It’s Hard Up North: The Photography of Michael Chapman

On “Youth Is Wasted on the Young,” a highlight from his forthcoming album True North, Michael Chapman sings, “There are so many songs that we left unsung/So many tales that we could have spun/But youth is wasted on the young.” At 78— January 24th is his birthday—Chapman may not count as “young” anymore, but he lacks no vitality on the new record. Surrounded by old friends and collaborators, including vocalist Bridget St. John, pedal steel player BJ Cole (who’s worked with everyone from Brian Eno and Scott Walker to Spiritualized and Björk), cellist Sarah Smout, and producer Steve Gunn, Chapman is as commanding as ever, his sharp wit intact and palpable. These are shadowy songs, but they’re driven by his grim humor, which has been shaped by his lifelong surroundings in the north of England.

“I think that’s who I am,” Chapman says with a slight chuckle. “I’ve been called the Yorkshire miserablist. I quite like that.”

Chapman got his start in the late ’60s, playing in jazz bands before becoming a fixture in folk clubs. But earlier in the decade, he spent a couple years behind a camera. Armed with an art degree, he shot his environs circa ’62 while teaching photography at a college in Bolton, Lancashire.

“All the famous photographers, the Baileys and Donovans [Davd Bailey and Terence Donovan], they all worked out of London, and I never did,” Chapman says. “I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’m a very northern person. I’ve never moved to London. Record companies and management have been on my back for donkey’s years, ‘Michael, you’ve got to go to London, that’s where it all happens.’ I said, ‘I’m not going.’ I wanted to show in that series of photographs how hard it is up there. There’s an old saying: ‘It’s hard up north.’ Well, it is.”

Chapman characterizes those days as somewhat dark ones. “It rains a lot, which is why all the cotton mills were there,” he says. “Summer is nearly two weeks long.” He shot the photograph that would decades later become True North‘s cover at a fairground, “just before the fighting started.” “It was traditional, you know?” he says of occasional flare-ups of conflict. The back of the record jacket features two women walking toward a towering brick wall. They were “probably only in their late 30s, early 40s, but look about 100,” Chapman says. “That was their world. That was it for those people. You’d walk down to the shops maybe twice a week and that was it. I just liked to show it is hard up north, but we’re OK with it. ”

True North retains that hardscrabbleness sonically. It’s a stripped down set, putting the focus on Chapman’s words and melodies. From the opening number, “It’s Too Late,” with its “wreckage on the highway” to the instrumental “Eleuthera,” these songs, while new to the Chapman catalog, sound fully inhabited, totally lived in. “It’s a collection of friends,” he says of the record’s limited cast. “The whole idea of the album was to do it without a rhythm section, no bass and drums. The big mistake we could have made is to try and be a rock & roll band, which we’re not.”

The sounds are sparse but deep. And there’s a similar quality to his photos from the early ’60s. There’s a dark beauty at work in them, and a curious quality that makes them—like his masterful songs—feel alive. “I only ever worked in black and white,” Chapman says. “I have no interest in color. I think it’s one step away from reality. These days you can mess with anything, but in those days you couldn’t. If you took a color picture, that was what you got. Black and white, I could mess about in the darkroom and do 20 prints from the same negative and they’d all be different.”  words/j woodbury

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