Q&A: Tracy Chapman – The Fans’ Interview

Tracy Chapman Greatest Hits 2015

In collaboration with Tracy Chapman’s team, we put a call out to her fans on Facebook, giving them an opportunity to pose questions for an exclusive interview. The idea was to pick the 5 most creative and unique questions for Tracy to answer. Among 325 questions submitted, Tracy chose 13 ones to answer!

Do you follow a songwriting process, and can you describe it? (by Victoria Luckie)
Tracy Chapman: “If there is a process it is not systematic. It is organic in nature, always starting with a moment of inspiration- a feeling or a thought that calls for pursuit. I usually write while playing guitar¬¬ and the words and music typically develop in tandem. It often feels like there is a question that needs to be answered or a puzzle that needs to be solved and so my curiosity drives me on. I don’t have a schedule but I tend to write late at night or very early in the morning. The timing, I suspect, being due to the lack of distractions and a relaxed mind, a mind that has ceded some control thereby allowing for free association. I think it is a time of less self-censorship, a place where you can make “mistakes” without fear– to me this seems essential for the creative process. Another essential part of the organic writing process for me is reading. I have been a life-long avid reader of fiction, poetry, reference books and in recent years graphic novels and non-fiction. I read for pleasure but I feel certain that the act of engaging with a well written or well told story is also a lesson. If you want to write you need to read.

On the technical side, I keep it simple, using paper, a pen or pencil and a portable tape recorder. Although I use computers in the studio, I prefer to be less encumbered in the early stage of the writing process. For me it keeps the focus on the basics– on what you are trying to express through the words and music. Ultimately, poetic musicality, clear expression with feeling is my aim. I want the song to make sense, I want the words to stand on their own. And I want the finished song in its structure and mood to retain an impression of the original flash of inspiration.”

After so many years in the industry and after such an accomplished Greatest Hits album, what is next for Tracy Chapman, what would you like to achieve in the near future? (by Stefan Evans)
Tracy Chapman: “I love making music and the plan is to keep doing what I’m doing. There were many questions about a new studio record and a new tour, at this time there are no plans for either but if that changes we’ll let you know.”

In all your songs which one do you like most? (by Majaha Vundla)
Tracy Chapman: “What an impossible question to answer! It’s like asking a parent to say that they like one child more than another. I like all my songs.”

Have you ever consider doing something else than Music? What was it? (by Dominika Patora)
Tracy Chapman: Although I have always loved music and started writing songs when I was 8 years old, I did not think that making music would become my career . My dream as a child was to be a veterinarian so when I entered my freshman year of college at Tufts University my plan was to study biology. I ultimately graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and considered pursuing a graduate degree in Ethnomusicology.

Do you make any visual art as well? (by Irene Thraen-Borowski)
Tracy Chapman: Photography is one of my hobbies and over the years I’ve tried to teach myself to draw. I feel fortunate that during the time I attended public school there were lots of school sponsored museum trips. Cleveland, Ohio has a very good art museum so I think my appreciation for the visual arts started when I was young. When I’m on tour, I make a point to visit local museums, if time allows.

Do you have a song R.E friendship? (by Danny Fitz-George)
Tracy Chapman: ‘The song “It’s OK” from the album “Telling Stories” is about friendship.’

The line “If today were my birthday, I’d be re-born, as Bronte’s bird, a bird that could fly” from the song ‘Matters Of The Heart’ has always caught my attention. What is a Bronte’s bird, or what did you mean by it? (by JM Shoop- Shoop)
Tracy Chapman: ‘Thanks, I’m glad to hear that you like that song. By way of an answer, I will direct you to the source of the inspiration for that line, Emily Bronte, one of my favorite poets.’

What would you like to say to young musicians who want to share their music with the world? (by Anny Skod)
Tracy Chapman: “In general I would say– hone your skills, figure out what you want to say, be clear about your goals and expectations, copyright your music if you’re a songwriter and love what you do. The last item in this list is probably the most important.”

What were your influences when you started writing music and how do they differ today, if they do? (by Gloria Pasient Methven)
Tracy Chapman: “Growing up my house was filled with all kinds of music. Music was always being played on the turntable and or the radio– my parents had a record collection of R&B, jazz and gospel music. On the radio we listened to country and rock music and on my own I’d always listen to Casey Kasem’s top twenty count down on the weekend.”

How did you feel when performing live in Wembley for the first time, unknown to most people but managing to get everyone silent and listening to you’re performance givin’ me the goosebumps? (by Peter van Noort)
Tracy Chapman: “I’m so glad you asked about this event as it meant so much to me to take part in the Nelson Mandela Freedom Concert and lend my voice to the call for an end to Apartheid and the call to release Nelson Mandela from prison. I felt many things that day but the overriding emotion was one of awe. Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes and to be given the chance to support him and his cause for freedom was a great honor. Taking the stage that day was daunting for many reasons, and I had feared that I would be too overwhelmed by the circumstances to perform. Lucky for me, I was called to the stage on very short notice and so had no time to dwell on the possibility of paralyzing stage fright. What I recall about what I thought and felt that day and what I notice when I see the footage are two different things. From my perspective on stage I remember the enormous sea of people and I could tell that they were listening. I felt immensely grateful for the goodwill and the warm reception. It was a deeply humbling experience that I will never forget.”

May I please ask who or what inspired “I Used To Be A Sailor”? (by Petee BowDown)
Tracy Chapman: “I did have someone in mind when I wrote that song, my grandfather who was very independent and robust and passed away after a long illness.”

What is Tracy Chapmans’s easiest song to play as a guitarist beginner? (by Mha Ka)
Tracy Chapman: ‘I think “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” is pretty easy to play for a beginning guitarist, there are four chords. Good luck.’

Your music and what you stand for has been an inspiration to me since I was a child. I am an Indigenous Australian artist and listen to your music to keep me motivated when I’m feeling overwhelmed and at my lowest with my artwork. My question is, what do you do to keep yourself motivated in times where you feel like this or when you’re frustrated with world issues you can’t personally change? (by Jordana Angus)
Tracy Chapman: “Thanks for the kind words.
Art, creative expression and making music have always been a solace to me. The act of creating something has always been uplifting even if the subject matter isn’t. I consider every new song a gift. Although I certainly feel moments of frustration about the state of the world– the act of making something, creating art feels like a hopeful act. This is not to say that I believe that making art is the solution to the problems of the world. Art, however, does remind us that we are not alone and sometimes that is what helps to remind us that we have agency. I understand that I personally may not have the ability to right the wrongs I see but I keep faith that there are people who can.”

Thanks to you all for submitting such varied and thought-provoking questions. I have answered a few more than five so that I could cover more of the recurring topics here. I appreciate your patience for the extra time this required. Sending you all my best.

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