There was a time in the mid-1970's when you could hardly turn on a radio without hearing the pop hit "Cat's In The Cradle." Singer Harry Chapin wrote the music and his wife Sandy wrote the lyrics of the quintessential song about a child and his absent father.
Their daughter, Jen Chapin, now a formidable singer-songwriter herself, was three years old when the song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1974. Although her father would jokingly introduce it as a song with lyrics his wife wrote about him being away too much, the truth is more complicated.
Chapin describes him as a loving father who took the time to design and build a custom-made dollhouse with her to fit her favorite floppy doll.
"He was a great dad," says Chapin, who appears at the Bop Shop on Saturday. "When he was home he was totally present, but he was totally gone for more than half the time and we gave him a hard time for that. The song is totally true and totally not true."
To say Chapin grew up in a talented family would be an understatement. Aside from her mega-star father, her uncles, Steve and Tom Chapin, are both musicians and her cousins, Abigail and Lily, perform as the Chapin Sisters. Her mother, Sandy, is a poet.
Chapin occasionally performs one of her dad's songs, but she has carved out her own niche, albeit a tough one to categorize.
"It's too folk for jazz and too jazz for folk," Chapin says. "My reference point and my peer group are jazz musicians. I've never really been part of the indie folk scene. Jazz is more relevant to me than anything else."
In fact, her trio features two excellent jazz players: bassist Stephan Crump (Chapin's husband) has worked with Vijay Iyer and Dave Liebman, and guitarist Jamie Fox has played with the late Jack McDuff and Blood, Sweat & Tears.
"I'm a social musician," Chapin says. "I've always been energized, inspired and motivated by the people I play with. Even in writing songs, which is a totally solitary thing for me, I write them thinking, 'Is this going to be fun for them to play?' I've been so spoiled playing with amazing musicians."
For years Chapin had a larger band; she now prefers the trio setting.
"It's very satisfying because we get to stand out," Chapin says. "We're all very much exposed and we have a great responsibility to the time, the rhythm, the groove, the intonation, and the expression. It's like a three-legged stool; everybody has got to hold up their end."
Over the past two decades Chapin has released nine albums, ranging from "Revisions," which explores the music of Stevie Wonder, to "Light Of Mine," examining issues of power and fear. She writes and sings striking original tunes and breathes new life into covers like Van Morrison's "Into The Mystic."
Her latest album, "Reckoning," was produced by five-time Grammy Award winner Kevin Killen, who has worked with David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, and others.
Chapin was 10 when her father was killed in a car crash on the way to a performance. He was 38.
"It plays out like a graphic novel," Chapin says. "I can see the different scenes of what I was doing that day and then finding out."
There were a lot of complications in how to continue his legacy and tie up loose ends, she says. Her mother scrambled for years trying to keep various charities he funded afloat.
"I know from other losses that part of it is someone slipping away and you want to keep their legacy alive," Chapin says. "You want to celebrate that work for a good cause and that's what we've done every year since my dad died. Every single day I get emails or I meet people who tell me how much his life meant."
Like her father, Chapin is an avid social activist. She works with WhyHunger, an organization started by her father and then-Catholic priest and radio host Bill Ayres in 1975.
"My other non-paid job is as a hunger and poverty activist, being immersed in advocating for those issues," says Chapin, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons. "Why does hunger exist in a world where we're more than capable of feeding everyone?
"I'm just so aware of the luxury of being able to have a freelance job, have fulfillment, do interesting work as a musician and get to take the kids to school and not be totally harried trying to work three minimum-wage jobs."
Some of Chapin's songs, like "Feed Your Baby" (from "Reckoning") tie her songwriting and activist worlds together.
Finding the right balance between making social statements in songs and writing more personally is an ongoing challenge for her.
"I only have so many romantic heartbreaks to document at this stage," Chapin says. "My mind doesn't really go there that much. I write about things I care about in a way that's not didactic or preachy or boring or condescending."
If you look up Chapin's songs on YouTube, you will notice an unusual voice engaging fans among the comments: that of Chapin herself.
"Even on the highest level of pop stardom, I think that's part of the deal now," she says. "The 1970's mercurial artists who are expressing themselves, standing on a cliff, painting landscapes, thinking of songs, like Joni Mitchell — that just doesn't work so much anymore.
"In some ways I think it's the most clear inheritance from my dad. I like people and I'm interested in connecting with them. It's my instinct —t it's natural for me to respond."
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