Jen Chapin carves out her own legacy
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by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., August 19, 2002) –Her father, her uncles, and her grandfather were all musicians who enjoyed various degrees of success and even renown. But growing up, Jen Chapin never thought she’d become a musician.
“Well, maybe for a second, but it seemed unrealistic,” said Chapin, daughter of the late singer-songwriter Harry Chapin and granddaughter of jazz drummer Jim Chapin, in a recent phone interview from her apartment in Brooklyn.
“Even knowing it could be done, it seemed crazy. My dad’s life was insane -- partly because of all the other things he did – so it was not something I wanted to emulate.”
But eventually, the family business exerted its pull on Chapin, who is now a singer and songwriter fronting her own band, coming to Club Helsinki (528-3394) on Thursday night at 9.
Not that Chapin was never interested in music. She played the flute in seventh grade, and sang in choirs and rock bands in high school and college. But when graduation from Brown University approached, Chapin suddenly realized that after college, her casual musical endeavors would be harder to support.
So she had a choice to make – pursue graduate studies for an advanced degree in education, or attend Berklee College of Music in Boston.
She chose both, originally deciding to attend Berklee for one year and then to resume her academic studies. But once she committed herself to studying the intricacies of music, the die was cast, and she never went back to academia.
“Before that my interest in making music was passive, but the decision to go to Berklee was a major one that reoriented my perspective,” said Chapin. “I realized it was too important to me not to have music central in my life.”
The summer before Berklee, Chapin locked herself in a room and wrote 10 songs. “I mostly was just writing lyrics and melodies, and with a few of them I got to the point of clunking away to finding chords to them,” said Chapin. “But I didn’t know anything about music theory.”
At Berklee, Chapin studied music theory, ear training and jazz improvisation. “The main thing about that place is really meeting people and trying things out and figuring out whom you like to play with and what kind of musician you are,” she said. “Finding your voice, and how to integrate influences to make them your own.”
Apparently, it worked. Chapin’s most recent CD, “Open Wide,” is a spare collection of 10 original songs written between 1995 and last year. Utterly unlike anything her father ever recorded, the album features just Chapin’s vocals accompanied only by her husband, Stephan Crump, on acoustic bass.
The result is a starkly quiet but dynamic style of blues- and soul-influenced folk-jazz that occasionally recalls similar efforts by Cassandra Wilson, Norah Jones and Rickie Lee Jones, but that mostly is utterly original. With her band, the songs are fleshed out in arrangements that in addition to Crump include Chris Cheek on saxophone, Jamie Fox on guitar, Pete Rende on keyboards, and Dan Rieser, who plays with Norah Jones, on drums.
Chapin said that performing with the band, the songs “can be very full, but they almost underplay at times. People leave space and let the silence be as important as the sound.”
Typically at band shows, Chapin performs a few numbers just with bass. “We do a variety of songs, some more intense and rocking, some more sparse and sensitive,” said Chapin, uttering “sensitive” with a deliciously ironic tone.
“The musicians are all jazz players, and it definitely has an improvisational feel,” she said. “Some people hear it as jazz, some as rock. There’s definitely a blues element to it. I’m like a jazz singer, looking for puzzles to get myself in and out of with the words.”
Even though her music sounds nothing like her father’s, Chapin thinks he had a strong influence on her.
“It’s more of a life influence,” said Chapin, who carries on her father’s humanitarian work as a board member of World Hunger Year. “And in approaching lyrics as an opportunity to bring people together or to make sense of the world. The challenge is to make a philosophical statement in a song lyric that otherwise would be explored in a two-thousand word essay. My dad did it more literally, with characters and stories. Mine are a little more abstract.”
Following in her father’s footsteps, however, occasionally prompts some soul-searching.
“I get nervous about people thinking I’m using it, but it’s who I am,” she said. “Sometimes I play a gig and they have a poster that says ‘Harry Chapin’s daughter,’ which is part of who I am, but it’s not what I’m about musically.
“There’s a lot of good will and a lot of people remember him so kindly. He was such a regular guy, not a rock star, which is another influence of his -- just trying to be a regular guy.”
“He rubbed a lot of Seventies big-shot critics the wrong way,” said Chapin, who was 10 when her father died in an auto accident in 1981. “They were very venomous, and that hurt him. But the fact is that the amount of devotion people have for him is unbelieveable. Everyone has a story about him.
“It’s wonderful if you lose somebody, especially a parent -- and I was young when he died -- to have people come up to me every day and tell me something about him. It’s like he never went away and he’s still around in these stories.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 21, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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