In 1988, songwriter and performer Tracy Chapman landed like a bomb on the pop music scene with the release of her self-titled debut album. Songs from the record, like “Talking About a Revolution” and “Fast Car,” became huge hits and instantly established Chapman as a compelling new artist.
In the three decades since, Chapman has continued to win over audiences around the world with her unique voice, striking lyrics and socially conscious songs. Now, she’s out with a collection of greatest hits, consisting of songs that she says have resonated most strongly with audiences throughout the years.
Chapman was only 24 years old and had never recorded professionally when she stepped into the studio to make her debut album. Still, she says, these were songs she had been playing for years. She wrote “Talking About a Revolution” when she was 16 and had been playing it regularly in coffeehouses and street performances.
“By the time I got to the studio I knew what I wanted the record to sound like, even though I didn't know how to do it,” Chapman said during an interview with q host Shadrach Kabango. “I’d never really done much recording.”
At first, things did not go well.
“I was in the studio with a [different] producer — before David Kirshenbaum, who ended up producing the first record — and it didn't work,” Chapman says. “I was unhappy. Some of the record production people were happy with it, but it didn't feel like it was my record.”
Chapman insisted on recording the music differently. The studio backed down and brought in Kirshenbaum to produce. Looking back, she says she is surprised by her ability to stand up for herself.
“I had no experience making records. But I did know what I wanted my record to sound like. And I knew who I was, musically,” Chapman says. “So I was advocating for myself in that way — to just be able to do my thing.”
The studio was wise to trust Chapman: the album won three Grammy Awards and has sold 20 million copies worldwide.
Chapman was raised by a single mother in Cleveland, where, she says, she grew up “basically being babysat by the public library,” a place her mother allowed her to go on her own.
“I read all the time and listened to music all the time,” she says. “My parents had a record collection of all kinds of music — jazz and soul, R & B, gospel. My sister liked rock music and Barbra Streisand and all that sort of thing, so I just always heard lots of different types of music when I was growing up. I’ve always loved playing as well as listening to music — and I love writing songs.”
Chapman first began to consider making a career out of music during her last few years of college. By then, she was playing in folk clubs and as a street performer and had begun to develop a following in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then people started to approach her about recording.
During one street performance, someone from Warner Brothers Music dropped a business card in her guitar case, saying they could help get her a record deal. It was then, she recalls with a laugh, that she thought, “Maybe I won’t be a professional anthropologist.”
Throughout her career, Chapman has written about difficult subjects, like domestic violence, poverty and the failed American Dream.
“I know I’m sometimes called a ‘political’ songwriter, and I don't really have a problem with it, but it's not how I see myself,” Chapman says. “I write about what I am thinking about. I write about the things that I'm curious about. So that means that I write love songs, but I also write songs about social issues, about what it means to live.”
In addition to her songwriting, Chapman has been involved with certain social and political causes over the years, such as working to eradicate AIDS and to provide help to people with AIDS and HIV. She believes, she says, that “if you have the opportunity to help people who need help, then you do it, and you offer something that is useful. So I hope I've been able to do that.”
Chapman says she is sometimes asked if she thinks music can change the world. She says she doesn’t think it works that way.
“There’s no linear, direct line from a song to political change,” she explains. “But there's a role to be played, for sure…Music, obviously, has always been a part of every social and political activist movement. That’s simply because it's evocative of emotion, and that's powerful…It can uplift the spirit, enliven the mind and bring solace and, hopefully, joy as well.”