Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Chapin Sisters

Abigail and Lily Chapin at Elysian Park (Bags by Arc of LA)



At Elysian Park

835 Academy Road, Los Angeles (Elysian Park)

One of my favorite features of Los Angeles is that you can find little pockets of nature intermingled with its concrete sidewalks, brick buildings and asphalt streets. Just steps from the congested 5 and 110 freeways – nestled next to Echo Park, Solano Canyon and Elysian Heights  – are the 575-acres of verdant hillsides, towering palm, avocado and oak trees and serene walking trails known as Elysian Park. Founded in 1886, it's the city's oldest park and is home to the picturesque Grace Simons Lodge, the L.A. Police Academy, Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium. It's the ideal place to spend a day lounging in the sun and the perfect setting to get to know a music group who not only formed in the area but spent many afternoons amidst Elysian Park's landscape, the Chapin Sisters.

Although Abigail and Lily Chapin grew up in New York and have recently moved back to their native state, the sisters lived as Angelenos for over eight years. Over that time, Elysian Park was the backdrop to many wonderful memories, so it's no wonder that they chose it as their favorite L.A. haunt and the location for our interview during a visit back to the city as they prepare for their new release, A Date With the Everly Brothers, an album of cover songs that will be available April 23.

As we begin to walk through the grassy knolls that run parallel to Stadium Way, Lily shares, "This is right where our nephews used to have soccer practice. They were still quite small, and it was before they even know how to play soccer. They would just run around and kick the ball."

"We have always come here since we moved to L.A. for various things since different friends have lived in the neighborhood," adds Abigail. "I lived in two different houses bordering on Elysian Park, one in Solano Canyon and then one over by the walking trail. Our brother and his wife lived up here with their kids for a while, so we would just meet in the park all of the time. Our other sister lived in Echo Park for a long time, so we had a standing Friday afternoon picnic."

"We would get tamales from the Echo Park Farmers' Market and bring them to the park," remembers Lily. "Any friends or whomever could just come hang out."

Aside from those Friday afternoon picnics, the pair have definitely longed for a few other aspects of Los Angeles since having moved back to New York close to a year ago.

 "I miss everything: people, places, the sunshine," Lily begins. "During the winter in New York, you don't get as much fresh fruit and vegetables at your neighborhood corner store. Here, you can get amazing tomatoes all year around and don't have to pay a premium for it. Everyone has a fruit tree in their yard. Fruit is literally falling off trees here."

"It's the land of abundance," chimes in Abigail. "I crave tacos all the time. Unfortunately my favorite restaurant in L.A. doesn't exist anymore. Sushi Nozawa closed because [Chef Kazunori Nozawa] retired. But it doesn't matter, there's still so much good food here. There's a lot of good, cheap street food that really doesn't exist in New York unless you have pizza every day."

The Chapin Sisters' roots are firmly planted in New York where they're surrounded by a family with an incredibly rich artistic history. Their father, Tom, is a Grammy-winning musician, and the sisters lent their voices to his children albums when they were young. Their uncle, Harry, was the acclaimed singer-songwriter known for songs like "Cat's in the Cradle," "Flowers Are Red" and "Taxi."

"We were definitely inspired by our grandmother who was a fabric artist and our grandfather who was a jazz drummer. One great-grandfather was an impressionist painter and our other great-grandfather was a writer, philosopher, literary critic and the editor of a modernist periodical called The Dial. He raised his family in Greenwich Village in the 1930s and had a bit of a bohemian circle around him, which set the stage for all of the intellectual and creative outsiderness of our family," Lily tells. "Let's just say that on our dad's side of the family we don't have a lot of doctors, lawyers or businessmen. There is a lot of people who, at the risk of financial security and societal pressures, just decided to do what they wanted to do."

"Our cousin likes to say that you can be whatever you want, you can be a triangle player, but you have to be the best triangle player there ever was," Abigail says with a laugh.

"That certainly puts a lot of pressure on you in its own way," Lily confesses. "It's a strange and interesting family, and I think we're very blessed to have grown up in it."

Lily had originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film, but inevitably her path led to music.

"When I graduated from college I did a stint with documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who is an incredible mentor. She has a few Academy Awards for her documentaries [Harlan County, USA and American Dream], which are phenomenal. I came out here for the first time working on a film with her, and it was such a dream. I loved the hands-on, creative energy that she displayed and that she infused in me. As soon as that job ended and she went back to New York, I decided to stay in L.A. but soon realized that the rest of the film business wasn't for me – at least the L.A. version of it. It's very compartmentalized, and I didn't find my compartment," she says. "When Abigail came out to visit and we started singing, I was felt like it was tangible and something we could do right away. I've always lived my life in a listen to your gut kind of way. If the door opens and it seems like a good thing might be on the other side, check it out. That's how our band started: The opportunity appeared, we were in the same place at the same time and were really excited to play music."

At the encouragement of their brother Jonathan, the sisters put out an acoustic version of Britney Spears' "Toxic," and eventually formed the group with their half-sister Jessica Craven in 2004. The trio began garnering critical and public notice with their gorgeous harmonies, unique lyrics and mix of folk, blues and pop. They released their first full length, Lake Bottom LP in 2008 before establishing their own label of the same name, a nod to their family's New Jersey farm where they spent many summers swimming in the lake, canoeing and roasting marshmallows over a fire.

After Jessica decided to take a break from the band to have a child in 2010, Abigail and Lily continued on and released a sophomore album, aptly titled Two. They also went on to travel the world as the opening act and back-up singers for She & Him. The duo reprise their roles in the She & Him band this summer, touring across the nation, including a June 23 stop at the Hollywood Bowl.

"Playing the Hollywood Bowl is so exciting," Lily beams. "I used to go see the symphony there sometimes."

"I've had a few great nights there," agrees Abigail. "The first year we lived here, we went to see the Sing-A-Long Sound of Music, which is incredible. It's a movie that I've seen more than any other, but you kind of forget how long it is. I think we left at intermission."

Lily adds, "They also had this parade where children come dressed up as characters from the film, and the first 10 minutes you ooh and ahh they're so cute, and then—"

"Three hours later," interjects Abigail.

"You're like, 'Oh my god,'" Lily finishes. "But the best concert I saw in an amphitheater setting was at the Greek – Willie Nelson & Family. It was totally amazing. I thought, 'wow, he's stacking all of his hits at the beginning of his show, what's he going to play next?' And then I say, 'Oh yeah, 'Georgia!' Oh yeah, 'Crazy!' at every new song because there are just so many hits."

"But the tour with She & Him is going to be awesome. It's fun to be on tour with them. In a way, it's a treat to not have to be the frontpeople and do all of the other work that's involved in the whole mechanism behind the show," Abigail admits. "We've played the Hollywood Bowl, but we're also playing some cities that I've never been to before. In all of our extensive touring and life travels I've never been to Las Vegas, and we're playing there, so I'm excited."

They are both very excited about next week's release of A Date With the Everly Brothers, a project that was funded through a Kickstarter campaign which their supporters contributed over 150-percent of what they hoped to raise. With Lily as Don and Abigail as Phil, the sisters perform covers of songs, like "All I Have to Do is Dream," "When Will I Be Loved" and "Till I Kissed You," by the beloved brothers

"The Everly Brothers' influence on musical history is undeniable, but the main areas for us are obviously the two-part harmonies, the fact that they're brothers and we're sisters and their songs. The songwriting is phenomenal, and it's not exclusively their songs or songs that were written for them, it's both," gushes Lily. "They were writing and operating in a time that was a burgeoning golden age of pop music. They were recording only the best material they came across or came up with, and if it wasn't good enough they would go back to the drawing board and write again because they were holding themselves up to the same standards as the songs they were covering. Pretty much everything they touched turned to gold, just hit after hit after hit."

"Their era of ruling the charts was 1961 to 1964, then the Beatles came and washed away everyone's memory of anything that came before. Everybody who was alive at the time, from the Beatles and all the '70s bands who did country-tinged folk rock, was so influenced by them," Abigail informs. "Our generation, many people know the Everly Brothers and their hits, but it's not like people are listening to the deep tracks."

As both sisters can attest, there really are so many great songs they could have covered on A Date With the Everly Brothers, so I wondered how they came up with the 14 tracks that made it onto the album.

"We didn't listen to every Everly Brothers song because, for example you could buy an Everly Brothers hits album on iTunes with 55 songs for $7.99, and some of the songs we did aren't even on that. There's probably 150 songs we could have chosen, and every person that we talk to says, 'My favorite song is blah blah blah and I can't believe you didn't do that,'" laughs Abigail. "We have a new favorite that we've been performing that we didn't put on the record, and I feel like we have to be careful to not keep doing this and say, 'Let's learn more Everly Brothers songs.'"

"The first song that we sent out to the people on Kickstarter who pledged was 'Crying in the Rain,' and that song to me is a really good distillation of what is so amazing about the Everly Brothers," reflects Lily. "Then you can go off in different directions, there are songs that we perform on the record that go in a more country direction, rollicking uptempo country-rock songs like 'Brand New Heartache' and 'Sigh, Cry, Almost Die,' and then there are these heartbreaking ballads like 'Sleepless Nights' and 'Love Hurts.' But 'Crying in the Rain' distills it all into one song in a really good way."

"And it feels very modern. The songwriting is different than all of the other songs," adds Abigail. "It's by a songwriting duo that had never worked together before or since: Carole King and Howard Greenfield. They always had other writing partners but were put together for one day, and this is the song they wrote."

To pay tribute to that golden era of pop music, the Chapin Sisters decided to record the entire album live in the studio, just as the Everlys might have done.

"That era before digital recording, you really had to know how to play. Studio time and analog tape were expensive, gear was harder to come by and everybody had to be prepared, have learned their material and be good enough to do it right every take. The idea of being able to get in a room with a bunch of musicians and record live where everyone's playing at the same time creates this energy that you can't duplicate any other way. One of the reasons why some of those old records feel so amazing is that you're hearing a performance. You're not hearing a construction of a performance, which is also equally valid and I love songs that are constructed that way too. But there's something about the feeling and knowledge that this all happened in a linear fashion that to me is very comforting about the music of the early two-thirds of the 20th century," Lily says. "For musicians of our generation, it's a huge privilege to get to record that way because a lot of times people are doing things piecemeal because it's cheaper and easier—"

"On their own computer," interjects Abigail.

"There's a lot of compartmentalizing of the process. When you do it all at once, everybody is looking around the room saying, 'OK that person stepped it up, so I'm going to step up my game too.' You can feel this other animal come out, which is the group, and everyone's performance is affected by it," Lily concludes.

The sisters are having lots of fun doing photo shoots and performances dressed in drag as the Everlys, while also getting set for their tour with She & Him. I ask if they plan to write some material for a new album during their downtime on the trek, and both think it's a possibility.

"Usually when we're on tour we're really busy, so we'll see if we will be this time," Abigail replies. "The last time we did the She & Him tour we were opening the shows, so we were working extra hard because we would run from their sound check to ours, set up our merch, play our show, change our clothes, play their show, break everything down. This time it's going to be a lot more laid back for us, as just back-up singers."

"In the past our writing style has been more solitary, then we bring what we have to each other and see where it goes from there, which goes in every direction from having the song end up being exactly what it was to changing it completely or it not existing anymore. We're open to seeing how new things feel for this next record as far as writing styles," states Lily. "We'll try to write some things from scratch together, but in the past it's always been easier to come to the table with something because inspiration strikes at weird times, you can't really control it."

As we continue our walk through Elysian Park, I ask the sisters if they spent any time writing lyrics or melodies in the park. Abigail responds, "I spent a lot of time here. I would walk, meditate and write overlooking the stadium."

"When you're taking walks alone, it's a really good way to stimulate that part of your brain, so even if you're not writing while you're walking you sometimes get an idea and then you have to run and find a piece of paper to catch it," Lily says. "That's my biggest struggle as a writer catching the ideas because sometimes I'll get an idea in the car or walking or as I'm falling asleep, and it seems so obvious, I say, 'Oh, I'll remember that,' but you need to catch it while it's there or else it floats right by."

"I heard the woman who wrote Eat, Pray, Love [Elizabeth Gilbert] on the radio, and she had a story about Tom Waits because he actually talks to his songs as if they are physical objects or people. If he's driving a car and a song comes to him, he says to it, 'Not now. I spend eight hours a day in the studio. If you want to be taken seriously, come back tomorrow and I'll be ready for you,' and it works," Abigail recalls. "[Gilbert] does it too. She had written Eat, Pray, Love with a totally different name, and she kept sending it out to friends with different names. She closed her computer one day and said to the story, 'If you know your name and aren't telling me, I have to send this in tomorrow so you better tell me your name.' and then it came to her."

"Whatever works," Lily says in amazement.

Abigail admits that she frequently uses her phone to record ideas for songs.

"But the thing about that is, you kind of lose the magic. Listening back to it, you go, 'What? I don't understand what this fragment means,'" she confesses. "Modern technology is very useful. There are all those movies from the '80s with people driving around writing books by talking to their tape recorders, and I always thought that was a good idea because it's so much easier to talk than it is to write."

When they aren't working on their music or touring as support for others, the duo have distinctly different outlets to express their artistic creativity. In 2011, Abigail established Arc of LA, a line of handmade accessories she designs, prints and sews herself.

"Our mother has a clothing store, and I would go to trade shows with her and see things that I wanted. I would go home and try to make it, whether it was a sweater or a bag," Abigail recalls. "When we were on a break from touring I started making bags. The first one was for Lily for her birthday. I made them for fun, then other people wanted to buy them so I started making them to sell in a few stores and at craft fairs. It's creative but physical, and music is very intellectual there's no physical presence to it. It's all in the ether and in your mind. Songwriting's very heady and sound disappears, so it was good at the time to watch a project from start to finish and have something physical at the end. It also involved being home, we had been on the road for a long time,  two straight years, so it was nice to sit in my apartment and sew things."

Lily, on the other hand, chose to delve further into writing.

"While Abigail was starting her bag business I was working on a novel," she shares. "I've been taking classes and pursuing the more intellectual side of my life in conjunction with the music. It's about keeping yourself inspired. … It's a real gift to do music as a part of your life, to have something you enjoy. It's not an easy path, but life's not supposed to be easy."

A Date With the Everly Brothers releases April 23. The Chapin Sisters perform as part of the She & Him band June 23 at the Hollywood Bowl. For more information, visit

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