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Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011

The Chapin Sisters, Siblings in Sync

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There were three Chapin Sisters—well, two sisters and a half-sister—before Jessica Craven took a sabbatical prior to the release of their second album, Two. Craven had just given birth to a daughter, which took precedence even after the Chapin Sisters had garnered radio play with their first album’s delightfully un-ironic roots-music cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” It’s nice to see the addition of a Chapin Niece, because with a prominent Chapin Father (children’s folk singer Tom Chapin) and Chapin Uncle (singer/songwriter Harry), it was hard not to wonder when a niece would enter into the family business.

“Hopefully not for a long time,” says Lily Chapin. “Right now she’s pretty occupied with blocks.”

If careers really are genetic, then there is always the outside chance that Jessica Craven’s daughter will forgo music to take after her grandfather, horror magnate Wes Craven. Either would be befitting of her mother’s former band. The Chapin Sisters’ music is built on haunting, often eerie vocal harmonies that replace all but the sparsest of instrumentation. Their singing is wistful, resigning itself to music that is menacing (“Digging a Hole”), ominous (“Sweet Light”) or just plain sad (“Palm Tree”).

It only seems fitting that siblings Lily and Abigail harmonize together so well. They each seem able to intuit what the other’s voice will do. Part of this must be practice; they had been singing together well before working under the Chapin Sisters moniker. Their voices and cadence piece together more perfectly than mere longtime singing partners. It was at the suggestion of half-brother Jonathan Craven that they formed a band.

For Lily, the advantage of working with Abigail isn’t so much aesthetic as personal. Performing onstage is a magical experience made all the better by sharing it with family.

“To be able to spend those moments with my sister makes all the touring and driving and sitting around waiting to play worthwhile," she says.

Though their music makes it seem like the sisters are of the same mind, they shrug off the idea that their working relationship is that different from any other duo.

“From what I understand about bands, whether you’re working with a sibling or not, an intimate relationship tends to begin,” Lily says.

That doesn’t mean the working relationship is totally the same. It’s hard, Lily thinks, not to revert to childhood when things go badly, and read into things the way people do with their siblings. It’s the curse of working with family, but it’s also a blessing. It allows the sisters to know each other outside their memories of growing up.

“Sometimes we surprise each other,” Lily says. “We fall into this assumption that we know what each other likes. That’s the thing about working with family. You’re always reminded that there might be more sides to the person you’re working with.”

So, maybe they aren’t as in sync as they sound. Few people could be. Still, they both show an incredible ability to find like-minded musicians—not the least of which each other, but different musicians as well. Last year’s tour saw their alt-old-timey sound open for the similarly vintage-oriented music of She & Him. The Chapin Sisters were often called in as backing vocals. “She & Him & her & her,” says Lily, “and him & him & him—there are a few other people in the band, too.”

But listening to Two, it’s pretty clear that they are exactly as in sync as they sound, that musical aptitude must be embedded into their family DNA, and that the Chapin Niece should pick her instrument soon.

The Chapin Sisters perform as part of an 8 p.m. bill at Mad Planet with Rooney and Eisley on Monday, Feb. 7.


Joe Uchill is a free-lance writer whose work has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review Online and regularly in the
Shepherd Express.
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