On Her Own Terms (Rolling Stone, September 1988)


By Steve Pond, Rolling Stone #535, September 22nd, 1988 (p.54-63)

Tracy Chapman had a feeling she could be someone. Now she is.

“Excuse me. Are you Tracy Chapman?”

She hears the question everywhere she goes, and her response is always the same. First, her eyes flash with wariness and momentary distaste: she looks as if she were ready to deny it and walk away. Then she grins: it’s an embarrassed, nervous grin, not a happy grin. Then she looks down at the ground, and without raising her eyes, she nods her head, quickly and almost imperceptibly. And finally – the process has taken all of one or two seconds – she answers the question. “Yeah“, says Tracy Chapman, in a voice so soft it’s barely audible.

It’s a questions she hears a couple of times every day: in restaurants, airports, hotels, even laundromats and gyms. At the moment, she is hearing it as she sits at a table just inside a Japanese restaurant in Atlanta. In two hours she is due at the Atlanta Center Stage Theatre for a concert that was the fastest sellout in the venue’s history; now, midway through her tempura, there’s a woman standing over the table, asking for an autograph. Chapman tries to be gracious as she scribbles her name on a matchbook, but mostly she looks uncomfortable. The woman stands at the table a moment longer, a big grin on her face. “I couldn’t get tickets to your show here”, she says, “but I’d recognize that face anywhere.” A pause. “And that HAIR.” Tracy Chapman fingers her short dreadlocks, grins gamely and sighs. I think“, she mutters under a breath, “I gotta catch a HAT.

It’s too late for a hat to do much good. For Tracy Chapman, public attention now comes with the territory – because in the five months since the release of her album, TRACY CHAPMAN, on Elektra Records, her territory has come to include a Top Five album; a striking and widely seen video for the single “Fast Car”; a stunning performance before millions of fans at Wembley Stadium and in the television audience for the Nelson Mandela Birthday Tribute, in June; and currently a slot alongside Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour on Amnesty International’s worldwide tour, Human Rights Now! She may be shy and private and uneasy with some of the trappings of fame, but this young black woman from working-class Cleveland is THE new artist of the year, maybe the new artist of many years. For Chapman, it’s all come as a surprise. “Actually, I made a bet with somebody who said that the album would go gold quickly“, she says. “I thought, ‘Well, it MIGHT be a gold record EVENTUALLY.’ …And they were right, and now they’re kicking themselves, because the bet was for an ice cream or something.

What went right? You could start with the fact that TRACY CHAPMAN is a stunning debut, a collection of songs that sketch the lives of the disenfranchised with vivid clarity and bluntly insist that a change had better come. David Kershenbaum, who produced the album, figures “people really wanted what she had, and they weren’t getting it. She got there at the right moment with stuff that was good.” Charles Koppelman, who signed Chapman to the record-production arm of his company, SBK Publishing, before she had a record contract, says it was “the most incredible word-of-mouth project that I’ve ever seen.” And Bob Krasnow, the chairman of Elektra Records, simply says that the songs connected with everybody else the way they connected with him the first time he heard them.

Certainly that’s what happens when Chapman takes the stage of the theater in Atlanta. It’s less than a week after Jesse Jackson brought down the house at the Democratic convention with his plea to include the disenfranchised in the political process. Chapman gets a standing ovation as she walks onstage to sing songs whose characters are, she admits, the same people that Jackson is trying to reach (she admires Jackson but says she stays away from party politics). In her jeans and sleeveless black T-shirt, she plays for just under an hour, armed only with one acoustic guitar and fifteen songs, ten from her debut album and the rest from her large backlog of unrecorded material. The crowd is hushed and attentive, cheering every time they hear a particularly striking lyric.

The set is arranged thematically, though she says later that’s not deliberate: she begins to explore her terrain with the bitter “Across the Lines” and the edgy love song “For My Lover”; sings about people caught in dead-end lives (the a cappella “Behind the Wall”, a devastating song about domestic violence, is followed by haunting versions of “Fast Car” and “She’s Got Her Ticket”); runs through a series of love songs (from “For You” to the unrecorded “This Time”); and ends with the defiant “Born to Fight” (“They’re trying…to make me into white man’s drone…But this one’s not for sale.”) and the angry social commentary of “Mountains o’ Things”, “Talkin’ bout a Revolution” and “Why?”.

All evening long the sense of the audience’s outright devotion is palpable, and the shouts of “We love you, Tracy!” seem heartfelt rather than rote. Chapman hits emotional chords the way the best folk singers always have – but whereas female folkies have traditionally been painted as vulnerable, fragile creatures singing about their loves and fears, Chapman trashes that stereotype. While there’s a vulnerability in her best songs, there’s no fragility, just forthright dignity.

It seems to me that that image was created for female folk singers because they actually had a lot more control than other women in the music scene“, Chapman says later. “They wrote their own songs, they played them, they performed by themselves – there you have a picture of a very independent person, and trying to make them seem emotional and fragile and all puts a softer edge on it. As if there was something wrong with being independent.

Independent and assertive as she appears on stage, though, Chapman doesn’t talk to the crowd. Between songs she looks down at the ground, fidgets with the guitar, sips from a paper cup of water and steadfastly ignores the fans who shout “Talk to us!”.

But as she sits in the top-floor dining room of her Atlanta hotel the following afternoon, it’s clear that Tracy Chapman deliberately and knowingly chooses that distance. At first she simply seems shy, saying little and turning her head or covering her face when she breaks into her broad, beaming smile. Before long, though, the shyness fades, and what emerges is a charming, smart, funny but very cautious young woman who simply refuses to surrender her dignity or her privacy for the sake of good copy or anything else.
Generally there’s not anything to say to this mass of strangers that’s significant or not superficial“, she says, wearing a typical outfit of a T-shirt, jeans and untied high-top Avia sneakers and speaking in tones that are higher and more nasal than her singing voice. “So I generally don’t say anything. And as you can see from last night, it bothers people. I always get that: ‘Talk to us!’ But there’s no need to explain the songs.” She laughs. “I have this notion of really shocking people by coming out one night and saying, ‘Hello babies! Are you having a good time? Let’s party!‘” she says. “Just being totally gregarious and scaring the shit out of everybody.
Until then, she would rather remain quiet and shun most of the interviews and other promotional chores that usually fall to new artists. It can make her seem inaccessible or uncooperative or overprotected – but it also makes her more valuable. “We wanted to be guarded and gain respect, and you make things more important by limiting their quantity”, says her manager, Elliot Roberts, who also manages Bob Dylan and Neil Young and for years worked with Joni Mitchell (and who admits that he discouraged Chapman from talking onstage). “I don’t want to make it seem contrived on any level, because it’s not. But is there a plan? Yes. Do we execute it? Yes. Have we been very lucky so far? Yes.”

As Chapman is finishing her dessert, a waiter comes to the table and asks her for an autograph. She obliges, then sighs. “It’s nice to know that people appreciate the record, she says, “but I’m just a really private person.” She breaks up laughing. “If, somehow, I could walk around invisible when I’m not onstage…
But what about her songs? Are they confessional moments in which the private Tracy Chapman is revealed?
She sighs. “They’re not, and they are. They’re emotions I’ve felt but not always things I’ve been through.
How about her many songs about obsessive and dangerous love? Are those close to her life?
No, not necessarily“, she says and then politely shuts the door on any further prying. “I won’t get into it any more than to say that there are parts of me in all the songs that I write.

“All right, Tray-cee!”
The shout echoes down the narrow Philadelphia side street, and Tracy Chapman flinches. She is at the front door of a seafood restaurant when she hears her name screamed from down the block, but she never looks back to see who is yelling so enthusiastically. Instead, she laughs and dicks inside the restaurant.
Inside, she is immediately recognized by another customer, who approaches her and asks for an autograph. And as soon as she is seated at a corner table, the restaurant turns off the tape that’s been playing over its P.A. system and puts on Chapman’s new album. As “Talkin’ bout a Revolution” comes from a speaker located just above her table, Chapman visibly tenses, then glances over at the tape deck. “They didn’t even buy the record“, she says with a laugh. “That’s a BOOTLEG cassette – see, it’s in a regular Maxell tape case.
She tries to shrug it off, but the volume steadily increases. Finally, her road manager calls a waiter over and asks him to take off the tape. A minute later, Barbra Streisand’s BROADWAY ALBUM comes on, and Chapman relaxes.

I always considered trying to make a living playing music“, says Tracy Chapman. “But it was always really clear to me, at the various stages in my life, that it really wasn’t a possibility unless some phenomenal thing happened.
Certainly pop stardom was a long shot for the young girl whose parents were divorced when she was four years old. Chapman’s mother retained custody of Tracy and her older sister after the divorce, and the family spent time on welfare while her mother, who had not asked for alimony, worked a series of low-paying jobs. “There wasn’t much to work with“, says Chapman. “We always had food to eat and a place to stay, but it was a fairly bare-bones kind of thing.” Chapman’s mother, though, was a liberal thinker. Tracy still remembers arguments with neighborhood kids: “They were raised very differently from my sister and me“, she says, “and they were appalled by the fact that I played basketball and that kind of stuff. And I remember one day they said, ‘You know, God owns you, and your parents own you. And because your parents own you, they can do anything they want with you.’ And I was arguing, ‘Your parents don’t own you – everybody’s an individual, and you have the right to do whatever you want. There are consequences, but you can do what you want.‘”
She laughs. And they were SO upset with me. And finally their father came home, and they said, ‘Tracy says you don’t own us!And he said,Well, Tracy’s wrong.
As a child“, she adds, “I always had a sense of social conditions and political situations. I think it had to do with the fact that my mother was always discussing things with my sister and me – also because I read a lot. A lot of people in similar situations just have a sense that they’re poor or disenfranchised, but they don’t really think about what’s created the situation or what factors don’t allow them to control their lives.
At the same time she was getting her education in these matters, she was hearing the music her mother and sister loved. There were no folk singers on the turntable, Tracy says: “I heard Neil Diamond and Shirley Caesar and Mahalia Jackson and Gladys Knight and the Pips, Barbra Streisand, Cher, the Bee Gees, the Four Tops. …I think my sister even listened to Journey at some point.

By the time she was in grade school, Chapman was playing music: first, a ukelele, “which my best friend at the time stole from me“, then an organ and in the sixth grade a clarinet and a twenty-dollar acoustic guitar. “I was dying for a guitar“, she says. “I don’t even know why.” She started writing songs; by the time she was fourteen, she had even written a socially conscious song called “Cleveland ’78”, which dealt with everything in the headlines. “People were finding out about asbestos“, she says, “and Andrew Young was in some sort of controversy, and I had something in there about flying saucers…
Soon after, she won a scholarship to the Wooster School, an Episcopalian prep school in Danbury, Connecticut. About a quarter of the schools’s students were financial-aid recipients from around the country, but she didn’t always feel at home. “Even though almost everything was paid for – my books and my transportation to and from vacations – you’d end up on shorter vacations where you couldn’t really go home and you couldn’t stay at the school. So you’d have to go to someone’s house, and often they were people I didn’t know. And you did get the sense that they felt like they were doing charity work.
Chapman was “a strong B, B plus student“, says the school’s current dean of students, Sid Rowell. She was also an avid natural athlete, according to the chaplain and soccer coach at the time, the Reverend Robert Tate. But she also became more involved than ever in folk music, hearing people like Neil Young, Crosby, Stills and Nash and even much of Bob Dylan for the first time.
Chapman didn’t hang around the music building much, says David Douglas, the head of Wooster’s music department during her last year; mostly, he says, he remembers seeing her playing her guitar and sitting on the white fence outside her dorm building or taking advantage of the acoustics in the small, high-ceilinged chapel. “I remember her as, on the surface, a very quiet, somewhat shy person”, says Tate. “But once you got to know her, the person that comes through in her music – deep thinking, passionate, very concerned about other people and about issues – that person came through.” (Tate, who is thanked on Chapman’s album, organized a collection to buy her a better guitar during her first year at the school; he says they raised enough “in about ten minutes” to buy the guitar, though Rowell says Tate himself chipped in a good portion of the money.)

One classmate – named Scoobie, Chapman remembers – gave a rough tape of hers to an uncle who worked at CBS Records. She got a letter back. It said, she recalls, something like “We are sorry to say that it’s too early in your development to consider giving you a record contract. …And please tune your guitar next time.”
But Chapman wrote “Talkin’ bout a Revolution” at Danbury, and she was a hit at the “coffeehouse” on campus. In the yearbook from her senior year at Wooster, she is one of the few students who didn’t choose song lyrics to run alongside her photo. While her classmates picked words from the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Stevie Nicks, her choice was from the black feminist poet Nikki Giovanni: “There is always something to do. There are hungry people to feed, naked people to clothe, sick people to comfort and make well. And while I don’t expect you to save the world I do think it’s not asking too much for you to love those with whom you sleep, share the happiness of those whom you call friend, engage those among you who are visionary and remove from your life those who offer you depression, despair and disrespect.”
On another yearbook page are comic predictions of what will happen to the class of 1982. “Tracy Chapman”, reads one line, “will marry her guitar and live happily ever after.”

Leaving from Wooster, Chapman was accepted by six colleges, five of which offered her financial aid. She chose to head one state east, for the hilly campus and red-brick buildings of Tufts University, just outside Boston. “One of the reasons I chose Tufts is that they have one of the best veterinary schools in the country“, she says. “Since I was six years old, I wanted to be a veterinarian.
She soon changed her mind and studied anthropology instead, but she still found time to play her music frequently in public. During this time a Tufts student named Brian Koppelman was booking the speakers for a campus rally in favor of divestment from South Africa. “Somebody told me that there was a good protest singer I should try and get”, Koppelman says. “So I went to see her, and lo and behold, there was Tracy Chapman, exactly like she is now, performing for 100 people.”
Koppelman’s father, Charles runs SBK, the largest independent music- publishing company in the world. Brian got her to play the rally, but he also went further: “I said something like ‘You know, I never do this, because I try to be my own person, but I really think my father could help you.’ And she didn’t really seem interested. Tracy genuinely was not interested in money.” Even after Charles Koppelman saw her and offered her a contract, it took her six months to agree to sign it (among other things, she wanted to graduate from college first).
The elder Koppelman, in turn, brought her to Bob Krasnow of Elektra Records. “He wanted to bring her in person”, says Krasnow, “and there’s nothing more uncomfortable than auditioning people face to face. Can you imagine if you don’t like them? So I have a hard and fast rule: I don’t care who it is, I don’t talk to them in person. But Charles was insistent, and I was seduced by the songs he played me.” At the first meeting, Krasnow says, he turned to Koppelman and said, “Hey, this is IT.”

Brian Koppelman, an SBK executive named Don Rubin and Chapman chose the producer David Kershenbaum, who had previously worked with Joan Baez, Cat Stevens and Joe Jackson to make the record; Kershenbaum helped as they auditioned musicians for a small band to support but not overwhelm Chapman in the studio. “She was so stable and balanced as a person”, says Kershenbaum. “She just really had her head on straight, knew exactly who she was and what she was trying to say and trying to do.”
Though she had lots of material to choose from, they recorded only the eleven songs that make up TRACY CHAPMAN. And when the album was done, Krasnow sent a test pressing to Elliot Roberts. “It was exactly the same feeling when I first heard Joni Mitchell”, Robert says. “Every song was moving, every song meant something – it was all driven by passion. …It was totally NOT what’s happening, but when you hear it, you go, ‘That’s IT. That must be the new thing.'”
One of the first things Roberts did was convince Chapman that she should abandon her plans to form a band and instead stick with solo acoustic shows “for at least another year and a half or two years”. Then they made the “Fast Car” video with the photographer turned director Matt Mahurin and began setting up tours as the album took off: clubs in major cities, then a stint opening for 10,000 Maniacs, then the Mandela concert, then another club tour, then dates opening for Neil Young and Bob Dylan, then the Amnesty International tour…
It’s as I planned it“, says Chapman deadpan. “Club dates to stadiums.

On the stage of the Chestnut Cabaret, in Philadelphia, Tracy Chapman is singing the blues. Again the show was a very fast sellout, but this isn’t a clean, well-ordered theater, like the Atlanta Center Stage Theatre. Unless they have found a place in the four rows of folding chairs in front of the stage or at the few tables behind the three separate bars, people have to stand. The nightclub is smoky, noisy and informal, and Chapman manages to adjust to the environment perfectly. She does a number of her unrecorded songs – which gives this show an entirely different feel – and up front a group of former Tufts students are shouting out requests for songs she hasn’t performed in years.
She is also amazingly talkative. She decides the fans who are standing “need something to do” and teaches them to sing along with her unreleased call-and-response song “Be My Baby”. She laughs about an “awful freshman dorm” she lived in at Tufts: “Everybody starts somewhere.” And toward the end of the show, she tells the crowd how her lyrics have been translated into five languages: “‘Fast Car’, in German it’s called ‘Flitzer’. It takes on a very different sense, but I think the idea’s a very good one.

The fire alarm is making a god-awful racket in the lobby of Philadelphia’s Four Seasons Hotel, but nobody evacuates the restaurants or runs for the exit or even looks especially alarmed. Sitting in an overstuffed chair a few feet from the exit, Tracy Chapman shrugs, mutters, “Oh, God“, and waits for the noise to stop. Wearing another typical outfit – a dark-green T-shirt with purple and black shorts, Avias, plus plain metal earrings and several thin black bracelets – and toting the half-size attache case she always carries, she has come to the neutral ground of the hotel lobby to talk. She is only recognized once – by an ABC Sports staffer who stops to say how much his entire department likes her music.

It’s not really a surprise that ABC Sports is full of Chapman fans; in fact, it seems oddly typical of the upscale, liberal CD buyers who make up much of her audience. But are they the best audience for her, or are they simply looking for pretty music and comfortable liberal platitudes to make them feel better – are they using her, in the words of Britain’s NEW MUSIC EXPRESS, as an “after-dinner conscience-comforter”?
That’s something I don’t have any control over“, she says matter-of- factly. “People go to concerts for lots of different reasons, and there are probably people who come to see me for that very reason.
She laughs. “I’ve had that question before“, she says. “‘How do you feel about your yuppie audience?’ I don’t know that they’re yuppies. I know they can afford to pay a ticket price and buy the record, and that might put them in some particular economic status. But for me it’s just really important to know that people are listening, and I think that for whatever reasons, they are. I think lots of people come because they love the music, they love the way the record sounds, or they love my voice, and they don’t care about any of the songs that have political content to them.
Certainly, though, those listeners must hear lines like “Poor people gonna rise up / And take what’s theirs” and notice the straightforward way in which she delivers them – lines, she insists, that are not naive.
I think people are foolish to believe that there won’t be major social changes in this country before we possibly, ultimately, destroy ourselves“, she says flatly. “There’s only so far you can push people before they start to push back, and I’ve seen that in my life. That’s where the things I write about come from. It’s wrong not to encourage people to hope or to dream or even to consider what’s thought to be impossible. That’s the only thing that keeps people alive sometimes. For me and my family, that was one of the only things that kept us going.

Those sentiments make Chapman an ideal participant in the Amnesty International tour, just as they may have made her the performer who dealt most directly with the issues at the center of the Mandela concert. “You don’t have to be a genius to see that words are coming back in a large way, that there’s more social consciousness in people, and the apathy that was there for years seems to be slowly declining”, says Elliot Roberts, who approached the Amnesty International promoters about including Chapman some months ago. “These are gonna be exciting times, and I see Tracy as someone who will be at the forefront of these times.”
But don’t mention the folk revival or the return of the Sixties sentiment to Chapman. “I really like a lot of that music, and I think some great songs came out of that time“, she says. “But I don’t think there is such a thing as a folk scene or a folk movement in the eighties. And the Sixties aren’t a time I even REMEMBER, either.
By the same token, she resits the frequent comparisons to Joan Armatrading or Suzanne Vega, and she is reluctant to name anybody who influenced her particularly. Chapman, it’s clear, is determined to be her own woman. That means retreating to Boston as soon as her tour dates are over. She will start work on a second album late this year; in the meantime, she will spend more time in her new place. The old apartment where she and her house mate lived, it seems, didn’t allow pets, and her cover was blown by a full-page LIFE-magazine photo of Chapman and her dachshund, Candy. Besides, she was followed home by overzealous fans twice in recent months, and her new place is more private.
Few people know her well, she says: her family, a handful of friends. “It’s strange for me now“, she says softly. “I was feeling recently like I didn’t have any friends, and how you can feel that way when you have a hit record and all these people wanna talk to you?
She trails off. “You know, I’m just a very cautious person and not very gregarious“, she says. “And I feel like I’m in a strange position now. It’s difficult to meet someone who doesn’t know Tracy Chapman the musician and to know that they aren’t considering me only on those terms and not for all the other reasons that you wanna get to know someone. It feels sad to lose that – though you still meet people who you can sense are genuine and sincere and like you for all the right reasons and not because your record’s on the BILLBOARD charts.
She laughs as she considers what a record on the chart means: money for example. “I’ve gotta figure out some way not to give it all to the government, because they deserve it least of anyone“, she says with a frown. “But I’m gonna be very careful about all this financial stuff And there aren’t many things right now that I want or need.
So she’s not gonna run out and buy her own fast car?
She grins. “Well, I do have a Ferrari on hold….“, she says. “Somebody asked me what kind of car it was in that song.” She laughs at the absurdity. “I think it was an Aries K car at first. And then it was a Toyota Corolla.” Another laugh. “No, no fast cars. I’ll just fix up my old car. It’s a 1980 Tercel with, like, 99,000 miles on it.

See that bridge over there? When I was a kid, I took my rabbit to a pet fair they had over there. The rabbit won third place.
Tracy Chapman has come home. She’s in Cleveland, the city where she grew up and the city where her family still lives, riding to he sound check at a nightclub in the middle of a row of bars, restaurants and strip clubs along the banks of the Cuyahoga River. But aside from the rabbit story, she hardly seems consumed by the nostalgia you might expect of a home-town kid returning in triumph. At the show, in fact, she says, “This is the first time I’ve ever played my music publicly in Cleveland” – and then, when the crowd erupts in cheers, she adds bluntly, “I have to say, honestly, I don’t have any fond memories of this place.
But the crowd laughs and cheers at that line, too. Crammed into the sweltering club is a cross section of fans that vividly illustrates how broad her appeal can be: a handful of blacks; white fans from midteens to late thirties; a patio-full of Midwest record-industry heavies who schmoozed and partied before the show (Chapman, of course, didn’t make the soiree); non-fans along because of the word of mouth; a few drunks who insist on shouting lyrics; and, standing on their chairs so they can see over the crush, Chapman’s mother, and her sister, and her aunts, and several other family members.
This is the crowd that pop stardom brings in, the careful listeners and the trendies, the devotees and the tag-alongs, the friends and the strangers who will continue to scream her name in the street and ask for autographs. This is the crowd that Tracy Chapman will have to get used to – and the crowd, one suspects, that she is beginning to make peace with already.
I’m a very open-minded person“, she says before the show, “and I’ve been very surprised to find that I had all these biases about who I think is gonna like my music.” Tracy Chapman shakes her head, breaks into her dazzling smile and laughs as if she were about to say something that surprises even herself.

And to find these 15-year-old kids who scream my name in the street like I’m some rock star or something…you know, that’s really nice.

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