Pepi Ginsberg is a Connecticut-born songwriter who splits her time between Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Obviously inspired by Bob Dylan, she wields hoarse-throated vocals and poetic lyrics with writerly aplomb, befitting a background in the written word. Ginsberg has released three LPs: 2007's Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie, 2008's Red, and 2010's East is East; each growing successively less folkie and more electric.
Interview: 16 December 2009
When did you start making music?
“About five years I was in college and decided to do a creative writing major. I was writing a lot of poetry and short stories, and I started messing around at night, writing songs, but I was pretty embarrassed about them. Then, they asked me what I wanted to do for a senior thesis project, and I said I was going to write songs and perform them. That’s when I started going to a lot more shows, feeling like ‘god, I want to do this! I want to write songs, too!’”
You weren’t one of those kids who grew way into records?
“I was an only child, and I lived in a pretty conservative town, so I just didn’t have anyone to show me cool stuff. I loved Fleetwood Mac and Bob Dylan, but I didn’t know about indie bands until I went to college. I didn’t play music myself, I was pretty convinced I was going to be a sculptor. It’s funny: once I started writing songs that’s all that I wanted to do, and from there things just snowballed.”
How different is writing words on page versus writing words in song?
“It’s the same and different. With a song, you have the added bonus of putting an emotion behind a sound with a word in front of it. When you hit it right, just right on the head, even the word ‘summer’ can come to life. But storytelling, and writing fiction, you’re trying to get your point across and make it so somebody can understand you, trying to make it pretty clear what’s happening. In poetry, you don’t have to be so clear. I went on that for a long time in writing songs, but in the last couple of years it’s made more sense to me that things need to be a lot simpler.”
“No, more complex musically, simpler lyrically. I think that’s more akin to a short-story kind of writing, where I’m just trying to say what I want to say in a really clear way. It’s like more prose songwriting, less poetry.”
Are your albums like short-story collections, then? What is it that unites them?
“For a long time I would write songs that were weird adventure tales about people going out to look for something, learning something, and returning to where they came from with a lesson. This year, I started writing things less fictional, and maybe a little more obviously personal. I wouldn’t want to expose everything, but I want to include more feelings. Things are getting closer to home.”
Have your songs been getting closer to home the more time you spend on the road?
“Yeah, I guess maybe they have. As my personal sense of ‘home’ changes as a metaphor, even as I look at my own life, it’s less looking out, more looking in, and that’s where my sense of home is; not any place, but inside myself. I guess that’s reflective of not being at home as much. As the dream of traveling all over the place becomes a reality, I’ve found myself writing about my own house, and the inside of cars. Locations that once seemed really unimportant now feel really important.”
But East is East feels like much more of an 'outward' album than Red.
“After I went around touring Red, playing with my friends, I really wanted the live band to play on this new record, for it to be a much more collaborative project, and to do things in an upbeat, energetic, fiercer way. It was interesting for me to see people dancing around at one of my shows, I hadn’t experienced that before. That’s a really good feeling. But there are other things that might get lost in that experience.”
“Maybe the sentiment of the words gets lost as it gets transformed into an experience that’s more about dancing or having a good time. Whereas, if you were to read the words on the page you might have a completely different experience. I’m not sure the whole point gets across unless people take the time to take the record home and listen to it. Im the future, I’m curious as to exploring how people perceive things differently just because a song might have a different arrangement or a different presentation, how a the emotions in a song might be completely distorted for people by the fact that we’re playing them as the fun, happy live experience.”
Do you think you'll go back to the written word?
“No, I feel like I have so much about songwriting to learn. I don’t feel any sense of accomplishment or mastery yet. It’s such a challenge, and that challenge keeps things fascinating; there’s so many answers I’m looking for. I’m still drawn to other [media], but I feel driven to get some sort of resolution from the records that I write; do it better, make it better, communicate something new, try and get closer to whatever my conception of home is, make something that feels how the world is sounding to me at that exact moment in time. I’ll keep making records until I get it right!”
What do you mean by 'how the world is sounding'?
“It’s very abstract, I know. I don’t know hot to explain it. Just by walking around, by seeing images, by hearing sounds, by listening to what my friends are doing, and then taking all these things, and trying to weave them together into what it sounds like for me to walk through my day. It was a matter of taking these stories that I had written and putting them into my daily world. And including my friends [on East is East] was a sure way for it to reflect my world at that moment in time.”
Do you think your albums convey who you are, as human-being, to listeners?
“I hope so. I don’t think that they get all of it. The challenge I’ve set up for myself is to communicate either who I am, or my experience of the world. I don’t know if I can communicate the whole of who I am, but I think of every record as embodying a part of who I am. Or, at least, who I was at the time. Whatever anybody gets from that is part of their own experience, and says maybe more about whoever they were at that moment in time than about who I was.”