Fusing elements of hip-hop, soul, and jazz, Sidewalk Chalk offer up an eclectic sound and exhilarating live show that showcases how diverse the Chicago music scene truly is. The eight-piece group recently released their first full-length album Corner Store and is currently gearing up for a very busy summer. Epitonic recently caught up with a few members of this talented collective to discuss their latest release, the benefits of Kickstarter, and a recent shout-out from Chicago native Lupe Fiasco.
You guys are such a large group and it seems like everyone has such a vital role within the band. How did you all start playing music together?
Maggie Vagle [vocals]: Most of us, the trio, me, and Rico [Sisney, emcee], all met at Columbia College; we all went there. Charlie met Jumaane at a show that we did about two and a half years ago and clicked immediately. The horns came on not too long after that.
You mentioned a trio. Was that how Sidewalk Chalk first started out?
M: Yeah. When we first started it was the trio -- keys, drums, bass, and then the two vocalists.
I think one of the most interesting aspects about the band is that you have a tap dancer laying down really intricate rhythms with you guys. How did you guys decide to bring that into the mix? Was is something you knew you wanted to include as soon as you all met?
Jumaane Taylor [taps]: I mean, I’m a tap dancer, but we connected more on the music aspect and I think that’s what really pulled everything together.
Charlie Coffeen [keys]: [It] was never a “this is kind of weird but we’re going to try and make it work” type of thing. It was just natural from the beginning. No one really questioned it; it just made sense. Other people ask about it all the time -- “How did you think to have a tap dancer?” or “How do you make it work?” We don’t. It just happens. It’s just always made sense.
J: I really have to keep my ears open now though, because in the beginning I was just improvising over everything. But after hearing the collective, I started listening way more and I’m still listening way more for what I can contribute to the whole picture that we’re creating.
M: It’s way more integrated now.
C: They did a really good job with that on the record too -- finding the spots for Jumaane to fit in and giving him his time to shine, but also having him like play parts on his own. Like the first track on the album, “Birds of a Feather.” It fades out with him and he’s not in the song until the last thirty seconds. But when you notice it, when you catch it, it’s nice.
I’m sure it’s really awesome to see in the live show as well.
C: Ladies love it. [laughs]
M: Everybody loves it!
J: They be lovin’ the shuffle!
So what about the name Sidewalk Chalk? Is there any sort of story behind that?
C: There was a talent show that we were going to do and the only people who could go to the actual audition were me, Garrett [McGinn, bass], and Rico, so I [didn't] know what we were going to play. We were on our way over there and at some point somebody was like, “They’re probably going to ask what we’re called.” So then we were just shouting out random stuff while walking from one Columbia building to the other and by the time we got there -- I’m pretty sure she asked Rico -- he said Sidewalk Chalk. And it stuck. I guess it makes sense.
M: I think as the group has evolved, we’ve found some importance and metaphor within [the band name].
Who are some of your musical -- and dance -- influences?
C: Big one for me is probably Dilla -- he’s at the top. Some jazz like Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea, people like that. Voodoo by D’Angelo is definitely up there. I hear a lot of Curtis Mayfield-esque stuff in a lot of the lines the horns come up with. Sam Trump, our trumpet player, is as much into Dwele as he is Art Blakey. [My influences are] all over the place. I think everybody in the group is like that.
J: I guess my collection of people I can listen to for ideas or patterns and stuff are the Soulquarians. I don’t know if you know about that -- it’s Questlove, J.Dilla, Erykah Badu, Dwele. The music they created during that time is super creative. Too creative. And it incorporates so many different instruments and I can definitely find some connection [between] that and what we do. And as far as dancers, Baby Laurence. He’s the dancer I have tattooed on my arm. He’s the only dancer who put out his very own album with just a jazz quartet. It was just a tap dancer and a quartet and he put [it on] vinyl and everything. He was a musician as well as a dancer. That’s where I’m steadily stealing from.
You can definitely hear that you’re grabbing inspiration from all across the board. With the album Corner Store, was there anything you were listening to on repeat when you started recording the album?
C: For me there’s some subtle things that would come into my head and I would try to put [those in] there. At one point I was listening to James Blake’s record pretty heavily and there’s a funny little Auto-Tune thing that we [threw in there, inspired by Blake]. Other than tha,t I don’t know. There was just such a need to get [the album] out that it just became this rush of sound and ideas.
M: I was listening pretty heavily to Gretchen Parlato’s album The Lost and Found [during recording, and it shows], especially on "Moon = Belly." It ended up being one of my favorite tracks on the album.
I think one of my personal favorites is the track “Corner.” You've got a little spoken word thing going on in that one that changes things up a bit.
M: Actually, that was before I really started performing any of my own original songs. I was doing spoken word at open mics in high school and then I started [setting the poems to] melodies, inspired by my sister and a group that she was in called The Poetry. There was also a woman who did spoken word and really inspired me; her name is Desdamona and she’s still doing her thing in Minneapolis.
You guys enlisted the help of Kickstarter to put the album together. How was that?
M: It was a success!
C: It was such a rewarding experience. They send you emails when you get a contribution, so in the middle of the day [I'd see on my phone that] so-and-so donated this much and [I'd] do a little dance, then go back to my work. Just seeing how much people cared and how badly people wanted us to put out a record is awesome. And we had a good time doing the rewards. One of the rewards was that people got a song written for them so we put together a little questionnaire. They would answer the questions and then we would write them a little song [based on their answers]. And we took a ridiculous Christmas photo that we sent out, too. It was fun. I don’t know how long it would have taken us if we hadn’t used Kickstarter.
Where did you guys record?
M: We recorded at a couple of places. The trio and taps [did most of their recording] at I.V. Lab Studios here in Chicago. Vocals were all recorded at a place called The Attic. And we did it with Greg Majors and Shane Hendrickson.
C: Yeah, Shane Hendrickson helped out at I.V. and Manny Sanchez was one of the main guys at I.V. He and Greg did the mixing. Then we got it mastered by a guy named Brian Gardner in L.A. who has a crazy resume. He mastered Speakerboxx, The Chronic, and I think he did even did Thriller.
How’d you guys get that hook up?
M: That was through Manny. He kind of threw it to him and was just like “Hey, what do you think about doing this one?”
C: And he did it. He did it cheaper for us than Dr. Dre but we couldn’t have even considered [him] if we didn’t raise the money through Kickstarter.
“Watersong” is the first single off of Corner Store. It’s a really great track and one of my favorites from the album. What made you decide to roll that one out first?
M: I think we were trying to pick a song that really featured all the components and parts of Sidewalk Chalk and we thought that one was a really good fit. Everyone gets to shine. It’s a fun song and when we play it live the crowd receives it really well. Having a song that really featured Jumaane was important too.
Then there’s the infamous Lupe Fiasco shout-out...
C: [laughs] That’s funny because that’s a Greg connection, too. He does a lot of Lupe’s vocals at his spot and did a lot of work on Food & Liquor, The Cool, and all that stuff. It was a few days after the record came out and Greg said, "Lupe is listening to your stuff." Greg doesn’t know anything about Twitter so he was just like “go look at Twitter” and [Lupe had] tweeted something about the album. I ended up going to the studio and giving him some merch and the album. He congratulated us and everything -- it was pretty sweet.
I know you guys have a summer tour coming up. Is this your first time on the road? Is there anything you're especially looking forward to?
C: We’re so excited to go. We’ve done a smaller [tour] in the past, but that was pre-horns and pre-taps so this is the real deal. We’re buying a bus this week probably and soupin’ it up. There’s something really special about going to a new city, playing, and then having your record to give them.
M: Like a real band! I’m so excited because we’ll be going to my hometown, Minneapolis. It’ll be my first time going back home and performing. I haven’t performed or done anything there since I was eighteen. It’s still so far away but I’m really really excited about going there.
C: It’s going to be awesome.
05-19 saki: Epitonic saki Session
05-25 The Shrine w/ De La Soul
05-26 The Cubby Bear w/ Action Bronson
Be on the lookout for additional shows across the Midwest and East Coast!