Tom Chapin on Idealism, Brotherly Love and Turning the Big 7-0
Tom Chapin doesn't look like how you would expect an idealistic, tree-hugging hippie of the 70's to be attired: no love beads, tie-dye or freak flag of a mane, but at age 70, the singer/songwriter/activist has lost none of his righteous indignation over injustice, nor his youthful optimism that things can change, if only we believe. But then, I wouldn't expect less from the man who got kids (and likely a few adults) to Make A Wish on tv in the early 70's. I sat down with Tom recently, to talk about the state of America, his sibling, the late Harry Chapin, and what it means to be an old folkie in the present-day musical landscape.
DG: I don't why it is, but it seems like decades from age 40 onward become "milestones" in a person's life, particularly us men. So tell me, did you have any grand epiphanies when you turned 70?
TC: The "grand epiphany" I came to was that "Seventy is the new '69"! The other epiphany came by way of my mom - she turned 95 recently, and I asked her "How does it feel?" Her response was, "Okay, I guess.......but I just can't get over the fact I have a son who's seventy years old!" I used my age as the album title to celebrate the fact that I am still out there, making the music that I love. When you first start out as a singer/songwriter, I think your main motivators are looking cool and getting girls. As you get older, you realize that your music can become the "bully pulpit" to express your take on a variety of things: growing older, the day-to-day experiences, and of course, the topical stuff.
DG: Indeed. I noticed you have a tune on 70 that is a commentary on "fracking" in our open waters....
TC: Yeah, the song is called "Down There", and it definitely has an anti-fracking message behind it. There's also a piece called, "The Riverkeeper" about the area I live in now, which is also where I grew up. I feel a strong connection with both the landscape and a reverence for the Native Americans who called this place home - "Muhheakunnuk" is a song I dedicate to them. There's a couple of love songs in there, and a couple of folk covers: Pete Seeger's "Quite Early Morning" as well as the tune I won a Grammy for as Best Spoken Word Album For Children in 2004 - The Train They Call The City of New Orleans. Of course, folks know that tune because Arlo Guthrie had a big hit with it back in the 70's, but it was actually written by Steve Goodman. I've covered it in concert dozens of times, but this is actually the first time I've recorded it - I kinda had to. Whenever people hear me perform it live, the first thing they ask is, "Which record is that on?"
DG: Probably because the song fits your musical oeuvre...
TC: Well let's face it - "City of New Orleans" is a fabulous song. It works on two levels - first, it's a nostalgic celebration of the railroads; and second, there's this bittersweet realization that we are leaving an important part of American culture behind.....perhaps too soon.
DG: You're right about it being a very catchy song, and Arlo certainly made it a staple of FM radio back in the 70's, yet I have to wonder if folks are still taking away the inherent message..
TC: That has always been an interesting discussion to me - how much do people really get from the music they like listening to? Music is a visceral medium, as in people tend to "feel" a song before they pay attention to the lyrics. To paraphrase lyricist E.Y. Harburg ("Over the Rainbow): "Words convey ideas, and music conveys emotion." "City of New Orleans" has both - which is why it is so popular, I think.
DG: You mentioned that you feel as if this album reflects where you are now, in terms of life and career. How does 70 differentiate itself from earlier works in that regard?
TC: I really don't see it being all that different. I see my life as a continuum, where I am always learning new things and seeing the world through a fresh pair of eyes. So I see it as another chapter in the life of Tom Chapin. I began playing music with my brothers when I was twelve - that's when I first picked up a guitar. So fifty-eight years later, I'm still learning and finding new ways to express myself. It's less a culmination, and more of a continuation.
DG: Were there any challenges during the recording process?
TC: Whenever you embark on a new album or project, it's "a leap of faith." In this day and age, it has to be a labor of love, especially if you don't exactly become rich off of it. We as a society seem to view music more as data than art - you have sites like Spotify and Pandora arguing against royalties for the artists: their attitude is, "Why should we have to pay for it?" So they begrudgingly pay you .0008 ¢ per play, which is about one fifteenth what you would've gotten back in royalties before the digital revolution took over.
DG: The album opens up with "Wreckage", a very powerful tune. What inspired that?
TC: That came out of a conversation I had with my son-in-law: he was referring to someone he knew who was having a rough time of it. At one point, Mike said, "It's like she's dwelling in the wreckage of the past." My response was, "Woah! That's a powerful observation. Can I use that line?" As a songwriter, you find inspiration in the seemingly ordinary. My heart went out to his friend who was hurting, but it also got me to thinking about what it means to be tied to the past in that way. The lyrics came almost instantly, "Combing through the wreckage of the past/Like I'm trapped in some deep hole, things I can't control...." The music didn't come so easily though. I tried a number of things in the beginning, but they all ended up sounding too happy. Then one day, I was picking on Pete Seeger's longneck, 5-string banjo that I own, and settled on a modal melody that just seemed to work with the melancholy theme of the words. It begins with the kernel of an idea, and then you, the songwriter follow that idea - when the banjo lick happened, it pretty much all came together at that point.
DG: How much time was spent in studio once you had all the songs?
TC: Well, this was a new paradigm for me. It wasn't as if we were all in the studio at the same time, and knocked it out in a week. I assembled this work in a piecemeal fashion: my musical collaborator John Colbert (keyboards) has a home studio. He produces a lot of music for commercials, so he has the professional setup, ProTools and all. So I took it song-by-song basically - me coming into his studio space and laying down a track or two with him and various people over a six month period. I didn't worry myself with what would end up as the final track listing - a couple of tracks written during this time failed to make the cut. This is my 24th CD - I have recorded in many places and in many ways, but the process of making 70 was a new one for me. And I still think in terms of a "concept album", even though nowadays, folks go online and download whatever track they like, and not the whole thing. The theme of my records, and the making of them, is my personal journey.
DG: You have won three Grammy awards for your children's albums - in fact, when I loaded 70 onto my Mac, iTunes identified the genre as being a children's album, which I found a little strange. Do you think the music business has now pigeonholed you as a "children's music" artist?
TC: This is definitely an album for adults.....and I don't mean that in a "Parental Advisory" sort of way. I admit to having two identities within musical circles: I have about 11 CDs I would say are aimed at you and me, and about 13 CDs aimed at you and me, and a six-year old. The only measurable difference is that my "children's albums" tend to be family-oriented, and I hope a little more sophisticated musically than a lot of what is out there for kids these days. By contrast, a recording like 70 contains topics of concern to me as an adult. That doesn't mean kids wont be able to connect with it however. My anti-fracking protest song "Down There" is my 5 year-old granddaughter's favorite tune right now - every time the family goes out with the car, she insists on hearing that song. I'm pretty sure she has no idea what the song is about, but she finds it catchy, so she likes it.
And yes, I'm aware that computer databases seem to automatically categorize me as a children's performer. I am of the folk tradition, which essentially means you sing for everybody, children and adults alike. My contemporaries, and folks I admire - from Peter Seeger to Peter, Paul and Mary all recorded children's songs. Once you become a parent, it's a game-changer. You change your perspective on things, and once your children are old enough to speak, you find yourself inspired to write songs to sing to them, which they can sing along to.
DG: Forgive me for showing my age right now - but back in the 70's (when I was in high school) two of my favorite non-cartoon tv shows were Marty Stouffer's Wild America and Make A Wish. It wasn't until I combed Youtube for some clips of it that I connected you as being the same Tom Chapin.
TC: (laughter). I have been very lucky to have hosted two shows on television, both of which I am extremely proud of. I was in my early twenties when I did the show Make A Wish, which I lovingly described as being "aimed at six to eleven year-old speed freaks." While ABC News (the producers of that program) targeted the 6-11 demographic, I know many high-schoolers and college kids were into that show. What I think made the show stand out was the quick-cut editing, the combination of archival news footage, animation and original songs by Lester Cooper. Kids and adolescents found it to be a really hip, entertaining show - there was so much verbal and thematic gymnastics going on, it was easy to miss a reference, sly metaphor or euphemism. Part of the fun was picking up on those things that went by so fast, you didn't have time to process them as they happened. It won both an Emmy Award and a Peabody Award, and I am very proud I was involved with that program. The other tv program viewers identify me with is National Geographic Explorer, which I hosted on Nickelodeon in the mid-to-late '80s. Explorer won an ACE Award as the Best Documentary Program on television, another great accomplishment.
Next installment: Harry Chapin's legacy, noble causes, and more personal tales set to music on 70.
Wow - looking back, this show was really out there!
Now I get the "speed freak" reference.