2002 – Hear my song

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By Liese Spencer, Scotsman.com, Oct 12, 2002

AT THE fag-end of the 1980s, when greed was good and more was more, a young singer-songwriter called Tracy Chapman stepped off the street corner in Boston where she busked with her acoustic guitar and into the studio to record her first album. Sitting in his sound booth, the producer from the record company listened to her simple songs and decided what they needed was a bit of gloss: a drum machine here, some synthesizer there, maybe the odd horn. “I couldn’t hear myself when we were recording and I couldn’t hear myself when I played it back,” remembers Chapman. But nobody listened to the softly spoken 24-year-old. After all, what did she know? This was her first album.

They continued polishing and shining tracks (including, rather ironically, anti-consumer anthem Mountains of Things) for a week. The session musicians thought it sounded great. The producer loved it. Everyone was happy except the singer, who put down her acoustic guitar one day and said that she was gong to walk. “That seemed to make an impression on them,” says Chapman, with a wicked laugh, “so they scrapped it and we started looking again. I was lucky to find [producer]David Kershenbaum that second time, to find someone who was willing to listen to me.

Over nine million album sales later everyone was listening to the unassuming woman with the spiky dreads Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution. For a generation of would-be radicals force-fed Reaganomics and Phil Collins, her stripped-down, politically conscious songs about poverty (Fast Car), racial prejudice (Across the Lines) and domestic abuse (Behind the Wall) were a welcome note of protest. For Chapman they were the beginning of a rollercoaster year which saw her picking up three Grammys and playing a Nelson Mandela benefit gig at Wembley Stadium with the likes of Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel.

Wary of becoming just another pop commodity, her reaction to this huge success was to withdraw. On stage she’d say little, in interviews even less. When journalists asked her questions she’d stare at the floor and answer in monosyllables. Any attempts to dig out the personal from the political would be politely but firmly rebuffed.

When her second album, Crossroads, was released a year later in 1989, many felt they had found Chapman’s response to the soul-sucking demands of celebrity in the title track:

All you folks think you own my life
But you never make any sacrifice
Demons they are on my trail
I’m standing at the crossroads of hell
I look to the left, I look to the right
They’re hands that grab me on every side

But when offered this neat reading, Chapman’s answer was characteristically cautious: “Well, that’s one way to interpret it,” she said. “I don’t think there is any such thing as a right interpretation and a wrong interpretation of a song. A song is whatever it means to the listener. But the truth is I wrote that song before the first record so it wasn’t a direct response on my part to dealing with the record industry or anything like that.

Eventually, as the years went by, Chapman got what she wanted. She continued to make music but the spotlight passed on. Today, she’s reluctantly stepped back into it to promote her latest album, Let It Rain. After reading the cuttings I expect the woman sitting on a sofa in jeans and a cord jacket to be as open as a clam. In fact, she’s the opposite. Although a cross-Atlantic cold has left her feeling tired and groggy, she laughs a lot between sips of virgin hot-toddy, and talks freely. There are long pauses sometimes as she turns over questions in her mind, but keep quiet and you’re rewarded with some unusually thoughtful replies.

Looking back on the monster success of her first album, for instance, she says she’s “grateful for the freedom and opportunities” it provided, although she finds it hard to remember exactly how it changed her life. A recent overhaul of her San Francisco home unearthed a pile of yellowing press cuttings, she says, which jogged her memory a bit. “Not that much,” she says, “but enough to see that the first record really was a big deal. It sounds silly to say it now, but when you’re in it, it’s hard to have that kind of perspective. So, looking back, I can see why there was a little bit of pressure there. So many requests…

When I ask her if she was wary about these demands, she nods her long sleek dreads and grins. But the 38-year-old won’t disown her intense young self, won’t apologise for the serious face she presented to the world. “I am a serious person and I’ve written songs about a lot of serious issues,” she says, slowly feeling her way along. “Maybe I was more sensitive to that when I was young because many young people aren’t taken seriously. Very likely I came across that way because I was trying to assert myself…

While the folky melodies of that eponymous debut may have ended up being the soundtrack to a million dinner parties, Chapman’s uncompromising lyrics were rooted in first-hand experience. Brought up by a single mother in depressed, post-industrial Cleveland, Chapman remembers tension and race riots. “Compulsory desegregation meant that children were bused across town to schools in different districts. People would throw rocks at the buses. It was a very volatile and hostile environment in which to go to school.

And 1970s Cleveland was an economically difficult place, “not only for my family – my mother raised my sister and me on her own after my parents’ divorce – but also because all the factories closed down and the manufacturing jobs that had been essential to the local economy disappeared. It was a very bleak place.” It’s been cleaned up now, she says, but back then the river was so polluted with chemicals that it used to catch fire.

With all this going on around her, Tracy grew up fast. “I wasn’t particularly sheltered,” she says. “I worried a lot because I knew about everything. I knew that times were hard, and I knew there were unsafe places. My sister and I had a lot of responsibility when we were really young.” While their mother went out to work, the girls had to make their own way to and from school with latchkeys around their necks.

But before all that came the music. “I don’t know if I even made a choice about it,” she says. “My mother sang, my sister sang. It was something that surrounded me.” Her mother liked gospel, her dad was into jazz . When they were still together, her parents loved listening to lots of R’n’B – Aretha Franklin, Al Green and The Temptations. And when her sister began playing records on the home stereo, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand and Cher started floating up through the ceiling and into Tracy’s bedroom too.

Singing “as soon as I could talk“, Tracy began picking up instruments (ukulele, organ, clarinet) “really early“. She also developed a passion for literature. At first she’d dissect her mother’s collection of medical textbooks, poring over their lurid diagrams, imagining herself dying of every disease. Then she “moved into” the public library across the street and discovered Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ursula LeGwynn. She began writing poetry and short stories. “Reading has had more influence on my songwriting than the songwriting of other people, if you see what I mean.

By the age of eight, Tracy had taught herself the guitar and was writing songs. By high school, her lyrics were reflecting the social and political landscape around her. Giving up her weekend job mowing lawns, she began to play in coffee shops and on street corners. She remembers, with some amusement, being “the entertainment” at a school parent-teacher association dinner. “Now I think about it, it’s kind of funny. I know I played Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution. No one really listened. It just shows – people don’t listen to kids…

No wonder, then, that when fame came, seven years later, she was ready to be taken seriously. “When I had my photo taken for the album cover, people at the record company told me what kind of clothes to bring, but I just said, ‘I’ll bring what I have.’ They said, ‘Well, you might want to bring some leggings.’ I was like, ‘I don’t wear leggings!’”

In retrospect it seems an inexorable progress towards that studio, but Chapman may never have got there, she says, were it not for a scholarship programme. Growing up, she worried what would happen to her when she left school. Although her mother always told the girls she wanted them to go to college, “There was no visible means of making that plan a reality.” Winning a place at a boarding school in Connecticut was “one of the brightest moments” of her childhood. But then her mother said she couldn’t go. She was too young. It was too far away. She and the teachers worked on her, says Chapman, but there was one incident that finally convinced her.

Walking home from school one day, a group of white kids passed Tracy and her friends. “They shouted racial slurs at me. I responded to them and they got really pissed off. They turned around and started beating me up. One guy in particular. It was snowing and he knocked my books to the ground. Anyway, eventually we broke apart and he reached into his boot and pulled out a gun. He told me to run otherwise he was going to shoot me. I don’t know why he didn’t. My friends had taken off by this time. There were people watching from their windows but they didn’t do anything either…

When she went home and told her mother what had happened she got her ticket to Connecticut. There was no money to visit the school first, so when she left home at the age of 15, all she had were some photos of it. It was the first time she had been on a plane. “It was exciting and terrifying all at the same time. I didn’t know anyone, but it turned out to be one of the most important things that ever happened to me. It changed so many things…You never know, of course, you can’t go back, but it was one of those defining moments. It saved me from the chaos that was in my life.

From boarding school, Tracy went to university in Boston where she abandoned her childhood dream of being a vet to study anthropology. While there, her musical talent began to attract the attention of fellow students. One classmate recommended her to his father, Charles Koppelman, then president of SBK music publishing. And it was he who later introduced her to David Kershenbaum, producer of that first album for Elektra.

Chapman has struggled to be heard, to get others to listen to what she wants to say in the way that she wants to say it, so she’s not in the habit of asking for opinions. But one person she does trust is her older sister, Aneta. “She has always been very supportive and encouraging. She’d listen to everything, no matter how bad it was,” she giggles, “and she’d always give me an honest opinion. Even now I’ll play new songs for her. I don’t play new songs for many people before I enter the studio, but I still like her to listen and critique.

A few years ago, she got in touch with the father who walked out when she was four and discovered where some of her songwriting abilities may have come from. “I’m not really in touch with him,” she murmurs looking as though she wished she’d never brought it up, “but I saw him for a brief moment and, um, he recited some poetry he’d written.

In 1989, the year after graduation and international success, Chapman moved from Boston to “more integrated” San Francisco where she still lives with a pair of grumpy old dachshunds, and a new “mutt” rescued from the road. In the past she’d record in Los Angeles, but Let It Rain, her new album, was made in a studio at home. Sung in Chapman’s familiar smoky contralto, it’s another collection of spare acoustic arrangements, but this time there’s less raw idealism, more spirituality.

Its mellowness seems to reflect Chapman’s own mood. “I’m pretty happy with the balance of things right now,” she agrees. “I feel like I’ve got a better handle on how to navigate it all, how to maintain a sense of perspective, and a sense of humour.” Still, you suspect that right now she’d rather be camping in Yosemite with friends, or walking along the beach. For Chapman making music remains about being heard but not seen.

Let It Rain is released next Monday.

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