A Conversation with The Chapin Sisters’ Abigail Chapin
Mike Ragogna: Hello Abigail.
Abigail Chapin: Hello, how’s it going?
MR: It’s going pretty well. There is almost a spiritual vibe on your new album, Two. What went into its creation?
AC: Well, I think each of the songs had a really specific process behind it, but I think maybe the vibe you’re getting from the record is from the process of how we recorded it. Lily, myself, and our friends Jesse Lee and Louie Stephens spent about three weeks holed-up in a farm in New Jersey, spending all of our time writing and recording, and playing tennis and swimming. (laughs)
MR: Where in New Jersey?
AC: Northern New Jersey, almost by Delaware Water Gap.
MR: Let’s just start off with the first song, “Sweet Light.” That vibe that I was talking reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel on their Wednesday Morning 3AM album. Obviously, you’re an alternative singer-songwriter sort of group, though I hate genre-fying everything, which everybody tends to do.
AC: It’s hard for us to genrefy ourselves.
MR: Yeah, I bet it’s because you have elements of country, folk, pop, and you have songs like “Palm Tree” that you can’t categorize. That song has a blend of a lot of things, though its arrangement reminds me of the Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton recordings.
AC: Yeah, the Trio recordings, we love them. We’re flattered.
MR: It’s a very sweet song, and that’s the emphasis track, right?
AC: That is, yeah.
MR: So, you guys record in such a way that emphasizes a group vocal sound, but it’s the two of you mainly, right?
AC: It is the two of us. Originally, it was our sister Jessica also, but for this record, she wasn’t there initially when we were recording it, and she did some overdubs later. So, we did some live vocals, just the two of us, then we did some overdubs with third and fourth parts. We did a lot of live vocal tracks that were both of us at once, then we sort of played around with a lot of different experiments in terms of vocal recording.
MR: And I can’t name another act that is doing what you’re doing vocally.
AC: Well, thanks.
MR: Seriously, you have these big block vocal sections where you experiment with pushing fourths and sixths, some don’t resolve, and it adds to the emotion expressed throughout the record.
AC: Thank you. It’s easy for us, especially when it was a trio, to break into three-part harmony and just do the first, third, and fifth parts that are sort of just normal chords. That is something we’ve been doing since we were kids and we just really fall into that naturally. Experimenting with the different emotional quality that different intervals and different sounds have, because of the harmony choices, is something that we’re really interested in. It’s something we struggle to keep fresh for ourselves.
MR: Now, one of the songs that sort of breaks the pattern is “Digging A Hole.” The songs before are more acoustic, straight-ahead, mid-tempo songs, and then you hit “Digging A Hole” which breaks into this real rhythmic arrangement. Normally, when an artist does that on a project, it feels a little awkward. When you sequenced this record what was the game plan?
AC: Well, the sequence was really a challenge of trying to figure out how everything fit because it was kind of an eclectic — for us at least — an eclectic mix of songs. Like you said, there are a lot of slower songs, then “Digging” and a couple other ones that are more up tempo and drum heavy. So, it was challenging, but we went through a bunch of different sequences, and “Digging” was actually the song we recorded first for this record. We had written it as just sort of an a cappella round actually. Then, when we started recording it, I think Jesse came up with a drumbeat, so it kind of came about in a natural progression.
MR: I don’t imagine you let someone else sequence Two, since I imagine you’re very hands on as an act.
AC: We’re very hands on, yeah, and we bounced it around a lot of different ways. But this is the way it stuck the longest.
MR: Then, you’ve got “Palm Tree” plus the playful “Boo Hoo,” which is one of my favorites, again, featuring those vocalese intervals that are pretty impressive.
AC: Thanks. That’s one of my favorites too. We forgot about it for a little while, and it kind of seemed stuck in the middle of the record, but I’m excited to start playing it live. We’ve been touring with just guitars, and that’s a piano based song, so hopefully in the Fall we’re going to start bringing keyboards along with us and getting more into playing some of those on the road.
MR: The keyboard will have to appear on “Paradise” too, right?
AC: Yeah, “Paradise” also.
MR: “Paradise” being your — if we’re going to label things — piano ballad.
AC: That’s the piano ballad, it’s true.
MR: Let me ask you a little bit about your heritage. I was a huge Harry Chapin fan. I know you are a member of the Tom Chapin family tree who I also was a fan of, and I got to work with a little when the Harry Chapin box set came out on Rhino.
AC: Oh wow, cool.
MR: I wrote the liners, and I worked with Sandy, Jen, and everybody from the family basically. I really loved Harry’s music, I’ve always been a fan of the brothers, and when Jen came out with her solo material, I was a fan of that as well. Then, when the Chapin sisters came along it was like, “Yeah, I like the way that this is all proliferating.”
AC: (laughs) Well great, I’m glad. It’s really amazing to be part of such a musical group. We have a lot of musicians in our family, and I think we get worried that we’re pigeon-holed by it a little bit. But I think at this point, the way that Jen’s music has progressed and our music has progressed, everyone has sort of gone off and really proven we’re not just riding on the Chapin family name and we’re doing a lot of different kinds of music. I think the thing that ties us together is mostly that we’re family, and our families are close. Everyone lives in New York except for us, but we are in New York a lot, and I think we’re lucky that our family remains as close as we are.
MR: Where do you live?
AC: We live in L.A. We’re in Nashville, on tour.
MR: So, living in L.A., there must be a couple of places that you normally play a lot, like Hotel Café maybe?
AC: We do Hotel Café from time to time. But we’re more East side — we end up playing at The Echo and Spaceland a lot. We definitely have done a lot of Hotel Café shows. There’s a lot of great music in L.A. and a lot of great venues, so we’re lucky that way.
MR: The East Side vibe is really wonderful. Harper Simon, Paul Simon’s son, decided he was going to play his sort of debut gig for his solo album at The Echo, and I’m really glad he did it there.
AC: Yeah, Harper is actually a good friend of ours, and we’ve toured with him and played with him a bunch.
MR: Nice. There are so many second generation musical families, like the Lennons and the Taylors — Ben Taylor, Sally Taylor. We could go on and on. What’s great is that everybody that I’m talking about is musically different from their parents’ styles. People are often tempted to say, “Oh, he sounds like,” or “she sounds like.” Well, they don’t.
AC: No, they don’t, it’s true. I think, to me, what we learned from our parents is just that music can be a way of life and is a part of life, and I think that is more importantly what these musical dynasties are passing on — the love of music — more than a specific sound or specific genre.
MR: Now, who is the main songwriter, you or Lily?
AC: We’re actually split pretty evenly on this record. We each wrote, I think, half the songs exactly. We’d work on things alone, and then we’d bring things together and sort of workshop them with each other.
MR: How far back does your collaboration go?
AC: Well, we started performing as Chapin Sisters about five years ago, maybe a little more. So, that’s kind of when we started writing songs together. We’ve done musical projects on our own before that, but we were just getting out of college and started playing together with Jessica, and then we moved to L.A. from New York and just started striking out on our own.
MR: And Jessica is Jessica Craven, daughter of Wes Craven, right?
AC: Yeah, we have the same mom. She is our half-sister.
MR: Now, you all have performed together with the brothers, right?
AC: Yeah, we have. At this point, it’s usually one or two concerts a year as The Chapin Family, and a lot of them are benefit concerts for World Hunger Year, which is now called WHY Hunger, an organization that Harry started and is still going strong thirty years later. It hooks people up who need food with organizations that can help them. So, a lot of them are benefit concerts for WHY Hunger, but then some of them are just at colleges or wherever.
MR: I remember when I used to go to Harry’s concerts, fans were asked to bring food.
MR: You’ve got a beautiful family, a wonderful heritage, and a beautiful new record, Two. Let’s wrap it up with a question about it. It’s “Two” because there are two of you? Because there are two of you? Why Two?
AC: Well, Two is our second record, our second full length album. Also, when we were writing the record and recording it, it was a really big step for us to be a duo as opposed to a trio because our identity was really tied up in being us three. So, when we were striking out, making this record, it was just a really major concept in our minds that it was a duo. I think it’s just a theme, maybe more to us than is apparent on the record, but that’s why we named it Two.
MR: Very nice. Abigail, thank you so much for joining us here at solar powered KRUU-FM.
AC: Thanks for having me.
A Conversation with The Chapin Sisters’ Lily Chapin
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Lily!
Lily Chapin: Hello there.
MR: How are you?
LC: I’m good, how are you?
MR: I’m fine. Welcome to solar powered KRUU-FM. Let’s talk a little bit about the album. When you guys record do you have a clear vision of what you’d like the instruments to be or do you wait until you’re in the studio to make those decisions?
LC: Well, I think it really depends on how you set about doing the recording. For Two, our new record, it was a bit more spontaneous, I think, than some other recordings that we’ve done. We did an EP recently where we pretty much recorded live in the studio with the arrangements we’d been playing live with our band, and in that case we knew exactly what the instrumentation was—we had rehearsed the songs and played them live a bunch—and we just went in and imprinted that onto tape. With Two, we were in a limited setting, in the sense that we had brought a certain number of instruments with us and we had a very specific amount of equipment, and that provided a set of limitations as well as specific possibilities. We were also working with new material that we hadn’t necessarily even finished writing—much of it we had finished, but maybe we hadn’t played it live yet. So, in that sense it was very intuitive, and just kind of playful as we just tried things out as we went along.
MR: Very cool. I accused this record of having a sacred sound, and I think it’s mainly because of the way you recorded your block vocals, and it reminded me of the early Simon & Garfunkel—smart, yet almost like they could have been recorded in a church. Some of these songs are just so elegant like that.
LC: Thank you for that comparison. It’s funny that you say it could have been recorded in a church because I can’t really describe the setting in a way that would do it justice, but we were in the middle of a very enchanting place—this farm that we recorded in is very bare and stripped down in the actual architecture of the place, the farmhouse is very old, the floors are made of wood, and there was a huge picture window that looked out into the woods. There were moments that we were recording where we really felt like we were in the woods, and I think that was definitely internalized by all of us and made its way into what we were trying to present. We went on the first night with an Apogee Duet recording device and a microphone, and stood in the middle of the woods recording the tree frogs and crickets, which were deafeningly loud if you stood in the middle of the woods. There was just the sense that nature was wrapped around us, and we didn’t get cell reception, it was deeply dark at night, and we felt very wrapped in this textured atmosphere that I think was somewhat sacred in a very primitive sense of awe. That being said, we also had a lot of fun, wild times there, so every moment wasn’t super reverent, but there were these moments where it felt like a really pure connection with the space that we were in. I don’t know if that answers your question. (laughs)
MR: No, it became sacred from the actual preparation—you guys had been treating it in a sacred way because your lives had been touched in those kinds of ways. By the way, was it on “Palm Tree” that you used those atmospheric sounds?
LC: Well, “Digging A Hole” we used the crickets, and I think we used some atmospheric sounds on a bunch of other tracks too. “Palm Tree” was probably more just the room itself, if I can remember correctly.
MR: Well, as Abigail mentioned, “Palm Tree” is your emphasis track, and it’s surrounded by a couple of my favorite songs—I love “Digging A Hole” and “Boo Hoo.”
LC: We always hate to pick any emphasis track. We see it as an album, and it’s just the people who are more on the business side of things who like to pick things like that.
MR: Well, that’s interesting because that’s what I felt like. I felt like the album had a total vibe, and I was very impressed with the sequence. It seemed to me, for instance, that “Birds In My Garden” and “Roses In Winter” are perfect lyrical companions for each other.
LC: Well, we did think a lot about the sequence, and it was very important to feel like it was one piece of music. I think a lot of people don’t think in terms of albums anymore. It used to be that people would play albums on the radio from start to finish in the early days of FM radio, and I think it’s—not a lost art because I think many musicians do think in that way when they record—but I think it is important. I listen to a lot of records on vinyl, and it really makes a difference what format you’re listening on. I think the age of the MP3 has created this broken up way of listening to music, where everything is compartmentalized, and you can make your own playlist. CD’s, to some degree, made it easy to skip from track to track, but vinyl or even on cassette tape, it’s much more labor intensive to jump around, so you do end up putting the record on, dropping the needle, and listening to it in order. That was really important when thinking about how to make this record come together.
MR: When I was speaking with Abigail, we talked about being the daughters of Tom Chapin, and I’d also alerted her to the fact that I wrote the liner notes for Harry Chapin’s box set, and that I’d been a fan for years, of course. This may be too bizarre a question, and forgive me if I’m not phrasing it right, but do you guys remember Harry?
LC: Well, I was actually only two weeks old when he passed away. So, I was not conscious enough to remember him in any kind of physical form. Abigail was almost two years older, but she was still a very young toddler, so in a sense we have been given many memories of him through stories and through our family members who were super connected with him. His presence as my uncle feels very strong even though he wasn’t really around during my life, but he was around during our older sister, Jessica’s, and our brother, Jonathan’s lives, and influenced their childhoods. He was a real presence, a really energetic person, and the traces that he left are still very alive, so in that sense, there’s certainly a strong family connection. He and my dad were really close, and we’re very close with his kids. So, it is a very close family, but I was barely conscious, so it’s hard for me to really say—I mean, I met him when I was an infant, and it’s lucky that we were even in the same room during those two weeks.
MR: Now, it must have been kind of fun in the household of Tom Chapin because Tom was doing a lot of children’s music, so you guys must have been growing up to a lot of Tom’s music, right?
LC: It’s true, yeah. When my dad made his first record of original chidren’s material he had already been the host of Make A Wish and done quite a few things for kids. His first family recording, Family Tree, was recorded when I was six years old and Abigail was eight, and we were there when he was writing the songs, when he was in the studio recording them, and we were in all the kid’s choruses, singing. So, it was really fun when we were little, and we were pretty much every kid’s chorus on every one of his records, until we became too old to sound like kids anymore. Yeah, I can sing all those songs pretty much start to finish.
LC: They’re ingrained deeply in my subconscious.
MR: It’s funny because I grew up partly on Make A Wish, and the Chapin family, like many of the other musical dynasties, have very interesting reaches into the culture. I remember when I was at Cashman & West production company, I was like fifteen or something, and Mary Travers was recording an album called Circle, which is of course, your uncle’s song. Harry came into the office one day to submit songs, and Circle was one of them. Well, I had been given like one lesson in recording, so I recorded Harry, and apparently I didn’t record him well enough because I had only recorded the guitar side.
LC: Oh no.
MR: Luckily, there was enough of a voice filtering in through that channel so that they were able to hear the songs, but it was so humiliating. On the other hand, I got to spend time with Harry Chapin, so that made up for it.
LC: Wow, that’s like every recording engineer’s nightmare—not pressing record.
MR: I know.
LC: That’s still a pretty great story, and thank God the microphone picked up the voice too.
MR: It did, and Harry was so great during that. I felt like he did everything but tousle my hair and call me “sport.” We’ve got time for one more song to take us out in the radio broadcast of our conversation. What song should we play, Lily?
LC: Oh God, I can’t choose. Play “Digging A Hole” because that one starts with the crickets that I was talking about. Turn it up loud and you’ll hear them. We actually have a video coming out for that song that just debuted on MOG.com, and it’s directed by Aaron Man, who is a really wonderful artist.
MR: Very nice. Thank you very much for coming by solar powered KRUU-FM today, and best of luck with Two. It really is a beautiful album, thank you very much.
LC: Thank you for having us, it was our pleasure.
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney