Singer regroups for tour, `New Beginning’ album
By Julene Snyder, The Chronicle, Sunday, December 10, 1995
When Tracy Chapman smiles, her incandescence is blinding enough to light up the dark side of the moon. That smile is as rare as certain orchids, but it’s blooming now.
Chapman has just released her fourth album, “New Beginning,” on Elektra, and the title wasn’t chosen lightly, she says, speaking with characteristic deliberation in a nearly empty Noe Valley restaurant. “For me, the title is representative, both of many aspects of this record and this particular place that I am in my career.” Somewhat inadvertently, the title also has another implication. “In looking at the songs — and this wasn’t really a conscious decision — I found that recurring themes in many of the songs talking about birth and change and redemption and renewal,” Chapman says. “We need to consider new methods, new ways, new ideas, a new direction in many aspects of the way we live, in the way that this world works.”
That’s the kind of pragmatic idealism that has characterized the singer/songwriter’s career since it erupted with her huge hit “Fast Car,” a single off her 1988 eponymous debut album, which went triple platinum. It was a year that found her making the transition from singing in coffeehouses to sharing the stage with Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel for 1989’s Amnesty International tour. But Chapman, who comes across in conversation as alternately shy and self-assured, wasn’t overwhelmed by the sudden transition. In fact, she found it exhilarating to turn on the radio and hear her own voice singing. “It was exciting! That part wasn’t overwhelming at all,” she laughs, then quickly sobers. “Most of what changed over that period of time was the way that other people responded to me. Before, I often found that when I was doing errands in stores people would follow me around as if they thought I was going to shoplift.” She shakes her head slowly, and continues after a pause. “After the record came out and my face was all over the place, they’d follow me around wanting an autograph, or actually wanting to give me something, which was very nice. But it always seemed ironic to me that when I really needed someone to give me things, they didn’t. It took the record to make them want to.” Because Chapman grew up in a “rough neighborhood’‘ in Cleveland, her mother kept close watch on Tracy and her sister. To pass the time, Chapman began reading a lot. “I think in some ways I’ve been influenced by writers more than musicians,” she says. “Partly because I didn’t have money for records when I was growing up, I was listening to the records that my parents owned.” Chapman grew up in a house filled with music — gospel, R&B, soul, jazz. But she found herself more entranced with poetry than harmony. “I was writing poetry before I was writing songs,” she says. But in spite — or perhaps because — of her love of words, the music started flowing from Chapman at an early age. “My first instrument was the ukulele, actually,’‘ she says, her eyes growing a bit dreamy. “I wonder whatever happened to it? I had a few other instruments before I was given a guitar by my mother. We had a little organ in the house that had a keyboard on one side and buttons for chords on the other. “Then, when I learned acoustic guitar, I finally convinced my mother to buy me one. I played classical clarinet for six years in elementary school. I still pick it up sometimes, just for fun. I tried to find a place for clarinet on this record, but it didn’t happen.” Chapman started writing songs as soon as she began playing music.
“The first song I wrote didn’t have any instrumentation. It was a song about walking home from school with my friends on a sunny day,” she recalls. “I sang it for my friends while we were walking home from school. They seemed to like it.”
NO HAPPY DITTIES
Now 31, Chapman doesn’t write happy ditties anymore. Her career is based on earnest songs, some loaded a bit heavily with message. At times, that folksinger-with-a- conscience persona has earned her the scorn of some blacks. A few years ago, Public Enemy’s Chuck D. told Rolling Stone that “black people cannot feel Tracy Chapman, even if they got beat over the head with it 35,000 times.” It was a comment that hurt her at the time, along with some critics’ dismissal of her as providing a way for white people to expiate their guilt over the state of race relations. Chapman’s voice — a strong contralto — doesn’t match the common perception of black music. You certainly can’t wave your hands in the air to her songs, but you can be swept away by the passion and sincerity of her themes. Chapman has resolutely followed her own muse. From her sophomore effort, “Crossroads,” to 1992’s “Matters of the Heart” and now with “New Beginning,” she continues to write and sing songs that speak of hope in times filled with despair. Clearly, she feels quite deeply about the state of the world, while recognizing the good in much of humanity. “I’ve met people in my life who have many characteristics that I actually sing about in the song `Heaven’s Here on Earth,’ ” she says. “It’s a metaphor for people who show compassion, who are respectful and caring.
A LOT OF GOODNESS
“There is still a lot of goodness out there. Many of the social movements that are advocating change are still plugging away and trying to make a difference. In some ways I see there’s been an increase in people’s consciousness in many issues about the environment, ecological issues, to some extent about racism and discrimination of all kinds. I think we’re at least at a point where we’re talking about some of these things, so that gives me hope.” But just now, Chapman has packing to do. Her tour starts in a few days. She reveals, a bit grudgingly, that she’ll be appearing on “The Late Show With David Letterman” between gigs (she was on November 29). But she brightens at the thought of her band mates. “Some of them have never been on TV before, so they’re really excited.”
TRACY CHAPMAN IN CONCERT
The singer performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Call (510) 762-BASS or (408) 998-BASS. A portion of the proceeds goes to Project Open Hand. Attendees are also encouraged to bring a can of food or an item of clothing for the San Francisco Food Bank.