Ethan Lipton can’t play anything worth a damn.
For years, the playwright would hear songs in his head, the arrangements as intricate as his humorous lyrics. His lack of instrumentation didn’t prevent them from sharing these songs, though, as he would sing them accompanied only by a microphone, introducing himself as Ethan Lipton and His Orchestra to the crowd, which would laugh appropriately. Eventually, he found his orchestra – well, a three-piece – so his words could have the arrangements he always heard in his head.
“I write songs on my way to things. I write songs walking my dog, riding my bike, and in the shower,” said the Red Hook-based Lipton. “Songs are my release from the world.”
Indeed, his sophomore album, “Honker,” is a collection of sardonic, outspoken songs drawn from everyday life, from the Internet to people treating their cats like people to a sweet ditty about riding his bike over the Brooklyn Bridge, “breathing the air,” all set to a laid-back lounge groove with flecks of folk, jazz, and country.
“The music that I write is often dealing with the mundane, the exalted parts of the mundane, and the crappy parts as well,” said Lipton. “There’s a kind of everyday-ness of the subjects that I’m drawn to.”
A well of observations, Lipton is never in short supply of new words and music. At every show, he and his band — comprised of Eben Levy on guitar, Ian Riggs on bass, and Vito Dieterle on sax — play a new song to keep themselves on their toes, and their next one, on Aug. 20 at Barbes in Park Slope, will be no exception.
“When playing something for the first time, it always scares the hell out of you,” said Lipton. “That energy is exciting, and is good for the show overall. A lot of our songs have a theatrical quality — it’s not a passive listening experience.”
Listeners are drawn in as much for Lipton’s theatricality as his unblinking seriousness as he sings straitlaced about coffee breath, office politics and acceptance (“Did you ever think you had a funny face? You were right, and it’s OK”) — all in a wizened voice just on the verge of gritty.
“Even though a lot of the songs are funny, I have always thought that they needed to be taken seriously by us, and the musicians have always taken the songs really seriously as songs, because it does end up being funnier,” said Lipton. “It’s funnier to be more sincere about it.”
The crowd at Barbes has always been good about being in on the joke, though one of the best parts for Lipton about playing there is, instrument-less, he can get there by bike. Though the ride doesn’t leave much time for inspiration to strike.
“It’s literally a four-minute bike ride from my apartment,” said Lipton. “It’s all downhill on the way home.”
Ethan Lipton and His Orchestra at Barbes [376 Ninth St. near Sixth Avenue in Park Slope, (718), 965-9177], Aug. 20 at 8 pm. Suggested donation, $10. For info, visit www.ethanlipton.com.