You Talkin' to Me?: Tracy Chapman Interview
When Tracy Chapman smiles, her incandescence is blinding enough to light-up the dark side of the moon. That smile is as rare as certain orchids, but it's blooming now. Chapman has just released her fourth album, New Beginning (Elektra). It's a title that wasn't chosen lightly, she says, speaking with characteristic deliberation in a nearly empty San Francisco restaurant. "For me, the title is representative, both of many aspects of this record and this particular place that I am in my career." Somewhat inadvertently, the title also has another implication. "In looking at the songs -- and this wasn't really a conscious decision -- I found that there seemed to be recurring themes in many of the songs talking about birth and change and redemption and renewal. My belief is that we need to consider new methods, new ways, new ideas, a new direction in many aspects of the way we live, in the way that this world works." That's the kind of pragmatic idealism that's characterized the singer/songwriter's career, since it erupted with her 1988 eponymous debut album, which quickly went triple platinum. It was a year that found her making the transition from singing in coffee houses accompanied by her own delicate acoustic guitar to sharing the stage with the likes of Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel for 1989's Amnesty International tour. Chapman, who comes across in conversation as alternately shy and assured, wasn't overwhelmed by the somewhat sudden transition. In fact, she found it exhilarating to turn on the radio and find her own voice singing that first album's breakthrough track, "Fast Car." "It was exciting! That part wasn't overwhelming at all," she laughs, then quickly sobers. "What I found was that most of what changed over that period of time was the way that other people responded to me. Before, I often found that when I was doing errands, in stores people would follow me around as if they thought I was going to shoplift." She shakes her head slowly, and continues after a pause. "And after the record came out, and my face was all over the place, they'd follow me around wanting me an autograph, or actually wanting to give me something. Which was very nice, but it always seemed ironic to me that at the time I really needed someone to give me things, they didn't. It took the record to make them want to." Chapman started writing songs as soon as she began playing music. "The first song I wrote didn't have any instrumentation. It was a song about walking home from school with my friends on a sunny day," she recalls, smiling. "I sang it for my friends while we were walking home from school; they seemed to like it." Now 31, Chapman doesn't write happy ditties anymore. Her career is based on earnest songs, some loaded a bit heavily with A Message. At times, that folksinger-with-a-conscience persona has earned her the scorn of some members of the black community. A few years ago, Public Enemy's Chuck D. told Rolling Stone that "black people cannot feel Tracy Chapman, even if they got beat over the head with it 35,000 times." It was a comment that hurt her at the time, along with some critics dismissal of her as providing a way for white people to expiate their own guilt over the state of race relations. Chapman's voice -- a strong contralto -- doesn't match the common perception of black music. You certainly can't wave your hands in the air like you just don't care to any Tracy Chapman song. But you can, if you wish, be swept away by the passion and sincerity of her themes. Chapman has resolutely followed her own muse. From the sophomore effort Crossroads, to 1992's Matters of the Heart and now with New Beginning, she continues to write and sing songs that resonate with the hope that comes from living in a world all too frequently filled with despair. Clearly, she feels quite deeply about the state of the world, and is determined to do what she can to mend it, while recognizing the good in humanity. "There is still a lot of goodness out there," she says. "Many of the social movements that are advocating change are still plugging away and trying to make a difference. In some ways I see there's been an increase in people's consciousness in many issues about the environment, ecological issues, to some extent about racism and discrimination of all kinds. I think we're at least at a point where we're talking about some of these things, so that gives me hope." But just now, Chapman has packing to do; her tour starts in a few days. She reveals, a bit grudgingly, that she'll be appearing on Late Night With David Letterman in between gigs. But she brightens at the thought of her band-mates. "Some of them have never been on TV before, so they're really excited." And with one last fleeting smile, she heads off into the night.