Without Further Ado, Songstress Tracy Chapman Returns

It has been two decades since singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman burst onto the scene with her self-titled debut album. The project sold six million copies, netted her three Grammies, and introduced her unforgettable hit song, "Fast Car." Chapman is back on the music scene with her eighth album,"Our Bright Future."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's hard to believe that it's been two decades since singer-songwriter Tracy Chapmen burst onto the scene with her self-titled debut album. The album went on to sell six million copies. It netted her three Grammy Awards and introduced her unforgettable hit song "Fast Car."

(Soundbite of song, "Fast Car")

Ms. TRACY CHAPMAN (Singer): (Singing) So I remember when we were driving, driving in your car, speed so fast I felt like I was drunk, city lights laid out before us, and your arms felt nice wrapped nice wrapped 'round my shoulder, and I had a feeling that I belonged. I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone.

MARTIN: And now Tracy Chapman is winding up a tour in support of her eighth studio album, titled "Our Bright Future." It's the first time that Chapman has been on the road in three years, and she's joining us now from NPR West in Culver City. Welcome, Tracy Chapman, it's great to talk to you.

Ms. CHAPMAN: Thank you, good to be here.

MARTIN: How is the tour going?

Ms. CHAPMAN: It's going well. And actually, I have been on tour for a little while. I was in Europe last year. This is just one of my first tours in the States in a while.

MARTIN: In the States, I know, exactly. Why are you being mean to us and depriving us? What's going - why - I noticed that. What did we do?

Ms. CHAPMAN: No, you know, it's just that I for some reason have been in this pattern of going to Europe right after the release of my records, starting my tours there and then often going back. I have a really loyal fan base there, and on occasion, we've just missed the United States.

MARTIN: One of the big songs from this tour was your single "Sing for You." Do you want to tell us a little bit about it before we play a little of it?

Ms. CHAPMAN: Sure. It's a song that I think I was inspired to write because I remembered all these times that I listened to music with other people and how the music has been a soundtrack in my life, and the times that people sang to me, or I sang to other people. And just thinking about being in the car and singing with my friends, or my sister and I, we would sing to the radio. You know, we'd listen to, like, top 40 radio and sing along to the songs. And of course, that's now what I do for a living, too, is to sing for people, but this song was really not about that, and just more about how it's a part of the fabric of our everyday lives.

MARTIN: All right, well, let's play a little bit. Here it is, "Sing For You."

(Soundbite of song, "Sing For You")

Ms. CHAPMAN: (Singing) Sweet and high at the break of dawn, simple tune you can hum along to. I remember there was a time when I used to sing for you, I used to sing for you.

MARTIN: You know, it's a sweet song, but it's sort of wistful. Why used to?

Ms. CHAPMAN: You know, other people have asked this question, and I only hear it now, and hearing it back, it does sound a little wistful.

MARTIN: But you really didn't hear that at the time?

Ms. CHAPMAN: I didn't, no, no. One of the musicians mentioned it in the studio. He was saying it's a sweet song, but it seemed a little sad, and I was like, oh, it's not sad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Another song I wanted to talk about is "Save Us All," which I think a lot of people have noticed and talked about. And I just want to play a little bit, and I want to hear what was on your mind when you wrote it. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Save Us All")

Ms. CHAPMAN: (Singing) I know Jesus loves me. In my heart, I know it's true. I know Mary's little baby came into the world just to save me. I don't know about you. My God's a mighty big God. My God can shake the world up: plagues and famines, frogs and locusts, walking on water, burning bushes, rolling the thunder, parting the waters, too. My God is good in the kitchen, make a good meal from bread and fishing, feed the hungry, pour the wine, everybody's welcome to have a good time, sit at His table, enjoy the food.

MARTIN: I'm dying to know what inspired this. I have this image in my mind of you watching one of the cable channels.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I promised myself I'd test that theory. So, what were you thinking about when you wrote this?

Ms. CHAPMAN: I don't know that there was a specific image that came to mind but I happen to have a number of friends who are very interested in religion and who are studying religion, so we talk about it all the time. And then, of course, in recent years in the United States it's really something that you can't avoid in the public spirit, in that there's discussion of religion and politics in really everything.

I was kind of thinking about my own history with religion. I was raised in a Baptist tradition but then I went to an Episcopalian high school and they were very accepting of people of all faiths. And I think I was very influenced by that and notions of intolerance that some people have about other religious traditions just, I think in some ways because of, you know, my own background, it doesn't make any sense to me. And I just started thinking about how we sometimes need to be saved from the people who think they need to save us.

(Soundbite of song, "Save Us All")

Ms. CHAPMAN: (Singing) But if pride goeth before the fall, I hope someone's god will save us all. Save us all and love the sinners, too. But if pride goeth before the fall, I hope someone's god will save us all. Save us all and love the sinners, too.

MARTIN: How do you match the - also the tune to the idea? Do you know what comes first? Does the tune come first? Does the idea come first? How does that all work?

Ms. CHAPMAN: It all comes together. It's, that's the way it's always worked for me with songwriting. I started writing songs when I was about eight years old and I just have an idea, whether it's a lyric idea or music and I'm playing the guitar, practicing, and it all just comes together at the same time.

MARTIN: What made you first pick up a guitar?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPMAN: Well, it's hard to say but I think that I might've been influenced by a country variety show called "Hee Haw."

MARTIN: Okay, that's really weird.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPMAN: Why, why is that?

MARTIN: Cleveland, I don't know, Cleveland. I don't really think of Cleveland as being a - but hey…

Ms. CHAPMAN: I know. Yeah, well Cleveland, I know, considered the rock capital of the world or something like that.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. CHAPMAN: But that wasn't really part of my reality and I think my mother really liked the show, so she basically had control of television and, but I loved the music and it featured Buck Owens and Minnie Pearl, I think was her name.

MARTIN: Yup.

Ms. CHAPMAN: And they just had these incredible very decorative guitars actually. And I'm not a fan of the decorative guitar but I think as an eight-year-old or seven-year-old I was really drawn to it in part for that reason and I just loved the sound of it and I asked for a guitar. I had a ukulele when I was much younger. I have no idea what happened to it but I think that was part of it, just being inspired and wanting to try to play an instrument that to me sounded beautiful.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Tracy Chapman. She's winding up her U.S. tour in support of her latest album, "Our Bright Future." And speaking, you know, of our bright future and your hopes for our bright future, you've always been known for standing up for causes and identifying yourself with organizations that do work that you believe in like, Amnesty International or AMFAR. How do you decide what you want to get involved in?

Ms. CHAPMAN: Well, as you might imagine, I'm approached by lots of organizations and lots of people who want me to support their various charitable efforts in some way. And I look at those requests and I basically try to do what I can. And I have certain interest of my own, generally an interest in human rights, so that's partly why I've supported Amnesty International for all these years. And as you probably know, it was because of the Amnesty International World Tour in 1988 that I was introduced to an international audience and…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHAPMAN: …I got to see some of the work that they were doing around the world when we kind of had that whirlwind tour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPMAN: You know it was six weeks and going to every continent, every major city in the world. It was really quite amazing. So it's humbling, really. I mean to see the scope of and the scale of some of these problems. In some cases you're thinking that after you've made a certain amount of effort there would be obvious improvement, you know, obvious positive change. That sometimes doesn't happen in the timeframe that you might expect or hope.

I'll say this. I mentioned that I received a scholarship to Episcopalian school and the model for the school was from each according to his or her ability and to each according to his or her need. And it's something that is still really important to me in thinking about how I prioritize what I do with my life.

MARTIN: How do you refresh yourself?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPMAN: Well, music is part of that, making music, being creative, being with people who are excited and inspired about life in general, learning new things, being in nature. I love living in California and being able to go to the beach or go to the woods. It's really about, you know, enjoying a really good meal with friends, fresh organic food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPMAN: My dog, you know, those things refresh me.

MARTIN: There's a really different song on this album. I just have to play it because it, I think it cracks everybody up who hears it, and it's called "I Did It All."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I'm going to play a little bit now. You have to tell me what…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …you have to tell me, what's up with that? Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "I Did It All")

Ms. CHAPMAN: (Singing) A Cosmopolitan, a Manhattan. Call me one. Pour a round for me and my friends. Cape Cod Sea Breeze, Long Island Ice Tea. I won't go there or drink it if you paid me. When they come to waylay me, when they close in for the capture. I did it all. I did it all for the love and the laughter. I did it all. I did it all. I did it all. Slept in late. Stayed up for days. Partied hard, lived my twenties in haze. Smoked second-hand in crowded bars with the A-list of B-list movie stars. When they come to arrest me, pat me down and undress me. I'll confess without Miranda. Strike a pose for the tabloid cameras. I did it all. I did it all. I did it all.

MARTIN: So what's up with that? Is that like Pink at 60 who meets a bad end? What's going on?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: No disrespect to our girl, Pink, but…

Ms. CHAPMAN: (Singing) I did it all…

That's so funny. People keep asking me if it's in some way based on a real person, but I think, you know, we can all insert someone if we want to. But I didn't have anyone in particular in mind.

MARTIN: Yeah. Right. Okay.

Ms. CHAPMAN: So…

MARTIN: Yeah. Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPMAN: But that song started with a really a kind of play on words. In that - maybe this doesn't make the best story, but some of my friends were trying to make mixed drinks that they had remembered from, you know, the past. And not that people don't have these now but a Manhattan, for instance. And it just it made me think about this person who considered herself really sophisticated because she was, you know, having these kinds of drinks. And then I was just imagining what this person looked like, what the rest of her life was like, and I came up with that song and that character. She's really not based on anyone I know.

MARTIN: Well you just want to show people that you're not all about like saving dolphins and stuff, that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPMAN: Well, I mean it's so funny to be in the position of having to prove that you have a sense of humor. I feel like it has been apparent in my songs from, you know, the first few records. But I think people so often focus on the political songs, the songs that have some social commentary, and then, you know, my association with Amnesty International and that sort of thing. And then they think that I am all serious and no fun. But yeah, I didn't feel like I had to prove it, but I'm hoping that this song proves it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, as I mentioned, and I almost can't believe it myself, you've been in the industry for two decades. I don't know if you started out you thought that you'd still be doing this. You won four Grammys, sold millions of albums. What's next? What else do you want to do?

Ms. CHAPMAN: That's a good question. Well, you know, it's interesting that this 20-year-anniversary marks the end of the contract that I signed when I was in my 20s. So I am now free to decide what I want to do.

MARTIN: I didn't know contracts went so long.

Ms. CHAPMAN: They don't normally but, yeah, this one did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPMAN: And so I'm going to take some time and figure out my options. You know, the record business has changed quite a bit in that time and I think I have a lot more options than I did even 10 years ago.

MARTIN: If you could give any advice to say, a you of 20 years ago, somebody who might be listening to you, do you have any? What might it be?

Ms. CHAPMAN: Well, I guess I would remind myself…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHAPMAN: …that it really is okay to be yourself. And I think for the most part I was aware of that as the years went by. But, you know, there certainly were times when I felt pressure from other people to try to be someone that I wasn't or do something that didn't really feel quite right to me. But I guess I would remind myself that it's okay and that things will be all right, and that that is the way that they turn out okay.

If you are living a life that feels right to you, if you're willing to take creative chances or a creative path that feels like it's mostly in keeping with your sensibilities, you know, aesthetic and artistic, then that's what matters. And if in the process of doing that you, you know, don't succeed, you know, by someone else's standards then I don't think you've lost at all because you still have something that you believe in, something that matters to you.

MARTIN: What song should we go out on?

Ms. CHAPMAN: Well, we could go out on "Something to See."

(Soundbite of guitar strumming)

MARTIN: Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman. She's winding up her tour in support of her latest album, "Our Bright Future." She was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Tracy Chapman, thank you so much.

Ms. CHAPMAN: Thank you. It was great to talk to you too.

(Soundbite of song, "Something to See")

Ms. CHAPMAN: (Singing) No war, no greed. That would be something to see. I hope I live that long. No blood in the streets, just a distant memory, the history books recount. Now we're all free. Now we're all free.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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