By Jeff Simons, The Associated Press, September 5, 2000 @ Amarillonet.com
Tracy Chapman makes music out of poetry
SANTA FE, N.M. – Slow and steady, she reels you in.
There’s an alchemy to Tracy Chapman’s music, and it’s rooted in her seductive simplicity: basic chords resonating off her Martin Dreadnought guitar; a rich vibrato tenor delivering clear, straightforward, confessional lyrics.
It’s the stuff of life – a jilted lover, a battered woman, a woebegone kid, a stranded sailor.
Chapman is the voice of dreamers and outcasts – the ones she sings of in “Talkin ‘Bout A Revolution” – the ones ready to “…rise up and take what’s theirs.”
“I’m inspired by things I read, I’m inspired by people I meet,” said Chapman during a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press from Austin.
“I’m inspired by thinking about the world and the potential – and the sometimes lack of potential – there sometimes seems to be.”
At a recent performance at the Paolo Soleri outdoor amphitheater, Chapman’s inspiration rang true with the audience.
“Her music really touches my heart,” said Amme Hogan of Albuquerque.
“It’s her truth. It’s sincere and spiritual,” added Donna Kangeter, also of Albuquerque.
Chapman, dressed in a black shirt and jeans, her dreadlocks tied back in a thick ponytail, delivered a two-hour set of ballads, blues, reggae and her poignant a cappella “Behind The Wall” that brought the capacity crowd of 3,000 to its feet.
Her song list offered the crowd a glimpse into the emotional fabric that has inspired much of her songwriting.
In her opening number, “It’s OK,” Chapman is the steadfast friend: “I’m the rock/The shoulder you can cry on/I keep the walls from falling down”; in “Wedding Song,” the romantic dreamer: “By your light/Others pale by comparison/I place my faith in love/My fate in this communication.”
And in “For My Lover,” a darker side: “Two weeks in a Virginia jail/For my lover for my lover/Twenty thousand dollar bail/For my lover for my lover.”
Chapman – who gained almost instant international recognition and critical acclaim when she performed on the televised “Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute” concert at Wembley Stadium in London in June 1988 – has strong social and moral convictions.
“We have to think about the political and social systems that we’ve created for our lives and consider whether or not they’re really serving the needs of people,” Chapman said during her interview.
Those views were poetically phrased during her performance.
In “Paper And Ink,” the danger -and illusion – of money: “Money’s only paper only ink/We’ll destroy ourselves if we can’t agree/How the world turns/Who made the sun/Who owns the sea.”
And in “All That You Have Is Your Soul,” she asks us to hold onto the one thing that really matters: “Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple/Don’t you eat of a bitter fruit/Hunger only for a taste of justice/Hunger only for a world of truth/’Cause all that you have is your soul.”
Since her 1988 debut, Chapman has continued to draw a strong following.
Howard Kramer, curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, said people will recognize any art that’s true to itself.
“What she does is honest and forthright, and people can see that. She doesn’t let down her audience,” he said.
Born March 30, 1964, in Cleveland, Chapman started playing guitar when she was 8 years old.
“I didn’t have any records of my own,” Chapman said. “My parents mainly listened to R & B, gospel and soul music. When I listened to music, I listened to the radio.”
Initially, Chapman taught herself the fundamentals.
“I was playing things like ‘Greensleeves’ – the kinds of stuff they put in basic music books,” she said. “I’d already been playing other instruments. My first instrument was a ukulele. Then my mother bought an organ that my sister and I would play on.”
Chapman studied classical clarinet for about six years, beginning in elementary school.
She linked up with an African drum ensemble in 1985 at Tufts University, where she was studying anthropology and African studies.
In 1986, she began performing original material at Boston folk clubs.
After recording some demos at the Tufts campus radio station, she eventually hooked up with Elektra records.
On a trip to London in March 1987, Chapman shared a billing with Natalie Merchant at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden.
In May she performed at the Bitter End club in New York, and that same month recorded her debut album, “Tracy Chapman.”
The album was a critical and commercial success in the United States and Britain, and eventually sold over 4 million copies. By the end of 1988, it had spun off three hits – “Fast Car,” “Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution” and “Baby Can I Hold You.”
Throughout 1989, Chapman was in the musical limelight.
In January, she won the Favorite New Artist Pop/Rock category at the 16th annual American Music Awards in Los Angeles.
In February, she picked up Grammies for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Best Contemporary Folk Recording and Best New Artist. That same month she was voted Best International Artist, Female and Best International Newcomer at the BRIT Awards in London.
By the end of November, her second album, “Crossroads,” was certified platinum.
After her third album, “Matters Of The Heart,” was released in 1992, Chapman seemed to abruptly disappear from the music scene.
“I understand why people have that perception because, if you’re not touring or don’t have a record out, they think you’re not doing anything,” Chapman said.
“But the last 10 years have been very busy (and) full-time for me.”
Along with recording and touring, Chapman has had to assume additional – albeit less artistic – responsibilities since embarking on her professional career.
“Being a touring musician and a recording artist is like having your own small business,” she said.
“And basically if you take care of all your business, it’s not only trying to be a good musician and improve on your skills and write good songs; (it’s) also trying to take care of the business part of things. And that’s a pretty all-consuming job.”
In December 1995, Chapman released her fourth album, “New Beginning.”
By August the following year, the album was certified multi-platinum with over 3 million sales, and Chapman scored a hit with “Give Me One Reason.”
“That’s an extraordinary feat, said Kramer. “It’s a blues song, and there aren’t too many blues songs in the top 10 these days.”
In February, Chapman released her fifth album, “Telling Stories.”
Chapman’s commitment to her craft remains as strong as it was when she first picked up a guitar.
“Music will always be part of my life,” she said.
“I don’t know that I’ll always be in the music business, but I’ll certainly always be a musician as long as I can play and sing.
“It’s a passion for me; it’s as essential to my life as waking up every day.”