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It's the 'Pepi' Generation!

July 13, 2006 By:
M.J. Fine, JE Feature
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Pepi Ginsberg
Pepi Ginsberg's on a remarkable journey. She's come a long way in a short time, and she's nearly bursting with excitement about the future. A few weeks before the release of her breezy, folky debut, "Orange Juice: Stephanie/ Stephanie," the 23-year-old singer-songwriter sat in Rittenhouse Square and retraced her steps.

Her affair with music began soon after she moved to Philadelphia five years ago to take a major in visual studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The summer before sophomore year, she returned to her hometown of Greenwich, Conn., determined to spend her time creatively. And so she decided to write a song each day.

She had been writing poetry for as long as she could remember, and she'd sung in school. Her family made music, though not professionally. One grandfather concocted little songs on the accordion and several other instruments, while her father played guitar and banjo.

The only catch: She didn't really play. At first, she came up with things in her head or by returning to the piano after a long hiatus that had begun soon after her father's death, in a gliding accident, when she was 7. But to bring the songs into the world, she needed to learn guitar. She started playing in January 2005, and the results were apparent immediately.

"I just started writing and writing and writing. Sixty songs, 70 songs, just a zillion songs," Ginsberg says. "Half of them I could play, half of them I couldn't. Most of them no good, but I needed to get so much stuff out of my system."

Last summer, she gave herself an ultimatum.

"I had all these songs. I have them recorded on my computer," she says. "And I was like, 'You know what? If I don't start singing in public now, I won't. So just make up your mind. Are you going to do it or not?' "

She decided to go for it. An open-mike led to solo shows and a spot on "Up the Stairs and Through the Hall," a compilation of songs by local musicians. Through West Philly's supportive scene, she linked up with guitarist Eric Carbonara, who helped her turn her compositions into a cohesive album. They recorded "Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie" over the course of six months.

Just 17 months after she committed herself to guitar, she celebrated the CD's release with a show at the North Star Bar here.

The shift from visual arts to words and music bled into her schoolwork, and she switched her major to creative writing. She still draws -- she designed her own album cover -- but she can say things in song that she can't on canvas.

Painting With Song
"I wish that I could begin to describe with a physical mark with a pen the way that I see the world," she says. "But I became increasingly frustrated 'cause I realized that maybe that wasn't the best way that I could communicate the things that I was seeing. I feel like I'm painting a picture with language, and so in that way it informs it. Whereas if I could translate it with a paintbrush, I would, but I can't."

Her visual literacy lends a fresh perspective to her lyrics. Take the gentle two-part title track, for example, which marries Ginsberg's ruminations on color and religion.

"It's like if you hear a word that you've never heard before and all of a sudden you seem to start to see it everywhere," she says. "That's just how I felt about the color orange on a particular day."

The narrator's belief system is more complex. "She says, 'I'm praying to orange, I'm praying to the mundane, I'm praying to a color, I'm praying to something that doesn't matter, I'm gonna pray to things of this world that everyone can have,' " Ginsberg says of the titular Stephanie.

"Any kind of religion is for everybody, but it's not something everybody can experience. You can't convince anybody to have it. You can't tell somebody to pray."

For a different take on her background in art, consider "Needlenumb," a shimmery rocker that's informed by artwork that merges sewing and drawing. Many songs have explored the idea of sundering a relationship that seemed solid, but Ginsberg's metaphor puts a new spin on it.

"You look at two swatches of fabric that look like they should go together," she says. "You try to sew things, and the process of going in and out is like breathing, so it should be a valuable process. But it's not necessarily valuable to try to put things together all the time."

Most of the CD's songs pivot on Ginsberg's confident, languid vocals and guitar, but "Needlenumb" is one of a handful of tracks that she and Carbonara recorded with Michael Heinzer on bass and Matt Ricchini on drums during an after-hours session at Penn's Kelly Writers House, where Ginsberg worked. Those tracks, particularly "You, Your Brother, and Me," benefit from the full-band treatment.

Ginsberg says she wants to move more in that direction for her next effort.

"I've gotta get it down so that I can do my thing by myself and say what I have to say and, hopefully, communicate it," she says. "But once that happens, kick into gear and then team up with a good set of drums and a nice lead guitar and some good bass parts."

Whether her Philly friends stay in the picture remains to be seen. A year after graduation, Ginsberg's embarking on the next leg of her journey. With "Orange Juice: Stephanie/Stephanie" behind her and a head full of ideas for the follow-up, she's saying goodbye to Philly.

She's planning to work as an assistant to an artist friend in Brooklyn, but what she really wants to do is live on the road for a while, taking her songs from town to town.  

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