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Jen Chapin masters the art of juggling

Jen Chapin
© 2014 Adam Jason Photography

Motherhood is never easy. Doing it while trying to juggle a career in the music business ramps up the degree of difficulty substantially, but Jen Chapin has been doing just fine raising two boys with her husband and bandmate Stephan Crump while still putting out quality albums that those in her situation and outside of it can relate to.

“There are lots of working mothers out there and people make it happen in all different kinds of ways,” said Chapin, who will be supporting her 2013 release Reckoning with a show at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC tonight.

It’s one of several gigs throughout the summer in which Chapin’s trio (which includes Crump and Jamie Fox) hits the road while she also keeps close tabs on eight-year-old Maceo and four-year-old Van with the aid of her mom and friends for those extended trips from home. It’s not ideal, but the family manages, even if the boys aren’t exactly jumping over each other to find out the latest song mom has written.

“Like most, they’re only so interested in my life and what I do,” she laughs. “They’ve been to a lot of shows, but mostly they’re interested in Legos.”

As the daughter of the late great singer-songwriter Harry Chapin, Jen can relate to what her children are going through. To her, Harry was dad, not a famous musician.

“I was before the age of being truly self-conscious about being cool or cool music, and in the end, we just wanted more of him and wanted to share less of him because he was out so much,” said Chapin. “So it was a totally different thing. If anything, I worry about times when my kids have seen us play to half-filled rooms because they’re going to think ‘my mother’s got to step it up.’ (Laughs) But whatever a kid is growing up with, that’s their normal.”

And Chapin and Crump have done everything in their power to keep life as normal as possible for their kids. As for filling rooms, Chapin shouldn’t have any problem doing that on this upcoming tour, as Reckoning is as strong as anything she’s ever released, filled with plenty of stark truths wrapped around the singing that has always been her calling card and what got her on this path in the first place. So no, it wasn’t a desire to follow in the family business, but to make her own way.

“My dad died when I was ten, and while I had a very rich experience of him as my father and I have a lot of strong memories, I was a shy little girl who liked to read books about horses and draw pictures,” she said. “I liked to sing, but I was not leaning toward that life at all.”

Yet as Chapin hit her teen years, music hit her right back.

“Like everybody, it’s adolescence where your hormones just open up your music receptors,” she laughs. “Especially with rock music, and I’m the first generation where hip hop was hitting. “Rapper’s Delight” was when I was 12 or 13, and I did what teenagers in Long Island and most suburban places did: I listened to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, and then I started getting into soul music and a little bit later into jazz, and I realized that I really love music so much.”

Doing it as a career wasn’t necessarily where she was heading though. She taught for a spell and considered picking up a Masters degree in teaching, and also thought she would end up working for a non-profit or social justice organization. But music always kept knocking on the door. And eventually, she answered.

“I didn’t write my first song until I was 22,” she said. “My father was this incredibly prolific songwriter who in some ways was a songwriter and a storyteller above all, and that was the craft he was most dedicated to. But for me, singing came first and I sang all through junior high and high school. I loved to sing, and I started to love to perform, and it basically came around to ‘oh, I need to write some songs just for me to have something to sing, where I can make my mark and have an identity in music that’s not just doing Aretha Franklin covers.’ I didn’t want to be compared to anything; I wanted to be an individual. I had the regular teenage insecurity and angst, but I wasn’t locked in my room writing songs in those years. It was later, and it was a matter of will. I just needed to have something to sing.”

Seven full-length albums have followed, with critical and popular acclaim tagging along for the ride. Of course, it’s not at Katy Perry levels when it comes to album sales, but Chapin isn’t about to go down that slippery slope in order to reach the masses.

“Some people really know the formula, but I would have to sacrifice so much time and soul to try and chase that idea of pop songs that are guaranteed hits, and there’s still no sense that I would find it,” she said. “So I could dedicate a serious energy to finding the formula or hooking up with other people, but then there are a lot of people trying to do just that, and I think I would want to kill myself pretty quickly. (Laughs) And even if I did write a song that I was sure about, I would have to spend such an immense amount of energy – besides creating the song - in the hustle. I already spend more than enough time in my own little hustle of selling the songs that I truly believe in, which are true to me and meaningful to me. So to create something that feels like a product and then have to spend double that time marketing that product, it doesn’t really stick out as an option.”

You have to respect Chapin for staying true to her art for art’s sake. That’s not the usual path in this business, but often when you do that, the full venues and over the top record sales ultimately come, and you haven’t sold your soul in the process. When it comes down to it, that may be the best lesson to teach your kids.

Jen Chapin plays Rockwood Music Hall in New York City tonight, May 20. For tickets, click here

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