Golden Girls: The Chapin Sisters match their stage outfits, a mix of new and collected vintage, by color. Here they are in their shiny phase. (Photos by Garik Gyurjyan Hair and makeup by Samantha Roe)
The Chapin Sisters stand onstage at Tangier in Los Feliz, each in a shimmering gold dress that calls to mind Ginger from Gilligan’s Island. Jessica, the oldest, is in a mini dress; Abigail’s empire-waisted gown goes down to her ankles; and Lily, the youngest, wears a long, gold knife-pleated skirt and sleeveless top in gold-and-black brocade. They kick off their set with a three-part harmony version of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” In their confident, skilled voices, the song’s question sounds almost like a challenge. When they sing the song “I Don’t Love You,” it’s neither eat your heart out, or crying over you — it puts the power, and the intended’s heart, firmly in the hands of the woman. “Girlfriend” has all the venom of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” but the Chapin Sisters coat their message in the butter cream of their melodies. Onstage and off, their banter is layered with years of private jokes that only sisters have the pleasure of sharing. They all have the same mother, but Jessica’s (and brother Jonathan’s) father is director Wes Craven; Lily and Abigail’s dad is Tom Chapin, brother to folk legend Harry Chapin, of “Cat’s in the Cradle” fame.
Over the last three years the sisters migrated west from New York. They sang together but never really formalized as a group until they did an off-the-cuff version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and it immediately got radio play.
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“The idea,” says Lily, “was to take everything out of it and just let it be a song with vocal harmonies. We pick songs that can really transform. People can hear them in a new way.”
“I think what people don’t realize about ‘Toxic’ is that it was written by four of the best songwriters in L.A.,” Abigail says. “Then all this production gets added, but if you take all of that away it still is an amazing song.”
Lily points out how cool it was to turn “Toxic” back into a song rather than “a Britney song.”
“We grew up with folk music,” Lily says, “and the whole idea is that songs get passed around and changed. Anyone who wants to sing them can sing them. Folk music is music of the people.”
Folk was originally a genre the three rebelled against but then reconnected with in the process of forming a band.
”It’s not that we didn’t like folk music,” says Jessica. “It’s that, well, familiarity breeds contempt.”
“But our band is not a traditional, straight-up folk band,” Abigail interjects. “We play at folk festivals and sometimes people are like, ‘What are you doing?’ Our music isn’t political. It’s not preachy, it’s not happy . . . ” She trails off, trying to find the words to explain.
”Yeah, folk traditionally is either happy or political,” Jessica says. “If it’s unhappy, it’s because you’re politically unhappy. I mean, we’re unhappy politically, but we don’t talk about it in our songs.”
“The thing that’s folky,” Lily adds, “are our instruments, acoustic, and our harmonies. But also there’s a tradition of storytelling in folk music. Music is used by people to forget their lives. In a certain way, we’re doing that. We want to take them on a journey.”
Sister act: Abigail, Lily and JessicaShot on location at Clifton’s Cafeteria, 648 S. Broadway, downtown L.A., (213) 627-1673.Part of that journey is the idea of dressing up at a show. “I think we have a romantic approach to what we do onstage,” says Lily. “We want to take people out of what they see every day. I think especially in folk music, people don’t make the shows enough of a spectacle. Enough of a show.”
“Yeah,” agrees Abigail, “it’s just like your neighbor John getting up onstage.”
“Sometimes that works,” says Jessica, “but for us we want people to come to a show and feel that they’re at a show. So we put on dresses we don’t wear everywhere. They’re more costume-y.”
For a while the band dressed in long cotton dresses trimmed in lace, and a big deal was made in the press about their “vestal virgins” look.
“It was a phase, “ says Jessica.
“We’re not rock & roll sexy,” Abigail adds, “but I also think we are very sexy.”
“But we don’t do the whole fuck me fuck me thing onstage,” Jessica interjects. “I think in the beginning we were trying to find a way to maintain our own individuality but at the same time [we were] merging into one. It’s very difficult.” Color is one way they merge — they might say, “Okay, let’s all wear brown.” Then each of the sisters will buy a different brown dress in a style that expresses their individuality. They’ve gone through every shade of the rainbow — red, white, yellow and now they’re on gold.
“In a way it’s a nod to the old sister acts,” Jessica says.
“But we don’t want to look like Dreamgirls either,” adds Abigail.
Onstage, there’s no doubt they’re a sister act. You can pick up on the closeness when they fight, or when they share a joke.
“Most people say, ‘I could never be in a band with my sister,’” says Jessica, setting up the punch line.
“Yeah, neither could we,” answers Abigail, “but yet we do.” They all burst into laughter.
“It’s like anything else, you’re at your best and you’re at your worst when you’re with your sisters,” Abigail says. “Every insecurity about your songwriting or the way you look comes out, because you’re thrust back to being 7 years old — it just happens inevitably.”
Abigail adds that she likes talking to other bands because on some level all bands have a kind of familial relationship. They fight about the same things, and it makes her feel like it’s normal to argue — that conflicts arise because being in a band is a creative endeavor and sharing your vision can be really hard.
“We do have a real feeling of loyalty to one another,” says Jessica, “which is real nice.”
Lily smiles and says, “At the end of the day, if there was ever a question of taking sides, we’d fight to the death to protect each other.”
Moving to L.A. also helped the band. In a family full of musicians, it was sometimes hard for the girls to escape unsolicited advice.
“They’ve known you since you were in diapers and they’re not impressed by you looking pretty and being onstage,” says Jessica. “They’ve all been doing it themselves for, like, 40 years. So there’s a lot of ‘You gotta look at the audience more … ’”
“Or they know when you miss a chord change,” Abigail adds. “Now we can go home and play a show, and say, ‘Look how far we’ve come,’ and they haven’t seen every step of that growth.”
Their growth includes a self-released, self-titled, full-length CD that should be out soon. The sisters worked with Thom Monahan, who recently produced Lavender Diamond and Devendra Banhart, and Mike Daly, who produced Grace Potter.
“Our family is so supportive right now,” says Jessica. “We’d wither up and die without them. We phone them the morning after each show.”
Or their mother calls. She asks what songs they did, how many people were there and, of course, what they wore.
For info on upcoming shows and CD releases, see the Chapin Sisters Web site at www.thechapinsisters.com.