The Restless, Roving Energy of Michael Chapman

William Tyler talks True North and being both a friend and fan of Chapman.

Memory has a way of hazing over, especially when it involves the roving lifestyle of touring musicians, but I have a clear recollection of the first real conversation I ever had with Michael Chapman. We were sharing a taxi in Paris to the train station, about to embark on a two week tour of England together, having only just met the night before at a gig. “Space Oddity” came on the radio as we sailed through traffic and Michael spoke up for the first time that morning.

“Ah, David. I remember telling him when he needed a guitar player. ‘I know this bloke from Hull who’s a gardener, but a really great player named Mick.’” He then chuckled, and fell silent again for most of the ride.

So, I thought with a bit of amazed admiration, THAT is how Mick Ronson and David Bowie started working together. It was just the first of many moments like that with Michael—strange and humorous anecdotes from rock history punctuating a never ending flow of friendly conversation about everything in life. We would recount our mutual love for things like the book Blue Highways and the film Heaven’s Gate, and he would regale me with tales of opening for Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and the like. (All the while, navigating the English countryside in his old Volvo station wagon, gig to gig—two guitar players separated by a couple generations but united in our mutual fascinations..

I met Michael at a time when he proudly, gleefully was wearing the badge of “veteran,” but it’s telling that as a young man he was already referencing himself as a “fully qualified survivor,” or that he was singing about how “an old man remembers” in 1970. Michael lived hard and lived fast, but even back in the early naive days of Harvest Records—in the chaos of the ‘70s—he wasn’t flying the flag of rock burnout. He was in this for the long haul from the moment he put down his art teacher day job and picked up the guitar as a talisman.

True North, his remarkable new record, finds him returning to the same themes of weariness, wisdom, and whimsy that have punctuated his whole catalog, but this time there is a true kind of bittersweet heaviness to all of it. Now he is, in fact, the “old man remembering,” and while there always tends to be an element of melancholy to Chapman’s tunes and a darkness to his vocal delivery, there is a sense of acceptance of the passage and weight of time.

I like that Michael, in a sense, returns to his roots on this record. Recorded in rural Wales with a cast of old friends—including fellow UK folk luminary Bridget St. John and pedal steel wizard BJ Cole—there is a true sense of homecoming on this album. True North also reflects the soil and countryside of Northern England that has so colored the work of Chapman. He and his wife Andru have lived in the same idyllic brick country house on an estate outside of Newcastle since the year I was born, 1979. It’s a house that’s a shrine to the life the two of them have built together, but also a true oasis of quiet and warmth to return to after a tour. Books, records, a commanding fireplace, artwork hanging everywhere, old show posters, and a bottle of wine open at all times when guests are near. Here’s the place where Michael chops his own firewood, where the horses roam the hill nearby, the kind of place I can imagine being grateful to return to after a long travel. He would frequently joke, “Hadrian’s Wall is in my backyard.” It’s  this warmth of homecoming that informs much of the spirit of the album.

The spirit of our mutual friend and Michael’s frequent collaborator Steve Gunn is also very evident on the album. Steve produces, plays guitar, and generally guides the vibe in a graceful and organic fashion. Steve and Michael have such an unspoken and effortless camaraderie—there is much vulnerability in the music they compose, but they are also two of the most punk rock dudes I’ve ever known to be branded as folkies. They both tend to drive an acoustic guitar like a motorcycle. They both sing about time passing, friends seen and unseen, love and loss, in a sardonic and wistful way. Gunn is the perfect foil to Michael, because he knows how to guide without putting too much fuss into the production. BJ Cole’s elegiac pedal steel lines are definitely a leading character, but the forefront is always carried by Michael’s masterful fingerpicking and his vocals. It makes me wish I could go back and listen to more of Michael’s earlier albums in such an honest, stripped down fashion.

Listening to songs like “It’s Too Late,” “Vanity and Pride,” and “Youth Is Wasted on the Young,” it was perhaps natural for me to feel a sense of sadness, or maybe just impending reckoning in Michael’s lyrics and delivery. But Michael is someone I would never even dream of tagging with the emotion of “sadness.” I mean, we all carry it, but Michael is one of the most truly happy people I know in music, and probably in life in general. He knows as well as anyone the true kind of fatigue that the endless road can bring to a soul, not to mention the hard living that can often accompany it. But there’s been so many nights after a gig where Michael would just be beaming, holding up a glass of red wine and saying something like, “This is the best life in the world. We are so lucky.” And I always knew he was right.

Michael sings in the past tense here a lot, looking back on his beautiful, strange, and winding path. “After All This Time,” a gorgeous duet with Bridget St. John, could be a love song, or it could be an epistle to a childhood friend. It’s about growing apart, but still growing. In “Youth is Wasted is On the Young,” he seems to glance at the endless possibility of adolescence, not with regret but with regard. He’s still here to tell the tale and talk about what he’s learned from this crazy ride. So in all this bittersweet reflection on youth, aging, changing possibilities, and the certainty of change, Michael feels warmly confessional and as proud, noble as ever.

Chapman closes out the record on a whimsical note—as is his nature after this emotionally weighted journey—with the song I remember him often doing during his encore sets, “Bon Ton Roolay.” It owes something to Cajun dance tunes and American honky tonk, a party song about having partied too hard; Michael even breaks into a bit of a laugh near the end of the tune, leaving you with just enough humor and “fuck it” attitude to know this old troubadour is going to keep trucking with resolve and abandon.

But for me, the emotional centerpiece of the album is the gorgeously evocative instrumental “Caddo Lake.” It starts out as a placid dance between Michael’s guitar, Cole’s steel, and Sarah Smout’s cello. About three minutes in, an electric guitar line seems to draw the melody deeper into the water, expanding, sinking, then resurfacing with the major cadence refrain of the verse melody line. And then you are back there with Michael floating, just watching the reflections and the ripples of the water. Something I connected with Michael deeply about was our mutual fascination with landscapes, nature, and the melodies they conjure. Caddo Lake is one of the largest lakes straddling Texas and Louisiana, a swamp where there have been numerous Bigfoot sightings and where there is very specific kind of weighted mystery and beauty that you only find in the Deep South. I remember having numerous conversations on tour with Michael about the lake and how it spoke to him.

Michael hates being called a “folk musician,” something I always found amusing. I think it’s just because he can’t stand to ever think of himself as being boxed in by anything other than his own relentless imagination and restless, roving energy. I don’t know if I have ever met someone as much as a true lifer as him. He sees wonder in so many things, so many places, and at 78 he has as much drive and passion as most people fifty years his junior. Some other musician friend once told me, “It’s all process, it’s all experience. That’s why it never gets boring.” Michael embodies the spirit of that sentiment, and it’s why he is such a hero. With True North, he finds his voice again with friends surrounding him, and he points the way forward to maybe not the last chapter, but the next one.

William Tyler is a composer and guitarist based in Los Angeles-via-Nashville. His new album Goes West was released by Merge in January 2019, and features contributions from Meg Duffy, Brad Cook, and Bill Frisell, among others.
(Photo Credit: Chantal Anderson)