Some songwriters are philosophers and mystics; some are court jesters. Chapell stands out as someone who’s music draws from a complex (and at times, conflicting) palate.
I caught up with Alan Chapell via phone earlier this week. He’s taking a break from recording his latest album and spending the holidays with family in Nicaragua. Although now firmly grounded in New York City, travel is a big part of Chapell’s story. Born and raised in Stamford Connecticut, Chapell started making music as a young child playing mostly classical piano and trumpet. In college, he was a member of a “great but fame was never their fate” band out of New England called All the Voices. He has fond memories of those days, but admits to never really feeling at home in that scene.
Chapell sensed deep in his bones that Connecticut was not the right place creatively. But having that knowledge and actually taking steps to find your creative home are two very different things. Immersed in a malaise, if not outright depression, Chapell didn’t just need a change. He needed something drastic. So he went off to join a band in… Mumbai, India? “India might not be the first place you think of when it comes to Western music, but I spent most of my life following my gut”, said Chapell. Chapell was looking for something new and different musically, and encountered a band of musicians from Mumbai through the Village Voice classifieds. A few of the Mumbai musicians were temporarily living in the “little India” of Jackson Heights, Queens. Only a stones throw from Connecticut but light years away culturally and stylistically.
Chapell remembers writing a bunch of songs and listening to tons of music of all genres with that band. “The vibe was fantastic,” recalls Chapell. “The band had been invited on the Peter Gabriel World of Music and Dance tour, and they asked if I would join them. It wasn’t a hard decision.” The band was called Kalki, an East-West fusion band that merged electric guitars and classical Indian percussion instruments. At the time, Mumbai had a burgeoning media and music community, according to Chapell. “I hadn’t really participated in a true music scene while playing in the states. But in Mumbai, many of the bands were pretty tight and hung out a lot together. And sometimes, members from different bands jammed and even wrote songs as a collective. I loved the collaborative approach of the musicians in Mumbai. I remember my time in India quite fondly.”
You can hear whispers of Indian influence on The Redhead’s Allegations, Chapell’s first studio album in many years. Check out Shayna and (albeit to a lesser extent) the song Heroes to understand what I mean. Chapell was kind enough to play a few tracks off of his upcoming album with the caveat that it’s still a work in progress. To my ears, there wasn’t much Indian influence from any of the tracks off the new (yet to be titled) album. Chapell has a different take. “You might hear an occasional tabla or other Indian percussion part, but Indian rhythms are not really what I took home from my time in Mumbai”, says Chapell. “The most important thing I learned from Mumbai is to play with people who come from different musical backgrounds. In India, we had a few people who had been trained in various forms of Eastern music, and a couple of Westerners, including me. And that tension between multiple styles is what helped make the music so compelling.” Chapell has taken that philosophy into his current band, where the Americana, jazz and soul influences add a unique texture to Chapell’s indie-rock sensibility. “The last thing I want is to sound like any other band coming out of NYC”, Chapell said.
Style is something that oozes out of Chapell’s previous work. The Redhead’s Allegations is a nice Indie-pop album that contains some colorful storytelling. And while I find the album to be really nice listen overall, the stories don’t consistently break through the luster of their indie-pop music shells. Chapell disagreed, stating that the production team of Jerry Harrison and ET Thorngren were critical to bringing the album to life.
But that’s not to say that Chapell is at all finished experimenting with these songs. “I’ve taken to playing a few of the songs from The Redhead’s Allegations acoustically with mandolin as part of my live show, and they’ve gone over really well”, said Chapell. “They feel a bit more organic this way, and it creates a nice little show-within-a-show, and gives the opportunity to feature a different side of my band.” Speaking of Chapell’s live show, the next one is at The Slipper Room in NYC on January 19. I’ll be there. And judging from what I read about his previous Slipper Room show, I’d best get there early.
But one final question. I was curious what caused Chapell ultimately to leave India behind? Like many endings, this one came down to money. “Eventually, I ran out of cash. I was able to work a bit writing music jingles for Indian TV, but it turns out that musicians can’t make a living in India either.” (Imagine that.) “I couldn’t even afford a plane ticket home. But I managed to sneak onto a plane heading to Florence, Italy and eventually made it back through JFK,” Chapell recalls. “Someday maybe I’ll share that story at one of my concerts.” From what Chapell shared with me, the leaving India story is both harrowing and hilarious. In many ways, a microcosm of the musician himself.