FFS interview: The Chapin Sisters

FFS doesn’t know what it was expecting. Ethereal green gowns, most likely, a walk so smooth it may better be described as a drift. Or perhaps something quite opposite – the two Chapin Sisters appearing ominously at the top of the hotel staircase, dressed in black and lost in a very personal silence. These are the images evangelised by the band’s music – beautiful, traditional folk harmonies underscored by surprisingly dark lyrics. Song titles such as ‘Kill Me Now’ serve to separate The Chapin Sisters from similarly named folk groups of the moment. Whilst The Living Sisters make their mark with charmingly naïve songs reminiscent of a more innocent era that, in all likelihood, probably never quite existed, the Chapin girls sing of real emotions – of hard times and dark moments. And so, as Abigail and Lily descend the hotel staircase, FFS is not sure whether to expect brooding nature-goths or earnest folk musicians who live, by choice, in a less complicated world. Either way, we expect an earnest nature and a solid, if not slightly dull, idea of what their music is about. FFS is am relieved, then, when the girls are revealed to be two very normal people who have little time for the clichéd ideas that their style of music often comes soaked in.

We find a seat in the near-abandoned hotel bar. The sisters sit opposite us – Abigail on the left, Lily on the right. Unlike many other bands based around familial names The Chapin Sisters are indeed actual kin. For Abigail and Lily, musicality was presumably a hereditary blessing – amongst their various relatives can be found Jim Chapin, a renowned jazz drummer and Harry Chapin, a similarly respected folk musician who was exceptionally prolific in the 1970s. Given the family history, were the sisters always destined somehow to be in the business?

“I don’t think so,” says Abigail, with relative nonchalance. She sips her beer. “We weren’t ever pushed into it, though we always played music. We were a very close-knit family, we’d have carolling parties at Christmas.”

That all sounds very Brady Bunch, FFS says, and Abigail smiles at the idea.

“It wasn’t like that, no. We didn’t gather round every night to sing.”

Throughout our interview, whenever one of the two sisters speaks the other watches on quietly, eyes usually settled on her sibling, listening with interest to whatever is being said. When the speaker switches, it is done as naturally as the tides, as a breeze redefining its own direction. Lily speaks up.

“We never really considered music. Abigail was always really into art, and I really wanted to write.”

FFS asks about the fallacy of their music – the difference in moods between instrumentation and lyrics. Was it a conscious effort to separate themselves from the rest of the sub-genre?

“It started that way.” answers Lily.

“We came from this folk background, and so we knew the genre and the clichés – we didn’t want to make trite music.” says Abigail.

“Or live off of our family name…” finishes Lily.

And so, unwilling to make the same old music in the same old style, The Chapin Sisters at first took to covering classic pop songs such as ‘Borderline’ and ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?’ Their haunting and bare-bones cover of Britney Spears‘ ‘Toxic’ garnered the group some popularity, and some radio play around America. Over time the girls developed what Lily describes as ‘an emotional aesthetic’, using the moving nature of the traditional folk alongside dark, but also intensely sad, lyrics. They state matter-of-factly, with neither shame or pride, that people have been known to cry during their live shows. Is their visual appearance on stage as much a part of this act as the intentionally contrasting musical approach? They always dress in complimentary outfits for their gigs – clothes and bulky watches that emphasise the folkier side of the act.

“It’s a visual statement, I guess.” says Abigail. “At first we chose outfits that sort of matched, and then we started going out wearing these white wedding gowns.”

“They were virginal,” adds Lily. She suggests that the ’emotional aesthetic’ came down to both these virginal gowns and the complexity of the songs.

When FFS first saw The Chapin Sisters they were playing as support at She & Him‘s recent UK gigs. After their opening set they also acted as part of the touring band for the headline act – a novel approach to touring that the girls have repeated again since as part of Harper Simon‘s crew of musicians. The girls suggest that both of these situations arose from the gospel of their own music – that Simon and She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel both heard their music and invited the band to join them purely off the back of this. Though an appreciation of The Chapin Sisters is clearly going to increase the likelihood of the band being invited on tour with more established acts it emerges later that the tight circle of the Los Angeles music scene has its part to play also. For the band’s first few years their gigs were located almost entirely within the city boundaries, save for occasional appearances as part of the extended Chapin family at benefits focused around the music of their aforementioned uncle Henry, who had tragically died aged just 38 in 1981. They became firm friends with many of the other local acts, which notably included Music Go Music, a disco pop group who share at first glance no similarities with the girls, bar a fondness for harmony and melody, and Lavender Diamond, a folk group headed by Becky Stark – The Chapin Sisters’ initial connection to Deschanel. In some ways it could be argued that having eschewed success via the Chapin name the band managed instead to find their success through their LA music scene family.

Whilst this is certainly somewhat true, it’d be unfair to put The Chapin Sisters success entirely down to the benefits of a loving local music scene. More than anything else, The Chapin Sisters are a brilliant new take on the harmony groups of another time – old fashioned folk music injected with new life and an occasionally morbid twist. FFS might not have known precisely what to expect from Abigail and Lily, but after our interview is seems likely that is exactly what they’re aiming for.