This article originally appeared in the July 1988 issue of SPIN.
It’s not easy to pay Tracy Chapman a compliment. Try to tell the twenty-four-year-old singer/songwriter from Boston that her debut album contains some of the most riveting music you’ve heard in quite some time and the response is a sudden darting away of the eye and a turn of the head as she tries to hide the sheepish grin that’s sneaked onto her face.
After a split second, though, she’s back looking straight at you, open and forthright, order restored. It’s no different a few hours later when she’s onstage at Chicago’s Vic Theatre. Out on her first tour, opening for 10,000 Maniacs and performing solo, she sings her songs—songs about people in trouble, songs about people trying to find themselves, songs that look straight at you, open and forthright—and when the audience (most of whom have never heard of her before) pays her the compliment of enthusiastic applause, Chapman barely lets it take hold, deflecting the sheepish grin of satisfaction down and away, where the crowd won’t really see it, before returning to the microphone and the serious work at hand. Vanity, one suspects, will have a hard time making headway with this budding star.
One also suspects it will not be easy to not know who Tracy Chapman is before very long. Her album, released in early April, has raised critical eyebrows, and with good reason: on it, she rather emphatically establish herself as a skillful, insightful composer whose songs strike up residence in some pretty unlikely neighborhoods in the city of Eighties pop music.
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Traveling through Tracy’s songs, one is confronted by homeless families (“Fast Car”), domestic violence (“Baby Can I Hold You”), righteous anger at the socio-political structure of present-day America (“Why?”), and, perhaps inevitably, a still-hopeful call to arms (“Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”). But if you’re ready to pigeonhole her as a protest singer, you’d best take note of both her stance—there’s not an ounce of smugness about her—and her eclectic musical bent, which encompasses everything from folk to reggae to African music to blues to R&B to soul.
What you can classify her as is a female artist who, like some others who’ve shown up of late (Suzanne Vega, Nanci Griffith, and Michelle Shocked, to name but a few) is being discovered by a growing audience that is coming to its music ready to think as well as listen.
It’s not easy to get Tracy Chapman to talk about her songs. “It’s hard to be a commentator on your own work and try to analyze what you’ve written when sometimes you don’t even know what you’ve done,” she says. “That’s why I write songs and I don’t write books. People always want to know about the person that writes, and the easiest thing to do is assume that they write about themselves and that you can gain insight into what the writer thinks and feels. But that’s not necessarily true. In songs, you take on different personas and different characters, and try and put yourself in their place. Plus, I think that if you go about explaining everything about a song, it’s gone.”
The farthest she’ll go is to acknowledge that there are certain themes that seem to surface regularly in her work. “I’m concerned with how the individual finds his or her way in the world, and what they do when they realize they’re either in or out,” she says, and though she doesn’t consider herself a political writer (“In my mind, everything is interconnected; in some form or other, politics is part of everything”), she does admit that “I have a lot of concern over the fact that people are generally very passive in their lives, and for lots of different reasons choose not to act at times when they should—when morally it’s their responsibility to do something. ‘Behind the Wall’ is clearly about what do you do when you intervene.”
It’s not easy to listen to “Behind the Wall.” Talk about direct: The song, about a woman who is beaten (quite possibly killed) by her husband in their apartment while her neighbors do nothing to help, is performed a cappella by Chapman, and the effect is harrowing, almost as much because of the stark resignation in her voice as for the tragedy it so forcefully depicts:
“Last night I heard the screaming
Loud voices behind the wall
Another sleepless night for me
It won’t do no good to call
Always come late If they come at all
And when they arrive
They say they can’t interfere
With domestic affairs
Between a man and his wife
And as they walk out the door
The tears well up in her eyes
Last night I heard the screaming
Then a silence that chilled my soul
I prayed that I was dreaming
When I saw the ambulance in the road
And the policeman said
‘I’m here to keep the peace
Will the crowd disperse
I think we all could use some sleep'”
It’s not easy to write songs like “Behind the Wall,” or “Across the Line,” which documents an inner city race riot (“In the back streets of America, they kill the dream of America”) without having been there. Tracy Chapman has. She grew up in Cleveland in the late Sixties and early Seventies in a part of town which, at the time, was in transition from predominantly white to heavily integrated.
As often happens in major cities during periods like this, businesses began deserting the area, and public services went into noticeable decline. Chapman’s mother, herself a part-time singer (“weddings, church events, things like that,” she recalls), encouraged her daughter’s musical interest, but Cleveland’s notoriously bad public school system offered her little hope of getting a good education.
It was through a nationwide program called ABC (A Better Chance) that Tracy got a scholarship to go to a private school in Danbury, Connecticut. “I hadn’t even seen the school before I went there,” she says, “but the chance was too good to turn down.” It was at this time that Chapman, who’d been writing songs since before she was a teenager, started hearing the contemporary folk music of Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Bonnie Raitt. Encouraged by her peers, she began performing in public, and by the time she reached Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, she was playing somewhere—either in a Boston folk club or on Harvard Square street corners—virtually every weekend.
It’s not easy juggling a singing career with an anthropology major, which Chapman did until her graduation in 1986. “I didn’t really want to think about pursuing a profession in music until after I got my degree,” she says, and while she did consider continuing the academic life in graduate school, music ultimately won out. Her family was supportive throughout, she says, although she does confess that “I think they always felt I should have majored in something more practical than anthropology—like pre-med or pre-law—so I was a lost cause anyway.” And while she’d rarely played anywhere outside the Boston-Cambridge club scene, her work there and her music impressed Elektra Records (where she was brought through a college friend).
It’s not easy going out on the road for the first time under any circumstances, let alone opening for a band like 10,000 Maniacs, but Tracy Chapman is proving that a voice, a guitar, and some extraordinarily good songs can find a home anywhere, even in Chicago’s boisterous Vic Theatre.
The club, which has open areas for standing and dancing, table service for the waitress crowd, and an upstairs balcony for those who’d rather act like they’re at a sit-down concert, isn’t what you’d call the ideal venue for a solo performer. But when Chapman sings “Fast Car,” about the terrible ongoing cycle of underclass life, her performance is so stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks overpowering that the audience actually breaks into spontaneous applause midway through.
Later in the evening, when 10,000 Maniacs come out for one of their encores, lead singer Natalie Merchant brings Chapman (who’s been traveling with the band on their tour bus) back onstage, and the two do a thrilling unaccompanied version of the old gospel chestnut, “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies.” “To Canaan land, I’m one my way, where the soul never dies/Where all is peace and joy and love/And the soul never dies,” they sing, their voices intertwining beautifully.
As Tracy, again hiding that little smile, walks off, Merchant asks the crowd, “Didn’t I tell you she was good? Didn’t I?” No tough time with the answer to that question. Once you’ve heard Tracy Chapman, it’s easy.