Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

She is the Parade: An Interview With Sabrina Chap

Written by Katy Otto
Photos by Dave Sanders
It felt fitting to interview Sabrina Chap, author, speaker, and songwriter, about her sophomore release We Are the Parade—after all, our friendship got a jumpstart after I interviewed her for Sadie after her first release, Oompa! This newest album, out this past fall, came at the same time as the talented New Yorker’s reissue of Live Through This, an anthology she edited on women, creativity, and self-destruction.
Sabrina is well-versed in taking audiences and the world by charismatic storm, and her newest work proves it. Animated, joyful, and whimsical, We Are the Parade positions her as an even more formidable stage performer and force to be reckoned with. Read more about how she made the album below.

Katy: How did the writing of We Are the Parade differ from Oompa!?
Sabrina: It was so very different. Oompa! was my first studio CD, although I had been writing and performing songs already for at least ten years. I had written scores of songs before then.  With Oompa!, it was the first time I felt like, “I have to record these songs before I write more. OK, I have to get these down,” so I felt very confident in the material. We Are the Parade was inspired by a photo shoot that was initially done for Oompa!, but once the shoot was over, I looked at the photos and realized that the photos seemed happier and more vibrant than the music on Oompa! was. I knew we had to reshoot, but I was interested in making an album that sounded as joyous as the photos looked. So, I based We Are the Parade on that photo session. 
A lot of the writing was different because it was the first time I was composing for something bigger than me and a piano. I was hearing different instruments and wanted to really explore musically in the studio, so a lot of the songs on WATP lend themselves to that. Also, a few of them were written on assignment—two were initially written for Cinema 16, a New York event where musicians score silent movies, and one of them was written because I was sick of playing “Never Been a Bad Girl” at burlesque shows. I wrote “Til it All Stops” because I needed to have another slower song on the album, and “Oh My, Oh Me” was written as a poem first, which never happens. So for the most part, the writing of it was completely different, but probably the biggest difference was that I knew it would be a more orchestral album, so the lyrics (sometimes) have more space on them to fit the instruments.

Katy: Tell me about the orchestral arrangements on We Are the Parade. Did you write them all? How did you choose collaborators?
Sabrina: I either arranged or musically directed ten out of the thirteen tracks, and then helped on one more. I’ve learned that the trick is getting musicians that are smarter than you. I’ve had great luck with musicians. Since I knew this album would be horn heavy, I enlisted the help of three different sets of horn players—one that specialized in Dixie, one that specialized in Latin and jazz, and another jazz trio. The Dixie people are great because in songs like, “We Are the Parade,” I basically just tell the clarinet player, “I would like you to enter here and do something that sounds like this,” and then she does it and it’s brilliant. The clarinetist is Janelle Reichman who just stuns me with her awesomeness. On stuff like “When I Grow Up,” I studied Big Band scores and listened to [Gene] Krupa stuff and Benny Goodman stuff. I was a musical composition major in college, and though I had been so scared to be in the studio on Oompa!, when the Dixie trio from the great band the Red Hook Ramblers came in on the track, “Failed Waitress/Failed Astronaut,” I realized that there was no reason to be afraid. I could be as ridiculous as possible—so I sort of let myself flip out orchestrally on this album, sort of using it as a master’s in remembering and doing music composition again. It was hella fun. Tracks like “I Trans-Atlantically Love You” were very much included because I wanted to score them, and I’m really proud of how they turned out. 
I choose collaborators by finding people that are good at their instruments and are nice to work with. I was very lucky in working with great musicians on Oompa! who I brought back for this album, and then finding new awesome people by mostly having recommendations thrown at me by people I trust. That being said, I am very lucky to have found Lee Free (MEN, Bitch and The Exciting Conclusion, Circus Amok) to work with for this album. My old drummer, Ethan Short, moved to New Orleans, and I auditioned about six different drummers before finding Lee, whose innovative drumming really allowed me to discover and mentally begin the arrangements for the tracks.

Katy: As I write this, you are in England. What role has Europe played in your development as a musician?

Sabrina: Europe has played a great role in my development as an artist, not necessarily a musician. I say this because I owe a lot of my creative freedom and desire to be an artist to the year I spent living in Paris when I was twenty-three. Up until that point, I had just gone to school, college, and then gotten a job. Then I ended up living in a bookstore in Paris, or living in squats, and reading all the time. Since I wasn’t legal, I had to rely on my wits and talents, and found that I had some. I made my living that year touring and performing as a spoken word artist (since I didn’t have a musical instrument on me). The freedom that I find in Europe is one that I don’t often find in America, so I continually return here trying to reinspire and remind myself of things I often forget when I’m sitting in my room in New York—things like “Life is beautiful, vibrant, and essential—live it.”  Of course, I get that from traveling as a whole, which is why I’m on the move so much.
Katy: What is your favorite city on Earth?
Sabrina: Paris. Or Chicago. And I’m really interested and slightly obsessed with learning more about Detroit.
Katy: Do you feel a connection to punk? I know you’ve played house shows before, but your music is so aesthetically different from DIY punk; I’m just wondering if that community attracts you at all, or if you connect to it.
Sabrina: That’s a great question. It’s funny. When I was growing up, I was a good girl.  Very much so. Class president, participated in every [after-school] activity, got good grades, listened to my parents—the works. It had a lot to do with pleasing my parents, who are both from other countries and had worked so hard to give me these opportunities. I wasn’t at all involved in punk culture, and truthfully, used to be the type of person who thought punks were scary. 
And then I went to college and flipped out, and suddenly everyone was telling me how raw and crazy and weird I was all the time. Of course, I went to this super, super straight, white, (at the time) homophobic school. But I just couldn’t hold up the good girl thing anymore, so I broke hard. But at that school, there weren’t many punks around. I was still listening to folk music and Stravinsky.
Since then, I’ve found that pretty much everyone that is my friend is pretty into the punk culture, and that my ideals align with punk. That being said, it’s always been a bit weird because I’ve never been a super fan of the music. Straight up, I like acoustic instruments.  I’ve never been in love with an electric guitar. Still, if I go to a punk or heavy metal show, I always have a great time. But the fact it, though I can rock out at a concert and appreciate any sort of music, at home I listen to Louis Armstrong and Nina Simone. I’ve always been more “Ha-cha-cha!” than “Oi Oi Oi”!
Katy: What role does joy play in your life? It’s so abundant in this new record. I want to know what it means for you.
Sabrina: I’m so glad you used that word, because I was really hoping to make it a bit joyous. The picture Dave took that inspired the album was so joyous, it just made me think, “Trumpets. I need trumpets.” I wanted it to be celebratory and joyous. As for the role joy has in my life, I need it very badly, and I often forget that fact. I work really hard and push myself, and oftentimes forget to “schedule in” activities that give me joy. I try to remember that it is present, everywhere—the potential to be joyous. And necessary. The song “Joyful Girl” by Ani DiFranco comes to mind, which is not a trumpet-laden song, but a quietly joyful one. And that is what I am at my best: quietly joyful. The trumpets might be a bit much. ;)  But. . .eh, fuck it.
Katy: Is it hard to sing about your interpersonal relationships so publicly? Has it had repercussions?
Sabrina: It’s not hard to sing about them at all because I never reveal anything that I’m not already OK with. I haven’t been in a relationship for about three years now, so I’ve been able to sing about past relationships without any problem or repercussion (that I know of). Also, for the most part, in any situation that I paint, I’m pretty much the asshole. There is something that I’m having to contend with in terms of cabaret though, which is that I’ve started to develop this persona onstage that isn’t exactly me. It’s about 15 percent of me. Sex and drinking go over big when you’re speaking to a burlesque audience, and I think I naturally tend to only reveal that side of me when I’m performing at those shows. Or at least, I highlight it to the extent that some people think that I sit around, drink whiskey, think about sex and love all day, and then go to shows. Which is obviously not true. I also eat. No, just kidding. But this persona has become a bit dominant onstage, and so people approach me offstage and in everyday life with a caricaturized understanding of me, which can be hard to deal with. Also, because it gets such an audio response from the crowd (cheering, heckling, et cetera), I’ve begun to subconsciously bring that persona to my normal shows too. . . to the point where I’m always telling stories and jokes before shows. That could get tricky if I get into another relationship, but for the most part, I try to be very safe with what I allow people to know of me and my loved ones.

Katy: As your friend, you’ve always struck me as having more emotional fortitude and, for lack of a better word, chutzpah, than most. This comes across even in your songs. Do you think this is a fair assessment, if you were to hazard a guess?
Sabrina: I think I’m just very earnest. I’m very curious about the emotional terrain, and I have no fear in trying to explore it. I am scared of other things, but delving into an emotional abyss is like brushing my teeth for me. I need a lot of time to understand my feelings, and if I don’t have time to find a language for the way I’m feeling—to pin it down—I feel a bit out of control and unhappy. Since I’m always doing this, of course it’s what I talk about, which makes it seem like I’m great at dealing with it. But the truth is, I don’t think I have any more emotional fortitude than anyone else. People go through much worse shit than I have every day, and don’t tell a soul. The fact that we’re all here trying to make the best of things in this sometimes very difficult world is a testament to our resilience. That being said, I do have a fantastic capacity to laugh at myself, which I think does help. 
Katy: Tell me about the new edition of Live Through This.
Sabrina: I’m super excited and proud of it. Seven Stories approached me last year with the idea of doing a new edition, and possibly adding a few more contributors. I was very excited for this chance as it allowed me to get more stories, and also to bring fantastic new names to the book. I can’t believe who I got: Amanda Palmer to introduce, and new essays from Swoon and Margaret Cho. I look at the lineup now and I pretty much wet myself. I’m so proud to present these voices that articulate what self-destruction and creativity have meant to them. Amanda’s intro is kick-in-the-face-awesome. Truly. I really didn’t know what Margaret would contribute—being a comedienne, I thought it’d be really funny, but it really is one of the most vulnerable and heart-cracking pieces I’ve read. I was so glad to include Swoon’s essay, which touches on how to deal with the trauma you’ve been dealt with. There is some advice in that essay that I’ve repeated to myself since. Additionally, I had a chance to go back to some of the original authors and ask them straight-up, direct questions, like “What do you do when you want to self-destruct”? The essays they’ve written are already such road maps, but sometimes it’s nice to straight up hear their direct responses. Finally, I find so much inspiration in studying and learning about the creative lives of artists, and though there are a bunch in the book we can learn from, I decided to add a list of other incredible women and trans artists to check out, including up to fifty names of artists in different categories (music, poetry, dance) that people could check out for further inspiration.
Katy: Have you been doing events for the new edition of the book and the new album in tandem?
Sabrina: I have. It’s hilarious. I try and prep the audience, “So, I’m a bit weird . . . and this will be a weird show. I’m going to give a lecture about self-destruction and creativity, where we’ll touch on fun subjects like depression, suicide, cutting and MORE  and THEN I’m going to put on a boustier and sing insane songs at you! Hoorah! The strange thing is, it’s worked. I think the common thread is that there is a bit of a rawness to all my work, so it tends to somewhat make sense. I also try and weave some more of my songs that were written as a way of survival or reflection and talk a bit more about my own life so that it makes a better connection. I’ve had a pretty terrific response. 
Katy: Has your perspective on the book changed since last we spoke?
Sabrina: Not really. The only difference is that in the intervening years, I’ve been lucky enough to hear from more readers that the book has helped them out through a hard time. It amazes me how many people it’s reached, and I am so happy that people have found it helpful during their hard times. That’s what I was hoping for.
Katy: What’s next for you? What are you excited about? Tell us!
Sabrina: OK, so I’m SUPER excited about making it through this next week. I’m on a plane now, I arrive in a few hours, go to sleep, go to work for the next few days, then fly to Chicago, drive to Milwaukee to rehearse with a new band, and then drive back to Chicago for a show, drive to Detroit for two shows where I have to play THREE ONE-HOUR SLOTS, do a workshop on the book, drive back to Chicago, fly back to New York, and then get back to work on Monday morning. If I can get through that, it’s going to be a miracle. 
Past that, I’m just tired. I’ve been touring a lot lately, and promoting as much as one lil lady can. I need to sit and rest and work on my next album which I’m BEYOND excited about. It’s going to be insane. All of my crazy burlesque tunes are going to be on there, as well as my super dark and mean ones. I’m hoping for a totally different sound (again). My dream soundscape would have piano (of course), harpsichord, accordion, violin, bass, drums, and possibly electric guitar and some Balkan-influenced stuff. But maybe all of that will go out the window. I don’t know. I can’t wait to find out.
Finally, it’s my birthday today and I’m finishing responding to this interview while back on a flight from Paris. Before I left, I bought myself a bottle of champagne so I could both celebrate my birthday and just say “Fuck Yeah” to myself after I finished this tour. I’m so glad I did. This tour has been amazing. I feel so blessed and full of love. I just can’t wait to get home to pop off the cork. 
(Of course, “That’s what she said.”)

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