“I‘m a female singer-songwriter,” Sabrina Chap begins; she takes a deep breath, rolls her eyes and laughs, “which is the worst thing in the world to be.” She drops her head in mock horror. “It makes me want to kill myself. It’s the most annoying profession there is.” We’re in the bar at The Covent Garden Hotel, in central London, drinking large, rather expensive glasses of wine, and laughing at the sort of volume that makes the English shift in their seats. It’s unavoidable, really, because for a female singer-songwriter – a category that is, after all, traditionally doleful – Sabrina Chap is irresistibly funny. As a performer she is more like a stand-up comic who also happens to be a tremendously talented musician. In her stage show she draws you in, disarms you with humour, and then makes you sit up and listen to what she has to say. The end result is intoxicating.
Two days after seeing her perform, and then listening to the outstanding album Oompa!, Bryon and I met up with Sabrina to talk about her first tour playing live in the UK, how she got where she is, and the shameless lyrics of “the dirty song”.
You can hear snippets from the interview, as well as an impromptu performance of ‘the dirty song’, in the December podcast.
Let’s begin with your background, and how you started out as a performer.
I’ve been playing piano since I was about 5 years old. It was very classical. I went to a school for classical compositions. I was reading off the page Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, but I didn’t understand song writing.
I didn’t have a piano one semester so someone gave me a guitar. I started playing, and imitating Ani DiFranco. I started playing more as a folk singer. I switched from that to spoken word, to theatre, then to books, but music has always been my main thing.
I started writing songs on the guitar because it was easy. You have three cords and that’s it, you’re fine. When I started writing songs I wanted to turn back to an instrument I really knew. When I started writing on the piano I thought, “oh, I’m much better at this!”. I started writing the songs that are now on the album Oompa!. About 2 years ago I started to perform as much as possible and I’ve been performing ever since.
The songs range between serious and high comedy, and so how do you decide what you’re going to play on the night?
It’s getting harder now. Once Oompa! was finished I didn’t have an audience at all. Essentially I‘m a female singer-songwriter, which I think is … the worst thing in the world to be, it makes me want to kill myself. It’s the most annoying profession there is. And I thought, “I need to get an audience”.
I started to perform on the burlesque scene, and my songs started to get more and more insane. I recently got an assignment to write that really dirty song I played the other day. It was for a sideshow gig where everyone was putting nails up their noses, swallowing razor blades, and I thought, “I’m a female singer-songwriter! SHIT!”
I thought I had to bring up the most insane material I had, and I did that dirty song first.
I started to get booked a lot at burlesque shows, and people started to ask for more insane songs, and that’s where the ‘Democracy’ song came from. I was told, “We’re doing a show called That’s Fucked Up. We want the dirty song, and we want something else like that.” I thought, I can’t write anything more dirty than that! What else can I write about that’s that fucked up? So I wrote about politics.
When it comes to the burlesque scene it’s easier to decide what to do. You do the zany ones, even though sometimes I like to bring in the slow songs like ‘Little White House’. With the cabaret songs you get instant gratification, people are laughing, you know they are enjoying them. When I’m doing a straight music gig I have to balance that. The unfortunate thing is that everyone loves the dirty song. But I try and address the audience.
‘Democracy’ is very political, and it’s also very funny. How do you balance the funny and the serious when you’re writing?
I think the cool thing about the burlesque scene right now is that it’s about relating to the audience, getting them to think about something, and having fun with it. I think that’s why I get I get booked in big singer-songwriter arenas as well, because I’m relating to the audience in the way that burlesque encourages, whereas a lot of performers just sit on the stage with their guitars.
When it comes to the political songs, I feel like the cabaret and burlesque scene gives me a challenge each time. They’ll point out something that’s going on and say, “comment on it”. It’s a good challenge to write the songs on assignment.
Do you perform more as if you’re a character when you’re doing burlesque?
The first burlesque show I did was just after coming off the open mike scene, and I thought, ok, I’d better be sexy, and I literally came out in my bra and underpants, and I was like “What? Here’s my fucking costume.” All the other girls where in character.
The first song I did in character was the Sarah Palin song, the Democracy song. A friend of mine, Trixie Little, she’s a big burlesque star, suggested I do the dirty song as a bride. So I performed in a veil.
I put together a travelling sideshow and burlesque show called The Schlapentickle Family Burlesque Review. I thought of this concept of this insane travelling family. I’d be the mother, totally drunk, wasted, hitting on her son the entire time, totally inappropriate. Each city we were in we’d have a different kissing cousin we’d visit, the local burlesque star, and that was the first time I did an entire show in a character.
This character is a cunt, she’s a broken down, sexually pervese cunt, one hundred percent; she cares about no-one and treats everyone like shit … which I am GREAT at. It was sort of scary how easily the character came to me.
I loved how comfortable and how conversational you are on stage. Do you get to a point when you think, “I’ve got to stop talking to them now and play a song?”
It’s funny. I don’t know where that came from. For the last 2 years, when I’m off the stage I’m by myself all the time, and so by the time I get to the stage, which is the only planned social activity I have, I can’t shut up!
The album has its own character. It’s fully instrumented, and it’s very different from what you do on the stage. When you write the songs are they more stripped down and then need to be fleshed out for recording, or is it the other way around?
The songs on Oompa! I’ve had for a while, and I’d written loads of songs before that. The first ten I had written someone said you should make an album and I thought no you don’t have an exhibition when you’ve only taken ten photographs, I want to put out a good first album.
With Oompa! I felt really confident with the songs, and I’d been doing them for years with just live piano, so when it came to the point to flesh it out into an album that was difficult.
The studio process is so different from the live one. The songs were complete to me, piano and voice, and I would never would have thought to flesh them out any further … until I made an album. I think that’s another reason I like to talk in my shows. I hate it when you go and see someone and it’s just like hearing the album live.
What’s interesting is that the next album, which I’ve just finished recording, called We Are The Parade, is the first time I’d written songs where the first thing was the orchestral arrangement. And that means I’m a little less confident playing them live, it’s as if you don’t hear everything
I think it works best if I start out with a good piano part, and keep the live performances as good as possible, and hope that the CD recordings are better versions than what you remember. There’s also nothing worse when someone has a great live show and then they have a crappy CD that sounds like their live show recorded.
You said on stage, I think, that ‘Democracy’ will be on the third album.
That’s right. And the dirty song.
Is it really called The Dirty Song?
Ha. No, it’s called ‘The One Thing I Have Never Done’. But everyone says, play the dirty song.
The next album is super happy, super horns, but the next one, for which I’ve written most of the songs, is super twisted, it’s really dark, and very very fucked up. So I’m holding on to the dirty song for that. But I might record a single of the dirty song as so many people are asking for it
The funny thing is that when I wrote it I literally thought I would never play it again. As I was writing it I was cringing and I thought, I’ll never sing this song again, why am I spending time on it?
When you’re on stage the subject of sexuality is right in your face, and you talk about, but on the album it’s not so obvious. How do you think about it when you write, is it a subject to be brought up or just a fact of life?
This question has come up before. I play with a band called The Mumbles a lot. The lead singer, he knows I’m gay, he said “how come you never say that in your songs”. I said, what are you talking about? In ‘Idiom’ it’s very explicit that I’m talking about a girl, but I think he was pointing to songs like ‘Little White House’, where I don’t use any pronouns. It wasn’t anything I thought of beforehand. It’s a you and me song. You don’t need to say he and she, or anything like that.
The next album is more forward. It’s a big gay anthem, ‘We Are The Parade’, but I don’t really use pronouns in that. “Well you think you wanna marry me, come on take my hand, it’s a long walk to equality so let’s strike the band up”. It’s all about gay rights. ‘The Denial Rag’ is just as gay as hell but it’s all about denying it.
When I am making a point, and I want to talk about gay rights, I’m very direct, but otherwise it’s just whatever comes out at the time. Whatever pronoun comes out is just what comes out. I don’t really hide it so much.
It is hard as I don’t just want to be known as a queer musician, as that can bring in a certain type of album or sound. I’m not going to shun the term queer musician, I absolutely am, but it is this thing where it gets ghettoised, and if you’re sending it out to the mainstream press they’re not going to listen to it.
Your stage show is really funny. Do you worry that the audience won’t realise how rich the songs are, both musically and lyrically, and just notice the laughs?
It’s only recently that I’ve realised how much I make people laugh when I’m on stage. It’s fun and it’s easy. I never thought of myself as a comedian. I’m more, “here are my songs, and I’m sort of a crazy person, and here we go!”
I remember an interview with a comedian, I don’t remember who, and he was asked “when did you decide to be a comedian?” He responded, I didn’t decide, the audience decided that. I really appreciated that.
I do so many things and I’m a little nervous about saying, “I am this”. Doing what I do, and allowing people to call me whatever they think I am, gives me more freedom. Call me a comedian, that’s fine. I don’t have to decide that. I let the audience decide.
For the most part I work hard on the songs, I really want to make songs I like and are good lyrically. And when I get on stage I have want to have fun with them. If people catch what I’m saying, which I hope they do, that’s great; and if not hopefully they’ll have a good time anyway. And if not I’ll wear a low cut shirt and they can just watch my tits. Either way it’s a show.
To find out more about Sabrina Chap, and to buy the superb album Oompa!, go to www.sabrinachap.com.
To listen to snippets from Oompa!, go to iTunes.