interrupting yr broadcast: pepi ginsberg
When you are named after a World War II resistance fighter grandma who ushered holocaust victims to safety in Palestine and were the editor of a high school paper that once was managed by Truman Capote himself, it can be expected that you yourself will venture into creative and inspiring spheres. Pepi Ginsberg chose music, and her soft and quirky avant-Americana compositions, accentuated by poetic and moving lyrics, do not fail to draw inspiration from her exciting past.
Pepi’s grandmother, whose story was made famous by the Paul Newman-starring epic film ‘Exodus’, is a huge encouragement to her. “She is amazingly inspirational for so many reasons,” she says. “For her bravery and spirit and tenacity, and the sheer fact that she was a woman participating and standing up for her beliefs in a world predominated by men and male ‘values’ and standards. She was a resistance fighter, she started a school, she was a track star, she had a family – she was the Everywoman and Everyperson, and also someone I never met. She’s a fascinating person to draw a character of; however, she was real, she’s part of me, and that is also inspiring.”
Even on a more general level, human interconnections have always held a particular fascination for Pepi, and it is an area that she focuses on with her lyrical and poetic talent: “I guess I draw from my life, from the world I see around me,” she says. “From how I see people move through their days and how I observe the decisions they make and my attempt to understand my own decision making.
“As a theme I notice I write songs about journeys, about leaving and coming back and finding out something that is really just a key to a new door. I think for a while loss was a theme – it still is – and love, and wanting to love or be loved or whatever you call it. Care, taking care of another or oneself, messing up, forgiving, understanding and blaming, and letting go. Letting go and understanding what it is you are letting go of, bravery.
“All of this to me, all these words that I use, describe love – between anyone, or anything. I don’t know what love is, I guess it’s just this umbrella term for living. I guess the emotion of living; I try to draw from that.”
As well as into her music, the themes of love, loss and journeying feed into Pepi’s creative writing. While attending university in West Philadelphia she tried her hand at writing a novel, ‘No Name Colorado’, something she’s quite humble about now but had a somewhat precocious beginning. “I was nineteen and I had this idea that I could come home for Thanksgiving and tell everyone I wrote a novel,” she recalls. “So that’s what I did. It’s more a novella. It’s about a boy named Nicholas; he changes his name, his mother is depressed and leaves to live in the sunshine, she has that condition, and his father lives with him but is just totally absent. So Nick runs away and makes it about as far as the Catskills, upstate NY. He finds himself at a weird old hotel sitting at a bar next to an older man who’s sort of a drunk. The guy takes him home and pretty much adopts him – this man’s own family is totally dysfunctional and he and his wife more or less want Nick to fix the holes in their family disaster… “I haven’t read it in so long. I’m only on page 20 of editing and I can’t remember the end. If it’s ever any good at all maybe I’ll try to publish it…probably not.”
Despite a second career as the next Marilynne Robinson looking unlikely, Pepi still writes poetry, but mostly now for ideas for songs: “I write poetry to loosen me up,” she says. “I feel like all I want to do right now, and for the last while, is write for songs, because I still feel like I could always be better and the best way it seems to get better is to do the thing you want to be better at.”
In fact, neither music nor writing was the path young Pepi at first chose to follow, opting to go to art school instead. Once there, however, she soon became entwined in the local music scene. “I was convinced I wanted to go to art school, be a sculptor, build a visual language for what I had to say,” Pepi recounts. “At some point it became clear to me that whatever I had to say, I wasn’t able to communicate is as clearly, as authentically, as I thought I could through words. And I don’t know where the song idea came from, that just started to happen when I opened my eyes, looked around and saw musicians and writers, people I respected, living their lives in song. I guess when I realised it was an option I wanted to try it, and it felt better than anything else. There was also, and still is, a very vibrant and supportive community of musicians and artists in Philadelphia, where I was living at the time, which made making music easy and fun and accessible and sort of normal. This was comforting since it wasn’t so normal to want that life at the school I was attending.”
Everything evolved quickly from there. Pepi managed to secure a spot on a local Philadelphia music compilation and recorded her first album, Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie, in Spring 2006, speedily followed by a second album, Sometime Momma/Sometime Babe. These initial recordings were very stripped back, focusing mainly on her free-spirited voice and accentuating her beautifully philosophical lyrics with subtle “guitar frames”.
If you’ve heard her you’ll know that Pepi’s approach to songwriting is powerfully emotional and instantly engaging. “I think the emotionality just comes from sort of being sappy about life,” she laughs. “Sappy is unfair, I’m just kidding. But no, [it's from] enjoying life, taking it in as fully as possible and then dealing with the consequences of that. Lyrically, well, I am enamoured of words. Words are, to me, colours to paint with, or images to juxtapose, building blocks or bricks, and I feel like using language and thinking about language. Building with language is a huge part of how I go about telling a story or conveying an idea through a song.”
After recording her second album, Pepi hit the road and played a series of shows up and down the coast of California. On returning home from a long tour, she found a bottle at her front door containing a note from Philadelphia musician Scott McMicken, renowned producer of Dr. Dog, asking her to collaborate with him. Pepi was intrigued and went to see him for an initial recording session. But what started as a one-off recording soon developed into a recording marathon, of which Red – Pepi’s latest release – sprang from. The two hit it off and Pepi is full of praise for his influence. “Working with Scott is the best,” she says. “He has a way about him in the studio and with music that just puts you at ease. Somehow there is this understanding that it will all be alright and better than alright, it will be great. He’s so smart, I mean on all levels, and this magic intelligence finds its way into what to do with a song. He really feels his way through, he can feel a song in a really huge way and get to the heart of it.”
The magic of this inspirational pairing is obvious from the very first listen to Red. Pepi’s voice, once bare and exposed, is comfortably embedded within exciting and quirky arrangements, taking her compositions to an entirely new level. Pepi is equally enthused about her new collaborator’s creative energy: “Scott really helped create the sound of the record. We went through decisions together but it was a lot of him saying let’s try this, how’s that and we were on the same page, it always felt right. But his knack for production is just so informed, intuitive and generous – really he’s unique.”
Although very layered and varied, Red was recorded in a relatively no-frills fashion, without the use of fancy reverb and effects, and Pepi confirms that this was very much her intention. “I was hearing this particular sound, this really washed out sound, couldn’t-hear-a-thing-at-all sound, couldn’t tell where one part began and the other ended, couldn’t make out one word or instrument. I like knowing what I hear and I wanted to make a record that you could hear.
“I think this will be my goal again. Amnon [Friedlin, Pepi's bandmate] has an amazing ability to make his guitar sound effected without using any effects. It’s amazing, it’s all within the skill of his hand. On the next record you’ll be able to hear even more clearly, every word I sing, the story. I like records that I can make out a storyline, even if it’s not a linear story.”
Ever the evolving artist, however, Pepi won’t be content to settle into what is comfortable and known. “I think it’s always fun to move forward and try different clothes and colours on for size, how else would you know what feels best?,” she laughs.
“And what feels best [for me] is always changing. I love Red but we did Red and now we’ll do the next and it will be different. Scott has a line in a new song of his that says ‘What comes by chance too comes by choice.’ I can’t say I know what he meant for sure, but for me this means that if you stay open to situations and to change then it will find you, life will find you and change you. Red was situational – we went for it – we did a song and I was lucky enough to meet Scott at that time and see what was possible… I do want to work with him again, of course. We are arranging the next record together as a band, but we are all friends, and I bet we can find a cool way to all work together. It’s really a fun idea to think about.”
These days it’s all about the band for Pepi, and she very much prefers it to her solo performance days: “It’s so much better this way. To hear the beat behind me, to hear my bandmates play their brilliant parts, to just be a team, like I said before, is just way more fun. There’s a freedom to it, I get to live inside the fullness of the song and I much prefer playing with others. My bandmate Jon Guez is a fantastic songwriter. He is thoughtful and a wonderful producer as well. He’s just damn special and it comes out in his music, he creates a world. Amnon, who plays guitar in my band, writes and plays guitar like no one I’ve ever known – it’s art, and art that really makes me want to be better all the time. And Pete Angevine our drummer is seriously off the hook.
“I do play solo sometimes and it’s a good time. I try to look for the silences, or fall as deep as I can into the story. I try for this with the band too but, well, I’m far more animated with the band, and I can dance more. I really like to dance.
“I like to imagine the realm of the possible, it’s sort of like the ring of Saturn, almost intangible but very real. The motivation, though, I must say, is simply to have as much fun as possible. My bandmates and I call this being an optimiser. I’m just trying to optimise the fun.”
Pepi is planning to play some shows in Europe later this year. Go and see her!
Pepi and her band playing ‘The Waterline’