By Kieran Meeke, Metro.co.uk Tuesday, March 4, 2003
60 SECONDS EXTRA!: Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. While attending Tufts University she began busking and was discovered by a record company producer. In 1988, her debut album, Tracy Chapman, went multi-platinum. Her latest album is Let It Rain (eastwest/Elektra Records) and she is currently touring Britain and Ireland. Chat about music on our message boards
You shot to fame with the Amnesty International tour. At that age, did it all seem quite normal?
There’s something to that. When it’s your life and you’re in the midst of it, you’re not trying to analyse it or have an objective perspective on it, although I knew it was significant. I don’t know if tours that big happen any more. The context for that tour was really about raising awareness about human rights, using music as a vehicle. The grandness of it helped to serve the purpose. If it was just a music concert it wouldn’t have meant as much to people. Or to me.
Have we lost the big issues? Apartheid, the Berlin Wall…?
Well, we have and we haven’t. With the Berlin wall, you had this material object, this symbolic representation. The same with South Africa. It was so overwhelmingly clear that all these people were disenfranchised and you couldn’t ignore it. But all the same conditions are still in place almost everywhere in the world. It’s just in varying degrees. We just don’t have the big material symbols of it to help grab people.
You mean the bad guys are better at spin?
Well, they are and they aren’t. It amazes me that, at a time when the media is so much a part of our lives and so much of what happens in the world is recorded and transmitted by some means or other, we still don’t act when we are aware of human rights violations or various types of suffering. Look at Bosnia, look at Rwanda. Those are things that are pretty obvious and serious. But it’s a little too hard to imagine what the solution is when people are actively and maliciously tackling one another. The US Government sat in the sidelines in those cases for quite a while. That’s not hidden at all, though some people chose to ignore it because they didn’t want to be involved. I’m not sure that public opinion had much sway in either of those cases. People try to fight the battles they think they can win.
Have you made a difference?
The membership of Amnesty International increased because of that tour. It’s hard to say. There were many people who came to be entertained and that’s OK – and there were some who left with a feeling that they had been inspired and they wanted to go on to do something in some way to change the world for the better.
Wasn’t Sting a bit of a prat?
Ah, he was fine. I actually had most contact with Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour. We all spent time together during the tour. We were singing a few songs together. There were a few times we socialised as well. Because Peter Gabriel asked me to sing a song with him, we got to know each other little bit better than anyone else. There was some controversy and a little bit of tension backstage. My set-up was so simple. I had one crew member and he bought a small cardboard suitcase and wrote on it with a marker pen: Tracy Chapman Road Case World Tour. Everything was so basic they could slot me in at any point, but I remember thinking some of the other people on the tour were fine for spots [laughs].
What are you reading?
I brought this book by Bill Bryson. I really loved his A Walk in The Woods. He’s really funny but this is the book he’s written about the English language.
I hear you’re into Harry Potter.
I’m always suspicious of things that are really popular. But I was on tour, and I picked up one of the books, and it was really engaging. I quickly read the two or three she had out by the time I caught on. So I like the books.
What did you think of the film?
It was entertaining, and I like the last one better than the first one. It’s always hard to make a movie out of a good story. I’m not even sure it’s a good thing. It’s great for people to use their imagination.
Harry Potter vs Lord of the Rings?
I don’t think you can compare the two. I would think you can like both. But I’m not a film critic.
Your new album is pretty mellow. Is that a sign of getting older and happier?
No. All of the songs on this record were chosen for many different reasons. I wrote them all in the last two years, and I wrote more than I needed. Some would be considered political, some not. If I’d chosen other songs, this question wouldn’t have arisen.
One song is about consumerism. Isn’t that anti-American?
I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s any truth that free trade brings about freer societies, but you know that saying: ‘Every place with a McDonald’s has never had a revolution.’ I haven’t checked that out for myself. But back to the music: it’s not a sign of mellowing. It could be a sign of being happier. I’d say I’m a happier person today than I was ten or 15 years ago. Not to get into any details, I had a pretty rough life growing up and I’d not want to go back. For the most part, things have progressively gotten better, not just material and shit – the obvious – but in the ways that matter, for me anyway. I tend to find myself surrounded by wonderful people. I had to learn – not just in terms of my career – to work with people I like, people of integrity, and that makes a big difference. It’s also a matter of trying to find a balance between my work life and personal family life. I guess I’ve just figured that out a little better.
What are you proudest of?
Mmm. Well, I don’t know if this would be the thing – the one and only thing – my independence. Being able to look after myself. That’s due, in part, to my education and to some good luck and, in part, to the life experience. I have to be able to take care of myself.
What’s on your CD player?
Let’s see. [Pulls out Apple iPod.] I actually made a little thing of new songs: a new group called Director, Morcheeba, Sonic Youth, Carter Family, MCSolaar – someone said he was interested in working with me.