What about the image of sand and water in that song? I always feel that songs that contain the elements can have a special power and the images in your song are so striking.
Sand And Water was one of the first songs that I wrote after my husband’s death, about a month after his death. Rodney Crowell came over to write with me as he was friends with my husband and he told him to give me about a month and then get her off her butt and make her start writing songs. He said he was coming over and we were going to write a song. I thought, “Oh god, I had better pick up my guitar before Rodney gets here. That song came through very quickly”. I told him, “We can write this song as it is not finished.” I sang him Sand And Water and he almost fell off the chair. He said, “I am sitting here listening to this beautiful song that is going to move so many people and you like an idiot don’t even know what you’ve done. Don’t change anything.” Two weeks later I am driving in my car listening to a demo of it and all of a sudden, I thought, “That’s really good.” Again when I am in the state of writing, I am not intellectually there. I think “Solid stone is just sand and water” is a line of some magnitude but I didn’t write it, I just wrote it down. I didn’t figure it out. I wrote it because of the song.
You are fortunate that this happens to you.
No, no, we all fortunate. My battle cry to the world is, “It’s not just me. I don’t have some lucky connection that nobody else has.” We have varying degrees of making ourselves accessible and the door opens on our side. I don’t think that the creative spirit stays away from anyone. It waits. If you can put away your ego and intellect and back it away from its central seat of controlling everything, what will amaze you is that the creative spirit will come in. The very beginnings are messy and vague and mushy and that is the playfulness, and that is the chaos out of which comes amazing stuff. Being afraid of chaos is one of the things that shuts the ego down. People say, “I sat there with a blank piece of paper and I tried to write a poem and everything I wrote was rubbish.” I said, “Who said that?” Someone wrote to me and said that they had a blank piece of paper and couldn’t think of anything for an hour. I said, “Wow, you have just lifted 2,000 pounds in the gym of creativity. You showed up, so give yourself a star.”
You like helping people so much so why not put a melody on your website and invite people to put a lyric to it?
That could be very dangerous! If I get a melody, I love the melody, and so I would get territorial and I would want to write the lyrics to it. I got together to write with Jimmy Webb a couple of years ago and I gave him this melody and he gave me one of his and I haven’t written anything to his melody yet. Now I have written Prayers Of An Atheist to the melody I gave him, and I still haven’t called him, I hope he doesn’t read this before I’ve had a chance to tell him that I would like my melody back!
Prayers Of An Atheist is a grear title. You immediately want to know what it is about.
When my husband was near his death he wrote a letter to everybody who meant something to him. He sent out about 75 letters and he said, “Tell me what you think will happen when we die.” They were people he had known and loved and they responded from all sorts of cultural backgrounds. The most moving letter was from a friend who was an atheist and he said, “I haven’t changed and I haven’t got anything to say that would inspire you and I am really sorry. I love you and you’re my friend and for what it’s worth, I knelt down today and I sent up for you the prayers of an atheist.” That letter made him cry and he said, “That might be the most powerful letter” as he is going through what he thinks is a meaningless exercise just because he loves me. You might say that Prayers Of An Atheist doesn’t belong on the record because it is not a path to God, but I would say that it is. It is the farthest distance one could walk from.
Another uplifting song is Heads Up For The Wrecking Ball.
When you are dealing with a devastating illness, you are very busy just being the caretaker and there is not a lot of time to feel sorry for yourself. You have to postpone all of that. You don’t have time to fall apart and I built up this big brick of tears. I was saying, “I can do it, I can do it” and I was getting on with life. I don’t think I cried once in the year after my husband died as I was still unravelling the shock of it all. It took a year to melt that down to where I could cry and by the time we were recording the Sand And Water album, I was deeply grieving and sobbing half the day.
One day I was out walking and feeling okay as I had some emotional circulation going. I usually go with a pad and a pencil and something to record anything on, but this day I hadn’t. I was halfway through this trek in the woods and I got the melody for Heads Up For The Wrecking Ball. Straight through, words and all, and it has happened maybe three times in my lifetime. I didn’t have my cellphone and I didn’t have a pencil. I kept singing and I knew I would forget it if I didn’t meet somebody. I spied a discarded dixie cup and I sat on a rock and I carved the lines into the wax on the cup. I got home and I recorded it right away, and I should have sold that cup on ebay. The song says that you can do the best you can with what happens to you, but sometimes something comes from leftfield and knocks you down. It is our responsibility to be watchful and take care of ourselves when crossing the street, but sooner or later something is going to knock you down. Heads Up For The Wrecking Ball says, “Don’t worry, you’ll get through it.”
You co-wrote one of the best goodtime records of recent years, This Kiss, which was an international hit for Faith Hill.
I wrote This Kiss with Annie Roboff and Robin Lerner. Annie and Robin had got it started, and I didn’t know Robin very well. I was shooting the cover for Sand And Water in LA and I was under water when that cover picture was taken. The next day I was running on the beach in a yellow dress. Annie, who is one of my best friends, was in my hotel room and she was playing this riff, “It’s perpetual bliss”. I asked what it was and I told her to stop playing it as I would be getting ideas and I didn’t want to horn in on them. She said, “I want you to write this with us.” It had started with Robin, and Annie had developed it further. At the end of the chorus, it went “It’s your critical kiss” and I told them that it was a letdown and it would have to be changed. I was curling my eyelashes and when it came round again I went “This kiss, this kiss”, you gotta do that. She said, “That’s it, I’m calling Robin.” She said, “Beth came up with this chant for the end of the chorus and we’re going to make her write the song with us.” The next day we met up and we went on the beach with a little plastic Yahama – Annie was a career woman who hadn’t been on a date in five years, Robin was going through a divorce and I was a grieving widow woman and I hadn’t been on a date in a couple of years – so we were three women watching these beautiful boys walk down the beach and we wrote a song about what it was like to be kissed for the first time. We had a black woman sing the demo, almost like a fun R&B song. Two years later it still hadn’t been cut but then Annie said that Faith Hill was cutting a record and could we move the song to guitar, and it worked out great that way. We did a demo with Jamie O’Neal singing. It is not a country song by any means, but when you move it to guitar, add some steel and have Faith Hill singing, it comes close. I got to sing the background vocals and she made a great record and it was a hit. Boom! I always have a good time when I am writing with Annie. We wrote Happy Girl, Shake My Soul and It All Comes Down To Love and a slew of others together. They are always upbeat and you can tell we are having a good time.
Are there some covers around at the moment?
I have a new song called The Edge Of Love that I wrote with Mindy Smith and it is on her new record. Joan Osborne has recorded an astounding version of Time Won’t Tell, and I have been very enmeshed in this new record and I am looking for a name for it. I referred to it as World Hymns for a long time, but it is not just hymns. It is a very exciting project to be working on and it feels like it is going to be a double-album now I have these songs in English which resonate with the same ideas. I have just recorded Oh You Beautiful Fool which was written by Don Henry and it is about Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Jesus Christ, these people who inspire peace but it is not a preachy song but a beautiful story song.
Are you able to write on the road?
I don’t write on the road but anything that is a life experience helps you. I love performing and seeing fans and hearing what resonates with them. Last night I had them singing along with me to The Colour Of Roses and it is so magical that they have such respect for the work. It makes me want to go home and write so it feeds me. I love the UK particularly, as the audiences have been really supportive and Terry Wogan, Bob Harris and the rest of Radio 2 have made it possible for me to be heard. It is hard to get on the radio in the United States because of this corporate radio takeover.
Have you any ambitions?
Well, I love writing on assignment and I would love to work on a movie. My songs have been in films but it usually somebody sticking one of my songs in the early rushes and then bonding with it. They happened with Beyond The Blue in Message In A Bottle. I worked with Patrick Doyle who was doing the Calendar Girls movie and he asked me to write the lyric to a beautiful melody he had written for the film. I wrote it over the weekend and emailed it to him and by Monday morning they were recording it with a 26 piece orchestra. I have just sung at St Paul’s Cathedral with the London Oriana Choir and a woman came up to me and said she was the woman that Calendar Girls was about, and I was so thrilled to meet her. You do have to have a thick skin if you do movie work as the people making the decisions often regard the songs as furniture they can move around. They are not song people but film people, and yet in many cases the songs outlive the movies.
Beth Nielsen Chapman, thank you so much for talking to us so frankly and in such detail.
I’ve enjoyed it. Thank you so much for having me.
And your message is “You too can do it.”
Absolutely. There is a hole in the top of your head and it is your creative belly button. I’m mixing my metaphors now but if you writing from your ego or your intellect, it is like digging around on the hard drive and not being connected on line. You can move sentences around and cut and paste, but you are not going to get the good stuff that is new and fresh. You have to get your spirit and your hard drive connected and when you do, amazing things can happen.