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Tracy Chapman: Driving The Fast Car To Success
Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Tracy Chapman: Driving The Fast Car To Success

Following the unanticipated success of her debut album, Tracy Chapman has led an inspiring career for over 30 years.  

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Born on 30 March 1964, Tracy Chapman began making waves in the late 80s with her authentic brand of confessional folk-pop. Now a multi-platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning artist, her career spans over three decades and consists of eight exquisite full-length studio albums, making her one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of her generation.

Listen to the best of Tracy Chapman here.

Talkin’ ’bout a revolution: a fledgling star

Brian Koppelman, a fellow-student at Tufts University, Boston, was one of the first people to see the potential bursting from Tracy Chapman and her music. Koppelman’s father, Charles – now a renowned music exec – owned a successful music publishing company, and Brian offered to share Chapman’s work with him. Tracy never saw the gesture as anything serious; Charles Koppelman, however, was keen to promote her remarkable talent. After getting his hands on a demo tape of Talkin’ ’Bout A Revolution, he quickly began taking it to radio stations. Tracy was soon picked up by Elektra Records, and signed a deal with the label in 1987.

At this time, the soft-spoken singer had little to show for herself and was seemingly unaware of her own extraordinary capabilities. Soon, however, she would release her eponymous debut album, changing her life forever.

Fast car to success: debut album and fame

Many producers misunderstood – or frankly overlooked – Chapman’s music and turned down the opportunity of working on the record. David Kershenbaum, however, jumped on the project, and within eight weeks, Tracy Chapman was complete. Recorded at Powertrax studio in Hollywood, the result was a phenomenal record that still stands among the best albums of the 80s.

With no predetermined expectations, the success that followed its release, in April 1988, left everyone awestruck; Chapman became a worldwide star, and the album sold a million copies by the end of April alone. Only two months later, sales had tripled. Within a year, the record had shifted ten million copies, en route to earning Chapman three Grammys (out of six nominations): Best Contemporary Folk Album; and Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, for the album’s lead single, Fast Car. Peaking at No.6 in the US, it remains Chapman’s most adored song.

During that year, Chapman set off on tour with 10,000 Maniacs and had the opportunity to perform at an internationally televised tribute concert for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, held at London’s Wembley Stadium just months after Tracy Chapman’s release. That same year, she also performed in the UK capitol as part of an international tour organised by Amnesty International, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights.

Caught at a crossroads: follow-ups and political activism

Following the monumental success of her debut album was always going to be a challenge. In October 1989, 18 months after the release of Tracy Chapman, the singer released Crossroads, a darker work that – while it went platinum and received a Grammy nomination – saw Chapman follow a more politically minded route that continued into its 1992 follow-up, Matters Of The Heart.

The mainstream media struggled with her seemingly new activist stance, but Chapman had always been a strong advocate for human rights, and was in no mind to keep quiet about her beliefs. Feeling her quick rise to commercial fame gave her a platform to be her most authentic self, she later told The Irish Times, “… having that success – even though it was overwhelming at that time, and it would be at any time, I guess – gave me artistic freedom and the chance to keep making music that felt right for me. I’m very grateful for that; there’s no reason why I wouldn’t be.”

Internationally recognised for her efforts, Chapman has received two honorary doctorates, the first in 1997, from Saint Xavier University, in Chicago, and the second, a Fine Arts doctorate, from Tufts University in 2004. She also works with many charities and organisations who ask for her support.

“I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to do my work and be involved in certain organisations, certain endeavours, and offered some assistance in some way,” Chapman told The Guardian in 2019. “Whether that is about raising money or helping to raise awareness, just being another body to show some force and conviction for a particular idea. Finding out where the need is – and if someone thinks you’re going to be helpful, then helping.”

Telling stories: later albums, theatre work and hiatus

Three years after the release of Matters Of The Heart, Chapman made a comeback with 1995’s New Beginning. Placing her firmly back in the game, the single Give Me One Reason charted at No.3 in the US, eventually earning its creator yet another Grammy – for Best Rock Song – in 1997.

Keeping pace in the new millennium, Chapman followed 2000’s Telling Stories with Let It Rain (2002) and Where You Live (2005), remaining true to her morals and her political conscience throughout. In high demand across the US, UK and Europe, she also branched out into theatre work, scoring the music for American Conservatory Theater’s 2008 production of Athol Fugar’s apartheid-themed play, Blood Knot. Later that year, she went on to release Our Bright Future, which received yet another Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. But despite such continued recognition, Chapman still doesn’t feel she is made for stardom.

“Being in the public eye and under the glare of the spotlight was, and it still is, to some extent, uncomfortable for me,” she told The Irish Times in 2015. “But there are some ways by which everything that has happened in my life has prepared me for this career. But I am a bit shy. I love books, I love reading, and I basically grew up in a public library. I’ve always loved poetry, music was always in the house, and there was such a range of different music around. My mother sang, my sister could sing, music was so much in the fabric of my life and upbringing. At the same time, I have this personality that is a bit on the reserved side and which had never really sought out the limelight. That has made me perhaps not the ideal person for this job.”

“You have to figure out a way not to overwork it”

Since Our Bright Future, Chapman has been relatively quiet. Though she has released no new music in that time, she made a surprise live appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in April 2015, performing a graceful rendition of Ben E King’s Stand By Me. It went viral and subsequently closed the greatest hits collection she released that November. Five years later, Chapman made another rare return, this time guesting on Late Night With Seth Meyers, performing Talkin’ ’Bout A Revolution from her home.

Since releasing her breakout debut album, Chapman’s impeccable work has assured her place among the finest singer-songwriters of all time, while paving the way for many who have followed. “And in the process of completing something, you have to figure out a way not to overwork it,” she has said of her craft. “If that happens, it can lose whatever made it seem workable, or even unique, in the first place. It’s a balance, really.”

However long it takes her to find that balance, we will happily wait.

Find out where Tracy Chapman’s debut ranks among our best 80s albums.

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