Going solo: Ithaca's Samuel B. Lupowitz steps out with ‘No Man Is An Island’
Like many musicians, the pandemic hit Samuel B. Lupowitz particularly hard.
For more than a decade, the keyboardist-bassist-vocalist had been one of the busiest players of the Ithaca music scene – his groups include Noon Fifteen, Thru Spectrums, Julia Felice and the Whiskey Crisis, Maddy Walsh and the Blind Spots, and his own Ego Band, which he founded while attending Ithaca College from 2008 to 2011. But that all came to halt in March 2020, when the pandemic made playing live shows all but impossible.
While wrestling with the enforced inactivity later that spring, Lupowitz’s friend Harry Nichols – also his bandmate in Noon Fifteen and the Whiskey Crisis – mentioned that he had been listening to Lupowitz’s 2012 solo album, “Songs To Make You Wealthier and More Attractive.” Similarly, Lupowitz had returned to Nichols’ own 2012 solo album, “Love en Route,” to help him deal with pandemic-induced anxiety. So he suggested to Nichols that they write song-for-song responses to each other’s 2012 albums – and then he actually did it.
The result is “No Man Is An Island,” Lupowitz’s first solo album since 2015. Largely recorded by himself in his home studio, with a host of guests later adding their contributions both remotely and in person, the 10-song album is a “deeply personal, intensely political song cycle … reflecting on the darkness of our times and rejoicing in the hope provided by our interpersonal connections”; it also showcases Lupowitz’s various influences ranging from the Beatles and classic rock to progressive rock and musical theater.
To celebrate the new album, Lupowitz will play a release show at 6 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10, at South Hill Cider in Ithaca. He’s put together an all-star band featuring drummer Simon Bjarning (Oxtet), bassist Michael Wu (Gunpoets, Triple Down), saxophonist Alec Staples (Fall Creek Brass Band, Thru Spectrums), guitarist Joe Massa (Thru Spectrums, Noon Fifteen, Julia Felice and the Whiskey Crisis) and singer-guitarist Mandy Goldman (Noon Fifteen, Big Soul Family Band, Maddy Walsh and the Blind Spots.)
Will Shish, a New York City-based singer-songwriter (and Ithaca College alumnus) will open the show.
This week, Lupowitz answered a few questions about the new album, his musical upbringing, his new tattoo, and much more.
Q: You’ve been such a band guy in the decade that I’ve known you – was it intimidating to literally go solo for much of this project? And does that relate to the album title?
Samuel B. Lupowitz: Doing a Stevie Wonder Classic Era kind of album, where I play the majority of the instruments, is something I've entertained as a pipe dream for a long time, so I'd say it was more exciting than intimidating. But by the time I was neck-deep in it I definitely was feeling the weight of expectations of all the great musicians and recording engineers I know hearing my drum parts and my mixes and my lead vocals (the latter isn't a new thing for me, but definitely something I'd stepped back from for the last few years, given the kinds of singers I'm normally surrounded by). I don't know that I would have been able to put the kind of time, effort, and commitment into the project that I did if it hadn't been for the circumstances of quarantine.
That said, even though I do more on my own on this album than anything else I've ever released, it also has more additional contributors than any of my past works, and after the initial burst of one-man-band work I did in my home studio, it was the collaborative aspects (remote for awhile, but in-person after people started getting vaccinated) that kept me going to the finish line.
I needed a project that would help me reassert my own identity in the face of the giant personal and global shifts I was feeling, but ultimately, I need collaboration with others to feel fulfilled, and while I'm very proud of the work I did to assemble this album on my own; many of my favorite moments are parts that I invited others to play that would have wound up entirely different if I had filled the space myself – things like Alec Staples's sax solo or Jen Cork's layered vocals on the title track, Joe Massa's guitar solo on “No Sleep,” or Mike Wu's gospel walking bass on “Social Disconnect.”
Since it's the first release with only my name on it – no "and the Ego Band” – the album title definitely relates to the contradictory mix of solitary creative force and essential collaboration that went into the writing and recording. Of course, the title also relates to the themes of many of the songs, how our inescapable connection to other human beings can be a source of both pain and salvation.
I was also struck by the gendered nature of that phrase, which goes back to at least the 1600s – how the saying "no man is an island" remains recognizable and resonant because it's been embedded in the culture for centuries, even though the language itself is rooted in, perhaps, outdated ways of thinking (it reaches back a little further than Gene Roddenberry and "to boldly go where no man has gone before / no one has gone before"). Maybe that's a little too English major-y, but I thought that tension between the comfort of the familiar and the painful necessity of transformation also spoke to many of the challenges humanity is facing.
Q: Could you talk about the creative process? Did you write the songs one at a time? Do you come up with the words or music first? And did the overarching concept of the album prove helpful in focusing the songwriting?
SBL: Having something of a background in writing musical theater, I work well from prompts and within structures, so having a framework to hang my ideas on – that is, this album being a song-for-song response to Harry Nichols's “Love en Route” – made it a lot easier to process all the big feelings, events, and ideas that 2020 and 2021 were throwing at me, and at everyone.
Between the pandemic, the struggles for racial justice, the anger toward fascism and its enablers, and my own personal reflections during my increased time at home, it might have been too much for me to figure out how to shape the thoughts and emotions into a collection of songs if I didn't have certain boxes to check. Sometimes that box was as simple as "a song that's less than a minute long;" other times it was an aim to write music in a certain style. In certain cases, I was just trying to write about a specific subject, like "a famous person from my hometown" or "misinterpreting and projecting emotions."
That said, I didn't write with a clear beginning and end to the process; I chiseled away at some ideas and rapidly finished others, between April of 2020 and January of 2021. Knowing exactly how many songs I needed also meant that a few things I wrote earlier on were set aside and replaced by newer songs I thought hit the mark better.
Q: Your wife Mandy Goldman’s only on a couple of songs despite the fact that she lives with you – was that a deliberate decision to not work together? And are you similarly not involved in her solo project?
SBL: There was never any doubt that Mandy would sing on the album, just as I knew that some of my other regular band members would need to show up at least once or twice. But since Mandy has been such a huge part of my music for the past decade, starting with the Ego Band and especially with Noon Fifteen, I thought making a solo record would be an opportunity to challenge myself to not write with her voice in mind, to write purely for myself and choose what would be a good fit for her contributions afterward.
I think on Mandy's upcoming solo album, she and producer Chris Ploss are also approaching it with the song first, and then deciding after the fact who and what will work best within the arrangement. It's actually been exciting for me to be less creatively involved in those sessions, and just jump in and play bass or organ or piano when I'm summoned into action.
Q: Has Harry Nichols responded to your 2012 album yet?
SBL: He sure has. Never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never throw down a songwriting challenge and not expect Harry Nichols to deliver. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that he's hitting the studio with that material later this fall.
Q: Could you talk a bit about your mindset during quarantine, especially in regard from playing and practicing several times a week to literally just stopping everything?
SBL: As hard as it was to have everything suddenly stop, it took a good month or so for me to comprehend just how burned out I was from the last few years of nonstop gigging, rehearsing, writing, recording, and everything else that goes with being an independent musician on top of a day job and the rest of life. While I definitely experienced a lot of anxiety and fear, and I missed playing with other musicians, the first eight or nine months of the pandemic were largely about recharging my batteries, and figuring out how to put my relative safety and good fortune to good use, both creatively and politically.
As the warm weather came and we found ways to get together with other musicians safely, I was feeling pretty upbeat about the necessary slower pace and break in routine. I wrote the majority of this record in that space. But there came a point as winter crept in, and Covid cases started rising again – and I wish I had noticed that this was happening sooner, but we live and we learn – that my mental health took a pretty dark turn, and 2021 became much more about looking inward and figuring out how to cope with my emotional response to the isolation and general awfulness.
This experience has definitely given me a more complete understanding of how much purpose and identity I find in being a performer and a creator, and how much I rely on that to connect with others, and how to compensate for that in a healthy way when it's taken away.
Q: Talk about putting together the band for the release show – what are the challenges of bringing a studio album to the live stage?
SBL: Honestly, the process has been a joy. It's been a long time since I've written anything that wasn't intended for a specific ensemble, so adapting this record's wide array of textures, which are dominated by piano, organ, and synthesizers, to a six-piece rock band, has required some thoughtful arranging. But I'm thrilled by the level of musicianship in the band, which is a combination of players I've worked with in different configurations that clicked as a unit right away.
The rhythm section of Mike Wu and Simon Bjarning is absolutely rock solid, and that always makes me confident that the songs themselves can resonate regardless of how dense or sparse the rest of the arrangement is. Things settled in fairly organically in rehearsal, with Mandy singing harmonies and co-leads and fleshing things out with guitar and percussion, Joe Massa covering his usual wide array of tones on electric guitar, and Alec Staples providing any missing pieces on saxophone, keyboards, electronic wind instrument, and vocals.
So even though the album is built on me layering myself without regard for the constraints of live performance, in this lineup, I'm able to focus on playing piano and singing in a way that I haven't in my bands for a long time – not that the show will be completely devoid of me grabbing for multiple keyboards like an octopus!
Q: What other SBL songs are you bringing to the show?
SBL: I don't want to give too much away before the show, but I'm trying to represent as much of my 15-20 years of songwriting as I reasonably can in about 90 minutes. So in addition to most of the new record, there are songs in the set from both Ego Band albums, as well as a good handful of tunes I wrote and recorded with other bands over the years (though not necessarily songs I sang!), going all the way back to my days in The Flying Pigs before I became a "solo" artist in Ithaca.
I started by making sure some essentials from my catalog were covered in addition to the new material, but given the skill of the band I put together, I was also happy to work in a few songs that never got much live play due to their complexity. You'll have to catch the gig for more detail than that!
Q: Is this show a one-off thing, or do you plan to have more shows with this lineup? And will you bring some of these songs to your other bands?
SBL: There are no plans for this lineup beyond the release show, but I never say never. I've played in some great bands, but this is one of the best I've ever been in, so it would be wonderful to play more than just one show.
Regardless, I'm hoping to be a little more active as a solo artist/performer in the years to come, whether that's just performing solo or with some combination of other musicians. Noon Fifteen and my other collaborative projects will continue to be the priority, but being a performer of my own work is an important part of who I am as well, and I'd like that to fit into the tapestry of what I do a little bit more as I move forward.
As far as my other bands "covering" my solo material, it's not unprecedented (Noon Fifteen has performed some Ego Band tunes, as well as Harry Nichols solo material and some of the songs Mandy is putting on her solo album), but that band really has no shortage of excellent songs as it stands, so there would have to be a compelling reason, I think.
Anyway, if you want to catch what this band is really all about, best try to do it now!
Q: What inspired the new tattoo on your left arm?
SBL: Navigating my depression in the early months of 2021, I got deeply into the band Dawes. Taylor Goldsmith's lyrics spoke to me in a way that I hadn't felt from a songwriter in a long time, and I rate him up there with Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Stephen Sondheim as far as incisive, profound, honest lyricists. So many of Dawes's songs helped me through that difficult, isolated time, and post-vaccine, as I was able to reconnect with people I cared about, getting some art done around the spot on my arm where I got my Covid shot felt like a meaningful way to mark getting through that time.
The lyrics "you're gonna have to quit everything until you find one thing you won't" come from the Dawes song “Quitter,” which to me is about letting go of habits and routines that don't serve you and committing fully to what you need, and how challenging it can be to determine which is which. I've always been bad at saying no or backing down from things, which has served me well as far as achievement and accomplishment, but sometimes hasn't been good for my health and relationships in the long term, so those words really resonated.
I wanted a visual element to accompany the lyrics, and I went with the grainy photograph from the cover of the album that song is on – the darkly humorous “We're All Gonna Die” – depicting a girl posing casually in front of a tornado. Along with the “Quitter” lyrics, it seemed to capture the spirit of standing tall in the face of inescapable destructive forces, and it also turned out that the album cover comes from a real photograph that was taken the year I was born.
I didn't know how I'd feel about a drawn interpretation of that photograph, but Jen Lightfoot from Medusa Tattoo in Ithaca just fully captured the essence for me, and we had a great time chatting about music and art and horror movies and “The X-Files” while she inked my arm.
Q: Could you talk about your musical influences? I remember you once said that they’re mostly from 1968 to 1974 – how does that happen with someone your age?
SBL: I remember feeling like a weird, nerdy outcast as a kid. Being a musician and performer is part of what let me break out of that and cultivate a sense of belonging around my peers, but in the meantime, I had a sort of defensive, contrarian response to anything that other kids my age all got really into but I didn't feel connected to. Sometimes I still do.
So it makes sense that it would be my parents' music that ultimately resonated with me. I have early memories of my dad playing big band jazz for me and pointing out the saxophones and the walking bass, but it was him playing early Beatles in his new car (with a CD player!) that launched an intense obsession that I never really outgrew. While the music I got into earliest was what my parents had around the house – Elton John, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, the Doobie Brothers – my curiosity and commitment took me much deeper into that era than my parents ever really got, and of course, eventually, as I found like-minded friends and explored the world of music further, my tastes got much wider, from 80s thrash to 90s alternative to jazz to musical theater.
In particular, as a bass player, I developed a real affinity for Motown and 60s/70s R&B, and how that style would use a very busy, syncopated, active rhythm section to provide momentum and danceability to all kinds of different arrangements. A lot of British rock guys adapted that approach in the early 70s, and that's something I try to bring to a lot of what I do to help glue together the disparate stylistic aspects of the songs I write. So as often as I sometimes feel like my songs are just "Sam Tries Not to Rip Off Ben Folds/Paul McCartney/Peter Gabriel Too Obviously," I do think I've cultivated something of a signature sound that contains all of those artists and styles, but doesn't quite line up with any of them.
Q: How old were you when you started playing? And why piano?
SBL: I started piano lessons when I was eight for the same reason a lot of kids do – my parents wound up with a free piano. I was always a musical kid and I enjoyed it, but I didn't really dedicate myself to it until I got into the Beatles around age 11. I was lucky enough that my piano teacher – a multi-instrumentalist who also played guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, you name it – was also a huge Beatles fan and started showing me the chords to Beatles songs every lesson. So unlike a lot of my peers, my early musical education was as much about theory and composition and song structure as it was about Piano Method Book 1.
I picked up bass not long after that, and I had gotten into drums through my school music program as well, and I always meant to learn more than three or four chords on guitar, but I just never got around to it... and being "the kid who plays and sings Beatles and Elton John and Billy Joel at the piano" became my identity pretty quickly.
Q: Last year you did a livestream to mark the 50th anniversary of Elton John’s “17-11-70” live album? What made you pay tribute to that album?
SBL: That live album is one of those records that marks a before and after in my musical life. It opened my eyes to what a band can do with just piano, bass, drums, and some great songs, as far as arrangement, improvisation, energy, and dynamics. Elton John was one of my earliest influences, but that early, stripped-down live performance is very different from the lush, precise pop/rock arrangements many people associate with him; you can really hear the hunger, fire, and spontaneity of an artist with something to prove, which was a brief period for someone that has spent so much of his career on top of the world.
A lot of what I did in the first days of the Ego Band came from listening to “17-11-70,” including ending my shows with a 10-plus-minute version of “Burn Down the Mission.” So it was a joy to dive into that material (which is mostly early deep cuts, not a “Your Song” or “Candle in the Wind” in sight) and recreate that concert, in a year where gigs had been few and far between. It was also a great excuse to put together a piano trio with Michael Wu and Dan Collins, who I made sure to snag for a few tracks on my new album as well.
The livestream raised some money for Ithaca Free Clinic and Tioga Opportunities, and it felt good to use music as a way to contribute to some community initiatives during an exceptionally difficult time.
Q: What else do your other bands have going on? And how was it to rejoin the Blind Spots for the past year?
SBL: Noon Fifteen just returned to gigging for the first time since January 2020, which felt great – we'd put out a few new singles over the pandemic, but we're looking forward to staying active and recording some more of our massive backlog of material over the coming months, hopefully wrapping up our ongoing “Finish What You Started” project.
Thru Spectrums has been sitting on our completed fourth (and, I think, best) album for most of the pandemic now, waiting until we can get back to normal a bit more before we put it out into the world. We're working on some new material as well.
Julia Felice and the Whiskey Crisis also has some new songs in the works, and there are plans to finish a Spacetrain album with the surviving members of that band, plus myself and Joe Massa, so there will be a fully produced recording to commemorate Dan Gaibel.
Playing with the Blind Spots again was a lot of fun, especially having Mandy on board with me this time – she and Maddy together make a pretty remarkable vocal section. It was a different rhythm section and a lot of new material from the first time I was in the band from 2015-16, but I've always had great chemistry with them, and my approach as a pianist and organist has always seemed to click well with the songs they write. The State Theater livestream last year and GrassRoots this summer were among the highlights of a difficult and sparse period of performing for me, and I'm grateful to Maddy Walsh and Suave for bringing us back on for their pandemic shows.
Q: What do you like most about making music?
SBL: "To begin with? Everything”: Billy Crudup as Russell Hammond in “Almost Famous.”
I've thought about this a lot over the past 18 months or so, and I've realized that being onstage, in many ways, makes me feel comfortable being the most authentic version of myself. Whether it's the self-expression inherent in being a songwriter, or just the freedom I feel physically and emotionally when playing an instrument in front of an audience, when I'm in the zone, I feel like I can let down my guard and be vulnerable in a way that doesn't feel scary or unsafe.
I think that connection I feel, not even so much with an audience as with the other musicians I play with, is really profound, and I didn't realize how much I take from that until the pandemic.
I also love having laurels to rest on. When the moment of being in the moment is past, I love to be able to say "look what I did, isn't that cool? That didn't exist before!" Something I'm trying to tap into moving forward is how to access those parts of myself a little more comfortably offstage, or without being buried in giant, stressful projects.
If You Go
What: Samuel B. Lupowitz album release show for “No Man Is An Island,” with opener Will Shish
When: 6-9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10
Where: South Hill Cider, 550 Sandbank Road, Ithaca
To learn more, visit www.samuelblupowitz.com