If you attended an alternative school where your music teachers were a bunch of aging hippies who taught you to sing old Elizabethan murder ballads and haunting Appalachian folk songs and to play baroque recorder music, and if your dad and uncle were well-regarded folk singers and songwriters, you too might end up singing tight harmonies with your siblings and forming a group that seemed to exist slightly outside of time. So maybe the careers of Abigail Chapin and her sister Lily — daughters of the singer Tom Chapin and nieces of Harry Chapin (he of "Cat's in the Cradle" fame ) — make perfect sense. Maybe we live in an age when musically omnivorous 30-year-old women can draw equally and naturally from the of-the-moment pop of Britney Spears, the spooky sibling harmonies of the Louvin Brothers (whose songs of judgment and grace and family were already anachronistic in the early '60s when they recorded them), and maybe the future is always a crazy re-imagined mash-up of the past anyway.
The Chapin Sisters will perform at Bridge Street in Collinsville on July 24, and it will be a good opportunity to see and hear how very quiet, simple vocal music can have an arresting effect. Sometimes the sound of two people singing bare harmonies can be more startling and powerful than the most menacing noise you can produce with a stack of Ampeg cabinets and an arsenal of effects pedals. You try getting a room full of beer drinkers to quiet down and attend to two willowy women.
Abigail Chapin spoke with the Advocate recently by phone from Los Angeles, where she lives.
She talked about her and her sister's musical upbringing (until recently the group also included the pair's half-sister, Jessica). Lily graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown — which over the past decade has produced bands like Das Racist, MGMT, the Mobius Band, and others — in 2003. And Abigail attended Oberlin College, a school with a similarly fruitful music scene, where she said her "biggest musical outlet" in college was playing in the school's steel drum orchestra.
After graduating from their respective schools the sisters relocated to Los Angeles and started putting their act together in 2004. Though a crop of what would be called "freak folk" artists was about to emerge, it wasn't exactly a time that was completely receptive to quiet music.
"We started out only playing rock clubs. We didn't consider ourselves a folk act," says Abigail. "There weren't other bands playing three-part harmonies. People were silenced. They were like 'What is this?'"
You might find yourself asking the same question. Early on they got attention for covering Britney Spears. On the Chapin Sisters' most recent release, 2011's Two, the songs can evoke a range of things — Bulgarian women's choral music, soft rock, confessional '60s folkies, bracing Sacred Harp hymn singing and gentle melodies.
Add to that the pair's equally well-curated fashion sense, and the Chapin Sisters conjure something that seems both familiar and completely of the moment. The entire enterprise hinges on the power of human voices, resonating vocal cords, rib cages, air waves, ear drums and beating hearts.
"I hope to move people," says Abigail. "It's moving to me — singing. There's something physically emotional about it. It's such a physical act … the vibrations."
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