On the Scene & Interview: Sabrina Chap at Shakespeare and Company

Reportage by Sarah Jessica Johnson

On the top floor of Paris’ famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, playing to a cathedral of vintage books, Sabrina Chap sat on a tiny piano wedged between Napoleon and a chessboard. The room filled with her original music, jazz ballads and ragtime rolls, and many the entranced tourist, including me.

“I don’t know her,” one Italian man said to me, “but I know that she’s a genius.” A prodigal genius perhaps, for Chap used to live in the bookstore, which has historically provided homes for Anglophone artists starting out in Paris.

She has returned this time on a grant from the Jerome Foundation to study the City of Lights’ burlesque scene. Chap now plays burlesque shows, doing solo piano performances between acts. Her music reflects the playful and raunchy tradition of this style, and her “Neo-Vaudeville” songs are full of political and sexual humor.

From a song called “Democracy,” which she sometimes performs as Sarah Palin, to a slower ditty featuring the line, “I transatlantically love you,” Chap’s lyrics will make her English-speaking audiences laugh and cringe.  

A woman of many hats, the former writer now focuses exclusively on her music. She is working on a second album entitled “We Are the Parade” featuring the drummer Lee Free. She is now touring European cities such as Berlin and London, though the singer’s performance home base is the United States. Her past tours included stops in Seattle, Portland, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Boston. In the near future you will most likely find her in New York City.

But Paris and Shakespeare and Company gave her enduring friendships and lifelong memories, so it will probably not be too long before she returns to brush the Chopin and Kate Chopin off the shop’s piano and liven up the place with her own panty-bunching compositions.

Check out Sabrina's interview with the DAP below and her silent film-inspired video:


Were you classically trained on piano? How did you become introduced to these styles of music and why do you love them?


I started playing piano right before I turned five years old, I believe.  It's the very first memory I have- wanting to play piano.  My sister is three years older and started getting piano lessons on this old organ we had, and I remember her sitting down with this teacher and having her lesson and this clutch happened in my throat and I ran into the kitchen and asked my mom for piano lessons.  It was just something I knew I needed to do.  I basically only played classical stuff until after college- I would absolutely refuse to derivate from what was written on the page for me- although I did write some classical pieces.

I started song writing the first time I didn't have a piano to play and had to pick up a guitar.  I knew a few chords, and began singing Ani DiFranco covers and soon began writing my own folk inspired songs.  Since I sucked on guitar, and didn't intend to be good, it freed me up to experiment with song writing.  It took me awhile to turn back to the instrument I was actually good on and begin writing songs on that.  Once I did, it was exciting to actually be proficient on an instrument and be able to make any goddamn sound I wanted.  

So I started tooling around and experimenting on the piano, and this weird little riff came up in my right hand.  I sounded out this oompa stride sound with my left and put them together and it was so much fun.  Soon I realized it was a ragtime inspired song, so I decided to pick up Scott Joplin's 'Maple Leaf Rag' and learn it- which was sort of my style- because the music was written out and I could learn how to play it.  Ragtime is just fun to play.  You bounce around a lot and it's jaunty and it's always tipping it's hat at you.  It makes me feel like I'm dancing when I play ragtime, so I just kept on infusing the feel into my songs.  Soon that lead me to doing vaudevillian and cabaret songs, and now I'm stretching out my repertoire a bit more- but its always fairly dramatic and for me, very fun.  


How would you describe your music career in one sentence? (It can be a run-on)


Can't answer this in one sentence.  Maybe I'll try a haiku

"music makes me, but

doesn't make me money yet

goddamn I'm trying"


What is your favorite thing about Paris?


My favorite thing about Paris... well, you found me there. Shakespeare and Co. I lived there for about 4-5 months almost ten years ago, and it was also was where I was based when I was living in random squats the rest of the time I was in Paris, as all of my friends lived there. I read, drank wine, met some of my closest friends and realized the true value and rigor of being an artist. It also made me feel I was one. I do feel it is, in a way, my spiritual home- although I know this is true for many people who've passed through it's doors.  It makes my heart grow bigger and I am beyond blessed to have been able be a small part of such a great legacy. I feel honored to have come in under the time George Whitman was still running the shop, and live there when his amazing daughter, Sylvia came to take over. Whenever I'm in Paris, I try to play or do something at Shakespeare's, or even just go there to trace my hands across the spines of the books- because it reminds me of the most beautiful things in life: books, music, wine, love, friendship and the kindness of strangers.   


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Reader Comments (4)

haha, great interview. particularly the haiku

October 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermkc
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