Music has always been an important part of the creative process for me. When listening to music in the car or while running, it’s not unusual for the lyrics to inspire emotion that ends up turning into a scene. In fact, part of my prewriting process is to create a playlist for each of my characters. I’ll be including a taste of each character’s playlist in my January newsletter, so if you’re curious about the sound that inspired Eli or Libby, stay tuned about how to subscribe.
In the meantime, however, this month in the #whatsyourlifeline series, I’ll be focusing on local musicians. This morning, I’m lucky enough to sit down with Michelle Chapin, the self-described, “chick with the ukulele,” to hear about what inspires her unique sound, and how music has been a lifeline for her.
A: Good morning, Michelle! Thanks so much for joining me today.
M: Thank you! I always love talking about music with fellow creative minds!
A: I’ve been lucky enough to hear you perform, but for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, tell us a little about the journey to finding your sound.
M: Music has always been a part of my life. I honestly can't remember a time in my childhood before I was singing at the top of my lungs or making up little songs. I took various instrument lessons as a child, and in high school and college, I was part of and led acapella groups. When I started arranging music for vocal application, my love for music turned from a slow, steady ember to a raging fire. Hours would fly by as I sat at an out-of-tune piano, deconstructing songs, looking at all their different pieces and how they fit together, and then rebuilding them in a new way. Even though I didn't write the songs, somehow arranging them into a new sound was really self-expressive. When I graduated college, I also graduated from my acapella group. It became a lot harder to find other singers to practice, let alone perform, with.
On a complete whim, I bought a cheap ukulele. When I learned how to play it, I started writing songs, rather than arranging them. That switch into songwriting, starting from scratch and creating something totally new, was (and still is) really difficult. But it's always been important to me not to just re-create, but to create my own music and sound in order to be in integrity as a musician.
From there, I started performing at local coffee shops and open mics, and I started getting to know a whole network of other musicians. It's been amazing to hear others talk about their craft, what similarities we share, and how their brains and music tick differently than mine. Now I'm recognized as the "chick with the ukulele" in the places I play frequently.
A: I’ve shared that music often inspires my writing. What inspires you?
M: I get really inspired by other musicians, especially seeing them live or listening to interviews. I love hearing some of the places in their lives and the stories from which songs have emerged—how other artists consciously approach storytelling, and the little nuances they incorporate as they perform a song. It's funny, but it makes me feel both inspired to go home and immediately write, while simultaneously making me feel indifferent to songwriting (almost like "why bother writing music when they've done it so well?"). Ultimately, hearing other musicians gets me to look at my life from a different angle.
A: I can totally relate to that feeling. For me, the rituals around writing (butt in chair, 500 words/day, etc…) are part of what help me move through that doubt and into the place where writing becomes a necessary part of my day-to-day existence. I’ve shared on this blog how writing has been a lifeline during the most difficult times in my life. How has your music served as a lifeline for you?
M: Music feels like a lifeline to me in a couple of different ways: Being an audience member, connecting with a song and a performance, fills me with clarity that lasts for quite a while. I'm often at a concert and feel like it's sustaining my person in the exact same way being thirsty and taking a drink feels. It's life-giving.
Then there is playing music, which is less life-giving and more dealing-with-life, if you will. When I'm playing, whether practicing or performing, I feel freer, more myself, in the same way I felt when I first started arranging music. If there's an issue I'm wrestling with or a time when I'm feeling particularly lost, playing music helps soothe that feeling and makes me feel more centered, and thus more capable of dealing with whatever is going on in my life. For the more emotional pieces, that increases exponentially. When I'm in those moments of an intense song, I can feel myself letting go of little pieces of the pain or resentment or anger I've been holding on to. I actually have this image of little flakes of paint chips slowly breaking away. It's not a huge shift, but over time those little "chips" really make a difference in terms of letting go of things from the past.
A: I love that image. Do you think that feeling translates to your audience?
M: I'd like to think that my music helps others feel more centered for that moment, the way I feel when I hear others play and share part of themselves with me. Sometimes it's through my more upbeat songs, when together we are all sharing a smile or a laugh at a joke in a song. We're experiencing the joy together. Even when I'm playing in the background of an event, I actually love that people are talking over my music. Those are times I'm adding to something that is bringing people, friends, and new acquaintances together. Other times when I'm playing a quieter event where the focus is more on the music itself, some of the more somber songs help connect people in a more pensive way.
I’ll give you a specific example. I have this one song I wrote about my sofa that got destroyed in a minor apartment flood a few years ago. This happened to be the couch in my family's living room my entire childhood that my parents gave me when they upgraded. I found myself torn between understanding this was just furniture, old ratty furniture at that, and I needed to throw it away, but also feeling nostalgic with all the memories associated with that couch and not wanting to say goodbye to it. So, I wrote a silly song about just that, and it is by far my most requested song. People thank me for prompting them to think about their couches, and thus the happy moments of their childhoods that are often easily overlooked.
A: Great example! In what other ways do you think your music is a lifeline for your listeners?
M: [Ultimately, music] becomes about [building] community and recognizing that even though there are rough elements of our individual lives, we're all still here with each other. We’re not alone [in our pain]. Others also struggle. Others also have heartbreak. We can acknowledge that and honor that very real pain. And when we're ready, we can see how others have transformed from that pain and be inspired to find the strength to do the same. I think that's the real magic of music—all the different layers of connection it brings.
A: And now the burning question—where can we hear it?
M: You can check out audio recordings of originals and covers on ReverbNation (https://www.reverbnation.com/michellechapin) and videos on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/michellechapin). Also, make sure to follow me on Facebook for updates and information on where I’m performing or what music I’m finding particularly inspiring (https://www.facebook.com/michellechapinmusic/).
A: Awesome! We’ll be sure to check it out. Thanks so much for joining me today, Michelle! Best of luck to you!
M: And to you! Talking with you has been a blast!