A voice of steel and fragility, softened by nuance and humanity
03/28/2016 12:34PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
“With songs delivered in a style that ranges from tender fragility to unexpected steeliness, Chapin brings a jazzy edge to the folk form. Sometimes she explores a fleeting emotion, sometimes she weaves a solid narrative — not at all surprising from the daughter of Harry Chapin, a master musical storyteller." -- The New Yorker
On the eve of an upcoming concert in Wilmington, 75-year-old Joan Baez was asked by a reporter how she was feeling these days. She replied that she was starting to look at the world through the prism of its current political rhetoric. “I am peering over a pillow and watching this degrading, nasty, mean-spirited, stupid [expletive],” she told the reporter.
Meanwhile, singer-songwriter Jen Chapin is busy raising her two young sons, Maceo and Van, with her husband, Stephan Crump, in Brooklyn. She hosts meetings with social groups, and leads workshops in sustainable farming. She maintains a floating tour schedule that allows her to perform sections from a musical career that has been critically acclaimed but free of the spectacle of fame's spotlight. In an industry that measures success by record sales and conformity, she is a musical outlier.
When she's told what Baez said, Chapin agrees -- to a point.
“I have an optimistic personality, even with all of the stuff going on right now, even with the degradation of public discourse,” said Chapin, who will be performing at the Friends Folk Club in Oxford on April 9 with Crump -- who is also her bassist -- and guitarist Jamie Fox. “I see the opportunities, and for every Donald Trump, there are thousands and thousands of people who are building social movements, who help others get out of poverty, and farming food for others. Just because there's a certain noise level, it doesn't mean that this is who we are.”
After seven albums -- including her most recent, “Reckoning” -- Chapin has been able to carve a niche that not only embraces different categories, but defies them. When described by critics and observers, her music is called urban folk soul. It's improvisation. It's music for smart people; “observant, lyrically deft, politically aware and emotionally intuitive,” wrote one reviewer. In the accolades for “Reckoning,” she has been compared to Nora Jones, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Alanis Morrisette, Nick Drake and Stephen Sondheim.
That's a wide net, and for a good reason. Chapin's music is both personal and cinematic, a song-by-song flip between the smallness of description (“Plump drops fall from the ceiling/ dripping down on our bed/curling up on the bathroom floor/ knees wrapped round my head”) to the wide narrative of humanity (“Here amid this ugly beauty/ where where all ego disappears in true democracy/ solitary voices become one/ building of a new world has begun.”)
"I don't have a bullet-point process of writing," Chapin said. "The process varies according to each song, but one thing I aim for is that each of my songs are different from each other. It may be a commercial liability because they're hard to categorize, but I like having some songs that are very groove-driven by a bass line and a chord progression, but I also enjoy writing songs that derive from a sequence of events -- both dramatic and pedestrian."
When she is not writing, recording or touring, Chapin's life is a unique melding of commitments and causes that seems to derive, in part, from her DNA. Her father, the late Harry Chapin, devoted much of his life to humanitarian causes to end world hunger. Today, she serves on the board of WhyHunger, an organization co-founded in 1975 by her father that champions innovative, community-based solutions to hunger and poverty; and is also active in the local and sustainable food movement. She is an educator, leading workshops and presentations to college, community and church groups.
A graduate of Brown University with a degree in international relations, she has traveled throughout the world, where she has sought to study the emergence of social justice in under-served countries. In 2015, she began a Master's program in secondary education at Brooklyn College, and this past February, she started teaching social studies full time at a public school in Brooklyn.
“If you're out there mixing it up with kids, with activists, with the sustainable food movement, with international union leaders, you get to go out of yourself,” Chapin said. “Instead of focusing on negativity, you focus on the work that people are doing to contribute to the world. If you're out there dealing with people who are solving problems, your brain becomes occupied with other things.
“My father struggled, especially as a young man, to find meaning, and his solutions were to just keep running, keep engaging, and keep saying 'Yes' to things,” she said. “He was impulsive. If you asked him to do it, he would do it. My father has been deified by a lot of people and he was a genuine hero, but a lot of our heroes have flaws and deficits, and he chose to express his own personal pain through his narrative.
“I'm somebody who likes to write songs about more than my love life, and I deal in nuance and commonality, and don't just point fingers. I guess I'm taking commercial risks, but I want to arrive at my music honestly. I have a very small cultural stamp, so in many ways, I have nothing to lose. I have my own little audience, and sometimes it grows a little."
Tickets for the April 9 Jen Chapin concert at the Friends Folk Club are $12 for adults (children 12 and younger free). Opening for Chapin will be The Sin City Band. Proceeds from this concert will benefit the Oxford Friends Meeting House. For more information, call 610-869-8076, or or email email@example.com. The Friends Folk Club is an all volunteer-community run concert series. To learn more about Jen Chapin, visit www.jenchapin.com
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.