Chella Negro on How Her Standup Experience Helps Make Her a Better Band Leader

Chella & The Charm
Chella & The Charm
Glenn Ross

Chella & The Charm is releasing its self-titled, full-length album at the hi-dive on Friday, December 12. The folky Americana project is the latest incarnation of a band fronted by primary singer and songwriters Michelle Caponigro. Performing as Chella Negro for the last several years, Caponigro has established herself as one of the most engaging live performers in Denver, whether playing solo or with a band. Her background in theater has given Caponigro an uncommon poise and confidence on stage, and her lyrics are rich with vivid storytelling, unblinking but compassionate self-examination and pointed observations.

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Caponigro moved to Denver in 2000 to come play music, because her best friend had moved to the Mile High City and had urged her to follow. Once in town, Caponigro connected with the jam band Purple Buddha.

"[That was] back when people would hook up on tour and meet people and go on the road with them and share cars before everyone was a serial killer or something," says Caponigro of that time. "Man, you could have been a serial killer so easily then!"

The stint with Purple Buddha lasted seven years before internal tensions caused a split. Caponigro received an acoustic guitar from her then boyfriend, and with the instrument she taught herself how to play and write songs.

"The jam band didn't like my songwriting very much because they said it was too personal," says Caponigro. "I didn't want to write songs about rainbows and hugging trees and dancing around with each other and stuff. It wasn't where my brain was. So I wrote these really dark songs and they didn't get pushed through to the band so I just kept them. I think I started playing the style of music that I play because I taught myself how to play guitar and it just came naturally to play cowboy chords, straight up open tuning and strumming. Pretty folky but I think I approached it more from a campfire perspective."

From there, as Chella Negro, Caponigro played around town and became one of a handful of singer-songwriter types that separated herself from the cliché with her personality on stage and because her songs, though simple in construction, have a depth to the sound and something to say that went beyond the tropes of country and folk music. They were personal and offered an interesting perspective and point of view. As on the new album, in the song "December," there is a Kiekegaard-ian existential yearning for understanding the meaning of it all, expressed without an explicit pretension of making a philosophical statement. But all of Caponigro's songs seem to possess a similar level of sophistication balanced with accessibility.

The current line-up of the band, which includes long-running pedal steel player Dave Pinto, drummer Melanie Karnopp and bassist Steve Burket, seems to be the most stable membership to date and that which recorded the album. And though Caponigro has played solo shows, she prefers the full band format.  

"I don't like to play by myself now," reveals Caponigro. "I feel like they're my phantom limbs and I just wish they were there when they're not there. They're much better musicians than I am, so they push the song along."

Caponigro hasn't just performed music in Denver, she was also a member of LadyFace, a sketch comedy group consisting or Caponigro, Kristin Rand, Timmi Lasley, Melanie Karnopp and Mara Wiles. The group was active as Denver's comedy scene was ramping up to where it is today. But being both a musician and comedian posed some challenges.

"[Sketch comedy] is a little more gracious, I think," says Caponigro. "Stand-up comedy seems incredibly difficult and when you're good at it, that's a really impressive skill. I don't think the audience had any kind of issue with it but there were a lot of times in the Ladyface Sketch Comedy group where there were four comics and a musician and the implication was that you're not going to be as funny as the other people. I was the straight man but I think it was perceived sometimes as, 'Good job for a musician'--not held to the same standards as a comic was. I always felt like I was never fully accepted by the comedians because I was a musician that did their stuff but didn't do their stuff. It was a lot of, 'She's not a comic.'

"I felt like they thought, 'She's not working on this craft and we're working on this craft,'" continues Caponigro. "I totally understand that because I'm like that with people that are casual musicians too and are good. Then you're like, 'You didn't study this. You didn't work on this. All of sudden you have a fucking Grammy? Fuck you!' So I totally got where they were coming from."

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But in either realm, Caponigro's early training in theater helped her to get through potentially difficult situations that applied to both music and comedy including crucial elements that separate terrible public speakers from the competent and the great.

"Breathing is a really big thing," offers Caponigro. "People breathe incorrectly all the time. Mic technique, when to have it close or when to have it back. How to do it without a microphone and not hurt yourself. Practice makes you not afraid of people. And a lot of times who gives a shit anyway what anyone thinks? Surprisingly, when you make a mistake, nobody's going to catch it."

"That's another thing that's different between stand-up comedy and music," concludes Caponigro. "If you trainwreck a stand-up show, people are going to notice. But if you trainwreck a music show it's going to be gone. The audience is probably going to forget it unless there's a meltdown. If you miss a couple of chords or something, no big deal. But if you drop a punchline? Big deal! I think being a musician is much more forgiving than being a stand-up comedian. I tell my band all the time, 'These are new songs to these people. They don't know that change doesn't happen there or that chord doesn't happen there.' If we're playing a brand new song we can do whatever we want to in the middle of it and the only people that are going to know that is us."

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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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