'People Get Ready'
Singer/songwriter Jen Chapin is the daughter of the late folk-rock artist Harry Chapin, who is best-known for his 1974 smash "Cats in the Cradle." Jen Chapin's work is quite different from her father's; while he was primarily a folk-rocker, she is much more difficult to categorize.
Folk-rock has influenced her, but jazz, soul, funk, pop, and blues have also had a major impact on the New Yorker (who has stated that her taste in music ranges from Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan to Cassandra Wilson, Led Zeppelin, John Lee Hooker, and A Tribe Called Quest).
Some of Chapin's introspective, probing work could be described as jazzy folk-pop; some of it could be called adult alternative and some of it has strong RB leanings. However you categorize Chapin, it is obvious that she is very much her own person.
Chatting recently with Jen, and noting that it had been stated in her press that with this album she brought an unhurried pacing to her tales of Big Apple life, I first asked her to explain this working theory some more. "Well I guess I just don't buy the stereotype that life in the city has to be hectic, dirty, unsafe, etc. I do love it here -- the community, the neighborhoods, the sense of sharing and tolerance. Am I romanticizing? Perhaps. But I think all of us, no matter where we live, are challenged to find our own tempo to life and to how we deal with external forces. Technology has stolen time from us as it has made certain tasks quicker, and ironically, I think the city often provides us with more opportunities to be low-tech than other places. I think we need to question all these features of modernity that are supposed to be improving our lives but may in fact be pulling us away from those simple things that are the most important."
And just where does one find such an inner musical level to work upon in these troubled times of ours in the first place?! "Troubled times or not, for me it is always a huge challenge to carve out the time and the mental space to write new songs. It's tough and tortuous but ultimately rewarding. I have realized that motion -- walking in the park or on the sidewalk, taking the subway -- can help loosen up my musical brain a little. Truth be told, I haven't even tried to write new songs since my son Maceo was born, one year ago -- there's been so much to do in finishing the album "Ready," promoting the album, and planning and going on tour. But the time will come soon."
For the Average Joe who may not have heard of you and was thinking of buying the new CD, how would you yourself describe your sound? "Urban folk, infused with jazz. To me "folk" music means there is a search for shared meaning and community in the words, the ideas, and the tunes themselves. But "urban" allows for some groove, a little rhythmic tension, a little sexiness. We are all rooted in jazz but not playing jazz per se, so it is an inspirational force to the subtlety of the interactions between band members."
Your album title 'Ready' is an interesting choice, but perhaps it originates from a more personal standpoint for you? "Well the title track "Ready" is a song about romance and desire and a new relationship. Some people hear it as referring to the impending birth of my son, which is cool too. I can riff upon the word, and say I was and am Ready for new life, ready for romance, ready for a new government, ready for a new awakening of our senses."
If there was one track on this new album that truly encapsulated Jen Chapin at her musical and lyrical finest, which one would it be? "Ooh that's a tough one. I do love the simplicity and directness of the songwriting and performance on "Let it Show" -- it took me a long time to learn to get to the essence of things like that. On the other hand, "To the New" has a lot more nuance to the lyrics and the metaphors and there is a lot going on musically with the song itself. I'm happy with the singing and the band nailed it. "Election Day" is very simple musically but the lyrics are biting off a lot, and think that the vocal performance is pretty cool. But then there is a track like "Time" where the band is just kicking ass. I’ll be cliché here and say that they are all my babies."
What is your personal affiliation with NYC and how do you see its progress re: the mental and physical rebuilding these five years on? "NYC is my home. My extended family is here and I have always been in and out of the city, even when growing up in the suburbs. I lived in a few other places which basically just liberated me to make the choice to come back here. (as in the song "NYC" which I wrote when I was living in Boston) On my last album "Linger" there is a song called "City" which has the lyric "I live in a city that has no past..", meaning, that New Yorkers (and to some extent, Americans in general), don't look back so much. We have moved on pretty quickly from 9/11, perhaps too quickly (there's another song that I wrote during September and October 01 called "Hurry Up Sky" that touches on that). But as for the physical rebuilding or lack thereof, that's a whole 'nother messy topic that involves bureaucracy and the politics of real estate and victimhood and lack of state leadership and the necessary complexities of trying to please everyone -- too many constituencies and too much symbolic weight here! No need for me to get into that."
Noting that you are a committed social activist, please tell us more about how this affects your daily life and what it involves "Well in some ways activism is too romantic a word for what I do at WHY. My Chairing of the Board of Directors is a volunteer position, and involves everything from me being a spokesperson, to strategizing on issues that are connected to our mission of ending hunger and poverty, to conference calls about finances or human resources or space constraints in our office. Lots of emails and phone calls. Envelope stuffing. Friendly interchanges with staff (my baby loves to visit the office and is a big star there) I just try to help out when I can and where I am needed -- sometimes I do a lot and sometimes I am just barely checking in."
Holding the position of chairing the Board of Directors of WHY (World Hunger Year) must be invigorating. Please tell us what has already come forth from such an organization and what is to be expected from them in the near future? "That is not a non-taxing question! We have been around for 30 years and I can't do justice (nor do I have time!) to go into all our achievements and programs here. Your readers should check out our website at http://www.worldhungeryear.org. Yes working with WHY is invigorating, because we are focused on the solutions -- what works to help people to help themselves -- what are the most creative, the most innovative, the most effective programs that help people to be self-reliant and to build their own skills in coping, working, raising their families, managing their finances, eating nutritionally, community leadership, etc. We find what works and help these programs to replicate, find more funding, media, etc. We also have a hunger hotline that connects people across the country with resources they need in their area. And so on."
"Looking forward, we are increasingly building and working in coalitions to help improve food security for all of us. The current consolidated food system, where production and processing are heavily industrialized and take huge amounts of fuel and chemicals and water, where corn syrup is thrown into practically everything, where food safety is not adequately protected, where the livelihoods of farmers here and abroad are being destroyed, and where the inaccessibility of healthful foods and the "convenience" of buying processed junk are causing epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease and behavior problems for kids, is not serving anyone but the multinational corporations, the oil companies, and the advertising agencies. We are working to change that and nurture more local, nutritious, sustainable food options for people of all income levels. I have written more on this on my website http://www.jenchapin.com, and of course there is the WHY website, which is a great resource. Especially check out our Food Security Learning Center at http://www.worldhungeryear.org/fslc."
If you could cover any '80s (possibly cheesy!) pop song, which one would it be ... and why?! "Olivia Newton John, from "Xanadu" -- I love the whole album, but I would have to say the tune is "Magic." Now that's a non-taxing question!"
So's this ... I like Penguins, do you?! "Um, sure!"
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
If you would like to win an AUTOGRAPHED copy of Jen's new CD, just answer this easy question: In 1989, an 18-year-old Chapin left Long Island to attend which University in Providence, RI?!
Send me your answers and if you're correct you'll be in the running to win one of these great AUTOGRAPHED CDs! Just send us an e:mail here before November 15th with your answer and the subject title 'CONTEST: JEN CHAPIN SIGNED CDs' to: email@example.com
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