August 16, 2006
For her latest album, Ready, singer Jen Chapin went exploring, in public and private. She traveled west on Route 80 to Youngstown, Ohio to monitor the 2004 election results in the song "Election Day." She bid farewell to her childhood home where "sweet stories repeat" in "Goodbye." And she urged her unborn son to find "a different melody to play" in "Let It Show."
Restlessness inspires the New York City-based Chapin. When she's out and about "things start to congeal," she said. Touring the country in support of her previous album Linger she got to spend time in places "that aren't all shiny and pleased with themselves," like Flint, Michigan and Youngstown. "I love going into small towns, meeting new people. You get to see a lot of the country," she explained.
Having a plethora of material comes in handy when Chapin sits down to write. "It's challenging," she said. "It's just being faced with an empty page and a silent guitar or keyboard — it's like facing a void."
Part of the difficulty is compressing thoughts and feelings within finite boundaries. "A lot of the things I want to say don't lend themselves to a three and a half minute song," Chapin explained.
But music itself never ceases to inspire the singer. "I love the intangibles of music, the magic of it. It's spiritual, it's communication without words," Chapin explained. Her sound contains a hint of many different types of music, including jazz, folk and blues.
Some of her inspiration comes from her family; her father was 70s folk singer Harry Chapin, and her grandfather is jazz drummer and educator Jim Chapin, a longtime resident of Sag Harbor. "My dad, while not a direct influence as far as the sound, is as far as the spirit, intimacy and meaning," Chapin said.
"I always count his biggest influence on me as being in the activism realm," she added. Chapin serves on the board of World Hunger Year, an organization co-founded by her father that promotes community based solutions to hunger and poverty. "I'm really excited about our work on the issues of food security and the food system," Chapin said. The average American meal travels about 1500 miles from farm to plate, she explained; WHY's effort to make the supply chain more local creates a "less wasteful, more sustainable" environment.
Though social activism is a big part of Chapin's life, she counts herself as a musician first. "Music is my career and my vocation," she said. But, she added, "there is a nice blur" between the two.
Chapin taught music in Brooklyn before becoming a musician full-time, and she still "embraces the opportunity to work with college students" in workshops and classes while she is on tour. Indeed, the move from teacher to musician was not so great of a stretch: "Teaching is in some ways another kind of performing," she said.
And performing is something that really makes Chapin tick. She and her husband (and producing partner) Stephen Crump are in the process of planning her summer tour. Crump, who plays acoustic bass, along with Dan Reiser on drums, Peter Rende on piano and Jamie Fox on electric guitar, accompanied her on her last album and tour. "I love the camaraderie of being part of a group. It is really about pure love of music," she said.
The elastic boundaries of music allow Chapin to mix fact and fiction. "You get into a little fantasy world, and that's what I like about music," she said. A touch of the fanciful helps because performing in public requires a certain "level of denial," Chapin explained. "There's sort of a comfortable disconnect. Just because you're singing it doesn't mean they know exactly what you're thinking."
As Chapin prepares to embark on her tour to support Ready, she is trying to expand her musical horizons while still remaining true to the basics. "It's always a balance, because I like where I've come from," she said, adding, "I want to keep some kind of consistency and history in what I've done, but I also just want to get better."