Sabrina Chap is a musical artist, cabaret performer and literary editor. Imagine a feminist burlesque Tom Waits with better piano skills and filthier lyrics and you're about halfway there. She has just released a new album , ‘We Are the Parade’ , as well as the second edition of her book 'Live Through This', a collection of essays and visuals on the 'bizarre entanglement of destructive and creative forces' that often plagues women artists. Her website is here.
Throughout your musical career, have you ever felt like you were being treated differently than a male performer would be?
When I was in high school, the only other people who were doing creative things, playing in bands etc. were guys, and the only way to be a part of anything creative or cool they were doing was to date them. So you could only ever be on the periphery. Once, I remember, when I was on our high school’s speech team (which is like competitive theatre), I did better in this competition thing than the guy I was off and on dating. He was really pissed and hurt that I dared beat him, so I ended up feeling really bad about it. And I didn't even mean to beat him, I hadn't even thought that I was good enough, and then I wasn't even proud of myself when I won.
I ended up going to college for music, and that was when I started creating a lot. I thought that – just because it was college, and we were all studying music, it would be a creative and vibrant place, but it wasn’t. Some girls invited me to be part of their sorority, and I was confused. I said, “I don’t want to be a part of a sorority, because the girls aren’t doing anything. If I’m going to join anything, it’d be Phi Mu Alpha”, which was the guy’s fraternity. Again, it was the guys doing all the creative stuff- getting together, geeking out about Stravinsky or chord changes. It was the boys getting together, creating for each other, sharing, encouraging one another. So I told a friend of mine that I wouldn’t consider the sorority, but would consider joining the fraternity, and he said, ‘Oh, the boys of Phi Mu Alpha would love it if you joined, Sabrina. They Really like you. They really like you.” , making it clear that they were all talking about me sexually. Again, it was obvious the only way to enter their creative community was to be sexualized. So I got pissed off. I purposefully gained a lot of weight and dyed my hair black, to make myself less attractive. It was like, 'you can't handle me pretty, so I won't be'. In fact, any time I wanted to do creative stuff it was all guys doing it. I got sick of it Any time I went into Guitar Centre, I got hit on. It never ends.
For this new album, I was studying big band charts for the first number, ‘When I Grow Up, I’m Gonna Dance'. I hadn’t written music out since college and was excited to be studying scores again. I know this guy- older, about 65. He has been playing and arranging big band stuff for awhile. We were friends. I thought. I asked if I could buy him breakfast and then get his opinions on the scores I was working on. He didn’t really look at the scores, and offered me absolutely no advice. At the end, he made a nervous sexual advance towards me. I was heartbroken. Again- I had opened up creatively to a guy, and he hadn’t even looked at what I’d done. It made me doubt my own work.
This happens a lot.
It does, and it's unfortunate because then I self-censor myself. I have turned down a lot of possible collaborations because I have gotten used to understanding that they are tied in with something sexual. It always upsets me when it’s someone I hoped to consider a mentor.
So it's like, women can't be involved in music, unless there's something sexual about it.
Well they can. I mean, some totally are. You just have to own it and define it yourself, which is partially why I think the burlesque thing has been such an empowering turn for me. Because that’s what they do up there. Own and define their own sexuality and notions of power, and then use it. Which is what you do best when you’re a confident rock star. But if you don’t do it- they’re gonna do it for you. But it does end up blocking my education sometimes. One of my biggest problems is learning the names of the gear, because you go to Guitar Centre, and they just hit on you, and then try and sell you the most expensive stuff. I never had friends just hanging out where we’d teach each other the names of the things we needed. Stupid names- like what is ‘a quarter inch cable’? What is a ‘monitor’. With sound engineers, they use all these technical names, and though I didn’t have the language for the technology, I still knew what sounded wrong or right. When a sound guy would be annoying, which didn’t happen often but did sometimes- they’d throw all this technical jargon in my face and I’d be like, “Maybe I don't know the names of that stuff, but I know I can't hear myself”. Some sound guys are just dicks to everyone, but I can't help thinking are they just being like that with me because I'm a woman? Or are these people just straight up dicks? At one point, I worked with this female sound engineer, and she told me what to say to them. She said, 'you need to tell them that you need a D.I. (direct input) box' and you need your vocals high in your monitor. That’s what you need to say. ‘
And did you notice a difference in the way she treated you?
Yes, definitely. There are some non-shitty male sound engineers, there are some great guys. Pete, the guy that does sound at Club Helsinki is incredible- and is also one of the few people who tried to teach me what I needed while we were doing soundcheck. There could be some shitty female sound engineers, but I've only worked with one female sound engineer this whole time. Melina Afzal at the Red Palace (aka the Palace of Wonders). But I think she ends up having trouble getting sound gigs, because she’s a woman. It’s a shitty cycle.
Mary Lou (Ladyfest Edinburgh organiser who is also in the room): When we were booking gigs for LadyFest, it was always male sound engineers.
'Never Been a Bad Girl' from first album 'Oompa!'
Sabrina - One of the main reasons I play on the burlesque scene so much is because there are a lot of female producers. A lot of them went up through the ranks from performing, so they know what it's like for female performers. The women in burlesque just now are just amazing, they are so on their shit, and they know how to treat people well. I've only had one or two not great experiences, and I think for a lone woman going into new cities all the time, that's a pretty good average. I played a gig last night – it was a very straight bar, it was guys playing rock music, and the guys in the band really liked me, so we all got really wasted after the set. It was all ok- they were nice as hell, but there were sexual undertones. There always are- especially when you’re wasted and on tour. They were totally nice, awesome guys- but the girl I was with at some point grabbed me and we walked away. I was wasted, she was wasted, and we both realized we needed to get out of there before the situation got out of control. And it was fun, but I don’t think I could do that every night, and that’s what rock bars – dude-centric bars- often encourage.
But in burlesque it's not like that, because everybody's looking out for each other. These people are either making their living doing burlesque, or have full on jobs besides. They’re responsible, on their game, and can’t get wasted because they have these intricate costumes they can’t fuck up. We’re crazy on-stage, but we have our shit together off. Or the good ones do- because we’re professional. I have a song called 'The Dirty Song', and I wrote it especially for burlesque, but it's sexually insane, and everybody just delights in it. I ended up playing it at the straight bar just to get a rise out of people and a girl came up to me after I'd played it and said 'thank you for playing that. You’re hilarious. You're batshit crazy, and it makes me feel normal'. But it’s an act. They don’t get that.
Most people probably wouldn't put the words 'feminist' and 'burlesque' together..
Well they probably just think it's about women taking their clothes off etc., but for me it's the most vibrant feminist scene that exists today. They’re mostly run by woman producers, performed my a majority of women performers who make their own costumes and decide how they want to portray their own sexuality and power, and the audiences are super respectful of the women performers because if they aren’t- they get thrown out. People really watch out for each other in burlesque.
Watch Sabrina's gay pride-themed video for 'We are the Parade'!