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Chapman giggles; reporter hatches heckling plan

Tracy Chapman has a reputation for being a "difficult'' interview. Don't believe it.

By GINA VIVINETTO

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2000


That's it. I'm not covering for Tracy Chapman any more.

The girl is funny. She laughs a lot. At least during our 35-minute phone conversation, the notoriously private Chapman, who is supposed to be really difficult to interview, joked, giggled and responded to incessant teasing (uh, sorry) with wit and self-deprecation.

Heck, Chapman, 36, even talked about her dogs. And the fact that her touring schedule means she can't get a plant to grow at home -- except for her prized cactus. Though, now that she thinks about it, she can't remember if that little guy is alive either.

So, Tracy Chapman, truth be told, is faking it with that dour, woe-is-the-world folk singer persona. Yeah, yeah, she means those socially conscious lyrics that we first heard on her stunning self-titled 1988 debut, and more recently on the critically acclaimed Telling Stories, but she has a playful side. And though she's known to be profoundly shy, she's getting over it.

Chapman tells me how she rid herself of stage anxiety by doing street performances during college at Tufts in Boston, where she earned a degree in anthropology.

"That was hard," she says, "because you don't have an audience that's stationary. People will just walk by, you know?" She laughs. "It's great, of course, if you end up drawing a crowd."

She pauses. "And if they throw money in your case."

Money? I thought it was about art, Tracy, I tease her.

"Hey, I was in school. I needed money," she says.

To prey on Chapman's fear of being portrayed inaccurately in the media, I toss out fake headlines for my story: Tracy Chapman cares little for art, fans, or Chapman admits: Only in it for the money.

Chapman just laughs and adds more of her own.

I ask her a series of weird questions. She's got answers for every one of them. (So much for a "difficult" interview.)

If Chapman could have lunch with anyone in history, who would it be? James Baldwin, she says, her favorite writer. (An avid reader, Chapman says she also likes Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Kurt Vonnegut.)

Does she read her horoscope? No. What's her sign? Aries.

I groan and tell her I just broke up with an Aries. I proceed to badmouth the sign, listing every negative attribute I've ever read about Aries the Ram.

"You see? You see why I don't read my horoscope?" she says, laughing.

Favorite foods: Chapman says she is "sort of" a vegetarian (she eats fish) after a spell of veganism that made eating on the road a drag. "I don't know what my favorite food is," she says. "I used to love ice cream but I can't eat it anymore."

How does she kill time on the tour bus?

"You try to sleep as much as you can," Chapman says. She brings way too much stuff with her: books, CDs, recording equipment,and recently board games such as Scrabble and Yahtzee.

Thoughts on Napster: "The technology is amazing. I have a Real Player, and I've taken my own records and turned them into MP3 files. It's easier to carry them around. If I didn't, I'd have, like, 50 CDs on me all the time."

But Chapman doesn't like to see artists ripped off. "It costs a lot of money to make a record. And you put your heart and soul into it. We've got to figure out a way to use the technology, but to have the artists make their money too." She laughs. "There I go talking about money again. See?"

So, is she sick of singing Fast Car?

"No, not at all. I actually still like to sing that song."

Yeah, but how many times have you sung it?

"Well, I'll sing it on this tour about 80 times, not including rehearsals and sound checks." She mumbles. Recollects. "That record came out, what, 12 years ago?" More calculations. "Five hundred times? Something like that."

Any kids, anywhere?

"No," she answers, surprised. I toss out another fake headline: Chapman acknowledges three illegitimate children to Times.

"No. No!" she begs.

Would she be a good mom?

"I think so," she says. "I'm a good mom to my dogs (Tasha, Ginger and, most recently, Lucky). I try to make sure their self-esteem is high and they don't do drugs." She laughs.

"I supervise their Internet activity. But, they do spend a lot of time on the Internet. And there have been cartloads of dog treats coming in the mail to us, so I'm worried."

Has she ever had her heart broken?

"No."

That's a lie!

"Well, of course, it's a lie." (Geez, Chapman's really gotten the swing of this teasing thing.)

Advice to the heartbroken?

"A friend of mine is going through a really bad breakup, so I've been thinking about this," she says. "From my own experience, I know when you're in the midst of it, it seems like the pain will never go away. But it does eventually. And there's love out there."

The best gift she's ever received?

"This sounds so corny and obvious -- my first guitar. When I was a kid."

Who gave it to her? Chapman pauses. "Either my mother or my sister."

She doesn't remember?

Chapman's laughing again. "It was one of them. I don't know. They both gave me my first guitars."

Before hanging up, I tell her I'm looking forward to the concert. I say I'll be the one heckling her, screaming, "Play Fast Car, lady!"

No, Chapman, says. She has a better idea: It would be even more funny if I threw a dollar bill on stage.

Preview

Tracy Chapman, Saturday at 8 p.m., Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $29.75-$45.

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