The reluctant revolutionary

Tracy Chapman was an Eighties staple, usually seen at political events. Although the spotlight has come off her, she's been quietly making music all the while. By FIONA STURGES
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But then, almost as quickly, Chapman seemed to slip off the radar. You might have thought she'd given up music altogether, but Chapman has continued to release albums at a rate of about one every three years; what's more, plenty of people have been buying them.

Now, 17 years into her career, Chapman is consigned to a regular ritual of explaining her strange career path. For this notoriously publicity-shy singer it's hardly the most agreeable of experiences, but she takes it all with good humour. Chapman turned 40 this year, and her appearance is largely unchanged since the 1980s. Though she politely shies away from questions relating to her personal life, she's warm, upbeat and given to frequent bouts of laughter.

Chapman's latest album, Where You Live, finds her ruminating on love ("Talk to You", "Love's Proof"), death ("Change") and the struggle for identity ("Going Back"). The singer has described the songs as "reflections on home, place, love and memory", andthe atmosphere is one of intimacy and contentment.

These days she takes a very hands-on approach to recording. "I've taken great steps and efforts to educate myself and have read lots of books about the recording process," she notes. "I feel that I'm now at the point where I can co-produce records for myself. I guess I can be a little obsessive but I like to be involved at every step."

As far as her career is concerned, she says, things couldn't have worked out better. Nowadays she gets to keep herself to herself while selling enough records to keep her making new ones. Crucially, she also has independence, a rare luxury nowadays.

For Chapman, the only catch in this otherwise blessed professional life is other people's expectations. I remark that there are probably a lot of people who would have wanted her at Live 8, but Chapman shakes her head. "Some people define me in that way - I guess they did from the beginning - but I don't see myself that way and I never have."

Music has been part of Chapman's life for as long as she can remember. She grew up with her mother and sister Aneta in Cleveland, Ohio; her father left the family when she was four. Her mother was always playing R&B and gospel music in the house. "I recently found out my father wrote poetry, so I think creativity is in the genes. I started playing guitar and writing songs when I was eight, and later studied clarinet, so this has been a long haul for me." Cleveland wasn't an easy place to grow up and the Chapmans "had some hard times". Race riots were commonplace.

Chapman got a place at a prep school in Connecticut through an education programme and then a scholarship into a Boston university. It was as a means to help support herself that she started busking in local coffee houses.

"People really seemed to like what I was doing," she recalls. "When I was street performing they would throw everything from jewellery and coins to business cards. One night I got a business card from someone at Warner Music." Suspecting it was a hoax, she phoned the number and found it really did belong to a Warner Bros employee but chose not to follow it up. A few years later, just before graduating, a classmate gave one of her tapes to his father who was the president of SBK music. His immediate reaction was to call up David Kershenbaum who went on to produce her first album.

"When I made the first album the record company didn't expect to sell that much," she says. "In the States they were thinking they'd sell about 200,000; I don't think they had any expectations of sales anywhere else in the world."

Certainly, there was little fanfare accompanying the record's release until Chapman landed a spot at Wembley Stadium at the tribute for Nelson Mandela. She stole the show, after which sales of her album skyrocketed. An Amnesty International tour followed, where she performed alongside Sting, Peter Gabriel and Youssou N'Dour. It's easy to see how this image of Chapman has sealed her in the minds of her fans as a protest singer.

Chapman was beginning to realise that life in the limelight wasn't for her. When she wasn't being pestered to give interviews, she was being criticised for the way she looked.

"People out-and-out told me I was a bad dresser," she recalls with an amused shrug. "When they did the photo-shoot for that first album someone suggested that I put on leggings. I said to them: 'But I don't wear leggings!' I've had people come up to me at awards shows saying, 'I can do something for you.' But, I think, after the success of the record, the record company decided they didn't really want to change anything. If I suddenly came out in hot pants we'd lose all credibility."

Chapman doesn't really need to put records out at all. Looking at her sales figures, it's clear she could have retired on the proceeds long ago. But for her, success is now less about units than giving her creativity a platform.

"I guess it's all about what drives you," she reflects. "My motivation to make music has been consistent over the years. It's something I would continue to do even if I had no success. I still love making music. Touring can be difficult because of the time spent away from home but I love the interaction with the musicians and the audience. Having that success early on gave me the freedom to continue to make records that are a reflection of my creative expression."

She has, she says, observed "more desperation" in the music industry in recent years. "If I were coming up now I don't think I would stand a chance. I may not be making blockbuster records any more but at least I'm doing it on my own terms."

'Where You Live' is out on Monday and is reviewed on page 19. Tracy Chapman tours the UK in November (