Jen Chapin: An Interview
Jeremy Williams-Chalmers, Arts Correspondent
As daughter of the late, much revered singer/songwriter Harry and still-celebrated poet/songwriter Sandra Chapin, songstress Jen Chapin has time and again proven her pedigree breeding has far from gone to waste.
However, having had her earlier releases compared with Tori Amos and Alanis Morisette, it is interesting to note that her latest release 'Reckoning' emulates the latter in its departure to more joyful terrains.
While the emotional comparative still stands, the sheer experimental joy of Chapin sets her apart from her Canadian counterpart.
Rather than simply wax lyrical about the outstanding record, we opted instead to ask Chapin about how she crafted her masterpiece.
Over the years, your work has undergone many transformations. How would you describe your journey?
I like that you hear transformations, but for me it all feels like a pretty organic process of just trying to keep the music going. Perhaps the word is evolutions?
Maybe to a fault, my music has basically emerged from whatever the structures and circumstances of my life were at the time rather than any grand vision -- like in 2007 I was enamored of my husband Stephan Crump's ensemble "Rosetta Trio" and really wanted to make a low-maintenance, jazz style recording of just capturing the live dynamic.
I was a new mother of a little boy, Maceo, and not writing many songs but had a bunch of classic tunes resonating with the political situation in my head at the time.
So I recorded the CD/DVD Light of Mine with tunes from David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, Joni Mitchell. (That recording had a little renaissance recently when our rendition of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" was used prominently in an episode of the SyFy TV series "Defiance.")
Then a year or so later I was invited by the audiophile label Chesky Records to do a session and similarly I didn't have a lot of new songs, so I chose to do a Stevie Wonder tribute, and it made sense to try to mix things up a bit from his sound with a minimalist trio of Stephan's bass and our friend Chris Cheek on saxophones.
Your latest release in 'Reckoning' - how did you settle on the title?
After my 2nd son Van was born, I wasn't exactly full of ambition and energy and time, but I could see that the day would be coming when I would need to really re-engage with songwriting and a full production of a new body of work.
"Reckoning" was a song I wrote during Van's infancy a few years back -- I have a vague memory of stealing moments late at night when both boys were asleep to work on it -- where I was both exhausted and resigned to a certain modest level of success in my career, and feeling the low-burning stubborn fire that I was never going to quit making music.
That title and that song for me speak to the themes of the album -- a balancing of cold reality with optimism, a grown-up calibration of where things are, of responsibility as a parent and a citizen and an artist.
A DJ on whose show I appeared recently spoke of "resignation" -- but there is definitely a sense of positive possibility as well.
What distinguishes 'Reckoning' from your earlier work?
The biggest difference is that I invested emotionally and financially in hiring an outside producer, while my previous recordings had all been produced with Stephan and other friends like our co-producer Rod Sherwood (The three of us together produced my albums Open Wide, Linger and Ready.)
Stephan and Rod are great musicians and very talented at the controls, but with nothing like the track record of Kevin Killen. His resume is pretty formidable and diverse -- he's recorded, mixed and/or produced everyone from Peter Gabriel to Shakira, and he is widely esteemed as a master in the studio and a great guy.
"I am spoiled in always working with nice, fun, smart people who are or become my friends"The latter part was important as I am spoiled in always working with nice, fun, smart people who are or become my friends; and Kevin was no exception.
But his low key authority allowed me to take more risks in the production and not second-guess as much. And he had some really important if subtle arrangement ideas that I think made things more streamlined and immediate.
In our opinion, 'Reckoning' sees you at your most ethereal. Was this something you were aware of?
Immediate --that's the word that comes to mind for me -- kind of the opposite of "ethereal"!
To me the album feels so grounded and real and coming from the here and now, so no, that was not something I was aware of.
But it feels like a kind of success that a lot of people are experiencing the album in different ways.
My brother-in-law thought it was "darker" than previous works, some people have heard it as sweeter. It's all good for me.
Who/what would you say inspired 'Reckoning'?
It's very much inspired by my family -- my husband and two boys and the life in music we have built together, the community we are a part of, as well as the perspective I have gained from it all.
Which song on the record are you most excited for people to hear?
"Gospel" -- I'm so happy with how that came out on the album, especially as it's a very simple anthem with a certain scrappy energy and I was not entirely confident that it was going to work as a studio track.
But the energy and the performances are so exciting for me -- the vibrant, earthy drum part by Dan Rieser, the playful touches of Celeste by Chris Brown, and the astounding trumpet solo by Ambrose Akinmusire, and so on. Kevin did such a great job making sense of all the crazy stuff we threw at him.
Jen is excited to share her track "Gospel"Also in the song is a recorded interview from an unsung hero of the American civil rights hero, the historian and theologian Vincent Harding, whom I had heard on the radio.
I was greatly inspired by his perspective and the underlying theme of love and faith, past and future, that flows through his work in social movements -- also the power of music and "singing, together" -- and it helped re-energize my desire to add the song to democratic conversation.
I sent Kevin the excerpt with instructions just to make it work somehow and he found the most perfect placement for it.
The artwork for 'Reckoning' is truly striking - how did it come to be?
The cover painting is by my friend Tifenn Python, whom I met because our sons were in a cooperative pre-school together for two years and they are good buddies.
When I learned Tifenn was an artist and saw some of her work, I was immediately struck with the idea that I might ask her to make an album cover for me.
The cool thing is that the creation of the painting (which you can watch happen in a great video by Kate Chumley at http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/jenchapin and on youtube) so much connected with the themes of the music, as Tifenn is also an artist trying to balance motherhood with art, and dealing with her own questions of ambition and resignation.
The project was a result of a Pledge campaign - what prompted the decision to include your fans in the process?
Well necessity was the biggest motivation. I knew that my hopes for the project required a healthy budget well beyond what I had on hand, and inviting fans and friends to pre-order and pledge for the music and other related items and experiences is increasingly an appealing option for raising funds and a wider sense of investment in the process.
It's one thing -- and not an easy thing -- to entice people to purchase music these days, but even another to bring them in to listening and having a relationship with the music, and I felt the need to invite people in.
What did you gain from a successful Pledge campaign?
My fundraising goal on Pledge Music was set to cover most but not all of my expenses in creating, duplicating, and promoting the album, and the campaign was successful in that.
I also gained a good amount of feedback and encouragement along the way, and a vehicle for storytelling about the process, the musicians and the songs that was satisfying to utilize. But it was a pretty all-consuming thing.
As the daughter of a distinguished singer/songwriter, have you ever felt the pressure of his great shadow?
It feels more like a light than a shadow. I've been blessed by the good will of so many of my Dad's fans across the USA and abroad, cheering me on as well as keeping his memory alive.
My Dad's legacy as a performing songwriter and activist has been well integrated into my psyche for a long time, I think, and we are different enough in various ways to mean that I would naturally make my own decisions artistically and personally, without being burdened by thought of his choices.
As a woman my voice is different from his and my generation and tastes meant that my musical influences and sound are different than his.
And as a mother who bore and breastfed my children for several years amid my career, the immediacy of putting my children's needs first put me in a different position than my dad was at that time in his life.
What is the most important lesson have you learnt looking back over your father's success?
Engage. Connect. Be real. Give back. The irony is that he died decades before social media, but he was accessible to his fans in a rare way for the time, in person.
Now it's almost a necessity to be in touch, but even before I was dealing with Facebook and such, I had his example of being real and available to people, and working to build and contribute to community through activism and advocacy.
Is performance something you would encourage your own sons to do?
When Maceo was in Utero, I wrote a song for him with the refrain "Find Your Joy and Let it Show" and that's always been the way my husband and I have operated as parents.
We just want them to be in to something meaningful, whatever that may be. Right now Maceo is really into baseball and we support that.
Van is into Legos and sings the Star Wars theme over and over as he constructs things and flies them around.
We impose piano study on them -- as many parents, musicians or otherwise, do -- but other than that it's up to them.
Jen Chapin: An Interview, 14th August 2013, 15:49 PM