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Jen Chapin's Urban Folk Manifesto

By Gary Wien

Jen Chapin isn't quite sure where the word manifesto fits into the description of her new CD, but her publicist may be on to something. Linger, the major label debut for Chapin, truly is a declaration from an emerging voice.

"For me I'm just writing the songs that are true to my life," explained Jen Chapin. "And it works out that a lot are connected to the essence of living in the city. I didn't necessarily think about it, but I guess that's how people hear it. At some point, I looked over a bunch of songs and realized that about three or four of them made references to subways. It's like the public transportation manifesto!"

The songs on Linger are infused with imagery of the city, but instead of the hustle and bustle of city life the songs meander at their own pace. ?It's almost as though the listener is a bystander watching the everyday city world go around in front of them. Linger's delicate balance of jazz, folk, soul and blues combine to create the city through its sounds. The record may not have intended to tell a story, but it does. And what a story it tells...

If you close your eyes you can see the characters in her stories come alive. They hope, they dream; they live, and they love; they succeed, and they fail. Her lyrics show how urban life can truly be poetry in motion.

Linger was released on Hybrid Recordings at the end of February. Hybrid is a label led by former A&M head Al Cafaro and veteran concert promoter John Scher. As an independent artist for several years, Chapin was used to making all of the decisions herself. She is no longer alone in these decisions and Hybrid clearly has a plan.

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The first single is "Me Be Me", which was chosen because the song is rather unconventional. The label wanted something a little unusual that might catch the attention of people flipping through the channels on their radio.

"We talked about putting the song "Little Hours" out first and the argument was made that it was more conventional," said Chapin. "I think it's probably the poppiest song I've ever written. It's funny, when I heard the song I was like, 'Wow! How'd that happen?'"

Chapin's music falls somewhere between the world of folk and jazz. She says she's reluctant to call herself a jazz singer because she has such admiration for the art form that she doesn't believe she's done the work that jazz requires.

"I'm familiar enough with the music to be hesitant to identify myself with it," she said.

Her band helps with the jazz comparisons because all of the players come from strong jazz backgrounds. They provide the smooth, silky sounds that capture the city in motion.

Chapin says that the term "urban folk" was actually coined by a drummer that auditioned for her band. While trying out a few of the songs, he said, 'you know, this music is kind of like urban folk.'

"I always liked that term because it's sort of ambiguous," said Chapin. "I think it leaves room for interpretation.

"I definitely come from a jazz perspective as far as wanting that freedom and spontaneity that jazz allows," continues Chapin. "I'm not interested in singing the same song exactly the same twice. I love for individual personalities of musicians to manifest themselves into songs. For people to put their stamp on things and to improvize and have that playfulness."

One of the key members behind the improvizational sound of Chapin's music is her bassist, Stephen Crump, who also happens to be Jen's husband. The connection between the two is intense both on stage and in the recording studio. They released, Open Wide, a record featuring the two of them working exclusively as a duo in 2002.

That record stripped down Chapin's songs, which normally were played with a full band, to just the sound of her voice and his bass. The achievement was such a success that you don't even realize the bass is the only instrument being played. Jen and Stephen still perform a song or two as a duo during most live shows, giving the band a break and the audience a chance to see and hear something special.

The pair met through Jen's saxaphone player, Chris Cheek. When her regular bassist had to miss a gig, Jen asked Cheek to recommend someone. He recommended Stephen Crump, whom Chapin hadn't met before. They played together once or twice and then didn't run into each other for a while. Later on down the road they started playing together and then began dating and ultimately got married.

"Initially we were really reticent to play together as a couple because we thought we'd just irritate everybody," said Chapin. "And we were worried about not having enough separation. So I was playing with other bassists and then somewhere along the road we just started messing around with the duo thing for fun. Then it started to feel contrived not to play together because he's pretty much my favorite bass player and he believes in my songs.

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"The duo thing was a great opportunity for both of us to kind of go to school," added Chapin. "We both enjoyed the stretching and the challenges that came from that. Even though I've been working with the band all along, I think Linger couldn't have happened without the process of breaking things down so I could build them up again."

Chapin and her band are anxious to hit the road again. Unlike previous tours where Jen did all of the booking arrangements, she now has people do that for her. They expect to be touring for the larger part of the next year and most likely will return to Asbury Park.

Her band has played several shows at the Saint throughout the years. Chapin says she's a fan of the?"Asbury Cafe shows" in which the club is set up like a listening room.

"That's exactly the kind of space and tone that we love to work with," explained Chapin. "Because even though the band rocks out a lot and there's a lot of intensity, we love a quiet, listening audience. We love energy but we love it when it's listening energy."

If her name sounds familiar, it's probably because she is the daughter of Harry Chapin. He was a wonderful singer-songwriter that died tragically in an car accident when Jen was just 10 years old. Harry's brothers Tom and Steve are also professional musicians as was their father Jim, who was a big band drummer. Harry Chapin played many shows throughout the Central New Jersey area and is still revered for songs like "Taxi", "Cats In The Cradle", and "Remember When The Music".

The Chapin clan regularly join together on stage for special shows in tribute to Harry. One such show is scheduled for May 21st at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. To hear Jen sing her father's songs live is a real treat. In addition to continuing her father's legacy with music, Jen is very committed to the social causes Harry championed. ?One such cause is World Hunger Year, or WHY.

"People ask me how is your music influenced by your dad or how are you continuing his legacy?" said Chapin. "And it's becoming increasingly more clear. Musically, for whatever reason, it's been natural for me to follow my own path. But it's also been very natural for me to feel connected to WHY and their mission and the way they approach the issues. He was a big advocate for just basic democracy and recognizing as Americans we have a built-in responsibility to be informed and to participate in problem solving. It's not just about voting, it's about being part of solutions and joining together in identifying what needs to be done and getting it done. The philosophy of WHY is that there are basic economic injustices that everyone has a role in addressing whether its government or business or non-profit grass roots community groups. It's about helping people to help themselves and building self-reliance - that feeling of empowerment. I just really believe in the work."

Jen joined the Board of Directors for World Hunger Year about 10 years ago. At the time, she said she thought it was simply because they wanted one of Harry's kids. But then she began getting more and more involved. In 2001, she became Chair of the Board.

A portion of the sales royalties for Linger go directly to WHY thanks to Al Cafaro, the head of the label. Chapin was taken very pleasantly surprised when he made the suggestion. This allows her to hopefully accomplish both of her goals - her music career and her social causes - at the same time. Undoubtedly her father is smiling somewhere.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

originally published: 03/01/2004

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