Tracy Chapman opens her heart and lets the songs speak
Pulse (Tower Records), December 2002
When Tracy Chapman speaks, her lips often turn up at the corners, forming a quick smile. And she smiles a lot. She also laughs often–a gentle, self-conscious laugh. She takes long pauses, and generally acts embarrassed when discussing the tightly drawn narratives that fill her music.
“I started to wonder if there is anything that makes these songs different than anything else I have written. I know that the process felt different. It feels like I am writing the way I wrote when I was a kid and allowing all kinds of ideas and feelings to come through without trying to censor them or edit anything.”
Unlike her last album, the grandly overproduced Telling Stories, the new Let It Rain (Elektra) is like an intimate confessional pouring straight from her gut. Co-produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey, Eels, Sparklehorse), Let It Rain contains undeniably stark, beautiful and brooding songs, clear gems of simplicity and intimacy initiated by poetic verses that are as honest as a child’s unaffected worldview.
“After I had bands and a contract,” recalls the 38-year-old Chapman, sitting in Elektra Records’ Manhattan office, “[I became] more self-conscious and started censoring and editing things. With these songs, there is that free, unself-conscious part of the mind that lets something come through uncensored. Then there is the other side, the more self-conscious side that makes you fine-tune it and work it so that it is as good as it can be.”
Unlike the songs of Let It Rain, which are emotionally engaging and personally revealing, Chapman is a mystery in conversation. Looking nearly the same as when she burst on the scene with her career-making 1988 singles, “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ About a Revolution,” Chapman extends a ruse that is certainly unintentional. Rather than answer a question with a “yes,” “no” or “bugger off,” she describes a process. With her smiles and pauses, you feel a very private person holding tenaciously to her space. Parish’s subtle, textured production is one enabler that makes Let It Rain so gripping, helping reveal the beauty and power of Chapman’s songs with a light hand. But Chapman’s explanation as to the essence of her new songs reveals much about her process, but only a little about her.
“Part of my approach to this record is in some way is a reaction to the last record.” Chapman averts her gaze, not out of shyness, but to help shape her thoughts. “We used my demos as the foundation for most of the record. This was the first time that I had a dedicated music space in my house. Over the years, every place I have lived I have tried to set up some little corner where I could record and play. It was always the leftover space, and it wasn’t necessarily ideal. So I finally picked out a pretty space in my house that I set up with all my instruments and a laptop and started recording ideas. Then the studio we were working in, the Plant in Sausalito, has this great funky vibe. They haven’t changed the room too much since they recorded Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, Santana. From time to time we would put on their records for inspiration. There was one song of Sly’s, and the drum sound was the same as we were getting. It is pretty wild. I feel like some of that is what contributes to this feeling of intimacy on the record. It started out at home and went into the studio.”
But with an album of songs this pristine, pure and at times serene, the music says more than any explanation could. Chapman’s voice is still high and impassioned, her singing a combination of short phrases and pretty melodies that stay close to the rhythms of her guitar and piano. Many of the songs are sublime in their economy of lyric and melody: the hellhound-on-my-trail lament “Another Sun,” the self-castigating “Almost,” the resonant gospel shouts of “Hallelujah,” the heart-wrenching perfection of “Goodbye.” “Fast Car” made her famous, but Let It Rain proves Chapman is a seasoned master of the songwriting craft.
“I don’t really feel like I control the process,” she says. “I just feel like I need to trust it. I respect that and try to be ready. It is funny; a lot of the songwriting process is just happening in my head in a very unconscious way. It is like having a conversation with somebody and little bits of it come to you from time to time. You think of something that they might have said or that you said. You are not fully aware of any of that but the next time you talk to the person some of it comes back to you. The next time I sit with the guitar and play the song, maybe it then comes back.”
When Chapman met Parish she played him her demos, and the pair talked about the music they liked. “It turned out that we liked some of the same records,” says Chapman. “He is a big fan of David Bowie and T. Rex and Led Zeppelin. It felt really comfortable. I thought it would be great to work with a producer who is also a musician. I could see where having someone who had a musician’s sensibility would give this record a sense of intimacy and immediacy and warmth and focus I wanted. I wanted the focus to be in the songs.”
The combination of Chapman’s often world-weary songs and Parish’s bayou-on-the-moon atmospheres is a revelation. The musicians keep their egos in check, letting the songs speak in near subliminal fashion.
“I like to produce quite transparently and if a singer has got a fantastic voice, my inclination is not to affect it in any way.” Parish says from England, where his own album, How Animals Move, has just been released. “I think it is fantastic when you are in the same room and you hear Tracy or Polly [Harvey] singing, so I like to record it like that so other people can hear it in the same way. I don’t want to bury it in reverb or arrangements. That detracts from the actual stark beauty of a great voice. [Chapman and I] got along very well, she played me her demos, I thought they sounded really great. I thought her voice sounded amazing. I was very happy to work with her.”
Chapman’s voice is well served by Parish’s organic instrumentation (gourdolin, bazouki, ukulele, dobro, “Cajon” drums), resulting in her best album since her 1988 debut, which sold 8 million copies (Chapman has sold an incredible 34 million albums worldwide). While her past songs have been both political and personal, Let It Rain seems the work of a settled if still-unsatisfied musician. Some songs are somber, some critical, some reflective, but all seem intensely personal. Is it safe to assume that these intimate airs are autobiographical?
“No, that would not be safe to assume,” she says with a laugh. “They are usually, or always, some combination of a part of my own experience and some part of someone else’s that I know, or an influence of something I have read or seen. It all comes together; I do remember things when I am writing. Sometimes the initial thought is flipped around; the feeling is about one thing, then you write about the exact opposite.”
“Another Sun” harkens back to a blues archetype, Chapman’s character singing fatalistic verses over a rocking-chair rhythm. Is it a death wish?
“Well, yes,” she says, laughing. “But I wouldn’t put it that way. The character in that song is thinking of death and not with lots of fear but thinking it may be welcome as a release from suffering.”
Chapman seems to be recalling some miserable childhood memories in “In the Dark,” singing “But make my thoughts pure but not morally corrupt in form.” About something as obvious as the premature loss of innocence.
“That is not what I was thinking,” Chapman counters. “It is about this struggle I think we all go through in between wanting to know and wanting to not know. Wanting to be of the world and in the world and [she pauses for 21 long seconds], not childlike but purity, and this kind of wanting to know about bad things, the sinister things, but at the same time not wanting to be tainted by it.”
“Broken” maps similar scarred terrain, but instead of a child being the victim, it is an adult who seems to live life with blinders on. “I don’t think they ever wake up, actually,” she says. “And they are OK with that. It’s like you don’t see things as they are but you also don’t accept whatever limitations might be imposed on you. There is something admirable about that. But then there is something that seems delusional at the same time.”
“Hard Wired” is a much-needed dose of humor, Chapman lambasting technology in nearly all its forms. “The dreams and hopes/ That once were yours/ Will now be collected and dispersed” is backed by “Stripped naked on the television/ Humiliated in front of millions.” The song’s production is anything but modern, more like a 1920s waltz.
“It is just a reflection of what I see,” says Chapman. “Technology is supposed to be about creating better means of communication and bridging the distance between people; it is actually working in just the opposite way. It alienates us. Most of those technological communication devices are just used to push advertising. You are not really given any choices about the various images that come at you and you are told it is reflecting what you might really want and desire and dream about. But in the process you might even lose the one thing that you have that should be untouchable, in losing your dignity. How can this be what we want to see of ourselves? It is representing the worst of modern society. I am hoping that it is all just a trend, that it will go away, all the celebrity TV shows will disappear.”
No cult of personality for Tracy Chapman. Her songs speak of dignity and purpose and humanity. But Chapman’s gifts are so refined her music may be lost in an age when everything from TV to billboards to the latest one hit wonder is screaming at a near-fever pitch. Serenity and gentleness are in short supply these days, but Tracy Chapman is not playing for the masses.
“I never thought about all the noise. I think all that shouting can make you numb. You start to tune it out after a bit. How high can it go? How many decibels? People sometimes find what they are interested in and what they want if they choose to look for it. Maybe if I am not shouting then people have to look a little harder to find my music. But I think it is good to discover things for yourself.“