"This album was made for the right reasons," says David Kershenbaum, who produced Tracy Chapman's debut album.
"There was a set of ideas that we wanted to communicate, and we felt if we were truthful and loyal to those ideas, then people would pick up on the emotion and the lyrical content that was there." The stark realism of Chapman's songwriting, combined with her warm, richly textured vocals, brought a refreshing integrity to the airwaves.
Chapman was discovered in 1987 by fellow Tufts University student Brian Koppelman. "I was helping organize a boycott protest against apartheid at school, and someone told me there was this great protest singer I should get to play at the rally," says Koppelman, who now works in A&R at Elektra. He went to see Chapman perform at a coffeehouse called Cappuccino. "Tracy walked onstage, and it was like an epiphany," he says. "Her presence, her voice, her songs, her sincerity — it all came across."
Koppelman approached Chapman after the performance and said, "I don't normally do this, but I think my father could help you a lot." (Charles Koppelman, his father, was then co-owner of SBK Publishing, one of the largest independent song publishers in the world.) Chapman listened politely but didn't say much and went on her way.
Undaunted, Koppelman continued attending her shows, sitting in the front row. Although Chapman finally agreed to talk, she declined to cut any demos for him. Then Koppelman found out that Chapman had already recorded some demos at the Tufts radio station, WMFO, for copyright purposes. (In exchange, the station got to broadcast her songs.) Koppelman went to the station, and while a friend distracted the DJ, he lifted one of the tapes. It had one song, "Talkin' Bout a Revolution," on it. He made a copy and took it to his father. "He immediately got the picture and flew up to see her," Koppelman says.
Chapman's demo tape with SBK led to a signing with Elektra. "I have to say that I never thought I would get a contract with a major record label," she told an interviewer shortly after the album's release. "All the time since I was a kid listening to records and the radio, I didn't think there was any indication that record people would find the kind of music that I did marketable. Especially when I was singing songs like 'Talkin' Bout a Revolution' during the Seventies. . . . I didn't see a place for me there."
David Kershenbaum was suggested by an SBK executive, according to Koppelman, after several other producers turned down the project. "I'd been looking for something acoustic to do for some time," says Kershenbaum. "There was a sense in the industry of a slight boredom with everything out there and that people might be willing to listen again to lyrics and to someone who made statements."
Chapman's greatest concern during her meetings with Kershenbaum was that the integrity of her songs remain intact. "She said right off the bat that she wanted the record to be real simple," says Kershenbaum. "I wanted to make sure that she was in front, vocally and thematically, and that everything was built around her."
Every song on the album, with the exception of "Fast Car," was on the SBK demo. Chapman played "Fast Car" for Kershenbaum during their first meeting. "I loved it the minute I heard it." he says. "It was the most heartfelt song on the album, as far as people relating to it and visualizing what the songs were."
Tracy Chapman was recorded over an eight-week period at Powertrax, Kershenbaum's Hollywood studio. As many as thirty different bass players and drummers were invited to come in to play with her. "Mountains o' Things" was the hardest track to cut. "Tracy was so used to just singing and playing that when she got into the slight rhythm changes a band might add, it was somewhat disorienting for her," Kershenbaum says. "We had [percussionist] Paulinho Da Costa in one day, and we tried it with just Tracy and him." That wound up being the version used, with other instruments added later. In a similar way, "Behind the Wall" was recorded a cappella — and left as is.
The album opens with "Talkin' Bout a Revolution," which is "a good introduction to who she is and what she's saying," says Kershenbaum. The running order of the other ten songs on Tracy Chapman was determined by writing song titles out on three-by-five cards and shuffling them around in different sequences.
How did the album's success affect the artist? "I didn't get the feeling that she lost her perspective at all," says Kershenbaum. "She's really pretty solid. In fact, if anything, she's gotten much smarter and wiser."