Off the Charts

Tracy Chapman

Some pop stars wear the glamour of fame and fortune, like a suit they’ve longed to try on since they first picked up a guitar or a mic. Keeping the garb of stardom on their backs becomes their primary musical goal. And then there’s Tracy Chapman. She hit the big time on a fluke, and doesn’t seem to care that the industry tired of her when she wouldn’t be exactly what they wanted.

When executives at Elektra heard a demo of her acoustic song “Talkin’ ʼbout a Revolution” in 1987 – the demo had been sent around by an enthusiastic friend, since Chapman was too busy writing and singing to think about promoting a career – they smelled a sweet revolution latent in a market oversaturated with synthesizers and hair metal. Chapman’s first album, the simply produced Tracy Chapman, came out in 1988; it was a massive critical and popular success, raking in three Grammys.

Besides several hit singles, that record also includes the exquisite “If Not Now,” which provides a fine introduction to the fatalism and longing in Chapman’s poetry, as well as her plaintive vocal writing. The short lines with breaths between them, and ornaments decorating them, make the powerful lyrics clearer.

 

Chapman had been reluctant to sign with a major company because she feared losing her original voice. The 1989 album Crossroads shows that she wasn’t kidding. She stuck to her guns and co-produced the album (with David Kershenbaum, who also produced the first album). It didn’t sell nearly as well as the debut. But Chapman stayed true to herself.

“Subcity” demonstrates her abilities as both storyteller and social commentator. Her use of language is so efficient that in only a few of her signature short phrases she’s built a three-dimensional world for her disenfranchised characters: “People live every day / On the waste and decay / Of the discards of their fellow man.”

It’s worth noting, that by this second album there’s more of a rock feel – in this case, a country rock swing – with drum kit and electric bass, although the acoustic guitar is kept to the forefront in the mix.

 

For her third album, Matters of the Heart (1992), Chapman collaborated with a new producer, Jimmy Iovine, who had already worked with Lennon, Springsteen, and Meat Loaf, and would go on to found Interscope Records and co-found Beats Electronics. So, this was never going to be a simple folk record.

The moving “I Used to Be a Sailor” swells with strings and a soft-rock drum beat. I can imagine Chapman singing this in a coffee shop with just her acoustic six-string, but that folk kernel has been swathed in thick layers of musical fabric. The more I listen, the more I doubt the fancy arrangement adds anything important.

 

Although Elektra kept Chapman on its roster until 2008, she only produced one more hit single, “Give Me One Reason,” from the 1995 record New Beginning. That very successful album, produced by Chapman and John Mellencamp collaborator Don Gehman, The production values are more subtle here than on Matters of the Heart, although there are dozens of musicians involved.

The easy-going arrangement of “I’m Ready” is a good example of this light hand in the production booth. Even the team of violins, backing vocals, steel guitar, and bongos doesn’t overwhelm the song.

 

If you search out the original recording, keep listening after “I’m Ready” ends for a hidden track called “Save a Place for Me.”

It would be five years before Chapman released another album. When she did return to CD racks, the public wasn’t buying. Telling Stories (2000) sold only one tenth the volume of New Beginning in the U.S.

As a whole, the album does not have a lot new to say musically. An exception is “Paper and Ink,” which is distinguished by its use of mandolin and dulcimer, adding an earthy Appalachian touch to Chapman’s warning about the destructive forces of greed.

 

Although Let It Rain (2002) was the first Tracy Chapman album not to reach the American charts at all, there’s a calm confidence in her singing that seems to demonstrate an artistic self-awareness and maturity. This is a songwriter who doesn’t give a fig how many records she sells.

The arrangements (co-produced by Chapman and John Parish) contribute to the atmosphere of inner peace, opening with a pedal steel so creamy it could pass for a synth on the title track:

 

A highlight of 2005’s Where You Live is “3,000 Miles.” There’s a painful irony in the contrast between the lyrics – recounting the shaming and abuse of girls, perhaps autobiographical – and the lacy, percussive music, as delicate as raindrops on a spider’s web.

 

The 2008 album Our Bright Future was the last project for Elektra, who (Chapman claims) got tired of her not making money for them. Although she toured in support of Our Bright Future in Europe, her U.S. tour was canceled. She hasn’t toured since.

“The First Person on Earth” shows her exploring instrumental sound effects – after all, what did she have to lose? Maybe the distorted wailing harmonics represent a primordial backdrop for this strange but touching love song. It’s a bizarre contrast against the strident rhythm of the melody, which is followed tightly by a snare drum all the way through.

 

In the slew of interviews Chapman did to promote her Greatest Hits album in 2015, she gives the impression that she would be perfectly contented to be out of the spotlight for the rest of her life. She has described the split with Elektra as setting her on the path to artistic freedom. In fact, she has not created another studio album since parting ways with Elektra – not even a self-produced effort in this era when every kid with an iPhone tries that.

But I doubt her public silence means she’s not writing songs. More likely, she’s once again the young college student who only wanted to stand up for social justice and explore her poetic musical voice back in 1987. We’re just not invited into the garden where she plays her guitar.