After 20 Years in Denver, Chella Negro Is Exactly Where She Should Be

Chella Negro of Chella & the Charm.
Chella Negro of Chella & the Charm. Chella & The Charm
“Have you thought about leaving Denver?” Michelle Caponigro asks over a happy-hour beer at her preferred hangout spot, the hi-dive. Even if she seems resigned to sticking around now, it’s clear that she’s thought hard about leaving at some point.

Things have gone a bit differently than Caponigro had originally expected. In the twenty years since moving to Denver and a decade into pursuing a music career under the name Chella Negro and her excellent Americana and alternative-country act, Chella & the Charm, the optimism that once defined much of her approach to the music scene has faded.

“I wanted the big dream and didn’t understand why it didn’t happen for that person, or why it happened for that person, or kind of happened — more than it happened for me,” says Caponigro. “But you get to the point where hopefully — I got to the point where it was like, ‘Are you making something good? Do you like living here? Do you like your friends? Are you having a good time?’

“Maybe it was the Lexapro, but I got there. Now this is just fun; here are the things that I care about and want to do, here are the things I want to say, here are the people I want to collaborate with and make things with. I don’t have to do shit for anyone anymore.”

On her new EP, Good Gal, out April 4, Caponigro wrestles with the effects of the passage of time, magnified by her own life: friends leave town, come back again and leave once more, all while she seems to stay put (“Denver USA”); a seven-year-old song re-emerges, updated with lead guitar in place of steel guitar (“OPS”); and she even delves into her complicated religious upbringing that still affects her today (“Blood Moon”).

“[The record] is a midlife crisis, straight up,” she says with a wry smile. “’OPS’ is the only one I wrote when I was young and hopeful.”

Caponigro is rightfully jaded by her time in the music industry in Denver. She has been asked to wade into the bullshit that countless others have been subject to in probably every other city.

“I think I was very naïve at first,” says Caponigro. “I think I was like, ‘This could really happen!’ And then all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Fuck you! Like, I’m not going to take my shirt off for you. I’m not going to go there for this crap.'

“I’ve been singing in a working band since I was fifteen; in bars and creepy places with creepy dudes and weird managers. Nothing’s super-shocked me yet at this point, but I think that that’s sad sometimes.”

She's also getting tired explaining her world to men — male musicians, male journalists, male listeners, all of them — when simply sharing a look with another female artist would say anything that needed to be said.

“When I talk to the other girls, there is a really solid feeling of sisterhood, where you’re just like, 'Ah man, I know. I know.' We don’t have to tell each other’s gross-shit stories, because we all have at least five of them.”

But rather than letting the rampant misogyny and sexism baked into society define her career, Caponigro is letting it serve as fuel for what she does next.

She's decided to forgo a release show entirely for Good Gal; she's not enthused by the idea of throwing a party of sorts for herself. But more important, she’s investing more of herself and her time in the other female musicians around town.

Along with trying to be a source of friendship and wisdom, Caponigro is fresh off her annual Valentine’s Day show at the hi-dive, which features female-fronted acts only, is in the early stages of planning an exciting new “multi-band Americana-themed lady music fest," and dissects music new and old as co-host of the weekly podcast Discover Weakly.

“It’s just so important that people pay attention to us. And whether it’s me or [other female artists], it’s all of us in one spirit. I’m proud of this record, and I hope people like it. But also, it’s like…we all know about this, let’s focus on something else that’s more important.

“People will find it and like it and then they’ll come see us. We play shows all the time.”

Caponigro has seen, heard and experienced enough to feel like no matter what she does to put herself in a position to succeed, the current system in place will work against her. Yet after enough time, she can now reflect on her experiences and appreciate the growth that has occurred a little more.

“At one point, I cared so hard. It was post-Flatlands, pre-Denver Delay: I was just like, ‘I’m going to work so hard, and I’m going to get to be queen of this town, I’m going to play Red Rocks and be the AEG Master of Ceremonies, and everyone’s going to buy my record, and I’m going to have all this stuff.’

“But shit’s gonna do what it’s gonna do, and I just need be right enough in myself to accept that. Shit’s gonna do what it’s gonna do. I’m going to put this record out and not have a release show; maybe people will talk about it, maybe people will listen to it, or maybe they won’t, and I’ll just write a bunch more songs.”

Caponigro cannot change how her career has shaken out thus far. But now unburdened by the need to please anyone other than herself, perhaps she can help re-shape the industry to look like what it should have when she first arrived.

Perhaps after all these years, Caponigro is exactly where she should be.
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Ben Wiese is a writer in Denver. He covers music for Westword.
Contact: Ben Wiese