By Wil Marlow, Manchester Evening News, November 01, 2005
IN the summer of 1988 the name on everyone’s lips was Tracy Chapman. Fast forward 17 years and when her name is mentioned the general reaction is, ‘Is she still around?’.
Well, the answer is yes. Having released her seventh studio album Where You Live in September, she’s now preparing for her UK and Ireland tour in November.
That said, Tracy Chapman has not been a big name in the UK for a long time. Her greatest hits album, entitled Collection and released in 2001, went to No 3 and proved that Tracy was still well-remembered, but the millions of album sales she achieved in the late 80s dwindled dramatically over the years.
She seems nonplussed about the situation. At 41 she has continued to do well enough in the rest of the world – her 1995 album New Beginning went multi-platinum and earned her a Grammy award in her native America – and she seems happy enough just to be able to continue making music.
“I don’t think about it in terms of album sales,” she says. “I never had any expectation that the sales of my debut album would necessarily happen again. I just think it had something to do with timing and what was happening with the music scene at the time.
“The fact that I was a part of the Amnesty International tour and played at the Nelson Mandela concert in Wembley Stadium gave me an opportunity to present my music in an international setting. Those sales probably wouldn’t have happened without those opportunities.
“It’s not about the numbers for me. But I’m glad that I’ve had success as a recording artist because that success has given me a certain amount of freedom and has given me opportunities to shape my career, to make choices.”
That Nelson Mandela concert propelled Tracy to heights of fame and success that neither her or her record company were prepared for. Her debut single Fast Car went on to become a huge worldwide hit, making No 5 here at a time when that was an impressive chart position.
“Of course I wasn’t comfortable with that fame,” laughs the notoriously shy singer. “But I was thrilled. It was an amazing surprise but it was so unexpected, and I say that for myself and everyone that was involved in the record.
“I’d heard that the record company was hoping they’d sell 200,000 copies of my first record, which I think would have been pretty significant. But it went on to sell many more than that. No one was really prepared, me least of all. It was pretty overwhelming.”
Tracy’s latest album gives us perhaps the greatest insight into her life yet. She’s very private, questions of a personal nature about her life now are politely deflected or talked around.
But she’s surprisingly open about her childhood and what life was like for her growing up in racially segregated community in Cleveland, Ohio in the late 60s and early 70s.
This is probably down to the personal nature of Where You Live. The songs are described by Tracy as being reflections of home, place, love and memory. One in particular, 3,000 Miles, is about an incident when she was just 13 where she was attacked by a group of white children.
When reported in the paper the blame was placed as much on Tracy as her attackers and the story prompted a full-blown race riot in the city.
“It’s not like the attack was a one time thing,” says Tracy. “There were other race riots. Cleveland, like other places in the country, had to desegregate the schools by forced court order and that created a lot of tension in the city. Parents were refusing to allow the children to go to school, black and white parents. It was a really volatile time.
“You just dealt with it as best you could. When I was attacked I did fight back, which was the only reason I think they didn’t kill me. But you tried to live your life. I walked through the neighbourhoods I wanted to walk through. That day I was taking a shortcut home.
“I was walking with my friends who were a mixed group. That was something that was frowned on by whites and blacks at the time. But obviously my friends didn’t care, we hung out together because we liked each other. On the one hand you went about doing what you wanted to do, or at least tried to, but there were times when I did in some ways have adjust my behaviour.”
Life for Tracy now is of course very different. She’s a lot less poor for a start, and based in San Francisco, she lives a contented life with her two dogs, her fellow residents rarely bothering their famous neighbour. Whether she has a partner she’s not saying.
But her experiences growing up in Cleveland have made her hyper-aware of racism and she says she still experiences a great deal of it.
“I think people realise they can’t be overtly racist in these modern times,” says Tracy. “But I think racism has taken another form in that it’s more economic. That’s something we’re seeing in the south of the US right now, in all these areas hit by Hurricane Katrina, the people who were hit hardest were poor people who happened to be mostly people of colour, as well as old people and sick people.
“But some of it I never see because I have money and this public profile and people do treat celebrities differently than other people. But then there are times when that doesn’t happen. As much as I’m angered or frustrated by it, I’m sort of glad to see it. To know that people will show themselves. I don’t want to be ignorant about the reality of the world.”
Now she’s currently away from her “real stable home life” in San Francisco and touring the world in support of Where You Live. It’s not a part of her job she’s entirely comfortable with, and she says she’s got less so as she’s got older.
“There are some people who have chosen to make their lives on the road, take their entire family, live out of the bus or the plane,” says Tracy. “But that’s really not the way I like to live. Not to whine and complain, but to have a successful touring life you’re working every weekend and most holidays and you’re often away for every major family and social occasion there is. For that reason I don’t really enjoy it.
“But I do love making music and I’ve had the chance over the years to find some really great musicians. This time around I have a couple of musicians who are on the record and they’re amazing people. When you find great people to work with and you’re playing to an audience that’s appreciative then it’s a great experience.”
Tracy Chapman plays the Apollo on Monday, November 7. £25. Call the Box Office on 0870 060 1768 or click here to book online. Where You Live is out now.