This is how it begins. She's a sophomore at Tufts University in Massachusetts. It's Thanksgiving. It is cold and it is snowing and she is stranded in the Boston area for the holidays with no money and nothing to do. A friend suggests that she play in the street for change. "Ahhh, I don't know," Tracy Chapman says. But soon she is standing in Harvard Square, in the falling snow, her guitar in her hand, her guitar case at her feet. She sings old blues songs and songs she learned in her enthnomusicology classes and some original compositions. "Poor people gonna rise up/And get their share," she sings. "Poor people gonna rise up/ And take what's theirs."
She makes $30, give or take a nickel. She buys herself and her friend a Thanksgiving-break meal: Chinese food.
That's one beginning.
Another: she is already seated in the Elektra Records conference room when the reporter arrives. Chapman doesn't do many interviews, but she is here to discuss Telling Stories, released last week, a lyrical, restrained pop-folk CD that contains some of her finest songwriting. She is dressed in blue jeans, black boots and a white T shirt that reads LOVE. She answers questions readily, but, at first, there's a dutiful quality to her replies; she measures her speech like stanzas. On CDs her singing voice is a heavy alto, laden with sadness; in person her speaking voice is high, nasal, but still tinged with melancholy.
Chapman, 35, says she's "mellowed" since her Talkin' Bout a Revolution days: "You can do more than be angry; you can do something about what's making you angry." She's following the presidential race but is disgusted by the process ("It's not about our lives; it's about how much money the candidates spend"). The issue of genetically altered food arouses more passion in her than one might expect ("We're polluting our food sources!").
And Chapman, who has a reputation for being excruciatingly shy, is opening up, talking more candidly than she has in the past about her life and growing up poor in Cleveland, Ohio. Her mother divorced when Chapman was young and raised her and her elder sister Aneta alone. "Sometimes there was no electricity, or the gas would be shut off," the singer recalls. "I remember standing with my mother in the line to get food stamps." She eventually won a scholarship to the Wooster School, a private school in Connecticut.
By this time, she had already grown to love music. "One of the things that made me want to learn how to play guitar was watching Buck Owens and Roy Clark and Minnie Pearl on Hee Haw when I was 8 years old," she says, smiling. "The guitars they played were beautiful." At Wooster a chaplain, taking note of her beat-up guitar, took up a collection among the faculty and raised money for a new one.
Stardom hit her right after college. Her self-titled debut sold 10 million copies. At the time she had only recently overcome her fear of playing in front of coffeehouse-size crowds. Touring became a grind as the machinery of stardom was bolted in place around her. "I had success with the first record, and I had to keep making records. I felt like my life was on this cycle that was beyond my control," she says. "Making records and touring, making records and touring, and in that process not being at home and not being settled. They weren't particularly happy times."
So she started again.