Jen Chapin interview with OTWS

Jen Chapin album Reckoning

Jen Chapin album Reckoning

OnTheWilderSide had a free-flowing  chat with Jen Chapin about her new album, Reckoning.   We covered topics ranging from Occupy to parenthood.  She will perform songs from the new album at her upcoming August 9, 2013  show at  Grounds and Sounds Café, at the  Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook.

Grounds and Sounds Café on Friday, August 9th at 8:00 p.m.
Friday, August 9, 2013, 8:45 p.m. — Featured artist Jen Chapin, 8:00 p.m.  — open mic (signup at 7:30)
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook,
Nichols Road (Route 97, just north of Route 347), East Setauket, NY  11733
Tickets: $12.50  ALL AGES
http://www.groundsandsounds.org/shows/78-shows/93-jen-chapin-august-9-8-p-m
631-751-0297
* Coffee, tea brownies, water, soda etc for sale. Bring your own wine ($3 uncorking and pouring fee).

We started our discussion with Chapin by asking her about the balance between the intimate and the political on the new album, Reckoning. The album includes songs on both ends of the spectrum, such as Insatiable about never-ending war and “Don’t Talk” which praises making love as a needed form of marital communication.

Chapin described the intimate and the political as “a balance I am always trying to strike.”  She saw it as something stretching back through her life: 

I think it is pretty much a state of being, ongoing. Sometimes a little more one way or another, it is always there, I am always interested in synergizing, integrating them, and parenting comes in to it as well. You know, then your political perspective takes on a different level of  interest. You’re dealing with your child’s school, for instance, and fighting for resources with it. So, then it is …immediate politics?

Chapin has two young sons, Maceo (7) and Van (3), with her Grammy-nominated acoustic bassist/husband  Stephan Crump.  We, of course, had to ask Chapin if her experiences with the New York City Board of Education has made it into a song yet:

Not yet, not yet actually . . . . It’s all in there, the final song, “Gospel”, is a song about the social movements, and people organizing and trying to move things forward, and it definitely sprung out of the Occupy movement. That is something that has been everywhere. And, you know, there were some Occupy Department of Education moments that were very poignant. Though, I wasn’t personally involved.

Chapin specifically referred to the following Occupy Department of Education video which she describes as “pretty awesome.”

In discussing Occupy with Brooklyn resident Chapin, the discussion turned to her take on Occupy Sandy. First, she expressed her appreciation that she is was not impacted because she is “on high ground in Brooklyn.” Then the discussion turned to what she was able to contribute:

With so many things I am thinking of, that I “invoke” the label of activist. What does that mean? Well, it means in my case, and in the case of many — probably your case –,  you do a lot of work that you don’t get paid for…So many things I am a voyeur to…Occupy Sandy, I cooked them some extra big stews, and delivered some stuff here and there, but really I so much do things along the edges. And sometimes I am putting in a lot of front work from WhyHunger, and varied events. And I use whatever public profile I have to inform people.

Occupy, I went to a few meetings where people were going around the room introducing themselves. They were in Brooklyn. There were a number of arts and culture Occupy pulling together the disparate groups to identify common projects and goals, At one point, when the introduction came around to me, it was like “Is anybody here responsible for young children?” and I was the only one. When it comes to occupy people so many people are “all in”, and that is not me in this stage of my life…

I think I have grown up alongside WhyHunger We’re connectors, we’re supporters. I think that is what I do. I sort of pop in here and there and say “I have a good contact”, that is sort of what I do…

I am familiar with Occupy Sandy and very much moved by that.

WhyHunger, which is also known as World Hunger year, was started by Chapin’s father, Harry Chapin, the Huntington songwriter-storyteller.  WHY looks to end hunger and poverty. Jen Chapin currently serves on the Board of Directors of the organization.

Keeping in mind that we want to circle back to the Occupy-inspired song “Gospel”, we followed the current thread of the discussion to ask about the song about hunger on the current album,”Feed Your Baby.”

Absolutely.  I’m realizing things now how much I have grown up alongside WhyHunger. And also the food movement, and the way that we have these new networks and alliances among people who just want the perfect organic tomato to people who are talking about economic justice to people who are looking at food systems, and agriculture.  And now all the new alliances. I feel like so much of that has been happening for the last 5-10 years.

I have been a parent for all of 8 years.  . . . To some extent, we’re just in this industrialized food system.  You have a chance to push the re-set button.  I was definitely on a journey all along.  Trying to have good food. And sometimes that would mean healthy food.  And sometimes it won’t .

You have a sort of reset button when you are parenting. When you are pregnant, and you have new consciousness of what you put in your body.  You start to make connections.  “Why is this a dangerous thing to put in my body?  Why is this positive?  Where did it come from?””

What is exciting to me personally is that it is starting to get to the next level where a lot of people I know are seeing if it is organic,starting to ask “Is it local?” Now people are starting to ask, “Back there in the kitchen how are people getting sick days? How are people being paid?” One of the biggest indicators of poverty is if you are working with food, if you are a farmer or a food worker, in a kitchen, you tend to be dealing with a lot more economic stress. . . ..  Maybe there is a beginning of a change of awareness.

We will return to political themes in Chapin’s music, but first we touched another fascination we have: the nature of creativity.  We asked Chapin how she decides which songs are right for the album, Reckoning.

Well, in my case, …because I am not a very prolific songwriter, certainly by my father’s standards — and by a lot of people,I don’t have 30 tunes, and I have to winnow them down to 12,  I am sort of writing for the album. It was pretty much all my new songs. They fit in the theme, and they are coming from a certain period of line.  There are a couple I had recorded before and I re-did.

There was one track I loved the song, and I know it will have a life at some point, but the recording of it did not quite hold up to the standard of the rest of the album. So it didn’t make the cut.  It might get out there on digital as a bonus track.

We commented that means there is more to look forward to. Chapin responded:

That’s part of being an artist.  You just move it  forward.  Right now, I am in to what we are doing now and promotion mode.  . .  .  I am still fulfilling pledges that I had from this crowdfunding thing.  I am very far from songwriting mindset, but, yeah, I will write more songs and do another album at some point.

Our next question to Chapin moved from what songs were put into the album, Reckoning, to how those songs are arranged within the album. We about her  process for deciding song order.

Basically, a lot of it is on tempo and mood. You don’t want there to be too long a lull, like too many ballads in a row . .  .  or too many meditative things in a row. But, you don’t want it to be up-down, up-down, up-down. That is a big consideration. Once you organize things in that way, with those considerations.  A lot of it starts to be common sense.  Put things together. “Does this work or not?”

My husband Stephan and I, we were the ones who took the lead on the order. “Ok, let’s try this, this, and that. Ok, let’s put them all together.” We organized them as MP3s.  We listened.  “Oh, okay that works.” We didn’t really do a lot of permutation. And now we sent it to my producer Kevin [ 5-time Grammy winner Kevin Killen] and he thought it made sense.  He was like, “I’ll listen through.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Jen Chapin singingTurning from the recorded to live, we asked Chapin if she constructs a set list with the same thought in mind so that the movement of the music is neither too choppy nor too much in one place

Yeah, it’s pretty much like putting together a set list.  You have maybe a little more margin for error…I think you can more sustain a mood for longer in a record. In a live show, you have talking, you have tuning, which are all sorts of little elements of a show…The shows that I have had since Reckoning was released, have pretty much played the set list of the album in the same order,and that’s worked.  Interjecting a few songs in between, from my past repertoire.

We delve deeper into the album, Reckoning, to ask about the attention-getting, — and some might consider disgusting — first line of the first song, “It’s All Right”: “Roach got caught in the kitchen.”  It seemed a gutsy way to start off a song, much less an album.  We asked Chapin her thoughts on starting off the album that way.

It’s funny, lyrics are so important to me. I labor over them.  I believe the lyrics that I have written that are authentic and they’re truthful. So many that I wrote years ago will come back and they still be resonate even if I’m not exactly sure what I meant at that time. They have a new life.

So that said, it comes down to I care about is how the music flows. If the music doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how great the lyrics are. Just go to a poetry slam.

Starting with “It’s All Right.”  It was a musical decision.  The first downbeat hit in the way that we liked.  And, yeah, the part about the roach was just gravy. It was like, oh yeah, that’s kind of fun. I think in the pop music world, which I am kind of marginally in, there is so much currency in angst and heartbreak, and self-absorption and drama. I am a little self-conscious of the fact that I am a sort of wholesome girl who cares about the environment, so when I have the chance to be honestly talking  about something edgy, like a roach or whiskey or something, when that comes naturally then it’s like, “Oh,  that is exciting.”

I come from the folk tradition.  I am sort of self-conscious that I am no out there wearing dark eyeliner and having an alter-ego. Yeah, I’m kinda square.

And, yes, we did have a roach in our kitchen.

We continued our discussion of  lyric choice with the second song on the album, “Insatiable”, which deals with an anti-war motif.  We asked Chapin why she chose to describe war with a feminine pronoun.

Beyond war, it is kind of about the American national identity. . . in my mind. But, every interpretation is correct as far as I am concerned. But, “she” is actually this militaristic, beautiful  country that is never quite. Even though we are the most powerful country in the world, we are still this  slightly insecure teenage girl that is always trying to be tougher, just to make sure we are impenetrable. And that was some of it.

And, then, we have “he” . .. this young man, who has an ideal about what the country is, and decides he wants to arrive there. He doesn’t really know her, and maybe his name is Mohammad, and he gets locked up . . . for other reasons.

The first video off the album is the song “Go Away” which is very sonically attention-getting.  We circled back to our earlier question about album order to ask why such an uptempo song fell in the middle of the album.  Was it just where it fell in terms of flow of the entire album?

Yeah.  That song order was the first one we tried, and it worked.  And we were like okay. Let’s do it. We worked hard enough.  I had so many decisions to make, so anytime one of them falls into place, I’ll take it.

We picked out the song “Gospel” to discuss Chapin’s process for writing an individual song. She had mentioned above that the song was inspired by Occupy, and we promised the readers we would come back to it. The title of the song comes from the lyric “shopworn gospel”  we asked how that phrase would give the title to the song.

I always felt enamored by Zuccotti Park.  One of the things I went to was a farmer’s march.  It was on December 1st, after the eviction. It was powerful.  It was small. Maybe smaller than 400 people walking from the community garden on the Lower East Side to the park [Zucotti Park].

I kind of like the brand, the marketing on a craft level. You know you can say “Occupy this…occupy that…” Initially I called the song “Occupy.” Even as a shorthand on the set list, because I hadn’t officially recorded it yet, I called it “OWS.”

Then, we all went through an emotional roller-coaster of feeling disappointed, and then feeling  reinvigorated again with things like Occupy Sandy.  In the end, I felt it was about more than that brand.  It was about history.

I heard this interview by this theologian and historian Dr. Vincent Harding, who actually wrote the speech, most notably that Dr. King made the Riverside Church about the war in Vietnam [Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence].  He was one of the unsung heroes, or let’s say sung in a quieter volume.

The interview is fantastic. It is on a public radio show.  The radio show is called On Being with Krista Tippet. And I heard this thing, maybe in February of this year.  And it re-connected in my mind with  Occupy  — which the show didn’t speak about explicitly– with  this glorious tradition we have, in this country, especially in the 20th century, of social movements.  In these things, one emerges from the other.  It might dim for awhile, and then it gets sparked up again. That was part of it in naming the song “Gospel” because it was bigger and goes back.

So many people use the New Testament for their own end.  But if you look at the Gospels, and the full messages of Jesus Christ, they were “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”  He didn’t speak about kill the Gays; he spoke about economic justice.

That is why I said “shopworn” these things hang out.  Everybody talks about the Bible.  Let’s bring it back,  if you care, that is just one realm where these messages have been articulated.  Here it is in the Bible, the Christian Bible, and pretty much every other major faith.

Chapin sampled from the interview with Harding on “Gospel”.

Next, she took us through the genesis of the song “Gospel”.  Continuing our exploration of the creative process, we asked Chapin about bringing a song out to the rest of the band.

I had times when I am eager to do it, and I do it on the earlier side.  And then, I measure the timing of a concert coming up. Sometimes I’ve had regrets, not quite regrets, but it’s not quite there yet. It depends on the song, I definitely come from a place where I would say that I am doing a black and white sketch of a song and my band mates are filling in the colors. I write the melodies, I write the harmonies on piano or guitar. Sometimes a bass line.  And then they are building all these textures in there. Sometimes I have a clear idea of what the drum groove is supposed to do, sometimes I don’t. It’s  a collaboration.

Some of the songs are pretty much obvious.  It is pretty clear what needs to happen.  I am very excited to make that happen with my comrades.

Next we turned to the 30,000 pound elephant that cannot be ignored in interviewing Chapin, her musical family tree.  We asked her about her father’s maternal grandfather the literary critic Kenneth Burke who wrote “One Light in a Dark Valley” which her father, Harry Chapin, covered.

He [Kenneth Burke] did play around with the piano, so I don’t know how much he wrote out the music to it.  If you talk to anyone who is a communications major in college, they will know him, Kenneth Burke.  Within his circle, he was a very much renowned literary critic, not in the mainstream.  A chiefly influential writer and thinker. So that was just a little thing he blew off, and my dad picked up on it.

Her grandfather, Jim Chapin, was a jazz drummer who played with Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman. He wrote texts and recorded albums about drum techniques.  We asked Jen Chapin how she feels coming from a multi-generational music heritage has affected her?

Well, it’s a permission slip. I didn’t have to do a sort of coming out process to my family that I wasn’t going to law school or some things like some people have to do. It was like “Okay sure” It happened very naturally, because that was a pretty clear life path available to me. I think the fact that my dad had left way too soon opened up a vacuum, a void. There was fate. I don’t know if he was alive, if I would have pursued it. Because, he was such a larger than life force.. . .I am not sure if it would have happened.

I think it is like any other family business. It is a more obvious pathway you can take.  It is not the only pathway. I didn’t see it, in fact, I wasn’t driven to perform, I didn’t write my first song until I was 22. It was a process.  In college, I was in a fun party band with a bunch of other guys.  And the band just broke up and re-formed without me. And, that was sort of a real moment. “Oh, actually, I need music. I need it to be happy.” Whether I am moonlighting, whether I am a teacher by day, and moonlighting with a blues band at night.  I need to do this. That is what got me a little  more serious. I stopped taking it for granted. Separate in a way than my family’s music.  Of course, that figures in there.

As we were winding up the interview, we asked Chapin who she looked to for inspiration.

Most of the music I listen to does not sound like me, I think. I don’t listen to many sort of female singer-songwriters. But, there are some exceptions to that.  One of the people I was inspired by is Fiona Apple. . . . Someone who has just continued to grow and push boundaries and has her own style, and she is a real singer.

Expanding the discussion of where Chapin looked to for inspiration, we asked her who she looked to outside of her genre:

Bill Withers, I just adore.  The economy and simplicity — which is not necessarily something I achieve –, but combined with his ferocious groove that came from the church growing up in a coal mining town in West Virginia. He is somebody I love. I love a lot of soul music.  I love anything that comes from Black America. That I connect to more than the white girl sound.  I love people that can throw an elbow here and there and make you stand up and take notice.

Of all the parts of being a singer-songwriter, we asked Chapin what her favorite is.

The favorite part, which is very fleeting.  . . It only happens for say a month.  . .  Well, it depends on what your practice is.  . .  My favorite part is recording.  It’s so much fun.  There is only so much time you get to spend.  I would love it if people called me to sing on their albums. I haven’t been as blessed.

Part of it comes with recording, you are spending these 12 hours days, but there is inevitably this down time when you are doing some technical stuff when you just tell stories and you just have fun with your friends.

Chapin invited Martha Redbone in to sing backing vocals on the new album Reckoning.  On Chapin’s earlier album Linger, Redbone and Alan “AB” Burroughs sang backing vocals on Passive People after their impromptu backing vocals at a live concert in Ohio proved compelling.

Chapin will be joined on stage at the Setauket show by Crump and Jamie Fox on guitar.  She describes the trio they form as having “rhythmic solidity and sonic richness” Together, she describes them as her “core touring trio.”

Lastly, we asked Chapin what message she would like people to get from her new album.

I guess I never thought of it in those terms of trying to convince, unless trying to convince it is good art. It is more about that it is coming about, then how it’s messages are.  Each song has its own journey.  I just want people to connect, and it can be really satisfying when they connect in ways that you can’t anticipate. For example, that song “Go Away” that you mentioned, I played it for a friend, and she was crying, because she really felt that it spoke to her wonderful marriage. She didn’t hear about it at all as written about a toddler, which is when I wrote it, when my older son was three-and a-half.

With a song like that, it’s not like I want people to  listen and go off and change their lives. I just want to do the song. I want to be heard. I am in that very strange sort of strange existential place, when you are promoting an album or in the whole course of being an independent artist in this day and age you are basically just like, “Listen to me, listen to me, listen to me, listen to me, buy my stuff, write a review on Amazon” You just get into this life of self-promotion eternity.

Sometimes it can be a challenge to find the other elements of humanity, to have a presence.  My(almost)  four-year-old, he doesn’t care.

Yeah, you just want to be heard.

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