By Thor Christensen, The Dallas Morning News, September 18, 2000
IT COULD BE cosmic intervention — or maybe just a bad connection. But whatever’s causing Tracy Chapman’s cell phone to go dead four times during a 30-minute interview, the breakdowns are perfectly fitting for singer with a rep as the Greta Garbo of folk music.
“There’s no way anyone who reads this article can really get to know me,” she says, starting to run down the long list of reasons she’d rather be left alone by the media.
“Part of it relates to being a shy, reserved person and that talking to strangers can be difficult. . . . But it can also be really frustrating when (writers) have an agenda before they even talk to you. . . . You say one thing and read it later and see it completely misstated or taken out of context. I assume that some, if not most, of what I say may be mis.in.ter.preted.”
So, if journalists simply don’t get her — and she doesn’t enjoy talking to them — then what on earth is she doing on the phone right now?
One reason is that yours truly passed the singer’s pre-interview screening — which consists of sending two random writing samples to Chapman’s publicist, who passes them on to the singer, who reads them and decides whether their “tone” is to her liking.
But the bigger reason she’s on the horn today is she’s got a concert tour to plug and a new album to promote — “Telling Stories,” her first since 1995. She’ll play at The NorVa on Thursday.
Like most of the songs on her four previous albums, her new “Stories” are smartly written folk-blues tunes that don’t meet the strict guidelines of what radio plays these days. With the exception of 1988’s “Fast Car” and 1996’s “Give Me One Reason,” the 36-year-old singer has spent her entire career working outside the boundaries of the Top 40 singles chart. “I don’t think about writing in those terms,” she says, speaking from her tour bus as it heads down the highway toward a concert in Massachusetts.
“It’s all about why you’re making music. Some people are in the music business because they want to be famous or successful by the standards of the business. They want to make pop records . . . and I’ve never been in that process, actually.
“Nobody ever had those expectations (about me) from the beginning. The record company, I think, hoped they’d sell 200,000 copies of the first record (“Tracy Chapman”), and they were shocked and amazed to sell millions instead. And maybe because of that, I started out in a better place than people who are expected to create songs that become pop hits.”
Before “Tracy Chapman” came out in April 1988, she was an obscure 23-year-old singer eking out a meager existence playing Boston coffeehouses. Ten months later, she was a multimillion-selling star and winner of three Grammy awards, including the trophy for Best New Artist.
Twelve years after her instant transformation, she says she’s still struggling with the glare of the spotlight.
“I’m a naturally shy person — I’ve been shy since my youth — and I’ve had to just get over it in order to not let it stop me from making music,” she says. “But I’ve never liked crowds. That’s still hard.
“Being in front of a crowd is OK. The focus is on music, and it’s a very controlled environment where everyone sort of knows the basic rules. But being in the midst of a crowd of overly enthusiastic people who want to see you or meet you — that can be kind of scary. There’s no control there.’‘
Yet as much as she frets over meeting excited fans, she admits the encounters are usually more amusing than traumatic: A lot of people nervously blurt out that she doesn’t look anything like they thought she would.
“I’m almost 5-5, but I think television and stages make a person look larger than life, so they’re often struck by my physical size and they say, `I thought you’d be a larger person,‘ ” she says, chuckling.
“It’s so completely superficial it’s funny.”