road playing at cool venues and festivals. You never know what can happen, but here’s to dreaming!
RRX: We all get a little support from those around us. And we also can be impressed by our fellow bands. Who do you admire in your community, and why?
CS: I admire so many people in the 518 music community. For starters, my band, Connor Armbruster, James Gascoyne, and Oona Grady, who are all full time musicians with their own projects. Connor is a brilliant violinist who has such range in his style. His first two albums are stunning and emotionally driven compositions. He also plays with the Hold on Honeys, Blue Ranger, Russel the Leaf, and pretty much anyone who needs a fiddle player. James and Oona play in Drank the Gold, which is a great traditional duo that plays anything from Irish jigs to old-time fiddle tunes. James also plays with pretty much everyone in the area which is amazing. I also have so much admiration for the Hold on Honeys. They haven’t been a band for all that long but they are so talented and have gotten so much well-deserved attention in the short time they’ve been a band. They’re also the nicest and most genuine people. Also need to shout out to Angelina Valente who is one of my closest friends but also one of my favorite local musicians. Her voice, her songwriting, and her performances are always stunning. Reese Fulmer is another one of my favs. Him and I worked together at Caffe Lena for five years where I had the opportunity to watch him grow as a songwriter and musician from the start. His songs are so good, and they keep getting better. His shows are always amazing and he is an excellent band leader. Honestly, I could go on forever about all the people I admire in the 518 music scene. This whole area is full of talent. But what really makes the 518 stand out is how supportive everyone is of one another. It’s a wonderful world to be a part of.