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Sasha Chapin is Nobody's Everyman

See the Scorsese-inspired music video for “Number One Dad” and read an interview from the most thoughtful musician in the world.
April 14, 2015, 1:40pm

Sasha Chapin is an interesting dude. You couldn’t tell that just by looking at him, because the novelist-turned-singer/songwriter is almost shockingly nondescript. If you came across him while looking at a crowd of people, nothing would stand out: he’s an average size, of an average build, and looks like the sort of man with whom you could speak at great lengths with without saying anything of substance. But looks can be deceiving, and the more time you spend around Chapin the more you find just how deep shallow waters can run.

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The story of Chapin’s journey from author to musician is as interesting as the man himself. Chapin had been working on a novel for almost three years when he suffered a nervous breakdown and abandoned the project. Needing another creative outlet, Chapin began a deeper exploration into his infatuation with music in order to discover what music written and sun by him may sound like. Two years later, he's completed his debut album Golden Ticket. It’s a collection of stark and finely-crafted pop songs that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard, full of content that teeters on the edge of heart-breaking and hilarious.

While it’s Chapin’s beautiful arrangements and lilting melodies that will capture your attention, taking the time to delve deeper into the lyrics pays dividends. It’s these words, the ones that are sung as well as spoken, that make him a mesmerising artist and individual. The lyrics on Golden Ticket are simple but incredibly effective—invoking imagery that grabs hold of your emotions and takes them wherever it damn well pleases.

When I caught Sasha’s performance at a tiny venue/art space in Toronto, Chapin kicked off his set with no preamble, shocking the crowd with the distinctiveness of his voice. You notice it on the album, but live, it’s something else. It's cooed and gentle, as if he's performing to a room full of infants. Halfway through his set, he invites the audience to interact in a Q&A session. While he’d already enamoured himself to the crowd with the quips and anecdotes between songs, this was when you got a sense of who Sasha Chapin was. Before answering your question, he’s silent for a considerable time—really taking it in and formulating an answer that more often than not is pure gold. When asked if he prefers dogs or cats, Chapin looked at the ceiling, pondering for a few moments before replying: “Dogs will viciously bite you, but a cat will eat its owner after he’s dead. So it’s sort of a draw.”

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In an interview full of pregnant pauses, we spoke with Chapin about insecurity, creative fulfilment and why female singers/songwriters are the bee’s knees. Read the full interview, and check out his Scorsese-inspired music video for “Number One Dad” below.

Noisey: At what point after your efforts as a novelist prematurely ended to you decide that you wanted to get serious about music?
Sasha Chapin: I threw myself into it more or less immediately. I think I considered being an artist integral to my self image. I briefly considered a bunch of things but I saw myself finding my way through life through self expression and anything else seemed unimaginable. It wasn’t so much I wanted musicianship specifically, it was just I needed something and that was the first little piece of flotsam to float by me.

When you first began writing songs, was there any anxiety that this endeavour would come to the same end as your novel?
Yes, definitely. There were late nights singing a song over and over again, not being able to hit the notes. I called friends of mine—dozens of times, probably—essentially begging them to tell me to quit. [I described] my anxiety in such a way that would make them intervene and tell me to stop. No one did, fortunately. I wrote fifty or so songs before I started feeling confident at all.

Some people might assume that as a writer you would write lyrics first and then put music to it. Would that be a correct assumption?
I would surprise those people. My writing process starts with music, usually with me feeling bored and playing guitar. My mind is wandering and I find some combination of a certain phrase and a certain couple of chords. That’s how I access the emotion that goes into the song; that’s how I find whatever memory, place or literary conceit I’m writing from. Not more so than any other person, I constantly experience conflicting emotions about my recent past so I don’t quite know how I feel until I start writing a song. It’s wonderful that way because it allows me to extract a better, more refined emotion and thought from an endless tangle of whatever’s running through my mind at a certain moment.

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I read an interview in which you said your producer Matt Smith brought in a number of musical influences that you weren’t necessarily into beforehand. Do you think these influences are going to become a permanent part of your sound or are you looking forward to having whoever you work with in the future help inform the sound of each project you work on?
I love what Matt brought to the record. I think he really improved the songs and added a lot of shape to them. It’s not so much his influences were unwelcome in of themselves, it’s that I was feeling very desperate when I wrote those songs and very afraid of the whole process of recording music. I sort of thought of them as precious objects I was afraid would shatter and he brought a sense of play to them. In the end I embraced that—after a lot of producer/artist therapy sessions. His sounds will definitely stay with me and I look forward to continuing to work with him. I also don’t want my sound to stay totally static. I spend a lot of time these days playing with beats, different music software, trying to expand my palette just because I get bored of myself. I really admire artists like St. Vincent, for example, who are constantly changing their sound. I love how Bob Dylan has a bunch of distinct periods and I certainly have a restless mind.

I find that certain aspects of your phrasing and parts of your vocal approach are more akin to female singer/songwriters than the run-of-the-mill male artist. Are there certain female performers that have struck a chord with you and been an influence on how you write?
Definitely. A lot of male singer/songwriters, whether recent or from decades ago, sing with a sort of bravado that doesn’t necessarily resonate with me—not that I feel it’s invalid, it’s just not part of my natural approach. My way of singing evolved out of a terror of not being able to sing, because I really couldn’t sing when I started writing. The kind of transparency that a lot of female singer/songwriters achieve—that immediacy is appealing to me. Specifically, I really love Sibylle Baier; Joni Mitchell; Judee Sill; Sue Tompkins from the band Life Without Buildings and Jennifer Castle, a Toronto singer/songwriter I really admire.

Two songs I really enjoy on Golden Ticket are “I Can Tell” featuring Olivia Featherstonhaugh and “Rum Raisin” which features Felicity Williams who sings with Bahamas. How did those collaborations come about?
They were both people I knew from around. Olivia is a recent acquaintance. We got along immediately, she’s a very fine songwriter and just recently started playing as Snacks. Felicity is someone who’s been in the music scene for a long time. I admire her singing with Bahamas and a guy named Thomas Gill who sometimes records simply as Thomas. When I was writing both of those songs I saw them as duets just because I felt like they were intimate songs about relationships. I also felt like I didn’t have enough resources as a performer to express everything I wanted to. They’re both very intelligent singers in different ways—Felicity is laser precise [while] Olivia’s voice is very breathy and laid back and cool. I tried to encourage them to bring their own personalities to the songs and I think they did a wonderful job.

Your literary nature comes shows up in aspects of this project other than your lyric writing. Your social media posts are always entertaining and well thought out, and you’re offering one-off, hand written letters about random topics with copies of Golden Ticket. Do all these things fulfil your need to write, or do you see yourself continually adding more literary aspects?
I’m never completely fulfilled creatively. If I write a song, I might be frustrated that I can’t include a certain phrase in it. If I’m writing in my journal or on Twitter I may get frustrated because I feel like there’s something in the subject to be expressed with melody or harmony. I just got Instagram so now I’m getting into thinking about the visual world and capturing scenes around me as a way of expressing a point of view. I probably most of all envy my friends who are dancers; they can express themselves constantly through movement and the way they address the world physically. I think every creative pursuit holds something interesting for me—it’s just a question of time, money and relevance.

Coming full circle—do you ever see yourself becoming an author once again? Has that question even crossed your mind since you began this different journey? I can’t imagine it’s an easy question so I saved it for last.
[Pause of the century]…I don’t know. When I was a novelist I thought I‘d be a novelist for ever. When I was interested in social work for a bit I thought I’d be a social worker for ever. When I was a fuck up I thought I’d be a fuck up for ever. It’s all too easy to imagine your future life in light of your present one. That said, I can’t see myself giving up songwriting and performing music any time soon. I love how social it is; I love watching people’s faces as I perform, I love collaborating with other musicians. I think part of the reason I was initially so drawn to writing novels is that I was attracted to the idea of quietly and in isolation creating a big, smart monolith to point at from a distance. Performing live is messy and fascinating in a way that fiction writing never was for me. All these little personal interactions—I’m getting a little addicted to it.

Catch Sasha Chapin performing at:
Toronto - April 23rd @ the Horseshoe with Taylor Knox
Guelph - June 27 @ Jimmy Jazz with The Folk