Tracy Chapman: On snakes, faith and busking for food

Jonathan Thompson
Sunday 23 February 2003 01:00 GMT

Tracy Chapman, 38, was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1988, aged 22, she released her eponymous debut album, which sold more than 10 million copies. In 2002, after a further four best-selling albums, and with an equal number of Grammy Awards under her belt, Chapman released her sixth offering: Let It Rain. The singer, who is about to begin a tour of the UK, lives in San Francisco, California.

Apparently you don't like doing interviews very much...

It's true that I've turned down a lot of interviews in the past, but it's just because I'd rather be doing something than talking about having done something.

What is 'Let it Rain' all about?

The album is named after one of the tracks. It's a song about how life brings us everything – sometimes what we want, and sometimes what we don't. There's so much joy and so much pain, but somehow we just find a way to handle it. I guess the song's about resilience – people finding strength in places where they might not have thought they had it. A lot of that strength comes from having a sense of faith or belief – a hope that even if things don't get better, you can still bear them.

The question of faith is a recurring theme in your songs. Is that something that is very important to you?

It's something I'm very curious about. There are some people who have faith and don't ever question where it's come from. They believe in any number of things – maybe in God, in a notion of good and evil, or that their life path is already chosen. I don't know. It's one of those things I don't feel like I have a handle on.

So you don't believe in fate?

No, I don't. I like to have proof of things, which is probably why I have a little bit of trouble with faith. I just think it's a pessimistic view if you believe that we're not controlling any aspect of our lives. It bothers me because, for some people, the notion of fate is an excuse to do nothing and take no responsibility for their lives. For others it's an excuse to do exactly the opposite: to do what they want without accepting any responsibility for their actions.

What scares you?

Snakes. I actually held a snake just the other day. One of my friends' little boys brought a snake home from school – I think the children in his class get to take the snake home at different times – and he wanted me to hold it. My immediate reaction was to fly out of the room, but because he was there, I couldn't show that I was afraid. The kids were saying "Let him kiss you", but I drew the line there.

What makes a good song?

You can appreciate a song on many levels – its lyrics, its melody, the musicianship, the vocals, or the production. There are times when I'll listen to something and like it for one or two of those things, but not in its entirety – so does that make it a bad song? I guess I like music that ... makes you feel something. And for the most part, I like songs that make sense.

You used to be a busker when you were a student – what was that like?

It was just me and my guitar and no amplification.

Did you have an old hat you used to put down for change?

No, I just used to open my guitar case. I started playing on the street during my sophomore year. It was Thanksgiving and I was just hanging out with friends: other people who hadn't gone home for the holiday. Nobody had any money and we really wanted to go and get some Chinese food. We walked past some people who were playing on the street, and somebody suggested that I could probably make some money doing the same thing. From that point on, I started playing at weekends when the stores closed, and made pretty good money. People would give me jewellery, cheques, and often five-dollar bills, which was a big deal then. That first time I made about $60 – plenty to go out and buy some Chinese food.

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What are you passionate about?

Lots of things. Music, of course, and although it's a cop-out answer, life in general. Maybe it's just because I've been writing a lot about death recently, but I just feel really lucky to be alive.

At one of your gigs you apparently asked people to put their cigarettes out. What have you got against smokers?

I never actually said that, but we do often post signs around the venues asking people not to smoke – especially in the front two rows. I wouldn't say that I hated smoking, but it's irritating to me physically. It's really hard on the voice if you're trying to play some place where people smoke. I live in California, and you can't smoke anywhere – it's great. You can't even have a cigarette in most bars now. I love it.

You've been performing for nearly 20 years now. Do you feel you've still got a lot of songs left to write?

I don't know. The way that the process works, I never know when I'll write another song. I'm not always deciding what I'll write about, or composing to a schedule, but I assume that there are more songs to come. Whatever happens I'll still sing and play guitar – if only for myself.

Tracy Chapman begins her latest UK tour on 7 March. For more information visit For ticket information, call 020-7344 4444

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