Behind the Chapman Curtain : The voice of the underdog also sees herself as an outsider in the pop world
Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
Don’t you eat of the bitter fruit
Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth
‘Cause all that you have is your soul.
--Lyrics by Tracy Chapman
Few songwriters in recent years have stirred as much public curiosity as Tracy Chapman, whose collection of penetrating tales about society’s underclass in 1988 was one of the most surprising success stories of the decade.
The folk-flavored album--highlighted by “Fast Car,” a much-admired statement about an inner-city woman held captive by poverty and romantic self-delusion--sold an estimated 10 million copies around the world and earned Chapman a Grammy Award as the best new artist of 1988.
As the spotlight turned toward her, the 24-year-old seemed unusually withdrawn as she went on stage alone and rarely spoke to the audience. Chapman did a couple dozen interviews to draw attention to the new album, but she appeared uncomfortable, often giving only short answers or not responding at all.
There was something almost endearing about this “new queen of protest pop,” who could write such hard-edged, uncompromising songs about social injustice and personal values, and yet appear so shy and fragile.
Chapman is back with a second album, “Crossroads,” and her attitude offstage hasn’t changed. She has done far fewer interviews this time and the answers are often just as short as before. Her reluctance, it now appears, isn’t due as much to shyness as simply disinterest in being a pop celebrity.
During a recent interview in Hollywood, Chapman, 26, controlled the tempo of the question-and-answer session--right from the opening moment, when her disinterested glance as a reporter walked into the room made it clear that answering questions is not her favorite pastime.
Chapman wasn’t at all reluctant to shrug off some inquiries, give one or two word answers to others--or set limits.
Why did Chapman move recently from Boston to San Francisco?
Answer: “Personal reasons . . . I don’t want to go into it.”
This kind of resistance to media examination since her dramatic 1988 breakthrough tended to force critics in recent months to turn to the lyrics of Chapman’s second album for possible clues about this fiercely private woman’s feelings.
Many felt they found a message to the media and the record industry in the biting opening lines of the title track from “Crossroads.”
All you folks think you own my life
But you never make any sacrifice
Demons they are on my trail
I’m standing at the crossroads of hell
I look to the left, I look to the right
There’re hands that grab me on every side.
Chapman stared idly at the floor when asked during the interview about the lines--whether they, indeed, were a declaration of independence against the pressures of the record business and the prying eyes of the media.
Sitting on a sofa in a dressing room on the Paramount Studios lot where she was about to perform two songs on the Arsenio Hall television show, Chapman appeared as if she was simply going to let the question pass, as she had a couple of earlier ones. Slowly, however, she began framing an answer.
“Well, that’s one way to interpret it,” she said, speaking hesitantly as if measuring how much she should reveal herself outside of her music. “And I don’t think there is any such thing as a right interpretation and a wrong interpretation of a song. A song is whatever it means to the listener.
“But the truth is I wrote the song before the first record so it wasn’t a direct response on my part to dealing with the record industry or anything like that.”
She paused, then added.
“That interpretation does fall very nicely
into the scenario of how artists deal with the music industry. There have been a lot of songs about that, but for me it just relates on a more general level to the challenges that individuals face in their lives. There are lots more important things to write about than the record business.”
Just as her songs speak for the underdogs in society, Chapman, too, seems to see herself as an outsider in the pop world.
She saw a lot of pain in the disadvantaged neighborhoods of her youth and she still feels strongly about it. She may not have written “Crossroads” about the record business, but it’s also easy to see how the pop machinery can very easily fit into the barrel of corrupting shiny apples warned against in the song. Even her spiky dreadlocks hairstyle serves as a symbol of roots in a pop world that generally encourages artists to tone down their ethnicity.
Chapman also resists giving comfortable or encouraging answers.
After the acclaimed debut album and co-starring with Bruce Springsteen on Amnesty International’s heralded five-continent “Human Rights Now!” tour in 1988, you’d think that would be Chapman filled with optimism herself--a strong believer in the power of music to affect social change, right?
“For most of the people at the Amnesty concerts, I think it was just a case of going out for a day or an evening and seeing a show,” she said, speaking with more firmness than on topics that touch on her personal life or music.
“Music can have a role in making people more aware because I think people are more receptive to hearing messages or social issues expressed in songs, but people are exposed to hundreds of things every day. . . .
“It’s not realistic to think a record or a song is going to (cut through) all that information and push you in a different direction.”
That’s not the answer her fans probably want to hear. It’d be more comforting for Chapman to repeat the more typical pop star answer to that type of question, “Yes! pop music can change people’s attitudes. I went around the world with the Amnesty International tour and I saw people of all races, all creeds joining together and singing.”
But Chapman seems to have doubts about society’s desire to change and she thinks any false optimism is self-defeating.
Comfortable with the topic, she continued, “It’s certainly not an issue or a question that is black and white. On one hand, from my own experience, I know that I have changed over the years. I have become a different person and in most ways, I think, a better person. . . . Considering that, I think people have the ability to change.
“But there are so many things that I’ve seen . . . .That whole thing in New York . . ., the (recent) trial in Bensonhurst, . . . and then the (fall, 1989) Stuart case in Boston. Those kinds of things don’t lead me to think that people have the ability to change and that’s what I think is necessary in order to be optimistic about the future.”
Chapman was born and raised in a mostly black working-class neighborhood of Cleveland. Chapman, whose parents were separated when she was 4, was raised by her mother. The singer has one sister.
“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,” she once explained. She also noticed as a youngster, “all these forces in society making things more difficult than they ought to be.”
These observations would later surface as themes in Chapman’s songs, including “Subcity” on the “Crossroads"album. Sample lyrics:
People say it doesn’t exist
‘Cause no one would like to admit
That there is a city underground
Where people live everyday
Off the waste and decay
Off the discards of their fellow man . . .
There is an anger and sadness in such lines that seems deeply rooted--a reminder of roots and conditions that wasn’t erased even though Chapman stepped up to a more privileged environment.
Thanks to a minority placement program called A Better Chance, the teen-ager was awarded a scholarship to the Wooster School, a small, private school in Danbury, Conn. While there, Chapman, who had listened to a lot of Motown and gospel music as a child, started listening to contemporary folk--artists such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. The style seemed ideal for the personalized songs Chapman wanted to write.
After enrolling in Tufts University where she studied anthropology, she began to sing in Boston clubs and coffee houses. A fellow Tufts student heard her singing and introduced her to his father, music publishing titan Charles Koppelman, who got her an audition at Elektra Records. The debut album was an immediate critical and popular success.
The second album hasn’t caused as much of a stir. Reviews were generally favorable, but nowhere as enthusiastic as for the debut collection.
When no hit single, a la 1988’s “Fast Car,” dominated the radio airwaves, many pop observers may have figured the album flopped. However, worldwide sales are at an impressive 5 million point, according to Elektra Records.
Looking back on the hectic embrace with stardom, Chapman said there were times when the success did seem overwhelming.
“But I stay very grounded, the way I live my life,” she said, loosening up slightly. “I think the biggest change I’ve found is how my time at this point has become very precious.
“Maybe in some ways I retreated a little more and hid from the success and attention of the first record. I tended to keep close to the people who I had known before.”
What about the second album--the pressures to equal sales and critical acclaim of the debut album?
“I tried not to even think about that,” she said, matter-of-factly. “There’s no point. I remember once in the studio when one of the musicians listened to what we had just done and said, ‘You know, you’ve beaten the first record with this.’ I turned to him and said, ‘That’s not what this is about. This is something new and different. We are here to do the best we can now.’ ”
Chapman does acknowledge the need to do some pop business. She said she agreed to sing two songs on the Arsenio Hall show because it would be a good way to kick off her new U.S. tour, her first ever with a band. She also agreed to the request by her manager and her record company to do the interview.
“Sales are important to me in the sense that if I sell enough records, I’ll be able to make another,” she said in closing. “But I never pictured having an album on the charts or on a major label. I’ve always written songs and I thought I might be able to find some little label somewhere to put them out.
“I never pictured myself as a ‘protest’ singer. I don’t even like labels like that. I don’t think they are relevant or applicable in many cases. I just write about what I see going on . . . about what life is right now. It’s not that I’m trying to (slant it) to have a message because that’s not necessary. The conditions around us speak for themselves.”