- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2000

Slow and steady, she reels you in.

There's an alchemy to Tracy Chapman's music, and it's rooted in her seductive simplicity: basic chords resonating off her Martin Dreadnought guitar; a rich vibrato tenor delivering clear, straightforward, confessional lyrics.

It's the stuff of life a jilted lover, a battered woman, a woebegone child, a stranded sailor.

Miss Chapman, 36, is the voice of dreamers and outcasts: The ones she sings about in "Talkin' 'bout a Revolution." The ones ready to "rise up and take what's theirs."

"I'm inspired by things I read, I'm inspired by people I meet," says Miss Chapman during a phone interview from Austin, Texas. "I'm inspired by thinking about the world and the potential and the sometimes lack of potential there sometimes seems to be."

Miss Chapman gained almost instant international recognition and critical acclaim when she performed on the televised "Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday Tribute" concert at London's Wembley Stadium in June 1988. She has continued to draw a strong following.

"We have to think about the political and social systems that we've created for our lives and consider whether or not they're really serving the needs of people," Miss Chapman says.

Those views were poetically phrased in the songs "Paper and Ink" and "All That You Have Is Your Soul" during her recent performances.

Howard Kramer, curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, says people will recognize any art that's true to itself.

"What she does is honest and forthright, and people can see that. She doesn't let down her audience," Mr. Kramer says.

Born on March 30, 1964, in Cleveland, Miss Chapman started playing guitar when she was 8.

"I didn't have any records of my own," she says. "My parents mainly listened to R&B;, gospel and soul music. When I listened to music, I listened to the radio."

Initially, Miss Chapman taught herself the fundamentals.

"I was playing things like 'Greensleeves' the kinds of stuff they put in basic music books. I'd already been playing other instruments. My first instrument was a ukulele. Then my mother bought an organ that my sister and I would play on."

Miss Chapman studied classical clarinet for about six years, beginning in elementary school.

In 1985, she linked up with an African drum ensemble at Tufts University, where she was studying anthropology and African studies. A year later, she began performing original material at Boston folk clubs. After recording some demos at the Tufts campus radio station, she signed with Elektra.

Her debut album "Tracy Chapman," recorded in 1987, was a critical and commercial success in the United States and Britain, eventually selling more than 4 million copies. By the end of 1988, three hit singles had been spun off: "Fast Car," "Talkin' 'bout a Revolution" and "Baby Can I Hold You."

Throughout 1989, Miss Chapman was in the musical limelight: In January, she won the Favorite New Artist Pop/Rock category at the 16th annual American Music Awards. In February, she picked up Grammys for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Best Contemporary Folk Recording and Best New Artist. That same month, she was voted Best International Artist-Female and Best International Newcomer at the BRIT Awards in London. By the end of November, her second album "Crossroads" was certified platinum.

After her third album "Matters of the Heart" was released in 1992, Miss Chapman seemed to disappear from the music scene.

"I understand why people have that perception, because if you're not touring or don't have a record out, they think you're not doing anything. But the last 10 years have been very busy [and] full time for me," she says.

Besides recording and touring, she has assumed additional albeit less artistic responsibilities. "Being a touring musician and a recording artist is like having your own small business. And basically, if you take care of all your business, it's not only trying to be a good musician and improve on your skills and write good songs, [it's] also trying to take care of the business part of things. And that's a pretty all-consuming job."

Miss Chapman released the album "New Beginning" in December 1995. It was certified multiplatinum, and she scored a hit with the single "Give Me One Reason."

"That's an extraordinary feat," Mr. Kramer says. "It's a blues song, and there aren't too many blues songs in the Top 10 these days."

Miss Chapman's commitment to her craft remains as strong as it was when she first picked up a guitar. She released her fifth album "Telling Stories" last February.

"Music will always be part of my life. I don't know that I'll always be in the music business, but I'll certainly always be a musician as long as I can play and sing. It's a passion for me; it's as essential to my life as waking up every day."

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