Jen Chapin balances society and sensuality

Jen Chapin comes to Club Helsinki on Saturday May 29

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 26, 2004) – From song to song on her terrific new album, “Linger” (Hybrid), Jen Chapin explores the balance between the individual and society – the need, on the one hand, to carve out one’s personal space in the urban body politic, and the need, on the other, to stake a claim to that body politic when the situation demands it.

This dynamic makes for some surprising contrasts between songs. “We are passive people at the end of the day/We let the outrage melt away/It seems that life is so much easier that way,” sings Chapin on “Passive People,” whereas on “’Til I Get There,” she sings, “Oh solitude, you give me a moment then I wrap it round my body here/I’m gonna let you fill my mind/’Til I find a way to fight against fear.”

For Chapin – who performs with her folk-jazz band at Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) on Saturday, May 29, at 9 -- there is only one thing more important than striking a balance in her responsibility to herself and to her community, and that is never to lose sight of her responsibility to entertain.

“It’s such a danger zone to get into social commentary,” said Chapin in a recent phone interview from her apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. “There’s so much room for backlash or missing the entertainment value.

“It’s always been about giving a balance and credibility to the songs. You have to be human and not just a political construct. I can get into that mindset, especially when I’m not writing the big breakup album or some personal processing of an event -- when I have a wider perspective, looking more outward than inward.”

Fortunately, as heard on the urban-folk of “Linger,” Chapin has figured out a way to channel her natural propensity toward social and political commentary into a dozen smooth, sultry and sophisticated pop-jazz creations that are as musically suggestive as they are lyrically provocative. Hers is an utterly original voice and approach, skirting any obvious genre classification or influences but one that might appeal variously to fans of Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Rickie Lee Jones, Macy Gray, Anita Baker and Cassandra Wilson.

While not overtly positioned as another in a recent wave of “neo-soul” albums that consciously echo the music’s heyday in the 1970s, Chapin’s music and voice betray a natural affinity for that style that might seem surprising coming from a white girl born and raised on Long Island -- to say nothing of one whose most immediate musical inheritance was from her father, the pop-folk storyteller Harry Chapin, who popularized an updated style of earnest, acoustic folk music derived from the likes of Pete Seeger.

In fact, when she was at Berklee College of Music, Chapin’s occasionally raspy, soulful growl earned her the lead role in the school’s James Brown Ensemble. “There was a James Brown band, and your class work was learning the repertoire,” said Chapin. “The teacher decided I was James Brown.”

“It all comes down to what you love most,” said Chapin, whose personal and political songs are tied together through a prism of life in New York City, where she has lived for nearly a decade. “I love groove music. I naturally slide notes from the blues tradition. But it’s funny – whatever I do is still going to be categorized as singer-songwriter folk. Stevie Wonder could write a country song and they’d call it R&B. It’s all very segregated.”

“If you’re an American, at a certain point, this is our heritage. Hanging out with a lot of Europeans in music school and touring over there gives you a new perspective. You realize you can be a suburban white girl but you still have the blues in your head, more so than someone from Switzerland.

Before playing music full-time, Chapin worked as a teacher and designed a curriculum to teach the history of black America through music. She still occasionally does workshops on black music in America, as well as on the interaction between music and social action and the problem of hunger. She chairs the board of WHY (World Hunger Year), an activist organization co-founded by her father, and in her spare time she writes essays and emails (some of which can be found on her website, about political economy that betray her academic background – she earned an undergraduate degree in International Relations at Brown University and spent time abroad studying in Mexico and Zimbabwe.

Still, on the merits of her live shows, the slinky numbers on “Linger” -- including “Me Be Me,” which works up a steamy head of froth over percolating African polyrhythms, and the airy, sensual ballad, “I Could Fall (In Love with You)” -- and her previous CD, “Open Wide,” a starkly intimate duet album with her bassist/husband, Stephan Crump, Chapin rightly insists on being seen primarily as a singer and entertainer.

“I’m not just a political creature,” she said. “I think about sex some times, too.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 29, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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