Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Marshall Chapman: Writing Her Ass Off for You (1996)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer)

As motivational speakers often point out, being a mere "survivor" is no great accomplishment--a "prevailer" is what one really wants to be.

These days, Marshall Chapman, the roots-rocking singer-songwriter who will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of her major-label recording career next year, finds herself somewhere between surviving and prevailing. Judging from Love Slave, her new album on Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville label, and It's About Time, the live-at-the-Tennessee-State-Prison-for-Women album she released last year, such middle ground provides a lot of inspiration.

"The whole thing with this record is that it has been so easy," Chapman explains. "When I used to make records, there'd be fights in the parking lot. Some boyfriend would be trying to produce me, we'd be throwing bottles at each other, and the band would take sides. It made the records sound like really desperate rock 'n' roll, which was good, I guess, but it was always ugly."

Love Slave is anything but ugly, in large part because Michael Utley, the ace session musician and the current head of Margaritaville's A&R division, has replaced Chapman's bottle-throwing boyfriends of yore at the production helm. "Michael and I sat down after we tracked fifteen songs and asked ourselves, 'How many do we want on this record?' I thought, 'Eleven is a lucky number,' so he said, 'Great, let's write them down,' and even though we wrote down separate lists, we wrote down the exact same songs. So that's what we went with."

The ease with which Chapman and Utley crafted Love Slave pervades the album. In contrast to the jailhouse-rockin' It's About Time, which in the great tradition of live albums recorded before convicted murderers exudes a certain barbed-wire ambiance, even Love Slave's livelier moments undergo an aural burnishing that emphasizes their quiet soulfulness over their edge.

Not that Chapman has allowed the emotional maturity that this newfound audio depth represents to blunt her blade. She just showcases her sharpness with more playfulness these days. Take, for instance, the bad-relationship trilogy consisting of "If I Can't Have You," "Just to Torture Myself," and the title song. Whereas she used to sing lines like "If I can't have you, / I'd rather not live, thank you" as if she meant them enough to program Dr. Kervorkian's number into her redial, she now sings them with enough lilt in both her husky contralto and her folk-rock backing to assuage any fears that her many loyal fans might have for her safety.

"The relationship thing used to be a matter of life and death," she admits, "but I've been living with this same guy for five years now, so that part of my life is stable. 'Just to Torture myself' is just a hangover from an old relationship. When I'm really feeling dark, I still want to call the guy up, even though I know I'm not going to. And the music is light--somewhere between jazz and 'Hit The Road, Jack.'"

Ironically, the most musically straightforward track on the whole album, "Guns R Us," is also the album's most thematically subtle. Under cover of an instantly hummable three-chord hook, Chapman dissects the complexities of our country's love-hate relationship with firearms at least as sensitively as she's ever dissected the complexities of the man-woman kind. Neither an anthem for the Brady Bill bunch nor the NRA, "Guns R Us" looks past the trigger and the trigger finger both and into the heart of the matter.

"Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said--and this is one of my favorite quotes--'We're all so simple. If only we could somehow separate the evil people in the world from the rest of us. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who would dare cut out a piece of his own heart?' That's really what 'Guns R Us' is about. More than guns, it's about how everybody wants to blame somebody else. It's an opportunity to look into the mirror and admit that as long as I shoot the bird at people in traffic, I'm part of the problem."

Chapman laughs, but the song has a more serious subtext. "I picked up the paper one day and saw a picture of one of my best friend's sons sitting on the front steps of his junior high school with his head in his hands, crying. Behind him was the yellow and black police caution tape around his school. What had happened was, a friend had brought a gun to school, hidden it in his coat, and had it accidentally go off and kill a guy my friend's son had known.

"At the same time, another friend of mine had just called me, really mad at her husband because he'd left a gun in a paper sack on the kitchen table, and their four-year-old son had gotten into it. She stopped him just before he got the gun. At the same time, I read in the paper that Toys R Us in New York City was offering toys in exchange for guns."

Hence the song's title, a title which, like the song, conflates the serious and the flippant in a miniature but impressive example of the power of concision.

Chapman's favorite example of concision, however--one that she has had tacked to her bulletin board ever since she received it nearly ten years ago--comes from the prolific pen of the best-selling novelist Pat Conroy. After learning that Chapman wanted him to write the liner notes to Dirty Linen, the 1987 album with which she inaugurated her still-extant Tall Girl label, Conroy responded with a postcard that Chapman numbers among her most prized possessions.

"Shall I read it for you?" she laughs. "'Of course I'd be delighted to write whatever you'd like on your new album cover. I collect your records, and I write my books listening to them.... I'll write my ass off for you, Marshall, and I will try to make my words as passionate as your music.'

"I thought, 'This is what I've dreamed all my life to hear some man say to me. Not 'I will fuck your brains out' or 'I'm going to make a million dollars and give it all to you,' but 'I will write my ass off for you.'

"That's the biggest turn-on!"

No comments:

Post a Comment