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Tracy Chapman turns 60: an unexpected return, the last 15 years of silence and her relationship with a well-known writer

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Tracy Chapman turns 60: an unexpected return, the last 15 years of silence and her relationship with a well-known writer 3

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With her surprise and successful return on the night of the Grammy Awards, the folk singer returned to the limelight. Her early success with her debut album. The discomfort of fame. Her secretive personal life. And the reasons why she moved away from the center of the scene

It had been a long time since he had appeared, since he had not sung in public. She did what she was used to. The trick was the same as always. A great song, invincible , the guitar, the timid gesture, the stillness, the contained smile and the honest voice.

Music award ceremonies, especially the Grammys, tend to become a jumble of colossal stars making the hits of the moment and some improbable crossovers. It is difficult to stand out among so many bombastic performances, among so many who try to attract attention (we must not forget the aggravating factor: they are specialists in attracting attention).

In February of this year, the big winner of the Grammys was Tracy Chapman . She although she was not nominated in any category. The surprise factor of her appearance had a lot to do with it. Since she released her last album in 2008 and the tour that ended the following year, her public appearances have been very few and discreet. She did a charity gala, a cover of Stand By Me at Letterman’s farewell and a song in the 2020 presidential campaign. And each time she quickly returned to seclusion, she moved away from it with the speed of the spotlight. No one expected her presence that night.

Impeccable, with beautiful silver dreadlocks from her gray hair, standing next to country star Luke Combs, she sang Fast Car, her big hit. In mid-2023, Combs released a cover of the song. The version is very respectful of the original, almost a note-for-note recreation. Despite Spotify and the radio stations that cultivate nostalgia, the faithful cover – traced – was a success. It ranked first on the country songs chart and reached number two on the Hot 100. Luke Combs made new generations pay attention to the song; a familiar voice and the “country” label updated Fast Car without changing the arrangement or cadence.

The performance at the Grammys went viral and in the following days newspaper articles and posts on social networks multiplied (some feed each other) that while they marveled at his voice and the validity of that global anthem, they wondered where Tracy had been all this time, what had become of her in the last 15 years.

Tracy Chapman was born on March 30, 1964, 60 years ago. At her house in Cleveland everyone was singing. Her mother, her sister. Music was always present. She also books, especially poetry ones. One of her favorite outings was going to the public library to check out books. She learned to play the ukulele and guitar. Very soon she composed her first songs.

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Tracy earned a university scholarship and studied anthropology , focusing on African cultures. While attending Tufts University in Massachusetts, she sang at night for a few dozen people in bars around the city. One day in the audience was Brian Koppelman, son of Chuck Koppelman, an important music publisher. As soon as the presentation was over, Brian offered to introduce Tracy to her father who could connect her with Elektra. In a few days she was offered a contract to record her first album.

Finding a record label didn’t mean any effort. It was different when the directors looked for a producer to carry out the recording. In a world dominated by effects hits, machines, robotic percussion and overdubs, these naked songs were disconcerting. Nobody knew quite what to do with them. They maintained that folk had gone out of fashion more than a decade ago, that no one would be interested in it. The one who took up the challenge was David Kesherbaum. The producer, after listening to the poorly recorded cassette that contained Tracy’s songs, recognized it as genuine and original material.

Already in the first recording session, Kesherbaum’s intuition had a (huge) reward. When he asked Tracy if she had any other songs besides the ones he had heard on the cassette, Chapman nodded and began playing Fast Car on his guitar.

It was love at first sight. The producer knew at that very moment that he had something big on his hands.

Tracy Chapman turns 60: an unexpected return, the last 15 years of silence and her relationship with a well-known writer 4

In just a few months, Tracy Chapman became very popular. She landed on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in record time.

For years, despite the insistence of her friends, Tracy was convinced that music was not the way. She wanted to develop an academic life. She couldn’t imagine herself on stage. With her reserved personality it seemed impossible for her to face a large audience. “Being in the public eye has always been uncomfortable for me, I’m a little shy. I don’t seem like the ideal person for this type of job,” she said.

At the time of her appearance, journalists interviewed her frequently and her face appeared on the covers of magazines (she was the cover of Rolling Stone) and on the posters of youth publications. She showed her embarrassment with what was happening. “I never thought she would be able to record an album professionally . Who would be interested in my songs? It has a very different sound from what is currently recorded,” she said in 1988, the year of the explosion.

And what she believed to be a weakness, an insurmountable obstacle, was the key to her triumph. She, her music, didn’t look like anything that was playing on the radio, anything that reigned on the charts. Personal songs, without artifice and with heart. Good lyrics, melodies, a great voice. And of course: something to say.

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In those years, Hair Metal, material girls, prefabricated, hyper-produced pop reigned, with producers who spread musical fireworks over the songs, composed to allow the filming of a video that would be shown on MTV.

The bets seemed to be against Tracy Chapman and her self-titled debut album released with a modest ambition, with the aim of establishing itself in the university circuit and in the modest folk audience, those who longed for singer-songwriters. But Hurricane Fast Car produced an explosion.

As soon as the album appeared in the first quarter of 1988, sales were solid and radio stations constantly played its first cut. But he was very far from becoming a phenomenon or fighting the greats of pop. Until June 11, 1988, a great tribute concert was held at Wembley for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. Great figures would participate and the main numbers would be televised around the world. Sting, Peter Gabriel, Whitney Houston, Simple MInds, Dire Straits and Stevie Wonder were some of those on the bill. In these large agglomerations of egos, the order of appearance on stage is determined by seniority and success. Tracy, a recent newcomer, had to leave at the beginning of the day, when the public was still entering and when there were several hours left before the television broadcast began. After singing she stayed backstage looking with amazed eyes at several of the musicians she admired. Well into the day there was a problem. Stevie Wonder didn’t go out to play (later he did: there are the videos to prove it). There are several versions: some speak of a technical problem; others, from cartel fights. The truth is that the gap was getting longer and the crowd that was already filling the stadium was growing impatient. One of the organizers, to save time, started looking for someone to come on stage to distract attention. Tracy standing to the side with her guitar hanging from her was the natural candidate. She agreed to lend a hand and reappeared. There she sang her hits and especially Fast Car. She was seen by more than 600 million people around the world. The next day, sales of her debut album skyrocketed.

With that album, which would later win 4 Grammys, he became the most important folk figure of the eighties. Something more was missing for his definitive consecration: at the end of 1988, the Amnesty tour was organized that would pass through 14 cities around the world. She was part of the list of artists along with Springsteen, Sting, Gabriel and Youssou N’Dour (who was the ethnic concession, the representative of the nascent World Music label). On that tour she used to duet with Peter Gabriel in Don’t Give Up, replacing Kate Bush in addition to being a front row member of the final ensemble to cover Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up.

Tracy Chapman, with millions of albums sold worldwide, magazine covers, prestige and the respect of her colleagues, became, at 24 years old and with just one album, a superstar. Takin’ Bout a Revolution, Baby Can I Hold You, the a cappella version of Behind The Wall were some of the songs that were successful.

Tracy Chapman turns 60: an unexpected return, the last 15 years of silence and her relationship with a well-known writer 5

There were no demagogic gestures or high-sounding statements. She exercised discretion and intended to speak through his songs.

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She then released another 7 albums (there is also a very good compilation from 2015 and an extraordinary live recording of her 1988 performance at the Montreux Festival: the deep voice, with textures, the conviction; the record of an artist in a state of grace ). Her only subsequent undisputed hit was Give One Reason from the mid-nineties. With mixed success but good reviews, her other works failed to meet the excessive expectations generated by her debut. Until 2008 she was called to silence.

He is satisfied with the way his life has developed. He doesn’t complain: “Like everyone, of course, I would change it from time to time. But having achieved that early success – even though it was overwhelming and difficult to navigate at the time – allowed me artistic freedom and the possibility of continuing to make the music I felt. I’m very grateful”.

Tracy Chapman sacrificed stardom and positioning before the public for the benefit of her privacy. She doesn’t seem to have made a bad deal. She protected her private life, she never appeared in fashionable places, she did not give names of her partners. The only thing that was known about her couple was told – perhaps without realizing it – by Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple. In an interview she gave more than a decade ago she said that they had been a couple and that it had been a beautiful, deep and happy relationship. It is known that the writer wrote profusely about her relationship in her personal diaries, which she plans to release in a few years.

Beyond the private life of its author, Fast Car has become, in recent decades, a kind of anthem for the LGTB+ community. The lyrics that talk about leaving the bad behind, seeking new horizons and still crashing into obstacles, generated identification in those who suffer daily discrimination; They saw their struggle reflected in the stanzas that are far from being assertive, explicit or becoming a pamphlet.

For more than two decades, Tracy Chapman has lived in San Francisco. Neighbors see her on the streets, shopping, having a coffee. She participates in community events and has served as a judge and mentor in some academic activities.

After his return to public attention with the new life of Fast Car and the presence at the Grammys, there were many who speculated, dreamed and even pressured for a new tour.

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Tracy, as she had for a long time, did not respond. She remained silent and let her songs speak for her.

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