Folk Music's Lavin Goes for Laughs
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — FOLK singer-songwriter Christine Lavin doesn't like being called "wacky."
But how would you describe a musician who sings about celebrities who are "Prisoners of Their Hairdos," twirls a baton and conducts a round of "Jeopardy" on stage, and has baseball cards for business cards?
How about "zany? No!" she cries, crinkling up her face. "A lot of people think I'm like the person who lives next door or down the street," insists Ms. Lavin in an interview. m very much like the people who come to my show, you know: smart, college-educated, always trying to do better ... trying to find the silver lining in all those clouds," she says, her voice trailing off into silliness.
Lavin is a comic observer of modern life. Although she doesn't consider herself a feminist, per say, the 30-something singer often reports from a female point of view. A listen to her latest recording, "Compass," for example, reveals humorous thoughts about high-heel shoes: Looks like a pump, feels like a sneaker'? Do they think we're idiots?"
Critical success began with the guitarist's self-released album "Future Fossils." Then Philo Records (the folk-music arm of Cambridge, Mass.-based Rounder Records) picked up on it and in 1986 it became one of its fastest-selling releases.
Humor has always been a trademark of Lavin's. Her most requested song is "Sensitive New Age Guys," co-written with John Gorka, in which she sarcastically sings about men who "like to cry at weddings/think boxing is upsetting" and "whose last names are hyphenated/Who liked 'Three Men and a Baby,' a movie I hated."
"That upset some guys," she says, "but I don't mind being like the bad guy in these situations if it makes people talk to each other, and a song like that definitely gets men and women having a little bit of a dialogue."
LAVIN was in town to perform as part of "Four Bitchin' Babes," a group of female folk singer-songwriters "who get together and see what happens." Although the bill of "Babes" has rotated among some seven performers, Lavin remains a ringleader. The sold-out show at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre included Sally Fingerett, Julie Gold, and Megon McDonough.
Based in New York, Lavin is known not only as an accomplished entertainer but as a dedicated "cheerleader" for other folk musicians. "The more good people there are working, doing this music, the more work there is for everybody," she reckons.
Lavin has carefully cultivated witty insight that allows her to be kooky and sentimental at once. On "Compass," her fifth album, she can write a humorous song about Crystal Gayle, Dorothy Hamill, Don King, Lyle Lovett, and Gloria Steinem all being "Prisoners of Their Hairdos;" yet also focus on more serious topics such as a friend who might have a drinking problem ("Until Now"), or a friend who goes through a painful divorce ("Compass").
Lavin acknowledges that the definition of folk music has always been hard to pin down, but she quotes one that she likes: "Folk music is inclusive music."
"When you go to a folk concert there's a real exchange between the audience and the performer," says Lavin, adjusting her thin, turquoise-rimmed glasses. "Some performers let you watch them perform, but most of the folk artists I know really talk to the audience, really look at them, really respond, and have things go back and forth. That's what draws the audience, that there is a real honesty of emotion," she says.
What's in store for the future? Lavin is working on a one-woman off Broadway show. Also coming out in April will be her first songbook. As for songs, Lavin just finished one about figure skating, a sport she loves to watch.
Right now, she says, she's trying to write about bald-headed men.
With all the advertising for products and hair clubs, there's pressure on men, she explains. "I want to tell men: Don't fall for it, it's this giant black hole that will suck your money for the rest of your life the same way cosmetic companies make us [women] feel we cannot live without the stuff....
"I don't want to do [an] anti-toupee song, because I don't want guys who are doing that to feel bad, but I want bald guys to feel good ... I imagine these guys at the show ripping their toupees off and [shouting] m really bald!
That might be wacky.
Lavin performs solo tonight at Rochester (N.Y.) Academy; March 7 at Emelin Theatre, Mamaranack, N.Y.; March 21 at William Penn School, Harrisburgh, Penn.; and with the "Babes" March 28 at Portsmouth Music Hall, Portsmouth, N.H.