It’s just your average musical success story: Two sisters born into a famous musical family move from New York to L.A; craft a melodic sound rooted in traditional folk music; create a local buzz with a unique Britney Spears cover; contribute vocals to recordings for various artists including the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, Will Oldham and Lavender Diamond; and most recently went on tour with indie pop duo She & Him.
That pretty much sums up the career trajectory thus far of Brooklyn-born indie folksters Abigail and Lily Chapin otherwise known as the Chapin Sisters. If their last name rings a bell, it is because they are the daughters of folk singer Tom Chapin and the nieces of the late Harry Chapin, best known for the classic hit “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
With their other sister Jessica Craven (the daughter of horror film director Wes Craven), the Chapin Sisters have been around since 2004 when they sang together at a recording studio in Los Angeles. Four years later, the sisters released their first album, “Lake Bottom LP,” which showcased their unique harmony singing and old-timey folk music.
Now the L.A.-based group make a return to their old hometown of New York for some shows as they just released a new album,“Two.” Its title bears some significance. Not only is it their second full-length record, “Two” is the first album that features Abigail and Lily as a duo since Jessica took a leave of absence from the act after giving birth. Her departure resultedin Abigail and Lily having to change their approach as far performing was concerned.
“As a group that does a lot of harmony,” explains Abigail, “duets are significantly different than trios are. In a trio, when there is a lead singer and two backup singers the backups often become more of a chorus, like it could be 10 people or 100 or 2, it’s more anonymous. In a duo, each part is much more clearly defined and the back up is often more of a counter melody. The performances are really different and we had to relearn and rework basically every song to make them all work with two voices.”
And recording their new album took on a different direction compared to their debut, according to Abigail. “When we recorded “Lake Bottom LP” we had been performing all the songs for quite some time,” she says. “For “Two,” we really did the opposite, with a couple exceptions. The songs were mainly all brand new, and we completely fleshed them out and arranged them as we recorded.”
But what hasn’t changed are the sisters’ lush vocal harmonies and their songwriting. Whether it’s about love or yearning, their subdued, ballad-laden songs still have the melancholy and fragile air to them that marked the debut record. One highlight is the poppy “Left All Alone,” which is reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Girl.”
“It’s about how to cope with that fact, not moping about it,” Abigail says. “A lot of songs I write are less optimistic than this one is. Even though it’s maybe a bit of a sad song, it’s whimsical in approach and doesn’t’ take the negative state of affairs too seriously.”
Another standout song from the album is the reflective ballad “Palm Tree,” written by Lily, which Abigail says is one of their favorites to perform live.
“Moving from New York out here to Los Angeles,” she says, “there’s never a time when the landscape and the weather doesn’t seem magical, mythological, and totally other. “Palm Trees” are a perfect example of that, and even though they don’t have leaves, as people keep pointing out, it still gives the vibe of the dusty, old western version of California that we glimpse in our lives from time to time.”
In addition to writing their own songs, the Chapin Sisters have been known to add their distinctive folk stamp to covers. The sisters garnered some attention a few years ago in the L.A. area for their interpretation of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” rendered in a haunting folk manner. They also did something similar with Madonna’s “Borderline.” Asked if they have another pop music cover in them, Abigail responds: “No plans yet, but Lily loves Taylor Swift.”
Having distinguished themselves through their music, the sisters have also become a regular live act. This spring, the Chapins were the openers on the She & Him tour, an experience that Abigail describes as a complete and total pleasure. Now they are embarking on their own tour that includes the upcoming John Lennon birthday party show at New York’s City Winery where the sisters will perform two songs written by the former Beatle. “We luckily got to choose,” Abigail says, “and we chose “Julia” and “Jealous Guy.” It was a hard choice though, ‘cause there are tons of amazing songs to choose from.”
That show and a gig at Brooklyn’s Rock Shop will mark a homecoming for the Chapin Sisters. Although L.A. is currently where they are based, Abigail says there is still a deep family connection with Brooklyn. “Our parents still live in New York and we’re back and forth a lot, enough so that we hardly have time to miss it. Although as anyone in LA who’s from New York will tell you, this never feels as much like home as New York does. It’s just in us.”
The Chapin Sisters will play on Oct. 9 at City Winery, 155 Varick St., and on Oct. 10 at The Rock Shop, 249 Fourth Ave., Brooklyn. For more information on the Chapin Sisters, visit: http://thechapinsisters.com/