2000 – Tracy Chapman comes out of her shell


By Aidin Vaziri, San Francisco Chronicle, April 16, 2000

Publicity-shy singer-songwriter wants people to hear “Telling Stories”

Tracy Chapman, 35, does not typically enjoy doing interviews. In the 12 years since her self-titled debut album brought her international stardom, she has granted only a handful, most of which were more notable for their long, awkward pauses than for the brief but courteous responses that followed.

Even so, journalists are made to jump through hoops to get an interview with the singer-songwriter. It’s quite a screening process for an artist who insists the biggest misconception about her is that people think she’s shy.

Don’t get her wrong. Chapman really wants to be heard. She is on the road playing songs from “Telling Stories,” her first new album in four years, of which she is immensely proud. Reviews have compared its stark emotional landscape to that of the breakthrough debut, but that has not translated to chart success.

Chapman may have scored a comeback hit with the bluesy “Give Me One Reason” single from “New Beginning” in 1995, but in this business, that’s a lifetime ago. Lilith Fair, contemplative folk songs and peers like Melissa Etheridge are out; slick teen pop and superficial designer divas are in. After several weeks of negotiations, Chapman, a longtime San Francisco resident, finally gets on the phone and speaks. At first, the conversation is frigid.

Does she enjoy being back out on the road? “No, not really,” Chapman says.

What about being onstage and connecting with her fans? “It’s nice to play the music.’

Does it surprise her to see the widespread appeal of her songs? “It does.” Silence.

Then a realization sets in. Stay quiet for a minute and suddenly her voice is back on the other end of the line and picks up where the short answer left off. Chapman completes the thought, her words tumbling out in an elaborate if unusually contemplative manner.

She explains the songwriting process for “Telling Stories”: “I think I was less self-conscious writing these songs than I have been at other times. Maybe it’s a little closer to the way I was writing songs when I was much younger, when I first started.

She discusses the beauty and decay of her adopted hometown: “The other day I was feeling really depressed because we drove for 11 hours and we just passed one mall after the other. That’s one of the things I like about San Francisco. It’s not like anywhere else in the world. Although now it’s becoming more commercialized. I think that wrecks the character of a city. People don’t come here to go to Starbucks.

She even entertains the theory that her politically charged debut may now be seen as naive: “I don’t think of those songs as being naive. Someone might say that about a song like `Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,’ but I don’t feel that far removed from the sentiments behind that song. I’m still thinking and hoping there’s an opportunity for people to have better lives and that significant change can occur.

It’s an amazing transformation that ultimately begs one question: Why does Chapman, who proves to be just as eloquent and articulate in conversation as she is in her richly detailed songs, feel the need to put up such a smoke screen when dealing with journalists?

The answer is not as easy as one might imagine.

Chapman sold 10 million copies of her debut shortly after graduating from Tufts University in Massachusetts. Within a year, she went from playing local coffeehouses to Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday concert at London’s Wembley Arena and winning three Grammy Awards.

Remarkably, this down-to-earth woman, who had been singing songs about the injustice and prejudice she witnessed growing up poor in Cleveland, Ohio, became a hot commodity on the same scale as Guns N’ Roses and U2. She fell into a relentless recording-and-touring cycle, which undermined her initial motivation for making music.

So Chapman took a stand. “I decided to do whatever I could to make sure the business side of music didn’t intrude on the creative part,” she says. That meant surrounding herself with the right people, exercising firmer creative control over her music and, yes, doing away with interviews.

There’s a time and place for everything, and my focus is music,” Chapman says. “So that’s what I prefer to spend most of my time doing, and not talk about making music.

Of course, there are other reasons. Chapman has been misunderstood and misrepresented in the past. “You can talk to someone and explain the thought or the song and then find that when it is described to someone else, it’s not what you had in mind,” she says. “All the time we’re speaking the same language, but the translation doesn’t hold up.”

Which brings her back around to the moment at hand.

I’d rather be at home right now, but I made a record that I’m really happy with and I’m really proud of, so I don’t mind letting people know that I made it,” Chapman says. “That’s why I’m out here right now and that’s why I’m talking to you. I’m committed to that. I could make records at home in a vacuum, but that is not the situation. I’m just taking it one phase at a time.

TRACY CHAPMAN – The singer performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Berkeley Community Theatre, Allston Way and Grove Street, Berkeley. Tickets: $32.50-$40. Call (510) 644-8957.

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