Jen Chapin’s ‘Reckoning’

Urban folk singer Jen Chapin talks with Pollstar about her new album, “Reckoning,” saying it’s “truer and deeper” than her past efforts.

There are several sides to the daughter of the late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin.   Married to bassist Stephan Crump who plays in her band, Chapin’s music career, along with raising two boys ages 4 and 8, would keep most people busy 24/7.  But she also spends much of her time continuing her father’s crusade against world hunger.  Her involvement with several anti-hunger groups includes sitting on the board of WhyHunger, the organization founded by her father and Bill Ayres in 1975.

And the Chapin family musical legacy just may continue.  These days her oldest son is learning guitar and her youngest is beginning to find his way around a drum kit.  But Chapin isn’t necessarily planning musical careers for her offspring.  “I’m not so invested in them becoming musical geniuses … I think everybody should have music,” she told us.

Photo: G.E. Masana

Are you and your husband always trying out new melodies, working on songs or jamming?

There’s actually a lot of quiet time.  We’re either off on tour or at home working.  ”Working” means you’re either practicing or composing music or, most often, at least in my case, promoting, organizing, booking gigs, tweaking videos, doing that kind of stuff.  We do play (on the stereo) a lot of instrumental music.  It’s hard to  [balance] your own music and leave your brain a little bit quiet for ideas to come in [as well as ] wanting to have new input and new inspiration.  … I’m so actively in the mode right now – getting myself out there and promoting – [I’m ] doing all kinds of not-joyful things instead of releasing myself in the music.

We do play a lot of music.  We have a turntable and we’ve gotten into playing LPs.  The kids have their favorites.  We play a lot of world music, a lot of jazz, a lot of soul music, especially classic ’70s. Our kids are a little bit deprived of, like, the hits.  I guess they can get them everywhere else in their lives. 

It sounds as if you’d rather make music than deal with the business side, such as booking, marketing or making TV appearances.

Yes and no. Making music is hard. I think for some people it’s easier than it is for others.  You have to deal with a lot of, not failure but … you spend a lot of time not achieving the next step.  Whether the next step is the first feed of an idea or figuring out how to solve a certain lyrical arrangement or melodic problem.  At a certain point, when you’re sort of over the hump of a song … when you kind of feel like, “OK, I have something here. Now I get to finesse it” – that can be pretty easy.

I like people and I enjoy talking to people … I know some artists dread it, but for me it’s all fine.  It is a challenge to balance it and figure out what’s the right measure of each.  As much as you do have control of it, which is not much.

Because writing and developing music can often be a solitary experience for an artist, is it something of an ordeal to suddenly open yourself to the public and present to them what you’ve been working on for the past few months?  That is, to leave that private zone and enter a more public mode where people can comment, praise, criticize your work?

That’s kind of the luxurious part. You just sort of hope for those opportunities to open up and expose [the music] because that is what you made it for.  The laborious part, the challenge is all the silence you deal with when trying to get a response.  Whether it’s from venues or whether it’s from press, it just goes with the territory.  Unless you’re Bruce Springsteen or Beyoncé or whatever, a lot of people are not going to respond.  That’s the part that’s hard, actually. For me, personally, putting it out there is what we shoot for.  That’s our goal.

Photo: Rich Sullivan
Jen Chapin with Reckoning producer Kevin Killen.

What’s the perfect venue for a Jen Chapin performance?

Pristinely quiet, great sound, focused seating and intimate.  Some of those 200-seat blackbox theatres – we can really create the magic there. … [But] I’ve played in noisy bars, the arty funk band, and there’s something really fun and musically satisfying in kind of being part of the noise.  For me, as a bandleader you can get a different connection with your fellow musicians. It’s like, “Well, the audience is doing their thing, let’s do our thing.” Whereas, in most of my shows I’m connected with the music we’re making together with my bandmates but I’m also connecting with all these faces in the audiences.

We’ve played some beautiful theatres, 1,000 seats and down.  We’d play bigger ones but we haven’t really developed our stadium show [laughs].  I don’t have my choreography together. We play …  this venue not too far from us … in Brooklyn called “Barbes.”  It gets these amazing bands and it’s always written up in The New York Times and The New Yorker.  It probably seats 40 … maybe 50 people.  That’s part of the deal in New York City.  There’s so much music going on … and people just want to play.  Sometimes they’re just playing little rooms.  It’s not that big a deal, it’s just music.  It feels right that way.  It’s fun to do it. 

I’ll play next month at the Cutting Room [in New York] – high ceiling … I don’t know if “art deco” is the word but it’s got this whole extravagant design, restaurant, tables, and [fits] 200 to 300 people.

Rooms have personalities of their own.  There are a lot of different kinds that are cool.

Are you always writing or is your creation process more about setting aside time for writing?

The latter.  There’s some quote, and I wish I could remember whose quote it was, that said, “I write when the pain of not writing exceeds the pain of writing.”

When you have a new song, it kind of freshens up all the others, sheds new light on them. … right now I’m getting close to that point … 2012 was all about finishing songs for the new album, 2013 was all about recording the album and, now, selling it.  But I can see that, with the tour schedule of next year, I’m going to be itching to have something new.  But I have to put it on the priority list. … I’m actually writing right now but it’s writing part of the pledge music campaign, the crowd funding for Reckoning. I offered up that I would write a personal lullaby.  It’s a different kind of writing challenge.  It’s tough because I have no time limit. It was sort of due months ago but no one is nagging me for it.  I have to write three … I’m working on the first one.

Photo: Marla Cantor
Jen Chapin performing at the Cutting Room in New York City.

Is there a vibe or feeling in Reckoning that’s different from your past albums?

The thing that comes to mind right away is how other people have responded.  Some people have heard it as being darker.  Some people have heard it, maybe, as being smoother.  For me, it’s kind of truer and deeper.  All my songs … I believe in them.  That’s kind of the songwriting I do.  It’s not necessarily confessional but it’s coming from things that are important to me.  In this case there was a shorter turnaround from writing to recording, in some cases. … All of these songs are from this period in my time of being a mother and doing the balance of that life.  There’s an immediacy, I think, and maybe a more tangible element that’s there.

Are there any songs on the album that you’re particularly proud of?

The song “Gospel” I like [and] I’m especially proud of the track. Not proud in a way like, “Oh that’s because of me and my genius” but because the band just rocked what I was hoping for in my head.  The song is inspired by social movements, especially the fact that there has been a recent resurgence, from the Occupy movement to Arab Spring, of people being in the streets.  Growing up, my mother would take me to peace marches and things. I’d think, “This is cool, but whatever … “

I really felt recently that the fact that there is … such a new dialogue about inequality was spurred by the Occupy Wall Street movement.  I was part of a little event called the “Farmer’s March.” Food justice, sustainable agriculture and all the issues associated with food are very close to my heart.  It was really fun to go to this event.  It was very inspiring.  There were people from Kansas [and] Maine who are farmers.  They were connecting with the financial system and the dysfunction there with the food system.

We marched through downtown New York.  People had brass, they had trumpets.  I guess nobody had a tuba, unfortunately.  The marching, the brass, the excitement, the connection, joy and celebration of people joining together for a common cause, as expressed in music – it’s a powerful thing. So when it came to doing “Gospel” I was like, “We get it right when we get some trumpet in here.”  I was thinking, actually, of one of my favorite tracks by Lauryn Hill from The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill called “To Zion.” At the outro of the song there’s sort of a shredding song that takes things into a chaotic celebration.  That was part of the element I brought into [“Gospel”].

I was happy about that, about the drums, the bass, the guitar parts, the background vocals and everything just came together.  I want it to be useful.  Someday I’ll put together a music video for that.

All of [the songs on Reckoning] are interesting to me and relevant.

You posted a message on your Facebook page that said, “The best way to honor my dad on what would have been his 71st birthday today is by connecting with the organizations through which his work lives on – WhyHunger, Long Island Cares and Harry Chapin Foundation are all doing incredible work.”  What progress do you think has been made in fighting hunger since when your father was still alive?

People who are in positions of privilege … are feeling a new connection to those who are struggling day to day.  One notable part of the Occupy movement is that people are thinking [about systems] …. the financial system, the food system that is so consolidated that there’s basically four or five companies that control most of the food that we eat, and the connection of obesity, diabetes and new social problems we have.  These systems have dug in over the last 60 years or so, the post-war era.  I think people are making those connections more, especially in the food movement. People who are looking to get the perfect tomato … are starting to look beyond their own plate, starting to ask, “Why is it hard to do that?  Why is it expensive?  And how does that impact people other than my family?”  That’s what makes me optimistic.  Because when people are making connections and thinking about systems, then they can make real change. An extension of that is that my music and my activism are more and more connected.

When did you first think you could make a career out of music?

Well, I’m still not sure [laughs].  You’re getting signals all the time. You’re getting signals to quit.  The title track of the album – “Reckoning” – is like this push and pull.  Just as you’re thinking, “Wow.  Nothing’s happening.  Nothing’s going on. I’m not selling CDs, I’m not moving any downloads.”  Then you get that one piece of feedback … and you think, “Oh, I do have a career. I am going to keep this going.”

I think most musicians I know, and I’m totally spoiled [in that] I work with some of the best in the world, but most of them I know have thought, “Maybe I should just get a job…” People are always confronting those [thoughts], especially now.  I’ve had my times thinking that I should just quit and then realizing that it would be harder for me to [launch] another startup career, to hustle at something else to get to where I am now.

when you’re doing original music … the good stuff sort of subsidizes the challenges.

There’s never been a moment [when deciding to pursue a music career].  There’s been a constant flow of doubts and confidence mixed with despair, the whole crazy deal. … I can’t really imagine not making music.

Photo: photo by Nathan Leatherman
“When you have a new song, it kind of freshens up all the others, sheds new light on them.”

Jen Chapin’s performance schedule:

Dec. 20 – Northport, N.Y., St Paul’s United Methodist Church
Jan. 17 – New York, N.Y., The Cutting Room
Jan. 18 – Hingham, Mass., Old Ship Coffeehouse
Jan. 19 – Stafford Springs, Conn., Palace Theater
Jan. 26 – Piermont, N.Y., Turning Point
March 1 – New York, N.Y., New York Times Building
March 21 – Fairfield, Iowa, Cafe Paradiso
March 22 – Des Moines, Iowa, First Unitarian Church
March 24 – Moline, Ill., Moline Public Library
March 25 – Clinton, Iowa, Clinton Community College
March 28 – Muscatine, Iowa, Muscatine Community College
March 28 – Davenport, Iowa, Redstone Room (River Music Experience)
April 1 – Warrensburg, Mo., University Of Central Missouri
April 3 – Chicago, Ill., Reggies Music Joint
April 4 – Fort Wayne, Ind., The Phoenix
April 5 – Indianapolis, Ind., Irving Theater
April 12 – New Paltz, N.Y., Unison Arts & Learning Ctr.
Aug. 15 – Halifax, Nova Scotia, Company House
Aug. 17 – Riverport, Nova Scotia, Ovens Park
Aug. 23 – West Springfield, Mass., Majestic Theater 

Please visit for more information.  And be sure to visit to find out how you can join Chapin in the fight against world hunger.