It’s safe to say that Chapel Hart was born with music in their blood. The trio of sisters Danica and Devynn Hart and their cousin Trea Swindle grew up in a musical family in the small town of Poplarville, Mississippi where their artistic identity was formed inside the halls of Harts Chapel. The trio’s story began to take shape as they planted seeds in the country music world from the vibrant streets of New Orleans to Music City. Since forming in 2018, the spirited family trio has starred alongside the legendary Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top in their video for “Jesus and Alcohol” and were inducted into CMT’s Next Women of Country Class of 2021 – and their journey is only just beginning.
In this edition of Female Friday, Swindle shares how being a prison guard helped restore her faith in humanity and Chapel Hart discusses the most honest songs in their catalogue and why it’s empowering to stand up to Internet trolls not only for themselves, but country music as a whole.
SLN: How did you all come together as Chapel Hart?
Devynn Hart: We are three of 108 grandchildren. Our grandmother had 17 kids. All of our family grew up in this community inside of Poplarville called Harts Chapel. When we were trying to come up with the name we were like ‘we want something that means something to all of us and it’s special to us.’ So we’re going through different names and our manager was like ‘what about Chapel Hart?’ Initially, we laughed at him because we thought it was hilarious. But after we sat on it, we were like ‘this is the greatest name ever.’ It represents who we are. Growing up in Harts Chapel made us into the women that we are today, so it fit perfectly.
Danica Hart: I remember growing up, if we were dating, they’d come down to Harts Chapel and it was so many of us and we’d all hang out. So it was relationships, it was activities, we’d go outside and play. Trea wrote a song called “Country Paradise,” so we went back down to a little creek we would go to during the summertime and we shot the video there. That’s our entire childhood in one video. Everything about it not only made us who we are, but is 100 percent a part of our artistry. I think that once we took a couple of days and really thought about it, it makes sense. It’s a cool name.
Trea Swindle: Danica is my first cousin and Devynn is her sister, so we’ve been together for quite awhile.
Danica: So life brought us together and music was the after thought [laughs].
Trea: Musically, it started out with just Danica and I as a duo. We started singing in New Orleans on Royal Street and we had a cover band and we traveled around and did a lot of stuff. I moved to New Orleans by accident. I was a prison guard in Mississippi and I had to step away and take some time. I went on vacation and I landed in New Orleans and ran into my sister and wound up modeling in a couple of shows. I was there for two years and then people were like, ‘you should sing.’ I was like, ‘I don’t sing, but I know who does’ and so we spent about a year trying to convince Danica to come down to New Orleans. Once we had those three part harmonies, Dev called me and she was like ‘I lost my job’ and I was like, ‘why don’t you come sing with us, no pressure. If you hate it, you can quit, or sing until you get a little money in your pocket while you’re looking for something else.’ Having two-part harmony [and] growing up in a family that sings, you always feel like you’re missing something. We had a third singer for a little bit and she had to go back to Australia, probably the best thing that ever happened to us because Devynn lost her job and then Danica convinced her to come down to New Orleans and start singing with us. [This] month will be three years that we’ve been doing this all together as Chapel Hart.
Trea, how did you become a prison guard? What was your experience like and what did you learn?
Trea: Honestly, it sounds strange, but I regained my hope for humanity while working in the jail. Especially being out in the free world, it seemed like people were so disconnected. Everybody’s on their phone, just not being people. But you see these rival gangs or these old gangsters sitting down having coffee every morning, talking, conversing, being people. It was bleakly hopeful, if that makes any sense at all. Listening to some of the stories from some of the guys definitely has inspired some of [the music]. Strangely enough, we almost had a riot one day and this old guy heard me singing in the evidence lockup and he was like, ‘will you sing a song?’ I said ‘if you can get them to be quiet, I’ll sing a song’ and two old guys got a 500-man room to be quiet. I sang a song and the rest of the night, you could hear a pin drop. That became part of our nightly routine as we’re picking up trays [to] get everybody to calm down, so the music definitely helped. After about a week they were like ‘we want to show y’all something’ and they put together a little boys group and they’re all singing. Because Johnny Cash has always been one of my favorites, I’ve always wanted to do a prison tour. I know it’s a little tough with security and everything else, but at some point it’s going to happen.
What draws you to songs, whether you’re picking them or writing them?
Trea: I think the honesty in the songs, it speaks volumes. “Jesus and Alcohol,” it came about from Devynn. She was like, ‘how about we do something with an alliteration?’ We come from a very religious family. You grow up in the church, going to church almost every day, but at the same time, we all know we drink. Going through heartbreak, there’s nothing like praying about it, but there’s also nothing like drinking about it too.
Danica: There’s so many people who’ve gone through some really hard stuff, and even through the hard stuff, we never lose our faith. But we have those moments of weakness and it was a fun way to illustrate that and to let people know that as long as you can hang on to your faith, sometimes you got to drink your way through it, but hang on and you’ll get out on the other side. It’s stuff like that that we love to be able to sit down and tangle around with the words and figure out how to say it that it still speaks from our hearts, but also in a way that’s comforting that doesn’t feel judgy. I think [with] a lot of our songs, we want people to know we’ve been there, done that, you’re not alone. We’re as messed up as you are.
Is there a song that you feel is the most honest that you’ve either written or recorded?
Danica: I’d have a toss up between “Jacqui’s Song” and “Daddy Do.” “Daddy Do” was a song that I had to sit down and write. I was adopted by my uncle, my mom’s brother, when I was two. My birth dad lived in the same city as me, I just didn’t see him much, but I had to confront the father figures that I had in my life. It was a hard song to write, I didn’t even get through it. I was at the keyboard crying and I was like, ‘dad, you got to come hear this,’ and I sang it for my dad who raised me and he cried. That was probably two of the most powerful and personal songs for me. We had a keyboard player [named Jake] when we were doing covers on Frenchmen [Street] and Bourbon Street. He had a girlfriend named Jacqui and she was like miss personality. She was about 5’1, but when we were at a gig one time, I looked outside and there’s this guy, he’s 6’2, and she’s got her finger up in his face, and I remember being like ‘I want to be that courageous when I grow up.’ She was personality for days. She was golden.
She went to go work a music festival down in South Louisiana and their tent got struck by lightning and she passed away at the age of 28. We were getting ready to go to rehearsal one day and I heard her spirit start to speak and I remember being like ‘what do you want to say?’ so that’s how that came about. I started to write it down and then the music hit, and [in] 15 minutes, “Jacqui’s Song” was a thing. That’s one it felt like a crazy, surreal experience that when the song came together and I heard it and saw it, I just knew. It was such a special moment and it’s such a special song. Even now to this day we perform and sometimes we can get through it and sometimes we are bawling by the middle of the verse. It’s been such a push of motivation. I think “Jacqui’s Song” has been the story of our lives. You only got one life to live, you better rock and roll while you can. Surround yourself with the people you love, love the people you’re surrounded with, and everything else will fade away. When you burn it down to what’s pure gold, it’s love, and it’s the people who love you and that you love. That’s life.
Trea: I was so surprised because we write 99 percent of the music that we record and sing, but our single, “I Will Follow,” I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard a song that was like ‘I feel like we wrote that.’ That song was made for us. Especially being three little Black girls in South Mississippi, there ain’t a lot of country singers that look like us. We’re told multiple times growing up ‘that’s a good idea, but maybe you should think of a real career.’ But hearing the song “I Will Follow,” just following your heart and live to the beat of your own drum, that song spoke volumes to us.
I love the hook of the chorus that says “when my heart leads the way, I will follow.” What does that mean to you?
Devynn: I feel like so many times in life, we have our own plans and we try to plan our lives out how we think it should go. But a lot of times, it never goes that way, and so you have to listen to what your heart is saying. It may not make the slightest bit of sense to you, but most of the time when you do follow your heart, it is exactly where you need to be. Your heart will always put you in the places that you need to be at the time that you need to be in those places. That’s what I take from that part of that song.
Danica: Exactly. I think the biggest part is even when we don’t understand it, I have those moments where I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I’m like, ‘we got to go,’ and it makes no sense at all. Most of the time we’re broke, but slowly, everything starts to come together. Somebody says ‘I want to give y’all a donation,’ ‘I want to buy eight T-shirts,’ so it all starts to come together. When you learn to follow that instinct, to hear your heart and listen to it, it’ll absolutely change your life. It will take you places that you’ve never imagined that you’d be, but it’s the most important thing. When you’re hungry, follow your gut, when you’ve got instinct, follow your heart.
Congratulations on being named to CMT’s Next Women of Country class of 2021! What does this mean for your career?
Devynn: I think one of the biggest things is that it introduces us to a new audience, because the whole thing is for up-and-coming artists. I think that’s the coolest thing that people who’ve never heard of us now are getting an opportunity too. There’s a platform for us to be able to be presented. I think that’s one of the biggest benefits of being a part of this.
Trea: Also being able to share that platform with other amazing women, because you look back and Kelsea Ballerini and Ashley McBryde and all these other women who are becoming forces to be reckoned with, they started in the same place as we did.
Danica: It’s amazing because I think it’s so great to be able to bring your voice to something that’s already so powerful. When “I Will Follow” came out, [CMT] shared the video and trolls [were saying] ‘this isn’t country music.’ We went back to those comments and we were like ‘you can say it’s not country after you listen.’
Trea: Some of those very same naysayers are the ones who will come back and be like, ‘I was wrong, I didn’t listen. This is real country,’ and then they’ll start defending us.
Danica: We have gotten such a large fan base, but it’s only because we went and defended our music and defended country music. We stood up not just for ourselves, but for other women in country. You don’t have to take what people have to say about you.
How do you hope to have an impact as artists and with your music?
Devynn: I think collectively, we can say that we hope that our music inspires people in some way shape or form. I feel like our music is relatable and it’s stuff that everybody has experienced or they will experience at some point in their life. I feel like music is so healing. A lot of times, people can put on a song and it can change your entire mood or change your perspective on something, and I think that is the biggest thing for us. We want our music to be able to help someone somewhere, some kind of way. I think that’s really important to us.
Danica: Even in talking about coming to stand up for yourself, there’s so many women who come on here and go, ‘dang right Chapel Hart, stand up for yourself. That’s amazing’ or people who are like ‘I could care less about this whole thread, but I’m here for your comments.’ It’s confidence, and we want to give that to people and help people stand up for yourself. There’s a way that you can do it in love. Hate just breeds more hate, but when people come at you, give them love.