Sabrina Chap talks her second album “We Are the Parade!,” circus, sideshow and burlesque inspiration, her book tour, and the link between art and sanity.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
Q: Your first album “Oompa” was very well-received, and your hilariously fun, horn-blasting, burlesque-inspired second album “We Are the Parade!” was released this year on ERT Records, and you describe it as if “Regina Spektor met a marching band and took them to a vaudeville show.” The record features over 30 musicians and blends orchestral sounds with big band and Dixie without sounding chaotic or overdone. I couldn’t help but smile while listening to your album, found myself laughing out loud multiple times and certainly wanting to dance. It’s also a politically charged album in the sense that the title track was written in response to California’s Proposition 8 bill. Please tell our readers more about the process of putting the album together and your inspirations in doing so.
A: Well, the feel and ridiculousness of ‘We Are the Parade’ was entirely inspired by a photo by my friend, Dave Sanders. He had taken the photo, initially to be the cover of my first album, ‘Oompa!’. We had this really great photo shoot where I dressed as a drum major and we snuck onto roofs to take the photos. They were brilliant photos, but I looked at the result and realized they didn’t look like Oompa sounded.
Oompa was more of a ‘back of a dim-lit bar’ type of album, upright basses, piano, a lone trombone. . .that type of feel. And here I had a photo that was me smiling in the blazing sun wearing a big bass drum. I took one look at it and knew we had great photos- but not for this album. I apologized to my friend and we reshot the cover of “Oompa!” into the cover you now see. But I also told him that the drum major shoot was the cover of my next album.
Throughout the production and writing of Oompa! I wanted to think ‘orchestral riot’. The main word I wanted to be received by the listener was ‘joy’. As a former musical composition student, I allowed this album to be my grad school. I scored 10 out of the 13 tracks, writing out the music for the instruments, and basically decided I would do every musical idea that came into my head. There’s times for editing, and there’s time for explosion- this was my time for musical explosion, and acting as my own producer, I was able to be as ridiculous as I wanted.
My engineer was overwhelmed, especially as all the ‘orchestras’ you hear were mostly recorded one at a time. I would have a session with a lone bassoonist, and then another with a French hornist quadrupling their part. It was a musical puzzle on the production side of things, and luckily, it worked out.
I am very enamoured of the natural sound of instruments. Their voices, the clarinet has the smooth lilt of a classy lady two drinks in. A muted trumpet can sound like a drunk and horny widow. It’s theatre, making them all meet, and it was those musical moments I was searching for. ‘One Night Stand Serenade’ was written in part because I wanted to have a song where the instruments spoke as humans. Now, when I do it live in burlesque shows, I mostly fake orgasmic sounds during those musical moments in that song. Luckily, I have an orchestra or orgasmic sounds at the ready.
But yes- joy- I wanted the album to be joyful. Once I wrote the title track, ‘We Are the Parade’, which is a revolutionary call to arms for queers to arm themselves with the joy Joy is a weapon, sometimes the most resilient and underappreciated in survival. And I believe that the joy of the queer scene, which has to deal with so much hatred on the day to day, is how we survive.
Q: Regarding your background as a musician, you’ve played piano since the age of 5, with concentration on classical and even went to school for classical compositions but you’ve said that you “didn’t understand songwriting.” You eventually took up guitar, spoken word, theatre and books, but eventually made your way back to what you knew – piano. How did your other acquired skills (especially spoken word and theatre) help you as a performer (if at all)?
A: Well, my years doing spoken word have completely affected my type of songwriting. I am guilty of ‘over-writing’ sometimes, which is why patter songs come so effectively to me. Years of spitting out bad emotional open mic pieces have allowed me to simply be able to get the words out in songs like, ‘The Denial Rag’.
I began songwriting on guitar, but was terrible at it. Having been classically trained, I knew what a good musician should sound like- and my twang-y powerchords on acoustic guitar were initially embarrassing to me. So I did what anyone does when they’re embarrassed- I compensated. I compensated by writing really dense lyrics, in hopes that it would cover the bad guitar up. Once I got back to the piano, which I really could play, I realized I didn’t need to compensate anymore, which allowed me to write more musically confident songs that didn’t rely on the lyrics as much, although I am still inherently a lyric focused songwriter.
I was in theatre all of my life, and did study at the National Theatre Institute, but was especially interested in playwriting. I wrote and produced several plays, and would often tell people, when they asked what I did that I was a playwright and a songwriter. I really thought they were divided art forms in some way. However, once I stepped onto the burlesque stage, it was amazing. Here I could combine theatricality and songwriting. I also realized that most of my better songs were written from a character’s point of view. Sure, often times those ‘characters’ were versions of myself- but it became clear that character driven music was something that I naturally liked, and it combined my playwriting and songwriting skills.
Q: You perform your show regularly in burlesque and cabaret shows and circuses. Since your album is self-described as burlesque-inspired (and the inspiration is readily apparent in the music!) I’d love to know more specifically how you used burlesque as an inspiration for your music. Were there specific shows, venues, performers, performances, memories, etc. that you used as fodder while creating your album?
A: The entire burlesque and cabaret scene has been such an inspiration for this album. It started in a non-burlesque way. There’s a New York event called Cinema 16 where they pair up musicians with a series of silent movies. They’re incredible events, and the musicians they choose are varied, from cabaret inspired artists like me to more mainstream musicians, like the guys from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The curator, Molly Surno, listened to my music and gave me a series of silent movies to score- one of them being a test strip for Thomas Edison when he was testing out film colouration. The film was of the one of the silent movie era’s earliest stars (and later, Ziegfield Follies star), Annabell Whitford Moore, who was known for her amazing skirt dances. I was blown away by the silent film, and intimidated by it. She looked like a lotus flower, ever blossoming in a range of technicolour revolutions. When I performed it live, I performed it with a loop pedal, so I could create a big band effect with looped piano and kazoos. This dictated the form of the song, and when I came to scoring it, I sat down and rubbed my hands together thinking, “Now I get to score a big band!”
I studied Benny Goodman. I began talking to older musicians, one of which is the drummer for Woody Allen’s band, trying to understand the orchestration of those times. Again, I wanted that explosion. I wanted banging tom-toms that promised the thrill of an unraveling century. And even more so, I wanted to create something that a burlesque girl could dance to, so she could be a modern Annabelle Whitford Moore. (I later paired the original Edison strip inspiration with the final track off the new album, with Surno’s permission, and put it up on Youtube, so you’re welcome to look at what inspired the song.)
As a whole though, burlesque has inspired a lot of my music in the sense that it is character driven. I find that when I write a song, I’m creating a character- except since I’m shit at costuming and make-up, I create the characters and scenarios with lyrics, instrumentation and when I’m live- often a story set up. I was very surprised at my initial success performing in burlesque shows, although I was immediately at ease the first time I stepped on a stage. Currently, my albums don’t fully explore the range of my live shows, which are tending to be dirtier, darker or sometimes more satirical the more I perform in the scene. However, once I started touring in the UK, I began to see other people like me in the scene. Other ‘singers/songwriters’. The more I’ve performed in the scene, the more I learn about the tradition of vaudeville which was so inextricable from burlesque’s initial roots. Performing with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is a continual education in the history of the cirkus, sideshow and vaudevillian sides of showbiz, and where I fit in with them. But simply, I first truly came to burlesque because I had this one song ‘Never Been a Bad Girl’ on ‘Oompa! that I thought was something a burlesque girl should dance to. I didn’t know how to get the girls to dance to it, so I finally e-mailed a show and asked if I could perform it, and it worked like a charm. That song didn’t just belong in the burlesque world. I did. The more I’m in it, the more I learn about it and the more it inspires me. I feel extremely lucky, as a musician, to have any part of such a thrilling performance scene.
Q: I’ve read that in contrast to your current super happy, horn-driven fun album, your plans for your next album are “super twisted” and “really dark and very, very fucked up” and that you have the most songs written for that record. Care to share more details with our readers about those plans?
A: Oh yes. See, actually, of all of the albums, the next one, tentatively entitled, ‘Freaks’, is full-on inspired by my time in burlesque. Several of the written songs were directly because of burlesque shows. The one that is the most popular, and has undoubtedly become my ‘signature’ song is called, ‘The One Thing I have Never Done’ (aka as ‘The Dirty Song’.) I wrote that for Book Club Burlesque, an event that was going on a bit ago in New York. Each show was based on a different book, which you were supposed to read and then do a performance based off of. The assigned book was Edward Gorey’s “The Curious Sofa”. I read the notice about the this burlesque show, (at the time, I hadn’t been performing in burlesque) and thought I’d give it a shot. I love song assignments, and love Edward Gorey. I thought I’d have to write something about the alphabet- you know, A is for Alice when falls down the stairs type of thing. But then I read the book, which he actually published under a pseudonym originally because it’s so filthy. I was shocked. And I sat back, my eyes wide, and realized, “I have to write the dirtiest song ever written.”
I considered like my ‘Aristocrats’ joke. How far was I willing to go. I remember writing very clearly- I was sitting in my bathtub, scribbling away and I had two thoughts, well. . .one thought and one moment. The moment was when I cringed while writing some of the lyrics. I had never written something so out of my comfort zone before. The thought was, “Why am I working so hard on this song? I will never ever play it ever again. There’s no place for this song.”
But then a month later, I was booked for Cheeky Monkey’s Sideshow in DC, and all of the other performers were prepping their props- tying their razor blades together, prepping their broken glass or bed of nails. I felt like a high school freshman that just came from a Catholic school. My eyes were like saucers. And again, because I was so afraid, I overcompensated, and did the dirty song. I was like, “I’ve gotta do that song.” And now it’s my most requested tune.
That song’s in there, as well as several others written expressly for burlesque shows. One of my favorite burlesque shows I’ve ever performed in is ‘That’s F*cked Up!’ which is in Seattle every year. It’s curated by burly geniuses, Heidi Von Haught and Randi Rascal, and encourages everyone to push the boundaries of performance. I sent Heidi my dirty song because we were simply friends, and she invited me to be a part of it- but then asked me to write another song like it. I had gone as far as I could with sex in the dirty song, and didn’t think I could outdo it, so I decided to focus on politics, which forced me to write the satirical song, ‘Democracy’. In the performance, I sang it while stripping and then ended up blowing the microphone at the end. Performance! The next year, Heidi asked me to participate again, and I didn’t want to touch politics again, but no one else was touching on the Republican race for presidency, which at that point was dominating the news, so then I wrote a rap where I rapped as all the Republican nominees. I’ll tell you, when I was studying Stravinsky in college, I never thought I’d end up being on stage, dressed as a gangsta Newt Gingrich, yelling out, ‘You be the bitch, I be the Gingrich!’ But yeah, that happened.
The rap won’t be on the next album, but the rest of it will. The difference though, is that my earlier stuff has been more about recalling more classic burlesque or early century music sounds- touching on those scenes. I’m interested in creating a new sound. What is the sound of new cabaret? Of new burlesque? Who is our 21st Century Benny Goodman? Who’s our 21st Century Annabelle Moore? I want to see if I can listen hard to myself and figure that out.
That being said, the entire catalogue of songs is fitting into a narrative, so I’m also going to create a cabaret act based off those songs. My dream is to have a tight back-up band, small but effective- piano, bass, drums, sax and accordions and really flesh out the songs together instead of me piece-mealing an orchestra together. And the grand dream is that John Cameron Mitchell discovers it all and puts it together in some sort of Hedwig and the Angry Inch genius plan. But yes- long answer short- the songs on ‘Freaks’ are almost exclusively inspired my time in burlesque and cirkus, and in me trying to find my voice in that scene. And apparently, I’m a pretty twisted muthafucka.
Q: You just concluded your west coast tour for “We Are the Parade!” and you’re simultaneously promoting the second edition of your book, Live Through This – On Creativity and Self-Destruction which now includes an introduction by Amanda Palmer. You also do workshops on the topics of gender, self-destruction and art, and since it’s so pertinent to our burlesque readership – I’m quite interested in your questions about whether artistic women are more prone to self-destruction, and whether there is a link between art and sanity.
A: I could talk forever on this subject, and often do. Speaking in colleges about gender, art, creativity and self-destruction has been the way I have been able to be lucky enough to tour so widely. I’m very proud of the book, and the amazing contributors the second edition has allowed me to get (besides Amanda Palmer, Margaret Cho and street artist Swoon are new additions, along with original contributors bell hooks, Nan Goldin, Annie Sprinkle & Beth Stephens and more.)
The link between art and sanity. Oh, I love that question. It’s complex for me to answer, specifically because I’m an artist. I don’t know how it would be to come at this question from another profession. Simply, and it’s easy to say ‘YES!’ they’re connected, not only because being an artist encourages people to examine human nature, and hence, themselves. That propels a lot of navel gazing and emotion- a lot of consideration given to the deeper questions that other professions, sometimes can find easier to ignore. Also, there’s such a beautiful and romantic history of the connection between art and genius. From Sexton and Plath to the my modern day heroine, Sarah Kane- who famously killed herself after writing her seminal play 4.18 Psychosis, which was essentially a staged suicide note, there is such sensation in the self-destructive artist. For men, it’s more ‘acceptable’, but just as damaging, with iconic heroes like Hemingway who also killed himself, to Van Gogh to Bukowski to Rimbaud. I mean, hell. The lot of ‘em were ‘biographically nuts’. (I say this, because their biographers tend to romanticize any self-destructive nature because hey, ‘Crazy, alcoholic sells!’)
I used to believe this. I used to believe, you had to be crazy to be an artist. A good one. And then I watched a documentary on Chuck Close, the genius American artist. He’s someone I truly admire, and in the middle of his career, suffered a seizure which not only put him in a wheelchair, but made it very difficult for him to hold a paintbrush. In the documentary, I remember him sort of shrugging and being like, “Well, so now I have to wear a brace and I get my assistant rig up my painting to I can paint them while sitting down.” He just kept working. It astounded me. That you could just keep working, and that well of brilliance might just continue to be there.
The romance of being an unstable artist is one that we cling to because it’s easier for some people to simply be unstable than to do the work of being an artist. I often use Bukowski as an example, because I remember a lot of male ‘writer’ friends who wanted to ‘write’ but only hung out in bars and thought they had to screw a lot of women to be a writer. I remember being like, “I think you still have to sit down and write. . .” It is easier to assume the lifestyle of a romantic self-destructive artist and feel like you are emulating your heroes, and are, de facto, an artist. I chose to not be that type of artist long ago, and it is a very distinct decision on my part.
That being said, emotional highs and lows are nothing to laugh about. And that type of emotional resonance that comes easier to most are demonized as ‘crazy’ or ‘unstable’. Meanwhile, people are working 60 hour jobs in fluorescent offices and thinking prime time tv is hilarious. I mean, come on. Who are they calling crazy? Still, what do they want to do with people that don’t fit into that schematic of over-engineered life? Medicate them. Make them feel bad about not fitting into their rat-race. Say that the problem is that you’re crazy.
Meanwhile, I think there is insane untapped power locked into our self-destructive forces that, if unleashed upon the world, would change it. Art has been a very effective tool for this transition. It lends itself better to the insane than, I don’t know, a maniacal insurance salesman. That being said, as an artist, I see the direct links. However, I do believe that we’ve co-opted that romantic image of self-destruction, when it can indeed be found in any field. There is a culture to the ok self-destruction in any field, in law offices, you’re sometimes expected to work 80 hours and then go out and get hammered with your buddies. Yeah, like that’s not a self-destructive culture. But I do believe that there is art in every field- art simply is questioning life, and bringing forth your interpretation of that. That can play out in any field. There are lots of artists that I don’t even consider ‘artists’ anymore. Just turn on the radio. They’re money-making machines, just cuz they sing doesn’t make ‘em artists. But contemplation, strength, and a desire to see beyond your own given horizon- be it arts or science or law . . .anyone can have those tendencies.
All of that being said, I know my art keeps me sane. If I didn’t make things, I’m not sure I’d be here anymore.
Q: What have been the results of the dialogues in your workshops so far?
A: Because I think about this so often, I’m surprised at how little others do. I know that sounds snobby, but I’m often speaking in colleges, where a lot of the students have only begun to consider themselves, and often get lost in the maze of romantic roles, idealizations, cultural landmines our history has laid out for us. One of my favorite essays in the book is bell hooks’, who talks about how by reading fiction as a child, she was able to understand that sometimes children are the target for unjust adult rage. When she realized that, she realized that some of the suicidal feelings of helplessness she was feeling weren’t necessarily her own fault, but came with the tidal wave of history that washes over all of us, every minute. The wave that carries misogyny, racism, ageism, class war in the force of it’s current. I am constantly astounded at how much women artists tend to claim the fault of histories failings as their own fault, and silence themselves, or accept the label of ‘crazy’ or ‘unstable’. The dialogues have been fascinating to me as someone who has vested interest in the subject, but what has amazed me most is how many e-mails or quiet admissions I have received from people who have read the book and said it has saved their lives, or helped them through a difficult time. And I think the reason that happens is because it’s one of the few books out there that doesn’t demonize self-destruction, but recognizes its importance in harnessing your own sense of power.
Q: What have you learned during the process of editing your book, touring and promoting it?
A: Oh, so much. I was signed with Seven Stories Press, who also publishes heavy-weights like Kurt Vonnegut, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Being considered by an outside source to have something to offer was astounding to me. I don’t want to say I didn’t have confidence as an artist before hand, because I always have. But I didn’t truly believe that it was possible to live as an artist. To have that profession. The book was my first entry into living my dream as a reality. Having something you thought of at night suddenly be available in every Barnes and Nobles was a pretty empowering moment for me. It made me believe in my wild notions more.
Touring and promoting it made me begin to understand the ‘biz’ in showbiz. Currently, I represent myself. It’s getting hard to manage doing tour booking, press, marketing, writing new songs, producing, orchestrating, arranging the albums and then actually showing up and performing without feeling like I want to hide in my apartment and watch Netflix all day. That being said, I was lucky enough with the book to have an awesome cast of already established artists help me understand how ‘they’ did it. What does it mean to ‘tour’. Why do you have to ‘promote’. Up until the book, I literally thought that all Tom Waits did was drink whiskey and write songs. Now I’m beginning to get, he might have attended some meetings too. Reading the biography of Sophie Tucker, she talks a lot about the management of her career- and I’m beginning to realize how important the biz is to making it in ‘Showbiz’.
Q: What’s next for Sabrina Chap?
A: So much. Right now, I’m in the middle of booking my UK tour again. I’m hoping everything works out. I’m doing some spot gigs in Cleveland and Detroit for some stellar gigs, performing at Pinch & Squeals’ Voix De Ville and Detroit’s Theatre Bizarre, as well as doing a burlesque show with my favorite line up EVER – me, Lushes LaMoan, Moxie Rhodes (Wisconsin), Sweet LilyBea (Minneapolis), organized by Shane Bang, who’s amazing. I have some ‘producers’ that want to do a musical revue based off my music, so that might happen. Right now I’m working on fleshing out the story with them. I’m hoping to get a monthly live gig in New York where I can figure out a way to pay a band so I can develop the next album. I’m doing a lot of songwriting at home. And I have to clean the tub at some point. I mean, really- it’s just there staring at me day after day.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
A: I’m honored to have a small place in this burgeoning scene of burlesque, cirkus and vaudevillian entertainment. I have learned so much from every performer I’ve been lucky enough to perform alongside, and the generosity and fearlessness of these communities astounds me . I hope I can continue to make a little music to add to the scene, make a few people laugh and continue discovering my own voice as an artist on these stages. Also, I’d love to tour in your city and meet you, whoever you are.