He emerged from the same musical gene pool as acousticstyle singer/songwriters such as John Martyn, Nick Drake and Roy Harper. But over a more than 50-year career, Michael Chapman has never considered himself to be a folkie.
“Back in the early 1960s, folk clubs were the only places you could play acoustic guitar, and people would sit quietly and listen. But I’ve never been a folk singer – I’m a guitar player and a songwriter,” said the 72-year-old Chapman last week in a phone conversation from his English farmhouse near the border with Scotland.
“This place is what keeps me sane; it’s a good environment for switching off. And the great thing is that my neighbor farms it; I don’t have to do any work. So I have the best of both worlds,” he laughed.
Not that Chapman is lazy or anything – he still releases on average an album every two years and is on the road for many months a year, performing for fans around the world who recognize him as one of England’s finest original singer/songwriters. His 1970 album Fully Qualified Survivor with the classic tune “Postcards of Scarborough” still stands as a highwater mark for British rock. And while he’s never matched its commercial success, Chapman has continued to maintain a level of high quality throughout dozens of subsequent releases.
Ironically, the Leeds native had given up pursuing a music career as a jazz musician in the early 1960s to teach photography at a local college.
He had become enamored with jazz in art college in Leeds because in the late 1950s the local police wouldn’t allow beer to be sold at rock ’n’ roll shows, so all the clubs featured jazz.
“Jazz was my religion, and those of us into it were very snobby about it,” said Chapman. “It was my wife, who was younger than me, who turned me on to the Beatles and what was going on there; and, at the same time, I turned her on to John Coltrane.”
Chapman paid for his education by playing almost every night in jazz bands, country bands or any gig that was available. After receiving his degree in education, he put music aside to teach. It was a chance encounter, however, at a small club in Cornwall in 1967 that changed his life.
“It was a rainy night, and I couldn’t afford to pay the entrance fee to the club. So, not wanting to stay out in the rain, I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll play guitar for half an hour if you let me in,’” he recounted. “They offered me a job for the rest of the summer, and I made more money playing guitar than I did teaching, so I said, ‘This will do.’ I resigned from teaching before I could do any more damage.
I never decided to be a professional musician; it just happened.”
It happened quickly. Within two years, he released his debut album, produced by Gus Dudgeon, who was also working with Elton John, David Bowie and Steeleye Span, and he was being championed on BBC by influential DJ John Peel and touring with Mick Ronson and Keef Hartley.
Fully Qualified Survivor, produced by Dudgeon, with strings arranged by Paul Buckmaster (the team that created the arrangements for John’s “Your Song” among others), widened Chapman’s audience further, resulting in a US tour and borderline commercial success. But he refused to be drawn into the pop star/celebrity world, returning to solo acoustic albums in the mid- 1970s.
“The albums with Gus and Paul, with the London Symphony Orchestra playing on my songs, were incredible to me – I loved it. If the arrangement fits the song, I’m fine with it, whether it’s an acoustic guitar or an orchestra,” he said. “But I never wanted to be in the mainstream market, it’s not for me. I got famous in Germany once, and I didn’t like it at all. They released a single and, unbeknownst to me, it became a hit. When I went to play there, hundreds of people were lined up around the block, and journalists were knocking at my door at 8 a.m. It wasn’t for me.”
Chapman’s cult status has suited him well, and he hasn’t been ignored by subsequent generations.
Last year, a tribute album of his songs called Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman was released, featuring Lucinda Williams and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore offering heartfelt versions of Chapman classics. For Chapman, it was the sweetest of vindications of the timeless quality of his music.
“The fact that Lucinda did one of my songs was just amazing – she’s someone I’ve admired for such a long time. I went to see her the other week to thank her, and she was so nice. We got along like old friends,” he said.
“It’s always nice to think that your music will last. Fully Qualified Survivor only took four days to record because we were broke, and people are still buying it; it’s never been out of print. So I must have done something right,” he said.
Chapman will be doing it right when he makes his Israeli debut next week, performing a series of shows around the country.
The tour begins on October 20 at the Ozen Bar in Tel Aviv, moves on to Uganda in Jerusalem on October 21 and continues at the Jazz Club in Mitzpe Ramon on the 22nd, Hasida in Pardess Hanna on the 23rd and Moshav Amirim on October 24.