In a world of flash-in-the-pan acts and pop music saturation, it’s a joy to discover Sabrina Chap, a deeply talented musician who’s well grounded in songwriting and grand performanceship . When her songwriting career collided with a discovery of ragtime years ago, it launched her in a new direction, creating jazzy-heavy tunes with vintage, hearty vocals. Clever lyrics and a penchant for cabaret only amped up the appeal. And as if queering up ragtime wasn’t enough, she’s also the editor/curator of the acclaimed collection Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction, an anthology that collects the writings and art of Eileen Myles, Kate Bornstein, Nan Goldin, and more. Gearing up for the release of her new album, ‘Oompa!’ Sabrina recently hit the road to create a one-woman three-ring circus–singing, modeling as a nude artist, performing burlesque, and giving talks on Live Through This. Wildly articulate, witty and passionate, Sabrina Chap is an artist to look out for.
Courtney Gillette: How was your tour?
Sabrina Chap: A-mazing. Really. I thought I was an idiot booking a tour through the East Coast in February—which still was probably not the brightest idea, but I just got back and I’m still sort of in shock from the incredible response I received. I’ve played in a burlesque show only a few times before, and wasn’t sure how people at the Cheeky Monkey Sideshow or Dutch Oven Burlesque would like me. I mean, they’ve got people walking on glass and driving nails up their nose—or extremely sexy ladies taking off their clothes in hilarious sketches—so I was pretty nervous about holding my own. Luckily, I just put on some fishnets and a halter top and sang my dirtiest and bawdiest songs. After I came off stage, one of the burlesque ladies turned to me and said, “This is your home”, which made me feel great.
The lectures on the book also went incredibly well. It was a bit hard to make the switch from coming home at four in the morning, to getting on a train the next day, dusting the glitter off and immediately lecturing about women, art and self-destruction. It was a bit hard to switch hats like that, but talking on this subject is always good because the audience is almost always one that has a real vested and personal interest in the topic.
CG: Does burlesque play a role in your music?
SC: Sometimes. It’s weird. I wrote the song ‘Idiom’ years ago and just got really entranced with the whole ragtime feel. It’s impossible to be sad when you’re playing ragtime because you’re forced to dance. Your left hand is doing the basic “oom-pa oom-pa” back and forth, and your right hand syncopates. It’s just fun to play. So once I got entranced with ragtime, I started writing in that style. But a lot of my stuff is super tongue-in-cheek (or tongue-in-somewhere-else…) and it’s a fun way to be witty and sexy and put on a character at the same time. The burlesque songs sort of write themselves. ‘Never Been a Bad Girl’ just spilled out. The entire album is a mix of Americana styles. I’ve got a bluegrass tune, a Dixieland tune, and your basic heartbroken ballads. I also just bought an electric guitar and want to do a PJ Harvey-ish collection of songs. All my songs beforehand are folk songs, and I come from a classical background. This burlesque gig just fits right now.
CG: You seem to have many different creative outlets. How do you juggle being such a jack of all trades?
SC: I don’t. I’m a mess. In fact, I’m crying right now.
Just kidding. About the crying. Not about the fact that I’m a mess and am not good at juggling all my artistic endeavors. I’ve done a million things in the past. Toured as a spoken word artist, put up plays, edited collections of interviews with women writers ( for my zine, ‘Cliterature’). My signature move is to focus on a project with intense abandon until it’s done and I have some sort of awesome breakdown. Usually it lasts about six months and I don’t want to talk to anyone and I sit in my room and watch episodes of Top Chef. And then I’m like, “I should put out a book,” and I put Top Chef on pause and I’m up and going again.
I’m really excited about ‘Oompa!’ because as soon as I was done [making the album], I was already planning how to do the next one. That never happened before. After I edited the book, I turned to all of my friends and said, “Don’t ever let me do that again. If I say I’m going to edit a book again, hit me in the face with a fish.” I was just exhausted. But putting this album out is the first time I’ve been energized by a project. Hopefully I’ll just learn to start saying no to the projects that exhaust me, and yes to the ones that make me energized and excited.
CG: Is there a queer sensibility to your music/your performances? How would you describe it?
SC: Well, all of the songs off the album are about ex’s, which have been women, so in that sense, yes, there is a queer sensibility there. Although it sort of surprised me that some people haven’t gotten that [my songs are queer.]. I play with one particular band quite a bit—they open up for me and I open up for them. The main singer knows I’m queer, and finally he was like, “But you don’t say that in your songs”.
Now, there are songs where I straight up am talking about a woman— I mean, I couldn’t get more specific in ‘Idiom’. But then there are songs like ‘Little White House,’ where I have the lyric:
‘A kid on the way
due sometime in May
we’ll dance in the kitchen while the radio plays
You’ll bring home the bacon
I’ll try a new recipe
In our little white house with a key’
I was like, “Oh. . .I guess I could see why you were confused. . .but I was still talking about a girl there. I just like butch girls. And I like to cook.” He was like, “Oh.”
I was surprised he even had to ask. I spend so much time in the queer scene, but often forget that people are still confused by me. I have long hair. I have big boobs. Sometimes I wear a tie, and sometimes I assume a more gender neutral stance in my songs. But sometimes I write straight up femme-y songs. I just have all of these sides to me, and they all seem pretty natural to me. I know I’m supposed to make some grand public statement about all this, but the fact is, I just want to keep on singing, and I get my greatest strength from the queer community.
CG: Best experience you’ve ever had performing?
SC: Geez. That’s a hard one.
This tour was specifically amazing. The burlesque nights were bawdy and rowdy as hell, and there is something just fantabulous about getting a massively packed room silent and expectant and just. . .listening. I love that. I love when sweaty, excited people just get silent and are really listening to your lyrics. There are some moments performing where I can just feel it—the room sort of crystallizes, and I know that the slightest word or movement is going to affect the entire mood of the room. Something else great this tour was when I was singing for Dr. Sketchy’s and some people were trying to draw me, but had to stop because they were laughing so hard. That made me super happy.
It’s really hard to boil it down to one best experience. I’m just always having the time of my life up there, and whenever I feel that someone’s truly listening, or I’m truly connecting with them—that’s the best. I’ve had funny shit happen, incredible moments, and really terrible moments—all of which I hold equally dear in my memory—but it’s those simple moments of someone listening that are what make me smile the most.
You can catch Sabrina Chap live this March at various venues in New York and New Jersey. For more info and other tour dates visit SabrinaChap.com