Jen Chapin's New CD Provides An Irresistible Invitation to Linger
by Linda McCartyIn a conversation a few weeks before the February 24th release of her new CD, Jen Chapin reflected on her blossoming career, songwriting, and her father's influence on her creative process.
Circle!: Congratulations on being noted as one of 2004's performers on the rise by Tracks Magazine's Alan Light on NBC's Today Show. What does that recognition mean to you as you get ready for the release of Linger?
Jen: It means I have a good publicist. It's pretty much that simple. There's a ton of records coming out by a ton of talented people, and I'm glad my label, Hybrid Recordings, is excited about promoting the record. We found a good partner to help in that effort. Different forces come into play to make this happen. We hired Shore Fire Media, and they are old friends of World Hunger Year (WHY) and have worked with Bruce Springsteen for a long time. Separately from promoting Linger, the head of Shore Fire, Marilyn Laverty, put out a press release saying that if you need a New Year's resolution support WHY. They are great partners pushing to spread the word and are good people. They have shown their commitment to helping out the other side of what I do.
At one of my first meetings with Hybrid CEO Al Cafaro, the former president of A & M Records and a semi-legendary record executive, he asked me about WHY. I was inclined to downplay it and didn't want them to think I wasn't serious about music. I said it's a volunteer position [as board chair of WHY] and that I go into the office and was being low key about it. Al said, 'Well, let's designate a portion of album proceeds to it and give people another reason to buy and not download it,' so right off the top they are giving a percentage to WHY.
Circle!: And on a more personal level?
Jen: I didn't see [The Today Show] so it's all intangible. Your expectations rise a little bit more with that and with a feature that's going to be in the New York Daily News and other things. What's it all mean? Is anybody going to buy the record? You don't know how it's going to play out. It hasn't affected my life yet. We have to see what kind of synergy happens from these different efforts and touring.
Circle!: You and Stephan Crump created a unique sound with your voice/bass duo on Open Wide. What brought you back to the full band sound for Linger?
Jen: Actually, we were working on the two albums somewhat simultaneously; they were parts of a whole for us. Neither was a departure. It came down to practical concerns. I'd get gigs out of town, and it was hard to bring the whole band. Steph and I were having fun experimenting with the duo sound. We decided to record it to have a CD that represents the sound we make when we are performing. We like the minimalist sound and it was low-tech. We were working on Open Wide in the Fall of 2001 and Linger just a few months later. We were still working on both at the same time, wrapping up both. It's a different perspective on some of the same songs. Open Wide was a confidence booster for me. That was the first time that I felt strongly that I wanted to put my name on it and that it truly represented me. We did a mini PR campaign and got some reviews when touring from folk and jazz publications, and it felt like a nice stamp of legitimacy. I'm one of those people who are nonstop readers. So it was meaningful to get strong reviews and to have more confidence going into Linger. We did the challenging exercise of doing stripped-down versions, and now I feel I can do something more mainstream.
Circle!: In your notes accompanying the lyrics on your website, you say that all of your songs represent your true thoughts and experiences. What motivates you to reveal yourself so fully as you did in "Regular Life," a song about the disappointment of not getting a hoped for demo deal?
Jen: I don't know if I reveal myself any more than any other writer. It's the nature of the job. For my dad, in illuminating the hopes and heartbreaks of other people as in a song like "Mr. Tanner," he revealed more about himself than someone who's writing a personal revelation.
And in a way it's up to the listener. My lyrics are often abstract. I can write something intimate and then people can decide how to hear it was I pouring my heart out or just putting some words together? That's up to you. So there is always a little sense of remove in putting things down in a song.
I have to think: Am I going to want to sing this song over and over? Is it true enough that it's going to resonate with me years later? What's my life right now? I'm a happily married woman I haven't gotten dumped recently, which is the subject of most songs if you tallied them up, so I'm dealing with this music biz, and it's my true experience. It's been my life for a long time trying to figure out how to make a living at it.
Circle!: From society's efforts to schedule our time into small segments in "Little Hours (Linger)" to 'another day slips away' in "Passive People" and the precious moments of solitude that are yours alone in "Till I Get There," time is a recurring theme in many of your songs. On a daily basis are you acutely aware of time's passage?
Jen: I guess I am, and on a daily basis -- more just the most mundane like, 'I only have three hours to get this list done,' the non-poetic time sticking a finger in my ribs. I don't know if I'm that conscious of the larger sense of time. I'm not burdened with thoughts of my own mortality. There's too much to get done in a day, and Stephan says I tend to load up my plate with too much. It's an insecurity thing. I can't put all my eggs in one basket, so let me do teaching, let me get committed with WHY, and some side projects that aren't so crucial. The time I spend helping WHY thrive is selfish time and a response to those disappointments of the music biz dealing with dishonest people. It makes me feel good. There's only so much emotional energy to put in and wait for the head honcho from the record company to call you back. But recently, I haven't been in that same mindset because now the 'big shots' are more accessible and things have changed somewhat. I am better able to think of myself as a musician primarily, which is nice!
Circle!: Your hauntingly beautiful song "Hurry Up Sky" is about wanting time to pass quickly away from the memories of September 11th and the loss of your friend Kristy Ryan. In retrospect you say that you wish certain lessons and emotions from that time had not passed so quickly. Can you elaborate on that?
Jen: At the time, and after any loss, you count on the wisdom that time heals all things, and you count on knowing that tomorrow will be a little less painful than today. So all of us who loved Kristy and I suppose so many across the world who were deeply affected were sharing that feeling of wanting that time to pass. So on a personal level that was it: hurry up, tick faster clock, and get us through. But now it seems clear that we moved too quickly past the opportunities not every individual, but as a nation we left it behind. It's part of our national personality to say, 'let's move on.' What saddens me is that we held onto our sense of fear and vulnerability, and other things reflection, deeper caring, a sense of rising above have moved beyond us.
Circle!: I read that you used phrases saved in your notebooks to create "Till I Get There." It reminded me of how your dad put together "There Only Was One Choice." How has his work influenced your creative process?
Jen: I think his work has influenced me most in the abstract ways probably. I have a family that doesn't blink if I say I want to be songwriter. I don't have to explain that it's a valid thing to do. I am so blessed in that way. My dad and I are on different planes -- he was a machine of churning stuff out. He always had a guitar in hand and was constantly scribbling, and for me it's much more painful. His thing was to get it out there. My philosophy is to mull it over in my brain as far as a concept, groove, melody, before I commit anything to the outside. I feel like his biggest impact overall is the idea that being both songwriter and activist can be synergized and brought into harmonious combination. I'm trying to see if I can pick up where he left off. He was going up against the tide and struggling. He got criticism for his support of WHY and doing benefits, whereas my record company said it's cool, and we are going to pitch in to do our part, too. So I have a greater support and a roadmap. He was in your face, and that was his method. His legacy to all of us was, 'Don't be afraid to make an ass out of yourself.' So he gave me permission to not worry too much about being cool!
photos of Jen Chapin by Merri Cyr.
Watch for the Next Issue of Circle! on June 7