A Conversation with Beth Nielsen Chapman

The songs of Beth Nielsen Chapman have been a fixture of American country, pop and adult contemporary music for the better part of three decades. In the course of those years, she’s heard her lyrics sung back to her by many of country music’s most legendary voices, including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tanya Tucker and Alabama, and she’s one of the writers behind Faith Hill’s 1998 crossover smash “This Kiss”.

The past and present come together on Chapman’s exquisite new album Hearts of Glass. The set is comprised of songs old and new, composed at various points throughout Chapman’s storied career. She treats us to her own renderings of “If My World Didn’t Have You”, which appeared on Willie Nelson’s 1989 album A Horse Called Music, and “Old Church Hymns and Nursery Rhymes”, which she wrote for Waylon Jennings and which he recorded for 1990’s The Eagle. Songs such as “Child Again”, “Life Holds On”, and “Dancer to the Drum” appeared on her past projects from the 1990’s, but are here given new life. Still others, such as “Come to Mine” and “Epitaph for Love” are heard for the first time on this release.

You’re releasing your first new solo album since 2014. Tell me a little bit about your journey since then. Why did this feel like the right time to return with new music?

This has been a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time. My last album was called UnCovered. It was kind of one of those ones where I traveled all around. I did part of it in Scotland. I did all of the songs that had been hits for other artists that I’d never done my own version of. It’s full. It’s got all kinds of great stuff on it. But I really wanted to do a record that was very internal. I had this small group of new songs that I felt really strongly about that were very long and finishing, like the song called “Epitaph for Love”. I think it was 18 years from the time I started it until I finished it. So there was this sort of depth to some of the songs. I really wanted it to be super sparse. And then I had these other songs, some of which I had recorded previously on other albums, and I just really wanted to give them a different treatment. Very spare, and pretty much nothing between you and the song.

So in looking for the right producer for that, I had really just gone straight towards Charlie Peacock, who did all those great records by The Civil Wars that were so sparse and compelling. So we were actually talking about making the record, and then his schedule changed and mine did and we couldn’t quite line up our schedules, but he suggested that I contact his son Sam Ashworth, who’s a young up-and-coming producer and artist and songwriter. I met with Sam, and he kind of knew all his dad’s tricks, plus he brought to the table his own sort of very unique perspective, and I’m so glad I did that. I really love the way it came out.

Yeah, he did a really great job. The arrangements in themselves are really beautiful, but it you can tell that it is very much an album about the songs.

Yeah, he did that perfectly. And interestingly enough, when I go back and think about all the incredible producers I’ve worked with… I worked with Barry Beckett on my first album, and then I worked with Jim Ed Norman on my early stuff on Warner Brothers, so many other great, great producers. They all brought something really uniquely powerful, and I don’t think until this album that I realized how much you can get if you step back a little bit more as an artist. And that’s something I’d always struggled, because I’d have so many ideas and I’d just have so many opinions, and I’m just kind of a bull in a china chop in the studio. Because I’m excited, you know! I’m like ‘What about this?’ and I remember working with Rodney Crowell, who’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever worked with. We were making the Sand and Water album. This would be about ‘96, ‘97. I remember him saying to me, ‘Listen, I need you to give me some time, and if you don’t like what I do, you can veto it, but you’ve got to get out of our way a little bit. And at first I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And then now with this record, the whole time I actually consciously said to myself, ‘We’re out of here. Let him work.’ And I don’t think I’ll ever go back to producing myself again because I really enjoyed what I got when I got out of the way.

Are there any particular songs on this album that you consider to be among the highlights?

Yes! I love them all, obviously. I feel like “Epitaph for Love” is probably my favorite song on the album. It’s just been this jewel that I’ve been trying to polish for so many years, and it captures the sense of loss and bewilderment that you can feel when you are with someone that you love deeply, and one of the two people is done and not going to work it out, and that sort of pulling away from another human that you thought you’d be with forever. And I literally don’t think I could have ever finished the song if I hadn’t gone through I really rough patch with my marriage where we actually reached this point where my husband was saying, ‘Well, maybe I’ll leave’. I remember him saying this so me, and I was so shocked that he would think about not trying to keep it together, and I realized right in that moment that that’s what the song’s trying to be about. I did experience that for a number of hours. We obviously didn’t break up, thank goodness, but I got a good song out of it. I literally knew this devastating feeling I’m having is what this song is about, where this person is just not going to be there for you, and I hadn’t ever really experienced that before. I’d lost people, but I’d really only lost them because they couldn’t help it, like when my first husband died. So “Epitaph for love”, I think is probably my favorite for that reason. It’s just a powerful song.

In looking at the song selections on this album, it’s a really eclectic album, like you touched on earlier. It’s really a mixture of old and new.

Yeah, there’s a lot of old stuff and some stuff that’s pretty straight-ahead country like “If My World Didn’t Have You”, which I ended up getting my friend Rodney to sing with me on. That song had been recorded by Willie Nelson way back in the early nineties, and I wrote it for Willie. But I always felt like that song was one of those ones I’d love to sing. Working with Sam, also, we went back through my catalog, and there’s so many songs to go through that were contenders, and I actually also had him participate very much in making the decision about which songs. I wanted him to feel really passionate about all the songs we chose. It was great.

Let’s talk about some of the recent career milestone’s you’ve achieved. You joined the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016. Tell me about what that moment meant to you.

I think that’s probably the most coveted award I’ve ever wanted. I’ve gone to all those awards shows since I moved here in 1985. Probably the first awards show I ever went to was for inducting the songwriters into the Hall of Fame, and I’ve been to it every single year. And twenty years later, to have that offered to me was just an absolute pinnacle of joy for me. That actual award is also one of my favorites. It’s so beautiful, visually. It’s a hand with a quill pen made out of brass. It’s right smack in the middle of my writing room with a light shining on it! And I love it, because the few times when I’ve had a chance to write since then, since it’s been so busy, when I’m working with a co-writer, if I run into any trouble with them, on like, whether we’re going to go with the lyric I want or the lyric they want or something, I pick my award up and I go, ‘Talk to the hand!’ But it is the biggest honor to me to be awarded that because it’s my peers. It’s people I look up to the most in the music business, which is the songwriters.

And you recently reached another big milestone when you made your debut on the Grand Ole Opry.

Another big milestone, yeah! That was amazing. Honestly, my heart was in my throat. It was so surreal to walk out on that stage. That’s the kind of thing, as a songwriter and an artist, you dream about your whole career. It’s just so huge. I was treated in such a lovely way too. I had my own parking place. I got to keep my parking sign once I could get it! And to walk in and have everybody greet me like I was the big cheese. ‘Oh! It’s your debut!’ Beautiful dressing room. I was in a dressing room next to Lorrie Morgan, who I wrote a big hit for, “Five Minutes”.

And that song in particular is so critical to me. Way back in 1980 I put my first album out that was recorded in Muscle Shoals. It came out on Capitol Records. And right when it came out was right when disco kind of took off, and so the singer-songwriter thing, which was what my album was, kind of was just going away at that particular time. So my phone didn’t ring and nothing happened. I got some nice reviews and then nothing happened. And at that time I thought, ‘I’m a failure.’ I’ve been on a major label. I’m on a major publisher, and nobody is calling me to do anything. I didn’t know you had to get a manager and like, really work it! I just thought, ‘Well, now that I have a record out, things will happen!’  And it didn’t. So I went through this sort of three or four year period of not writing. And it was really an interesting time. I think I actually grew a lot as a songwriter when I didn’t write for a few years because I was just living me life. I had my son. I got married. When I went back to writing, it was because I saw the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, and I remember just seeing Loretta Lynn and thinking, ‘She’s got five kids and she’s writing songs and planting potatoes at the same time. I’m being such a baby about this!’ And I thought, ‘I’m going to get back to writing’. My first songs that I wrote during that time were so bad, because I’d kind of lost my writing muscle. My husband earnest was really super supportive. When I wrote the song “Five Minutes”, he got really excited. He said ‘Now you’re back’. And I’m like, ‘I’m not gonna send a tape or anything’, and he’s like ‘Oh no, no, no, you’re sending a tape, ‘cause this is a hit’. It took a long time. I came to Nashville. It took five years, and then she had a hit on it. So that song having been written at a time when I was not even sure I would even still be a songwriter, and then how long it took to be a hit, so to have her next door in the dressing room, to me personally, it was very iconic. So great. Anyway, it was an amazing moment.

In what ways do you feel you’ve grown and evolved in your years of writing and recording, and how is it reflected on Hearts of Glass?

I think I have always come back to the same spot when I’m writing. So my career has evolved and my writing has absolutely evolved and hopefully improved, but to get back to the beginning of writing the next song, I’m always trying to get back to that place of absolute innocent childlike wonder. That’s where the best stuff comes from. That’s where the best fodder for the next song comes from. There’s like this collaboration that we have with creative flow. We are really in a dance with it. And what I love about teaching about that is that people start to sort of define their way of being in the world as participating in that. Once you do that, things start happening. Even though my writing evolves and my career evolves and more things happen. Writing, to me, is always going back to that first spot where I don’t know what’s going to happen, where I don’t know what I’m doing, don’t know how it’s going to work out, don’t know how long it’s going to take, and I’m just enjoying the wonder of what unfolds with my dancing with it. So in a way it doesn’t really change!

Who are your favorite songwriters?

Oh boy. There are so many it’s staggering, so I’m just going to tell you the first ones that pop into my head. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, the Beatles, Motown, and all the guys from the ‘30s and the ‘40s. I have been kind of a junkie for a great song, no matter what genre it’s in. If it’s a great song, I find out who wrote it and try to see what else they did. There’s too many. Too many to name. Carole King. I mean, it just goes on and on and on.

Tell me about the first time you remember hearing one of your songs on the radio.

Oh well, I have that down! I was driving my car and I heard “Nothing I Can Do About It Now”, which was recorded by Willie Nelson, and I had actually gotten to sing on it and play on it. So I was listening to myself singing and playing with Willie Nelson. I was listening to my voice on the radio, and so of course I was driving and went straight through the stop sign and got pulled over. I was literally turning the radio up as my car rolled right through the stop sign and I was really lucky I didn’t hurt anybody, and I get pulled over and the cop did not understand why I would not turn my radio down. I’m yelling over the radio and I’m going, ‘But you see, this is my song and it’s me!’ And he’s just looking at me like, ‘Ma’am, you are really getting on my last nerve and I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve heard a lot of them, but that’s like the best one I ever heard’. He thought I was just making it up. So when I introduce that song I’ll tell that story and I’ll end up saying, ‘I got a ticket for eighty-six dollars and seventy-two cents and I paid for it with my royalties’. So it all worked out!

What’s next for you?

I am embarking on a massive promotion of the new record and really looking for all the way I can put it out in the world. I’ve just finished a big tour of the U.K. and I’m getting ready to hit the road, head to the west coast and do a bunch of stuff which includes performance and teaching. I’m just taking all of the opportunities I can to share the music and get the world out about the new record. That’s kind of what I’m focusing on in the immediate picture, but at the same time I’m spinning a lot of other plates. I’m working on a book about my life and about my relationship to creativity, which I’ve always been fascinated by. So there’s that, and I’m a grandma, so I like to have fun playing with my grandson every chance I get. Life is full!

2 Comments

  1. This is a really great interview, Ben! I found the conversation about her husband so interesting. Much of my favorite work by Chapman has been informed by her grief over his loss, particularly “Sand and Water.”

  2. Interesting interview. I like quite a few of her songs but I notice that when asked about her favorite songwriters, she didn’t mention any from country music. Saw her at the Bluebird a few years ago.

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