Joanne Cipolla plays her guitar wrong. With the strings in an unidentified open tuning (Cipolla can't tell you what chord it is), she reaches up around the neck with her left hand and plays over the top, fingering bar chords in a style that audiences invariably compare with Joni Mitchell's.
Cipolla doesn't really like the comparison, but "People always have to compare you to someone, I guess," she says. Like Mitchell, she writes all her own material, songs that express very personal emotions about a world that sometimes moves too fast to take it all in.
Once upon a time, when she was a student at Brown, Cipolla thought she was headed for med school. Her father is a surgeon, and the other seven children in her family are all doing things scientific. It took her some time, she says, to "stop criticizing and analyzing, to just react, spontaneously," a change she feels had to come if she was to get serious about her art.
It wasn't until last fall, when she was enrolled at the Ed School and taking biology courses, that Cipolla decided to get serious. She dropped out of grad school, began baking for Baby Cakes, and started playing gigs in Cambridge and around New England.
Getting really serious about a professional musical career may be difficult for Cipolla, who has always taken life with a large dose of spontaneity. She started playing guitar on a whim; several years ago, after hearing some bad news, she found her sister's guitar on a bed, and just started playing it--which is why her technique is so unusual now.
Certainly Cipolla wasn't terribly serious about being pre-med while she was at Brown. She would emerge from her room feeling as if she had studied for hours, she says, and in fact she would have been in her room for a fair amount of time. But much of it was spent writing songs and children's stories, instead of building molecular models. Even if she didn't feel that art was justifiable as an end in itself, she says, she couldn't concentrate solely on science.
Performing came easily at first. It began when Cipolla was at Brown, as a joke; she says she didn't know enough about music to be scared to standing in front of an audience and singing songs front of an audience and singing songs she'd written. "I didn't know the music business," she says, "I'd have been a lot more scared if I'd known." Now she enjoys performing, meeting people in audiences, "feeding off the audience's energy," creating something new each time she sings an old song.
The only time Cipolla finds performing difficult is when the audience asks for an old song and she can't quite evoke the feeling behind the words, can't quite remember how she felt when it was written. And feelings are basic to her songs--almost all of them deal with some kind of turbulence in her life. "Nothing moves without friction," she says, and she believes the friction is an integral part of creativity.
Right now, the friction in Cipolla's life is the contrast between her music, which she regards as "a gift, and you have to watch it, take care of it," and the business of producing and packaging music. Cipolla says she has always lived partly in a fantasy world, half-believing in witches and the power of magic as well as that of science and technology. In the last few years, she says, she has had to deal with "the shock of touching down on earth for a while."
But that friction may not be an unhealthy one. Cipolla--who recently dropped her long-time nickname, Fishweasel--has been getting more singing offers in the past few months; she opened a concert for Livingston Taylor last Sunday, and is currently negotiating with Asylum Records. Closer to home, she will be singing this weekend at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Cambridge. As she wrote in one of her more recent songs:
Keep life out in the open. It doesn't do too well when disguised Someday you'll have to face the cold facts Stripped of your cloak of dreams. And though it tears deep into your flesh, It's up to you never to forget That your life is in the living of it--And after winter, comes spring.