Chapman attended art school in Leeds. After graduating, he worked as an art and photography teacher in Lancashire. Playing guitar form his teens on, he developed a style that wove jazz, folk, blues, and ragtime, and his repertoire at the time time was primarily comprised of jazz guitar standards. In the middle of the '60s he began listening to the new wave of British folk revivalists such as Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, and John Renbourn. By adapting what he already knew to what he was learning, Chapman developed a distinctive playing style that incorporated all of his chosen styles as well as East Indian modalism.
He first appeared on the London and Cornwall folk music circuits in 1967, including at the Piper's Folk Club in Penzance on a bill with John Martyn and Roy Harper. His incendiary live perfomances resonated not only with club audiences but also with A&R men. He accepted a contract offer from Harvest (EMI's "underground" boutique label) that led to the release of his debut long-player Rainmaker in 1969. The album featured the support of Rick Kemp (who played bass with Chapman for many years) and Danny Thompson. Window followed in short order, with Fully Qualified Survivor completing a debut triptych that sent waves of critical appreciation through the music industry -- influential BBC disc jockey John Peel supported Chapman whenever possible. Sales, however, did not match the critical acclaim for Chapman's work, leaving Fully Qualified Survivor as a high point, with "Postcards of Scarborough" generally being the one cut most often remembered when Chapman is discussed.
After the release of Wrecked Again, Chapman parted company with Harvest, choosing to sign to Decca's Deram subsidiary, where he altered course somewhat, adding electric guitar and harder rhythms to his work. The first result, Millstone Grit, offered Chapman's trademark gloomy writing mixed with a couple of lively instrumentals, some almost experimental, and the country-styled "Expressway in the Rain." Deal Gone Down, and the live Pleasures of the Street followed. Don Nix produced Savage Amusement, which reworked a couple of earlier songs; the album's title would be used in the mid-'80s for a band featuring Chapman and Kemp.
Chapman's Decca deal ended in 1977, and he began an association with Criminal Records the following year; both labels released versions of The Man Who Hated Mornings. Chapman then turned his hand to the release of a guitar instruction record entitled Playing Guitar the Easy Way in 1978. He continued to gig and record consistently, varying styles and sounds, sometimes working with a full group but more often working with Kemp alone. After the release of Heartbeat in 1987, Chapman experimented with self-released albums, and as of the 1997 release of Dreaming Out Loud, he was issuing albums at the rate of one every two years, continuing to attract high praise, if not great sales.
His prolific release schedule continued unabated in the 21st century with both song-based and instrumental albums, as well as numerous reissues of his catalog by various labels. The first notable entry in the new millennium was the instrumental offering Americana in 2000, which showcased Chapman's fascination with, and mastery of, Southern blues, folk, and ragtime jazz styles. It was followed by a second collection -- this one with masterful slide entries as well -- entitled Americana II in 2002. A self-released album, 2005's Plaindealer featured the guitarist playing solo or in small groups, performing original songs and folk standards. It was later reissued by Honest Jon's.
Chapman toured with the No-Neck Blues Band and Jack Rose in 2006. Drenched in acid folk and free improvisation, he returned to England inspired and recorded the double-disc Words Fail Me, recorded completely solo on acoustic and electric guitars. He ripped through utterly rearranged older songs as well as brave new compositions in a 100-minute, live-in-the-studio performance with no overdubs. On 2007's The Wedding Band, Chapman returned to all-electric guitar; it was his first digitally recorded release, while 2008's Sweet Powder was drenched in sounds that reflected the blues, folk, and modern country music the guitarist loved, from R.L. Burnside to Steve Eagles to Neil Young and more. On 2010's ambitious Wry Tree Drift, named after an old mine near his farm, he played both electric and acoustic guitars, performing folk ballads, languid instrumental dubs, dark electric blues, and solo guitar workouts.
In 2011, Chapman released the instrumental double set Train Song: Guitar Compositions, 1967-2010, which featured all newly recorded material. Later in the year, the guitarist issued his most expansive and controversial album, The Resurrection and Revenge of the Clayton Peacock (titled after a track on John Fahey's 1965 offering The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death). It featured two side-long improvisations involving drones, delay, and loop effects. It was issued by Blast First Petite as the first part of a trilogy. Its second part, Pachyderm, was released in 2012, followed by The Polar Bear in 2014; Blast First Petite announced plans to reissue the trilogy as a special box set. Also in 2012, a tribute album entitled Oh Michael, Look What You've Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman was released by Tompkins Square and featured performances from Hiss Golden Messenger, Meg Baird, Black Twig Piers, Maddy Prior, and more. In 2015, Chapman returned with a new album of guitar pieces, Fish. January 2017 saw the release of 50, his debut for Paradise of Bachelors, which found Chapman embracing past and present, with guest artists including celebrated British folksinger Bridget St. John and gifted indie rock guitarist Steve Gunn. The following year, Blast First Petite issued Live VPro 71. Recorded by Dutch underground radio station VPRO on May 6 of 1971, it was the earliest known live recording of Chapman's -- some two years after Fully Qualified Survivor, his debut for Harvest. Accompanied on the date by bassist Rick Kemp, the audio disc contained a healthy selection of tunes from the show, but the release was also accompanied by a download card that contained video of the entire concert. Later in 2017 he issued the duet offering EB=MC2 with Israeli guitarist Ehud Banai. While Chapman basically lived on the road for most of 2018, he was able to enter Mwnci Studios in rural West Wales with a host of friends including Bridget St. John, cellist Sarah Smout, pedal steel legend BJ Cole, and guitarist/producer Steve Gunn. The finished album was titled True North and released by Paradise of Bachelors in February 2019. ~ Steven McDonald, Rovi
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