Music interview – Beth Nielsen Chapman: ‘My songs are the juice of all the stuff I’ve been through in my life’

Beth Nielsen Chapman

Beth Nielsen Chapman’s latest album showcases her extensive back catalogue. She spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Beth Nielsen Chapman’s 13th album Hearts of Glass is a mixture new songs and updates of older material from a classy songbook that extends back more than 40 years.

Explaining her approach, the 59-year-old country pop performer says: “I’ve been haunted by some of these songs that I’ve always wanted to do a different version of.

“My last album, which was released in 2014 and was called Uncovered, was songs that had been hits for other artists that I had never done my own versions of. Even on that record there’s one or two that are tucked in [from] a little list of songs that I wanted to re-do.”

On Hearts of Glass she handed over the production reins to Sam Ashworth, a young Nashville musician and songwriter who had previously worked with The Civil Wars and Sixpence None The Richer.

“He didn’t know my catalogue, so he was hearing these songs for the first time and it was wonderful to get his feedback. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough new songs – ironically I have a backlog of new songs – it was just that I was getting pulled towards putting a couple of these old gems on this record that just seemed to fit.

Beth Nielsen Chapman

“I wasn’t sure that the record was going to be called Hearts of Glass until the very last, but I knew that it was about songs that had to do with being very strong and also being very vulnerable at the same time.”

One of the new songs on Heart of Glass is Come To Mine, which Nielsen Chapman co-wrote with Graham Gouldman and Kevin Montgomery. The product of a songwriting retreat run in Somerset by Chris Difford of Squeeze, it is, she says, the realisation of a long-held dream.

“I’ve been stalking Graham Gouldman since he was 19 and I was not even born yet because his writing is just so superb and his artistry. I think maybe my favourite song of all-time is The Things We Do For Love which he wrote for 10CC and also sang, so to get to meet him my mouth just dropped and I couldn’t believe I was getting to sit in a room and write with him.

“Kevin’s from Nashville, so I’ve known him for many years – he’s the son of another legend named Bob Montgomery and he’s a wonderfully talented young man. We’re sitting there with the god Graham Gouldman and just had a wonderful day, it was incredible to write with him. He’s since come to Nashville and I’ve introduced him to a bunch of different songwriters that are lining up and down the block to write with him.”

I believe in a great protest song, if I were to write one I would absolutely put it out.

Beth Nielsen Chapman

The sentiment of the song itself encapsulates much of what Nielsen Chapman feels about the craft of songwriting itself. “Many writers that I’ve worked with have the same experience – we’re writing along, we don’t know what the song is about yet, it’s like the song is giving us clues and our job is to figure out what the song is trying to be,” she says.

“One of the big mistakes you can make, especially if you move to Nashville and have a little bit of success, the phone will start ringing and people will be saying, ‘Hey, write me one of those that you just wrote for that other guy that was a hit’, yet you can’t go back, you can only go forward to really write what’s true. You can’t write another song called This Kiss only call it This Hug. It has to be a forward movement into the mystery of not knowing what it’s going to be until you get there.

“An amazing part of the process is you find out what’s true by finishing the song and staying out of the way of it.”

Nielsen Chapman was just 12 years old when she wrote her first song.

Beth Nielsen Chapman

“My little life was imploding,” she remembers. “We were living in Germany at the time. My father was in the airforce and we moved around a lot. When I was just heading into 9th Grade one of the things we did in my school in Germany on the airforce base was they took field trips to Dachau. I was completely not prepared for Dachau, I don’t think anybody that’s 12 years old should ever go to a concentration camp, even though it’s educational. I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t go to school for a couple of weeks, I was ill for going, and just realising that human beings were capable of anything like that. Then I started getting interested in the six o’clock news and I was looking at the Vietnam war – this would have been like 1968/69, and I was learning about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. It was like I woke up in the world looking at it very differently after that and it took me a long time to feel like not panic-stricken.

“At that time my father had got a guitar for Father’s Day and it was laying about the house and I just took that guitar in my room and I started writing protest songs, first off, anti-war songs and pro-civil rights movement songs, and it was really an intense period of time where if I hadn’t had that outlet I think I would’ve been much more depressed and overwhelmed.”

Fatefully her family would end up moving to Montgomery, Alabama, “the hotbed of the civil rights movement”. She recalls: “I had my guitar under my arm and I was hanging on to it for dear life. I will say the positive thing about that was I learned at that young age to direct my overwhelming emotions into that process of writing and creativity because that saved me. Going through everything I’ve been through in my life, they’ve been through the juicer. They’re the juice of all the stuff I’ve been through in my life and there’s been a lot of stuff, from losing my [first] husband [Ernest] to cancer in ’94 then going through breast cancer and having a brain tumour, it just gets crazy, but I have a positive attitude and that’s because of creativity.”

Nielsen Chapman cites the advice of Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys for convincing her to persevere with songwriting after the failure of her first album in 1980. Johnston suggested she should relocate to Nashville – a move that was to transform her career, and lead her to writing songs for the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Crystal Gayle and Faith Hill.

“He said ‘just get out of this town and get up there’ and I was looking at him like he was crazy but when I was driving home I was thinking ‘I’m going to do it, because he said it’s OK, he’s a Beach Boy and he should know’. He was that voice of authority.”

Rodney Crowell, who also makes a guest appearance on the new album, is another significant figure for Nielsen Chapman. “Rodney first and foremost has been one of my dearest friends and was a dear friend to my late husband and is a dear friend to my husband that I have now [Bob Sherman]. He’s one of those people that if you get lucky enough to have him in your life you realise very quickly that he’s a keeper, as they say. He’s one of those people where you cannot see him for a year and then you pick right up where you left off. He produced Sand and Water with me, the album that came out after my husband’s death, and really taught me the most about learning to let go a little bit as an artist and allow myself the process of letting another person who’s producing bring in other ideas and grow and change through that.

“I think up until then I was too controlling or too fearful of my music changing into something I didn’t want it to be that I would not always take the best opportunities to learn from other people. I think in order to do that you have to be confident in what you think you want and be open to somebody else’s idea and try it out. His influence on me musically also because of that was really great.”

In 2016 Nielsen Chapman was “completely blown away” to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Latterly she has carved a niche as a “creativity whisperer” through songwriting workshops with young musicians. “I feel that people don’t realise how accessible being creative is,” she says. “It’s literally like air that’s hanging in the room. The air, the oxygen that’s in a room is to me what creativity represents. So if you’re sitting in a room with me and you’re telling me you’re not creative that’s like saying ‘I don’t have as much air as you have’, then I’d take it upon myself to convince you that that’s not true – and I have all kinds of ways to do that.”

Following events in America over the past couple of years Nielsen Chapman says it “has been a huge temptation” to venture into writing protest songs again. “I’ve been very upset over what’s happened and what’s happening in America right now,” she says. “I think that I’m not alone and I feel like the fabric of our democracy has been severely impacted in negative way on many levels.

“There seems to be this place of hatred and racism that seems to have just bubbled up and I’m not convinced that that’s real people in a lot of cases. I think there definitely are real people that are like that but my best way of addressing that is more through songs that are about humanity, because that’s really my strong suit. I believe in a great protest song, if I were to write one I would absolutely put it out.

“The last song on my album is called Dancer To The Drum and that song is really about racism and humanity and how we’re all brought into this world, there’s a lot of stuff politically that I would say is in that song: ‘One is born to a life of hunger/And one will be a king and a rich man’s son/And one will kill out of greed anger/One will give his life for another one’. There’s this paradox of great disturbance in people that causes them to go and shoot up school kids and on the other side a person that’s been through incredible trials but they grow up to be a healer or somebody that does wonderful things in the world and it’s hard to say why that is except that we really do have to wake up fix whatever it is that’s broken that allowed things to get this bad.”

She says she thinks back to the “incredible backlash” that the Dixie Chicks got for criticising President George W Bush. “Where we are today compared to that it’s hard to imagine. That seems like such an innocent time where one comment caused such havoc. Now to me the respect for the office of the presidency has eroded into absolutely the worst place it’s ever been. It’s propelled by the President himself in the way that he goes onto Twitter and says stuff.

“I feel like it’s a really bad dream and I hope we all wake up from it soon,” she adds, with a chuckle. “I’m doing what I can.”

Beth Nielsen Chapman plays at Sheffield City Hall ballroom on March 7, Pocklington Arts Centre on March 8 and Leeds City Varieties on March 27.

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