THINKING BACK to the recording sessions for her debut album, Tracy Chapman says, "When I finished it, I felt it was a very good record and I guess I figured if people had a chance to listen to it they would think so also. So I wasn't surprised that people liked the record, just that it was a lot of people."
Indeed, "Tracy Chapman" was 1988's most surprising left-field hit, an acoustic, folk-flavored collection that managed both critical acclaim and commercial success, hitting the top of the charts and selling 10 million copies worldwide. It also earned Chapman three Grammys, including one for best new artist, and co-headlining status on the five-continent Amnesty International Tour with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel and Youssou N'Dour.
"Fast Car" was the single and video that helped break Chapman, and sometimes the whole process must have felt like a very fast ride: After all, in 1986, Chapman was a Tufts undergraduate (anthropology major), singing on Boston street corners for donations. With another album, "Crossroads," under her belt, Chapman recently moved to San Francisco, looking to catch her breath finally before embarking on a national tour that brings her to Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sunday.
"I like to have my life very organized," Chapman said during a break from rehearsing with her new band. "With the time I've had to devote to making the record and touring for the record and various other things that go along with that, I'm not quite as organized as I'd like to be right now. I'm still living out of boxes."
"Crossroads" has sold five million copies worldwide, certainly enough to make most artists happy and apparently quite enough for Chapman. "I wasn't necessarily expecting the response that I got from the first record," she says. "After all, you're only brand-new once. That's why a lot of people keep recreating themselves in different images."
"I just went in and made the record I wanted to, very much the way I handled making the first record," Chapman adds. "There's no point in creating something that other people think you should make. Every record has to stand on its own merits, not in comparison to other things. And it's not like I'm some work-in-progress or I'm going to keep writing songs like 'Fast Car 2' and 'Fast Car 3.' That's not what it's about for me; it's about moving on."
That may explain why Chapman is working with a band (bass, drums, keyboards, percussion) this go-round. "I've played by myself for most of the time that I've been playing, over 10 years now," she points out. "But I've always been interested in touring with a band and working with other musicians. It's fun, you can learn a lot, and with the right people it can be very interesting, sonically. It gives me a little more freedom, performance-wise, to try different things."
Still, says Chapman, "it's never scared me to play by myself. It's a challenge, that's for sure, but it all depends on how receptive the audience is. They're not expecting me to come out to smoke and strobe lights, wearing flashy costumes. They know it's about the music and the songs and my voice."
Though Chapman, now 26, has managed to keep her private life extremely private, her family and musical roots have been duly noted: She was born and raised in a mostly black working class neighborhood in Cleveland, raised by her mother after her parents separated when she was four. A promising high school student, Chapman went to Connecticut's progressive Wooster School thanks to a minority placement program called A Better Chance. Having grown up to the strains of gospel and soul music, Chapman was exposed to folk and folk-rock songwriters; all these influences would gel by the time she got to Tufts University and started playing in Boston's clubs and on its street corners. Prophetically, the Wooster yearbook contained this prediction: "Tracy Chapman will marry her guitar and live happily ever after."
A fellow Tufts student, Brian Koppelman, introduced Chapman to his father Charles Koppelman, who happens to own one of the biggest publishing companies in the music business. After that came the contract with Elektra and an album with 11 stark, spare songs dealing with social injustice, homelessness, poverty, racial tensions and failed romance, all delivered in a husky contralto that was startling in its emotional impact.
The impact was similar when Chapman performed live: She gained a large audience when she performed at 1988's Freedomfest concert for Nelson Mandela at Wembley Stadium in London. Virtually unknown before the worldwide telecast, Chapman was a star by the time she walked off the stage after her brief set.
Of the new currents in protest music, Chapman says that "some artists have realized that they can take a stand on issues that may be considered controversial and either have it affect their popularity in a positive way or have no effect at all, so they're willing to take chances that they may not have been willing to take in the past. I think there has been a change and a lot of it started with USA for Africa and Live Aid."
Still, Chapman doesn't seem particularly anxious to wear the crown as "new queen of protest pop" (as one magazine labeled her). "I don't know whether I have any control over how people perceive me," she says. "It's important that people express their opinions about important issues, but I don't feel it's always neccessarily important to do that publicly. I would rather people saw me as how they might see themselves: I'm considering this world and the people I share it with and I've come to various opinions about things I'd like to see changed.
"It's personal and it has nothing to do with my music really," Chapman adds. "That's just the way that I end up expressing myself and that's something I've chosen to share with other people. I would rather people see it that way."