She Humbly Entertains Millions

August 09, 2009|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,sam.sessa@baltsun.com

The disconnect between the artist and her resume is stunning.

Tracy Chapman sold tens of millions of albums, made one of the most critically acclaimed records of the '80s and was a precursor to the wave of female singer/songwriters that came in the '90s. She is one of the more influential artists of the past couple of decades. She is also one of the most humble and unassuming.

Chapman's always been that way - ever since her self-titled debut album came out in 1988. At the time, music was saturated with hair metal bands and pop superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Along came Chapman, with her acoustic guitar and dreams of running away in a fast car. Almost immediately, audiences were drawn to the soft-spoken songstress.

"She's a singer/songwriter in the tradition of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell," said Boden Sandstrum, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "She's very inspirational to women in particular, because in the '80s, it was still very hard for women to break out in the industry and become known."

Now, more than 20 years later, Chapman continues recording albums and touring in support of them. Her voice still has the haunting, melancholic quality that originally helped make her famous. In November, she released "Our Bright Future," her eighth studio album. Tonight, she'll perform at Rams Head Live.

The songs on "Our Bright Future," like most of Chapman's music, were written in Chapman's California home. When she composes, she sits down with a tape recorder and a notepad, starts playing whatever comes to mind and sees where it goes from there. She likes to write music early in the morning or late at night, when there aren't many distractions.

"I think having quiet time is a pretty important part of the process for me," she said. "Being in a private space where I don't feel self-conscious and don't have to worry about disturbing anyone else."

Disturbing anyone else? That's typical of the modest, and at times, almost bashful, Chapman. She keeps mum on her personal life, and is short and to the point about her music.

When making "Our Bright Future," Chapman tapped musicians she'd worked with in years past. It helped keep the project fresh for her, she said.

"Part of knowing what you want and making things happen for me is seeking out people I admire and respect and really like and working with them," Chapman said. "It's part of what's made it exciting for me to continue to do this all these years - to nurture some of these connections I've made with really great people."

One of those people is Larry Klein, who produced "Our Bright Future." Klein played on Chapman's first couple of albums.

"We hadn't seen each other for a while, but he's one of those people that you see again, and it's like you pick up where you left off," Chapman said. "He just has a very deep musicality. He approaches the music as a bass player, but he also pays close attention to the lyrics. As a person, he has a curiosity about everything."

Besides music, Chapman has long had an interest in science and the environment. When she was in college at Tufts University, she started as a biology major and eventually got a bachelor's degree in anthropology. For the past several years, she has been interested in studying organic farming and sustainable agriculture. There is one particular six-month apprenticeship she's interested in, but hasn't found the time to take it.

"It's still something I'd like to do," she said. "There's never been a moment in the last many years where I've had six months to spare from recording or touring or rehearsing or writing songs. It's still something that I'm interested in pursuing."

Chapman toured abroad from June through late July, and returned for a few weeks of shows in the U.S. in early August. There was talk of extending the tour to Australia and South Africa in the coming months, but Chapman thinks she might take some time off instead.

"I anticipate taking a break," she said. "That's my plan."

Maybe she'll finally have time to take that class.

If you go

Tracy Chapman performs Sunday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Doors open at 7 p.m. $40. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.

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