By Mark Brown Scripps Howard, Times Union Albany, NY, August 03, 2000
Yes, Tracy Chapman knows full well that she has a serious image. Maybe it even seems dour to some people. “Oh, yeah, there is a less serious side. I don’t know that it comes out in my songwriting,” she says with a laugh. “I think there are funny things in this record. But I’m often asked really serious questions, so I give serious answers.”
She’s content to live with that image, though.
“There’s no way in a moment, in an interview, in a television appearance or in 11 songs that someone would have a real sense of the complete person,” she says.
However, there is one thing she wants to clarify.
“I have dreadlocks. I do not have hair extensions,” she says, laughing. “I’ve seen it written a few times. They’re completely different things. And this is my own hair.”
Besides that, she says, there’s very little she can add that she hasn’t already put into the music. Her body of work and her latest album, “Telling Stories,” sum up everything she thinks about life, regret, salvation, forgiveness and more.
“Telling Stories” is a masterwork — a sometimes dark, sometimes hopeful rumination on the personal and the political, the sharp pains of life and its small, sometimes hidden joys. The album’s 11 tracks are so focused, spare and streamlined that it sounds like a single burst of inspiration, a la Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” or a series of Flannery O’Connor short stories.
“I wish I could say it happened that way, but it didn’t. I just slowly worked on these songs. I don’t even know how it happened, really,” says Chapman, who steps into the spotlight Tuesday evening at the Pines Theater in Northampton, Mass. “I didn’t have a real thematic goal in mind when I was writing the songs, but I see that there is one that threads its way through a lot of the songs on the record.”
As for how it happened, she doesn’t know. “The whole songwriting process is still a bit of a mystery to me,” she admits. “It just happens; it just comes. I have never tried to sit down and write a song. It’s a very unstructured, organic process.”
The tunes come as she fools around with an acoustic guitar, practicing and tuning.
“The only person I ever actually share the process with before I have completed a song is my sister,” says the 36-year-old Chapman. “I started writing songs when I was 8 years old, and she was the only one at that time that really listened to them. I know I can trust her to be honest with me, whatever she thinks about the song. I’ll play things for her and ask her if she likes it, what it means to her, if I’m making sense.”
Producers and the record company never get a say in her songs.
“I can’t think of anything worse, really, than to try to live up to someone else’s expectations of what you should be. You don’t make art by consensus,” she says.
Chapman seemingly came out of nowhere and fully self-contained in 1988 with the now-classic “Fast Car,” a tale of despair and determination that was an instant hit. By year’s end, she’d gone from Boston clubs to co-headlining a stadium tour for Amnesty International. She downsized a bit for the early ’90s, then came back with a massive hit in “Give Me One Reason.”
With such a body of work built up, fans can start to see characters and themes that run through Chapman’s songs, whether it’s the strong, sharp-tongued protagonist of “Talkin’ About a Revolution” and the title track of “Telling Stories” or the trapped, helpless characters in a one-sided relationship in the new songs, “Less Than Strangers” and “It’s OK.”
Her first and biggest hit, “Fast Car,” shows both sides.
“In `Fast Car,’ that person goes through a lot of changes early on being really idealistic and having your hopes tied up in someone else, then by the end they come to realize that’s not going to be their solution,” she says.
Overall, “I think there are many characters (in the songs). But I don’t think about it that way; it’s not what’s in my mind when I’m writing a song.
“There’s a range of people; there are men and women,” she continues. “There are also people who want to change — the character in `Cold Feet’ is looking to find something that’s missing in their life. They’re often looking to be redeemed by love.”
Or by God. Spiritual topics, guilt, regret and salvation flood “Telling Stories,” such as the person in “Unsung Psalms” thinking her life would be better if she’d only lived right.
“I think there’s a difference between knowing that you’ve done something wrong and feeling that it actually is wrong. That’s part of the struggle that the character in `Unsung Psalms’ has,” she says. “They realize the review of their life may not be a glowing review. But they’re sort of OK with that, wanting to believe that they’ve done the best they could. And maybe that’s all that matters.”
In the brokenhearted “Less Than Strangers,” the character “is dealing with the sifting nature of reality specifically, their great intimacy at times with people in your life. That can change. The whole idea of that song is that it’s not even that the love may go away, but you may end up with something less than if you were to interact with someone you don’t even know,” she says.
The menace of “Nothing Yet” looks at a world where there is nowhere near enough thought, reflection or responsibility. Despite the dark tone, Chapman insists there’s some ambivalence — even hope – – in there.
” `Nothing Yet’ is very firmly on the fence, right on the line,” she says. “Anything can happen in this world — anything. We can on one day see the best of what other people have to offer, the best of what humanity has to show of itself, and the worst. And you can’t predict from one day to the next … what the quality of (existence) will be like.”
FACTS: TRACY CHAPMAN
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The Pines Theater, Look Park, Northampton, Mass.
Tickets: $55, $45
Info: (800) 843-8425