[BRITISH FOLK] “I’m not very good at doing what I’m told,” says Michael Chapman through a crackling phone line from Leeds, England. That’s an understatement. At age 71, Chapman, one of the world’s most talented folk guitar players, is still touring, recording and making a living, completely on his own terms. “I like the freedom of playing solo,” he says. “There are great advantages—like no rehearsals!”
While Chapman has maintained his “maverick troubadour” status for the last 40 years, he’s managed to collaborate with a host of big names. Mick Ronson played guitar on Chapman’s best-known album, 1970’s Fully Qualified Survivor; David Bowie heard the record and immediately plucked Ronson away to become a Spider From Mars. Around the same time, Elton John wanted Chapman in his band. He declined.
“I’ve never joined other people’s bands,” Chapman says. “I’m not a follower. I even drive like that.”
Chapman’s story begins a lot like that of John Lennon and Keith Richards. He started in a skiffle group and worshiped Elvis Presley. Soon, jazz and folk found their way into his music. As the legend goes, on a rainy night in Cornwall, Chapman—broke after having recently quit his job as a photography instructor at an art college—offered to play guitar in a pub in exchange for supper. By 1969, he had a record deal with Harvest, a progressive major label associated with Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett and Roy Harper.
Chapman’s debut, Rainmaker, arrived that same year. Like most of his work, it didn’t sell. But with the backing of legendary English radio DJ John Peel, follow-up Fully Qualified Survivor produced Chapman’s only chart hit, “Postcards of Scarborough,” five melancholy minutes of electric British Bob Dylanism.
After that fleeting bout of pop flirtation, Chapman’s career has continued to the present day. He’s released dozens of albums, and spent much of his life on the road. “Playing guitar has brought me around the world more times than I can remember, more times than I can count,” he says. The major labels never could fit him into a box. He cared nothing for heavy rock, and record execs couldn’t decide if he was a jazz artist, a folkie or a bluesman. His solution?
“Basically, I make the records and lease them to the labels now,” he says. That includes this year’s The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock, released on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! imprint.
Now a true elder statesman, Chapman is enjoying another cycle of recognition. Bill Callahan took him on tour last year. The Fleet Foxes have cited him as a prime influence. And last year, a remastered version of Fully Qualified Survivor was issued by the Seattle-based archival label Light in the Attic. It seems that decades of uncompromised music-making are finally starting to pay off—though it’s not something Chapman ever planned.
“I used to read a lot of the French existentialist philosophers,” he says, “and I’m a firm believer in the accident and just letting things happen.”
SEE IT: Michael Chapman plays Secret Society, 116 NE Russell St., on Tuesday, Oct. 9. 8 pm. $12. 21+.