By Marc Cooper, Q Magazine, September 1988 (p. 72-77)
Rarely has anyone risen so quickly. Four months ago Tracy Chapman was just another fixture on the Boston folk circuit. Now she’s won acclaim from a world that seemed to be waiting for her to happen. Mark Cooper was with the reclusive singer a each important step of the way.
THE FIRST TIME I saw Tracy Chapman was in front of 150 people at the Night Stage, a Boston coffee house-cum-nightclub on the edges of Cambridge. It was a Thusrday night at the beginning of March, a good month before her debut LP was due for release. She hadn’t performed much in Boston since signing to SBK publishers and Elektra Records. She’d hooked up with Elliot Roberts, West Coast manager of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and until recently Joni Mitchell, who’d met Tracy while she was out on the West Coast recording her first album. That connection had made the industry sit up and talk, but Roberts, like the smattering of Elektra heavyweights in the crowd, had never seen her in front of an audience.
Chapman’s friend and room-mates mingled with a small devoted following from colleges, women’s groups and the local folk scene who’d come to give her a rousing send off and see what had been happening to her over the past few months. Tracy’s mother sat on the balcony directly opposite where she was due to sing, a tall, handsome woman who is clearly the source of her daughter’s reserved dignity. Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs had flown from New York that afternoon to see the woman whose record had made her cry and had decided on the way to offer to play with Tracy on a couple of London showcases intended for the end of March. Merchant had already written to Chapman –“I felt a kinship because her record is made from the soul rather than to make money”- and was burning to see this person who’d touched her so deeply.
When Tracy came out to sing she was dressed in street clothes and kept looking at the floor in between introductions that picked their halting way towards what she was trying to say. She thanked the audience for not going to see Bruce Springsteen, who was opening his Tunnel Of Love tour that night in nearby Worcester and suddenly a smile broke out that illuminated her whole face, the kind of smile which holds nothing back. Amidst the hesitation, the pauses and the silence, she began to talk about South Africa and then broke into an as yet unrecorded song about upward mobility – “Just another form of slavery/ And the whole man-made white world is your master”. This was not the song of someone who pulls their punches.
Instead of projecting her songs and whipping the audience with her, Tracy just stood onstage and burned from within. She appeared to throw up a stillness as she sung, slowing time until she could measure it, until the crowd had entered her quiet on her terms, a quiet where that smoked, spiritual voice sounds out loud and clear. Fast Car followed as Tracy explained, “It’s not really about a car at all… basically it’s about a relationship that doesn’t work out because it’s starting from a wrong place”. This was the last song she had written for the album and most of her local fans had never heard it before. Halfway through the set and came to a song about the crossroads familiar to all blues fans, a crossroads that seemed to sum up her reservations on the career she was about to launch. “You got yourself a guitar”, she explained, “and it was thought that if you went down to the crossroads and you waited at night… it was thought that these people, what they had done was sold their soul to the devil to become good guitar players… Blues players aren’t only the only ones to reach the crossroads ; you’re asked to forsake something when you find something you desire. “I say the devil he a walking man… try to tell what you want, tell you what you need… who’ll come to find you first, your devils or your gods ?”
It’s the same old tug of war that occupies the same character in Fast Car or Mountains O’Things, the same struggle for self-definition that runs through Chapman’s love songs where the forces of need and desire threaten to pull her characters away from themselves and into slavery. She closed with another unrecorded song, This Time, a love song where the singer assures herself “This time I won’t show I’m vulnerable, this time I won’t give in first.” The audience wouldn’t stop applauding while Chapman looked deeply embarrassed.
When I interviewed Tracy afterwards in a dressing room full of beer cases, I felt like a dentist bullying an unwilling patient. “I don’t think I have to be a commentator on what I write,” she declared after 10 minutes’ talk and looked like she was ready to bolt the room. She had just given the most naked stage performance I have ever seen and here she was in front of one person, reacting as if the most tentative questions were a form of rape.
THREE MONTHS LATER, Tracy Chapman walked out alone on to the sidestage at Wembley Stadium at 3.05 in the afternoon, performed three songs ; later, at 5.41, after someone had made off with a computer element from Stevie Wonder’s synclavier, she was importuned to go out again and perform a further couple of songs. By the time she had finished, the slow build that had been accompanying the release of her album at the beginning of April had turned into a torrent. The Nelson Mandela Concert made Tracy Chapman a world star almost overnight.
According to Ken O’Neill of Elephant House Productions, the concert’s director, “Tracy Chapman just captured the spirit of the day somehow. We’d chosen her because she’s fresh and exciting and the nature of her material was totally appropriate to the day. When we had the problem with Stevie Wonder, she was ideal to go back on, a solo act with just an acoustic guitar. I think part of her appeal was her bravery as a new artist standing out there almost alone in front of 74,000 people, let alone all the people watching around the world, the vast majority of whom didn’t know who she was. And the crowd took to her in a very British way. This little girl on a sidestage had as much impact as any large band and that translated to the people at home and somehow summed up the mood of the day. It was very different to the revival of Queen at Live Aid”.
Tracy Chapman’s instant success following the Nelson Mandela concert underlines the power of global television, even when confronted with a virtually unknown artist. For once, television told people something they didn’t already know. The week after the concert, Chapman’s LP shot from 25 to 2 in the British album charts and was soon followed into the Top 10 by the single Fast Car. The LP has now sold half a million copies in Britain alone. The same story has repeated itself at varying speeds around the world. The LP has topped charts in Australia, Canada, Holland, Belgium and will shortly march this feat in Germany and the US. The Nelson Mandela Concert was shown in some 64 countries and already this very private artist sold over 2 millions albums worldwide. In America, Tracy has succeeded by virtue of instore play in record shops, the support of MTV and the press. She is currently on a club tour of the US after which she will tour with Neil Young and then Bob Dylan before joining the Amnesty Tour alongside the likes of Springsteen and Peter Gabriel. After a November 20 concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, Chapman will disappear to write the remainder of her next album before reappearing next spring or summer, possibly with a band.
Even the garrulous and self-confident Elliot Roberts would never dream of claiming that he anticipated Chapman’s success. Roberts was introduced to Chapman by Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell’s husband and the bass player on Chapman’s LP. Roberts flew to San Diego to meet Chapman after hearing a demo and promptly asked if he could represent her.
« How often do you hear 21 new songs, 15 of which you could die for ?” He asks with his usual rhetorical flourish. “After you’ve managed Joni, Neil and Bob, you know the real shit when you hear it. When I met Tracy there really wasn’t that much interest from other managers – ‘Gee, a black folk singer, how valuable is that ?’ But Bob and Neil don’t treat her like a newcomer ; they treat her like she was born to the mantle.
Roberts knew that Tracy would succeed, he just didn’t know when. « I believe she’d be a major act but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take 12 weeks. I thought it might take three years. But I felt music was going the way she was, that synths were played out and that the new generation of college kids were looking for their owns spokespeople. I could tell by the catalogues sales of Dylan and Young”
Roberts arrived too late to adjust Chapman’s deals with SBK and Elektra which he insists are “abysmal –beyond low”. He did help draw up the plan that brought up the plan that bought her to England first with the intention of breaking Chapman through the British media. “It’s just very rare for a plan to work, and work so ludicrously well. Planning it is one thing but having it happen is a million to one !”
Bob Krasnow, the President of Elektra Records, remains similarly shaken. “She came and did a live audition for me I don’t usually do them because if you don’t like it, it’s just you and the artist –which i hate. She started with Talkin’Bout A Revolution and I said, I love it. I don’t need to hear more but I want to. There’s always got to be a passing of the baton. In the 60’s, we used to listen to Dylan singing that line about when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. Tracy was another reminder of how we should never be scared of a new voice, even if I’ve grown into a successful businessman and not the revolutionary in the street that I once was. Usually we get between 30 to 50,000 sales with a new artist. I thought she’d do well –although I didn’t know- so I projected 200,000.”
Tracy Chapman’s album is already in Elektra’s Top 10 all-time international sellers, alongside six LPs by The Eagles
Even Natalie Merchant remains astounded by the speed with which Tracy Chapman has been adopted by the world, adopted in a manner which still allows her to have a private appeal, a sense of personal discovery, to all who encounter her. “No one understands it but everybody marvels at it” says Merchant. “She certainly doesn’t need any help from me in retrospect. I played with her in England and had her tour with us to get my crowd to see her rather than have her relegated to women’s bins or folk bins in the stores. When she toured with us not many people had heard the album but people sat completely enthralled and she got standing ovations most nights.”
Each night of the tour Chapman would join Natalie onstage for an a cappela version of the old spiritual Where The Soul Never Dies. I guessed right about her from the record », says Merchant. « She’s very strong, very enclosed and very talented. »
If singers like Merchant and Suzanne Vega opened the way for Tracy Chapman, Chapman herself is but the tip of a new generation of female singer-songwriters who’ve released debut albums in the last few months. Almost 20 years after the emergence of the likes of Joni Mitchell, a new generation of songwriters has appeared with guitars in hand, asking questions like Cindy Lee Berryhill’s LP title, Who’s Going To Save The World ? Ask Merchant if she and Tracy are part of a movement and, understandably, she almost yawns. “Sometimes I feel we’re reflecting the times and sometimes I feel we’re crying in the wilderness,” she answers uncertainly.
Certainly Tracy Chapman was an anomaly when she arrived on the Boston folk scene in the early 80’s. “I’ve been doing what i do for a long time,” she says. “I’ve been writing songs and playing the guitar since I was a kid. I just don’t choose to label what I do. Folk music has a history of dealing with the social and political issues and I played the folk clubs in Boston and you’re bound to be labelled a folkie when you play the folk clubs! I don’t think there are necessarily more folk singers now than there were at any other time but people are paying more attention to them now.”
Bob Donlin, manager of Passims, Cambridge’s best known folkgig, first booked Tracy five or six years ago. “She always did very well here. She played here every six months or so when she was going to shcool and the songs haven’t changed much between then and the album. She was unusual in that she was more of a protest singer and there hasn’t been much of that in the last 10 years. I deal with singer-songwriters and some are more upbeat, some play better guitar but none have stronger songs and most of them are introspective. People haven’t played songs like her since Phil Ochs.”
Yet Chapman’s gigs at coffee houses, women’s event and out on the street hardly made her famous in Boston. Even today, the music editor of the local alternative paper, The Boston Phoenix, will cheerfully admit that he had never heard of Chapman until she was launched by Elektra, pausing only to add that “she’s very unusual, there are hardly any black folk singers in town.” Tracy Chapman has surprised the world. Profoundly reluctant in her already rare interviews, she insists that her music has a simplicity that does not require explanation and that her private life is her own business.
Now 24, Chapman was born in Cleveland in 1964. Her parents split up when she was four and she and her older sister Aneta, to whom the album is dedicated, were raised by her mother alone. “I was very aware of all the struggles my mother was going through, being a single parent and a black woman trying to raise two kids. I guess there’s some people who can take all that in and not really look at the bigger picture, not see that there are all these forces in society making things more difficult than they ought to be”. Chapman’s mother was herself an amateur singer who’d perform at churches and weddings and Chapman heard the like of Betty Wright, Marvin Gaye and the gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Caesar around the house. While she will argue that the process of influence cannot be summed up by citing a name, Chapman now mentions the likes of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Bob Marley and Miles Davis while admitting that she grew into liking singer-songwriters like Dylan and Mitchell, a style that remains her first love. She enjoyed some five years of clarinet lessons and a few guitar classes before starting to write, at eight, on the organ “about whatever eight-year-olds write about. You know, the sky…” Chapman’s childhood was largely spent alone or with her sister, writing stories, poetry and music and borrowing heavily from the public library. Cleveland’s notoriously poor public school system could hardly hope to satisfy her with its textbooks of American history with a single chapter devoted to blacks and Native Americans.
At 16 the education program ABC (A Better Chance) secured her a place at the private Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut. She’d never seen the school before she left Cleveland but she was still glad to go. It is surely the immediate experience of her childhood in the era of busing that has fixed in her mind America’s racial injustice and the brutality of lower class life that figures in many of the songs on her record. “They had desegregated all the schools in Cleveland while I was growing up,” she recalls, “so essentially all the schools were integrated but the neighborhoods everyone came from weren’t. It was an odd situation because you’d make friendship with people but it wouldn’t go beyond school time. There were a lot of terrible things that happened because there was a lot of tension and not just in the students’lives, because they were symptomatic of their parents’lives and of the entire city.”
Chapman spent two years at Wooster where she encountered the tradition of political protest and played regularly at the school’s coffee house concerts. The school’s chaplain, Reverend Robert Tate, took up a collection amongst faculty members to buy her a new guitar and is duly thanked on the album credits. In 1982, Chapman went to Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, planning to major in biology and become a vet. She soon switched to anthropology with a special interest in West African cultures. In between studies, she played in a drum troupe and began playing the Cambridge and Boston folk circuit, before one Thanksgiving to begin the career as a street performer that supported her through a couple of summers. Chapman already knew she wanted to make a living playing music but she was less than certain that it was possible for a black folk singer in the late ‘80s.
“I wanted to be practical, which is one reason I went to school, even though I read anthropology rather than law ! There are so many people who want to make records and go on and make a living as musicians that I couldn’t say at that time that it would work out for me . At the time there weren’t too many people being signed who were doing what I was doing, so I thought there might not be a great chance of a record deal.”
Schoolmate Brian Koppelman had other ideas. The son of the President of SBK, he got to know Tracy, saw her several times to convince himself he wasn’t dreaming and promptly called his father. One live audition later and Chapman was on her way. Charles Koppelman called Bob Krasnow and then David Kershenbaum, a veteran producer who’d worked with the likes of Joan Baez and Richie Havens before enjoying massive success with Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp album.
Tracy flew out to the West Coast with Kershenbaum and the pair set about auditioning an ensemble that would be true to Chapman’s songs without swamping them. “What was difficult”, recalls Kershenbaum, “was holding back from adding things. Usually nowadays artists come up with a rhythm and a synthesizer track and go on from there. With Tracy the emphasis is 180 degrees in the opposite direction, the voice and the guitar are right up front, often recorded live. What Tracy wanted was to keep the songs earthy and rootsy. I don’t think many people have made a record this naked for a long time. She’s speaking from the heart and that has really got to people. It’s very unusual for people to get this close to an artist.
Chapman’s enormous success is unusual precisely because people have got close to her as an artist while knowing nothing of her personality. She still lives in the same apartment shared with four or five other people in Boston, still has a dog and a beaten-up car and has barely seen a penny of the fortune she has earned, even despite her deal with SBK. Yet success will surely only write large the struggle chronicled so movingly throughout her first 11 songs, the struggle for self-definition amidst many forms of oppression, both political and personal.
“One thing that really concerns me is a sense of balance”, she says. “When you’re talking about material things, it’s where those things fit into your life. Then, with relationships too, how do you position yourself in relation to other people ? It’s fine line sometimes, trying to hold on to yourself and your own identity and either being lured into having other people define them for you or having the things around you define them for you.”
When Chapman outlines the concerns of her songs, she often sounds pedestrian in a manner that almost belies the soaring simplicity of her songs, songs that ask the questions that too often seemed too simple to be worth repeating, the questions framed so acutely in Why ? “I think it’s shameful that people don’t consider the lives of other people, that people are suffering and the quality of their lives isn’t what it should be. I just think that people need to understand that if the person next door doesn’t have enough food or is about to lose their home, all that affects everyone else. We’re all living here together and the qualities of our lives are tied together. It’s not right when people are selfish and don’t consider others.“
Meanwhile Chapman is handling the sudden attention with a caution befitting an artist who so clearly mistrusts bourgeois America. If her voice sometimes recalls Joan Armatrading or even the more tasteful of Jose Feliciano, she remains the most disturbingly exposed of singers whose power lies with her ability to write and sing without safeguarding herself. This unprotected innocence gives her voice the ability to shiver, to ask fundamental questions about justice, racism and need with the simplicity and clarity of the spirituals and prisons which remain a major inspiration. There is nothing naive about Chapman’s songs and yet she has the uncanny ability to stare the world in the face and shred the blinkers and sophistry that blind us to the inequities and hurt we would rather ignore. While her best songs like For My Lover, Fast Car and Mountains O’Things have a narrative grasp that situates the songs’ characters firmly in the economic wilderness of all American dreams. Chapman’s voice evokes a personal sense of tragedy that is far more moving than the introspection usually associated with singer-songwriters.
Perhaps this explains her impatience with the media and her insistence on retaining her privacy. “Her instincts and her intuition are way beyond her years,” she says Bob Krasnow. “She has to be self contained to protect herself and she’s got a very good instinct of self-preservation.”
“The next album will have to stand on its own as this one did,” she says with charactersitic caution. “I think critics are very fickle and what they like one week they hate the next. It’s very dangerous to get into competition with yourself or set yourself up because you’re likely to be disappointed. If you live your life by those standards of success, you’re setting yourself up for a fall.”