SINGER Tracy Chapman, 51, talks about making people cry and succeeding on her own terms (but not at the same time).
By Alley Pascoe Sunday Style / The Daily Telegraph, November 21, 2015
When you started out busking in Harvard Square age 21, did you ever expect the success you’ve had?
I didn’t. As I started to consider a career in music, I hoped for success, truthfully. I didn’t imagine anything that would amass the level of the first record, but I hoped that I would be able to sustain a career.
You’ve just compiled a greatest hits album. How did you narrow it down to just 18 tracks from your incredible career?
Well, I had it in my mind that the songs should be the most popular ones from over the years, the most requested in performance or on the radio, the fan favourites.
They’re all classics, aren’t they?
I can’t say that about my own songs [laughs].
Well, Fast Car was released in 1988 and it still makes me cry.
That’s a good thing … I hope?
Absolutely. How do you think your music has stayed so relevant and stood the test of time?
I’m really flattered to hear you say that. All I can say is that there are some themes that are timeless. There are some concerns that are universal. Everyone wants to be loved and everyone wants to feel like they belong somewhere in the world. Everyone wants to do something and feel like they have a sense of purpose. These are just the things that I think about and the things that make their way into my songwriting.
“I had a feeling I could be someone” is such a powerful line. Was there a moment in your life when you knew you’d “be someone”?
I was really fortunate to receive a scholarship to a boarding school in Connecticut when I was a teenager. I was taken out of a very dangerous neighbourhood and a challenging school environment and given an opportunity to go to college. That was something I’d always dreamed of as a child and not something I expected to happen without difficulty, because my mother was raising me and my sister on her own and we were poor, to put it bluntly. There was no money for school. So that’s when I felt like, “Oh, OK. I have a chance at making my way in this world and being able to take care of myself.”
What advice would you give to young female artists wanting to follow in your footsteps?
I’d tell them to go their own way and to be true to themselves. Stand up for yourself and fight for your right to be the artist that you want to be. There’s plenty of pressure from outside; people tell you how to dress and how to sing or what to sing, but I always felt like if I’m going to fail or succeed, I want to do it on my own terms.
You keep your personal life very private. How important is it to separate your personal and public lives?
I think it’s obvious it’s really important to me. You need to keep something for yourself. As a writer, I feel that even more strongly. I feel like I need to be able to freely observe the world. That’s the way I like to move through the world; I don’t need to be the focus of attention. If I am, it impairs my ability to write and to do what I do.
I couldn’t find you on social media; would you ever join Facebook or Twitter?
I have no plans to do that. There was an impostor on Twitter at one point. The person couldn’t spell [laughs].
Songs like Subcity and Talkin’ Bout a Revolution are very socially aware. How important is it for you to use your profile to help people?
Even if I didn’t have this public personality, I feel like it’s important for everyone, in whatever way they choose, to be engaged in the world. My boarding school’s motto was: “From each according to ability and to each according to need.” I guess I was influenced by it, although I think I had some of that in me before I arrived. As a value, it’s one that’s really important to me.
* Tracy Chapman’s Greatest Hits (Rhino Records) is out now.