CHICAGO, IL – I had the honor of seeing Sidewalk Chalk for the very first time at Urban Roots in OKC a few weeks ago. Fast forward to my Google Chat session with keyboardist Charlie Coffeen about the group dynamic of collaboration, their origins, and the powerful “Them/Us.”
What’s the story behind the name “Shoulder Season?”
The album was recorded live through seven cities in seven different shows. We brought our own crew and it was the first time playing a lot of those songs live. We wrote them and got them ready to record in a short amount of time. The idea was to capture the feeling of those rooms/venues. The places that showed us love and built us up from nothing all had something special to them. It was recorded as a thanks for those who supported us for years.
Shoulder season is an outdoor/travel industry term. In Canada, it’s the time between the summer where you can hike/swim/camp and winter where you can ski/ice fish. Shoulder season is the time in between two things and waiting. The time we recorded the album felt like that. We felt like things were going really quickly and we wanted to capture that. The past year we’ve played 110 shows across the country. It’s a transitional thing and we’re always on the move.
The songs are like that as well. “Blue” comparing two people’s situations on either side of the Pacific Ocean. Tyler our drummer tossed out the name when we were pitching ideas.
There’s so many of you. What does the writing process look like for you guys?
It’s unique to us. In the history of the band, there are two or three songs that have been presented to the band with everything in it. For everything else, songs come from tiny ideas that I or someone else brings. If it sticks, then we loop it, and flush it out from there. The best proving ground is to play it live, keep our heads up and look around at the audience to see how they take it. We ask, “does this hit as hard as we think it does” or “is this as cool as we thought it was?” We don’t beat songs into the ground until we present it to the audience. We write something, we try to play it a whole bunch, and then see how it develops on its own.
Has there been a song you presented to the audience, tried it a couple times, and it didn’t work?
There was a song called “Little Teachers” we wrote for somebody as a reward in a Kickstarter donation a couple years ago. It was a sweet idea, it stuck, and we wanted to turn it into something. When we went to record this album we revisited it, it wasn’t really clicking so we flipped it on its head musically and it stood out as being different from the rest of the album. Every time we played it, it was never there at our end and the audience end. By the seventh show, we played the crap out of it, but in listening back it still didn’t click. We haven’t played that song live since then so maybe it’s alive somewhere.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there’s a song on the album called FiveTwelve. It’s my favorite song on the record and that song finished in ten minutes. To be aware that that song doesn’t need a lot of prodding, tweaking, and the molding is cool. If I dug a little deeper, then I’m sure “Little Teachers” wouldn’t be the only one.
How have you created a culture of collaboration?
I think it comes from the people in the band. That everyone is super respectful of one another, and they’re all intelligent musically and nonmusically. We know how to communicate. We’ve learned how to communicate as a group and individually. I can share something with Sam, that won’t resonate with David the same way, and that goes for everyone. And that’s the fine details of spending time with people. You have to know to give everybody’s ideas some space, to give every opportunity to say what they want to say. To be constantly aware that you’re not the only one with good ideas. Also, there’s not only one answer. Even if you think your idea is the best one; yours is really good and someone else’s may also be really good.
Being open that there’s multiple ideas that can be equally as great.
How did you meet everyone and how do you all start?
Five of us met at Columbia College. Initially it was me, Rico, Maggie, Tyler and Garrett. We had similar interests and wanted to do the live hip hop/jazz thing. We did a show together fairly quickly, we didn’t have enough songs for a full set so we wrote songs on the spot. Some of which we still play on the road. It felt right and it stuck. With the five of us our personalities and music clicked. Shortly after we met Jumaane the tap dancer, he came to a rehearsal and it worked. He’s just such an incredible listener and improviser. It was no question if it was weird. David and Sam later came to a Sidewalk Chalk rehearsal, not having met each other before, are now joined at the hip, and it’s just worked.
What’s the hardest thing the band has gone through?
- Having people that are strongly opinionated and creative – and navigating that. Making sure everyone feels heard and respected.
- Being embraced by the hip hop world in Chicago and abroad. Hip hop is THE thing in Chicago right now. We’ve never been accepted in that world and we recently gave up trying to force ourselves. People who love our music, love our music. We create what we want to create and that’s it.
- Money – having eight people who are committed to touring all of the time. They were all committed to dropping their consistent money makers (church gigs, teaching, music, whatever) to be able to tour all the time. That’s crazy for people to be willing to do that, and we did it. That’s a whole other thing when you’re depending on your music for your lively hood.
There’s an emcee/write from Chicago named Rhymefest, he wrote “Jesus Walks” and a ton of other stuff. He told me a story about him working in McDonalds and said, “what am I doing, I’m so much better than this.” He moved to New York with nothing and was living on a couch. A couple months later he was introduced to Kanye, a couple weeks later wrote Jesus Walks, and a year later Grammy time. That wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t feel like he had his back against the wall to make it happen. That’s where we were at a year ago. Money is a blessing and a curse. If you have to grind nonstop in order to eat, it will make you do that. It’s a constant challenge to make sure people are eating/bills paid while also making sure their art is valued.
Do you guys intentionally have a message?
Lyrically yeah. We’ve never really set out to make a song that sounds a certain way (we’ve tried a couple times but it didn’t work), but Rico and Maggie definitely have strong views about a variety of things. They’re not shy at all about using music as a platform. “Them/Us” comes from ‘this is what’s happening around me, no one’s talking about it in this way, so I’ll talk about it.’ We as a group talk about everything and nothing is off limits.
“Them/Us” got called a protest song a lot when it came out. I kinda agree with that, but I take issue with the word ‘protest.’ For a protest to work it has to mean that someone cares that you’re angry, because they represent you, so I prefer a demonstration/action that gets in the way that does more than voice anger and frustration. I think creating a song like ‘Them/Us” is taking action in a way that’s not done that much anymore. Not tooting my own horn, I don’t know if the song will change anything, but that’s something that I’ve been battling with and what action is. Maybe it’s an action song, I don’t know.
For more information, booking, and to buy their newest CD/DVD “Shoulder Season” visit their official site by CLICKING HERE.