Beth Nielsen Chapman
Beth Nielsen Chapman is the writer behind number-one country hits for Trisha Yearwood, Willie Nelson, and Lorrie Morgan. Jazz artist Ute Lemper and blues-rock Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt have also recorded her songs. Chapman's own albums have charted in the top 10 in the Adult Contemporary field. "I'm the worst one for categories," she said. "If it were up to me, they'd just put everybody in alphabetical order in the record store -- maybe speak of a style of music, but not speak of it as you can't do something or use some instrument if you want to do a particular style."
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Recently, Chapman's name has been in the news because Elton John chose the title song of her current release, Sand and Water, to sing at his concerts in memory of Princess Diana and Gianni Versace. "When he first told me that he was going to do that, I think I was in shock," she said. "I don't think it really registered."
The song, and the others on the disc, arose out of a more personal place than Nashville's Music Row. They came from Chapman's experience of losing her husband, Ernest, to cancer four years ago. "To make this album, to put this album out, without him in the world is a very big emotional step for me, to come to terms with him having died. I must say that it's cracked me open, in a way... there have been incredible gifts. I'm so thankful for things that I think I might not have even noticed before. I think that's one of the things tragedy can do for you, if you let it -- if you can get your heart to open in hell. Ernest encouraged me to do this. I was writing some of them before he died, and he said, `These songs you've written are so beautiful, you're going to have an incredible record.' I said, `I can't promise you that, I don't think I can do that... I'm just doing this to get through this part of my life, you know,' " she recalled. "I really didn't think these songs were ever going to go out of my house."
Turning to music to help her make sense of the world was natural for Chapman. She wrote her first song when she was 11. "I had this guitar... it was supposed to be a gift for my father, and my mother had stuck it in my closet for about three months, and during that time, I just decided it was gonna have to stay in my room. Anyway, I wrote this little song about cowboys. I remember coming down the stairs and playing it for my mother, who was lying on the couch at the end of a long day -- and she fell asleep while I was singing it! I've improved since then," she laughed.
She taught herself to play that guitar. "We were living in Germany at the time. My dad was in the Air Force, so we moved around a lot. There weren't any music stores or books I could get that weren't in German. I remember we got one of those little round tuning things so I could figure out how the strings tuned, and then I would literally just hunt around and press my fingers down where it sounded good. I ended up picking out most of the major chords, but I didn't know the names of them, so I'd end up calling them X, or dot with two circles, or something -- and then, when I'd be around people who really played guitar, I'd always be sneaking, trying to find out the names of the chords without admitting that I didn't know what I was doing."
Her parents sent her to piano lessons about this time, too, "...but the teacher called up my mother and said, `You know, Beth is learning the songs by ear and looking at the page like she's reading the music but she's really not, so you just should save your money.' So I got fired from piano lessons!" It was, she said, a case of knowing a piece by ear after the second or third time she'd heard it. For that reason, she's never developed her skills at reading and writing musical notation. "I do a lot of things by ear, but if I could write stuff down out of my head, it would be really useful, 'cause now I rely on singing it into my answering machine. I have to have a tape recorder or I will not be able to remember what I just wrote." Chapman commented that having such a good ear made her bored and frustrated with some aspects of music training in school, though she enjoyed studying counterpoint and learning about world music. There's another reason she regrets not knowing how to write notation. "I went to lunch one time with Janis Ian," Chapman recalled, "and she had this idea -- this melodic idea came to her, and she picked up a napkin, and she wrote this little five-line thing, and she wrote the melody down. That just blew me away. I thought, man, I wish I could do that. It just looks so cool, if nothing else!"
Her family returned to the United States and settled in Montgomery, Alabama. Chapman was listening to music of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen at the time, and in Alabama she added bluegrass to her influences. "I soaked up a lot of styles," she said, "and bluegrass was definitely one of them. In fact, I've had a lot of success in country music -- `Strong Enough to Bend' that Tanya Tucker recorded is an example -- with songs that to me are technically, legalistically, bluegrass songs." Eventually Chapman moved to Mobile, Alabama, met and married Ernest, who was working as a counselor for adolescents, and had a son. All the while she was both writing songs and studying song form. "I had this job playing in a bar that was in the lounge of a big hotel, four hours a night, six nights a week. So to survive mentally, I went to the public library and dug into records from the 30s, the 40s, the 50s -- 'cause some one would come in and want to hear something by Frank Sinatra, and the next person would want to hear Alice Cooper, you know. Working as a solo performer in little clubs for so many years, I had to bring in a lot of styles, and so I studied what made a hit pop song, what made a hit country song, while I was learning the music. It became sort of my self-college education, since I never got around to going to college. I graduated from the Riverview Plaza in Mobile with a degree in popular music!" Chapman joked.
One night while she was playing there, the Beach Boys were in town. One of them, Buddy Johnson, came to catch her set. "I didn't really recognize him, I could see the other guys in another part of the lobby. He listened and said, `Play something else you wrote,' and I was like, `Okay, okay' -- and then he came up and introduced himself and told me, `You know, you really need to move to New York or L.A. or Nashville. If you stay down here in Mobile, you're not in a music center, and you're not going to be able to compete, to have people hear what you're doing, and you're really good. I encourage you to do that." After she got off work that night, Chapman recalled, "Two o'clock in the morning, I went home and woke up Ernest and said, `We gotta move! It's been officially decided!' Of course he was very put off with me," she continued, laughing, "because he'd been telling me this for months and months. But just that little encouragement from someone who was actually successful in the business really gave me that inkling of confidence, so we did it."
They chose Nashville because it was close to their families. Chapman didn't, and doesn't, see herself as a country artist, "But I love writing country songs, and that gave me an outlet for that. Although it's associated with country music, Nashville's really a melting pot, there's so much music going on, so many styles. It's also a wonderful place to have, you know, a life. There's a real neighborhood quality to the creative community here. Songwriters really stick by each other. I'm sure that there are people who come to this town and have some difficulty, but I've always felt very welcomed. It's the songwriting capitol of the world, I think."
As to the songwriting process itself, Chapman finds that there's a certain amount of magic involved. "The more I've done it throughout my life," she said, "the more I've noticed that the best thing I can do is get out of my own way -- get my intellect to take a walk and go do something else. That really showed up in this group of songs, on Sand and Water," she said. Chapman usually starts with a melodic idea, on guitar or piano. "I tend to be more folkie on guitar, and more pop or jazz or classical on piano. I'll get the melody and the form of the song, and then I'll start to hear the sound of the words. This is so weird," she continued, "and it drives my co-writers crazy! But basically, I'll hear the way the vowels lay into the melody. I'll just be singing nonsense syllables, la la la. Eventually I'll write the lyrics, and I'll go back to these early fumbling around tapes when I was just trying to grab some words or get the sound of a word that connects, and the vowels on those tapes often line up perfectly with the lyrics I wrote three months later. It's like it comes up from the sand, you know -- it just sort of appears, and you can see the shape of it before you see the detail or the edges."
When she's working with a co-writer, many times that person will have a song idea about a specific subject. "That's a very normal way to write," she explained. "Most people get an idea and then they try to write the idea. I hear a sound... you know, it sounds like this and this and... then I end up with a line and say `What does that mean? Oh, here's something interesting!' So it's almost subconscious, the way that my songs come up, especially the ones I write by myself. When somebody says, `I have this great idea' I go, `Oh, no!' because then I have to use my mind to restructure something that's already been -- that the secret's already out, sort of." She described the circumstances in which she wrote what became a number-one hit for Willie Nelson, "There's Nothin' I Can Do About it Now." "I was tortured about that song because, first of all, I had a time period it was due by. He was cutting, and I had to get a song to him by a certain time. Then the worst thing that could have happened, happened: I got the title first. I had the title, I knew this was the title, and I had no idea how to write it. It was like writing backwards. I always write stuff first and say, `Oh here's this thing, let me name it.' I spent so many hours on that song, and I ended up being very happy with the song and felt like it was very well written... but it almost killed me!"
In 1990, Jim Ed Norman signed Chapman to Warner Progressive, a division of the label that is also the home of such genre-crossing musicians as Take 6 and Tish Hinojosa. "I didn't want to limit myself to recording as a country artist," Chapman said, "and Jim Ed Norman gave me the chance to make the kind of record I wanted to make." That self-titled disc and its follow-up, You Hold the Key, produced several top 10 AC and NAC hits. Just as her second album was being released, Chapman and her husband received the unexpected news that he had a rare form of lymphoma and was given six weeks to live. Although a big promotion and a lot of touring had been planned for that record, "My whole life went upside down," she said. "During the whole year and a half he ended up staying, I went out for one small tour opening for Dan Fogelberg. I was very much against it at first, but Ernest -- he had been very supportive of me and my whole career, and when this happened, he was mad that it threw all these plans for the record off. I could see he didn't want everybody just sitting around watching him go through chemotherapy. It was hard on both of us, but it was wonderful 'cause it really gave him a lot of energy and helped him get through what he was going through.
"It was like going into the grey, you know," Chapman said of her husband's death. "I had to stay here and stay present and support my son. There was this kind of numbness... for about a year after he died. During that time, about the only time I felt that I could connect with my grief was when I was writing these songs." Though sadness is present in the songs on Sand and Water, there is also joy, resignation, hope, and adventure. "One of the changes I went through after losing Ernest is that there's just so little time, and there are so many things I want to do. To me, it's not a rumor that I only have a certain amount of time, it's a fact," Chapman said. "Rather than being depressing, though, for me it's an inspiration to use my time carefully. That's not to say I still don't do stupid things," she laughed, "but at least in my mind it's a worthwhile waste of time!"
One of the things that has amazed Chapman is the depth and variety of response to Sand and Water. "I had a man write to me who said he'd heard Elton talking about the song on TV, and so he went and got the record. His wife had died 15 years ago, and he had never been able to cry. He put the record on, and he just started to cry and cry, through the whole 45 minutes, even the happy songs. So he wrote, `You know, I had a lot of tears inside.' " Chapman has been asked to speak on art and loss, which she does, while pointing out that she's an expert only on her own experience. She does not, however, feel burdened by others' stories of grief. "I don't see myself only as a person who's grieving -- never have -- and I've been writing all kinds of other songs while I was writing these. This collection happens to focus around that certain experience, that certain time in my life, which is four years ago now." When people tell her their stories, "They're responding to this music like a lifeboat, you know, that's been sent to them. I feel very honored to have that response. I still get letters from people who got married to "All I Have" [a song from her first album]. Any time something I write affects someone in a deep way, it's a great compliment. I'll still sing the songs from this time, just as I still sing some of the songs I wrote from when I first met Ernest," she added. "I don't think I'll get to the point where I won't want to sing them any more, or that I would tell people, `Please don't tell me any more grief stories.' I think it's a gift that I've been given that I could exchange something so painful in my life that would turn around and help other people."
Chapman continues to write songs for herself and others. She is playing clubs and small venues this summer and fall in support of Sand and Water. "I like places where people can hear the words," she said. She also finds it interesting that when she goes out with a small band, she's considered a pop performer, whereas when she performs solo with just her guitar, she's more often booked in folk venues. "Then, too, I have three names, and I live in Nashville, so I must be `country,' " she said. "Could I possibly confuse people more?
"I think folk is the root of what I do," she explained, "but I pretty much please myself as an artist. I think you have to do that. There's no point in doing it to please other people because then they are not getting who you are. They're getting who you are trying to be for their benefit, which, ironically, I think ends up making you more self-centered as an artist." The song is the most important thing for Chapman. "Great songs can transcend style. You can take a basically great song and give it to Tammy Wynette, or Tony Bennett, or Ella Fitzgerald, and it'll come out sounding really different, but it'll still be a great song."
In addition to cuts upcoming on albums by Faith Hill, Martina McBride, and Bonnie Raitt, Chapman is working on her next album project -- a venture in another direction: It'll be an album of hymns. "Some are modern, some things I've written, some are very ancient, and the common denominator will be my voice," she explained. "I've been working on it in between these other things. It's a project that seems to have its own agenda."
Whatever direction she takes in the future, Beth Nielsen Chapman knows that she has learned and continues to learn from her experiences with death -- and with life. "Being an artist is giving the most that you can give. It's being very brave sometimes, going against what people try to tell you to do to make a living. The strongest statement an artist can make is usually one that's just straight out of their center. I try to be aware of what my center is, and I haven't always been good at it," she said. "I think this album, Sand and Water, is the most centered record I've ever made. I've had this experience of losing my husband and grief and loss. All of the drive that goes behind trying to survive that solidified my purpose. I've felt really that it has created a much stronger place for me to come from as an artist. No matter what I do, I feel I've arrived at a place as an artist where I understand that in a way I didn't understand it before."
Beth Nielsen Chapman - The Song's The Thing
Dirty Linen #76, June/July 1998
By Kerry Dexter
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