Before Caroline Doctorow found her voice as a singer-songwriter, vocalists inspired her to sing and play guitar. The East End-based musician has written dozens of songs and released numerous albums, but Doctorow’s recent recordings pay tribute to artists she admires.
“I didn’t come to songwriting until I was 30,” began Doctorow. “The people that I emulated weren’t songwriters. They were singers—people like Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span and Joan Baez.”
On her latest project, I Carry All I Own: The Songs of Mary McCaslin, Doctorow honors another of her musical inspirations. The album, released on Doctorow’s own Narrow Lane Records, is her second of all cover songs. McCaslin’s lyrics often deal with western themes and many of her tunes rank among the best to emerge from the 1970s singer-songwriter movement.
“She was doing this new thing with open-guitar tunings, although Joni Mitchell is a master at that,” Doctorow said, noting the importance of McCaslin’s music. “She is one of these people who could stand there and entertain you for a whole evening with just a guitar and a voice. Her voice is gorgeous—crystalline and very fluid and haunting.”
I Carry All I Own is an album rooted in the folk genre, but musically it reflects a wide palette. “She is a folk artist,” began Doctorow. “Yet the music is so complex. The chord changes go in directions that you would not expect.”
Doctorow’s discography of original music is vast: She has eight albums of original songs in print. But this is not her first turn at “covers.” Pete Kennedy, of the duo The Kennedys, produced Doctorow’s 2008 homage to Joan Baez’s sister, Another Country: The Songs of Richard and Mimi Fariña. And she brought him back for an encore on this project. “I was able to just let Pete come up with the parts and basically arrange the whole record,” Doctorow said. “Pete listens to a lot of film scores and orchestras. The pieces of music lent themselves to a more orchestrated treatment.”
Both Doctorow’s mother and her father E. L. Doctorow—author of such books as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, World’s Fair and The March—helped inspire her to be a musician. “I came to folk music through my parents,” Doctorow said. “They were in a little hobby band like The Weavers. My father admired Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in terms of their artistry and their political stance. My parents have always been and remain incredibly sympathetic of what I do. Also, the basic respect for the written word—we were encouraged to read a lot.”
Doctorow is a fixture on the fertile East End music scene. “In the past two or three years a very interwoven and supportive group of musicians has kind of come out of the woodwork,” she said. “There are a lot of people that are sort of beginning songwriters that I met, that I have gotten a wonderful opportunity to work with and have helped edit their songs. We all seem to support one another in terms of getting the other person at your gig and to sing on your record.”
Eventually, Doctorow will do a third album covering an artist she admires. She explained the criteria behind picking the Fariñas and McCaslin. “Both of the records are from people that I listened to as a teenager learning to play guitar and trying to find my own voice,” she noted. “What’s so thrilling to me is to come back to their material having hopefully found my own sound as a grown professional.”