This feature appeared in the February 2007 edition of Country Music People and was heard in a shortened form in On The Beat on BBC Radio Merseyside on 13 January 2007.
Although I have admired Beth Nielsen Chapman’s albums for many years, I expected this interview to be sombre, introspective and difficult. Her outstanding album, Sand And Water (1997), described how she was coming to terms with the death of her husband, while Deeper Still (2002) was made while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Her latest album, Hymns, was sung in Latin.
I meet up with Beth the morning after a show in Bolton. She looks refreshed and happy and is very enthusiastic about her current and forthcoming projects. Maybe her encounters with serious illness make her want to pack as much as possible into her days. She relishes touring and she loves meeting her public, dispensing, it would seem, all kinds of life-affirming tips. You could say that she is on a mission. She believes that everybody is creative and this interview, which is largely about songwriting, will tell you how to unlock the talents within yourself.
Sitting in the hotel lounge, she says, “Can’t we turn this music off? I can’t think clearly when it’s on.” Her tour manager and band member, the ever-genial Maartin (sic) Allcock, formerly from Fairport Convention, finds us a spot away from piped music. “Do you ever hear yourself being played over the tannoy?” I ask. “Unfortunately, yes,” she replies, “and friends call to say that they have heard me at the mall. It’s good to get heard but there must be so many people listening who wish you weren’t there at all.”
I have a list of questions to ask Beth, but I don’t use it as Beth’s comprehensive and informative replies guide the flow of the conversation. “I hope I’m not derailing you,” she says when we break for coffee. “We’re not talking much about country music.” There are anecdotes about Harlan Howard, Willie Nelson and Faith Hill, but I can see what she means. However, country music deals with life’s problems and the songs are about passion, compassion and human relationships, the recurring subjects in this interview.
You have chosen a name which is difficult to remember at first hearing. Why didn’t you just go with Beth Chapman?
When I was signed to my first record deal in 1979, it was the same year as I got married and Capitol Records in America was very keen to have me as Beth Nielsen as they thought that was really good. I said, “No, I want to be Chapman, I’m getting married.” They were not thrilled about that. What’s really funny is how many people think that Mary Chapin Carpenter and I are the same person. Yesterday someone said that they loved the song I wrote, The Moon And St Christopher, and I said, “That would be Chapin.” We are good friends and I have always thought that she is an astoundingly good writer. It has been great to be able to work with her.
You were born in Arlington, Texas in 1956 but your father was in the air force and you moved around a lot. Does that mean that music was one of the few constant factors in your childhood?
I’ve never thought about it in that way, but that is true.. Air force radio was a melting pot of lots of different styles and in the early 60s when my ears were developing, radio was much healthier in terms of its cultural diversity. Moving into different areas taught me, ironically, how people are the same rather than different. Since I was 11, I have had this idea of doing a record where I sing in different languages and I am finally finishing this record and putting it out next year.
I was exposed to a lot of different cultures. I am a Catholic and the mass on the air force base was from 10 to 11, and from 11 to 12 it was a Protestant service, and on Saturday it was a Jewish temple. They rolled the Cross in and out and they put in the different symbols and so I realised that worshipping God resonated with a different frequency with different people. It was an amazing way to grow up, and I can do all these different accents. (Beth mimics various American accents: it is hilarious.) My voice can go all over the place so yes, my upbringing had a big effect on me.
Were you based in Germany some of the time?
I lived in Germany in sixth, seventh and eighth grades and I started to learn German but then we moved and unfortunately Americans don’t place much emphasis on learning other languages. In Europe and the UK almost everyone speaks two languages, which should be the responsibility of every human being. I don’t speak any other language myself although I have learnt to pronounce them phonetically. With each song in each different language I have worked with a scholar of that language or someone from that country. Hopefully, they caught me before I made a fool of myself.
What music do you remember from your youth?
The Beatles came along when I was in fifth grade. I remember being in a friend’s house in Germany and hearing Penny Lane and I was jumping on a bed and thinking that I had to own that. That was the first time that I heard music that I wanted to go and buy.
Before that I was listening to Tony Bennett and Robert Goulet and other records from my parents. I loved any film that had music in it and I knew all the songs in The Sound Of Music. My mum was a nurse and my dad was in the military and then he was math teacher. They both sang in choirs and I can remember standing between their kneecaps and hearing their voices. We were raised in a Catholic family so there are these beautiful old hymns that I knew. As I have gotten older, I have been amazed at how they resonate so deeply with me.
And some of those hymns have survived 150 years.
Yes, and when I do my show, one of my favourite covers is Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke, and I get the whole audience singing with me, which is really great. They didn’t know they could sing that good and I usually follow Sir Duke with Mozart’s Ave Verum and it slides right into it. You would never think in a million years that those two songs could be back to back but my voice is the same voice and it is pulling it through the thread of my way of sounding as an artist. It is still a very different song but it has a context which brings it together.
The Latin Hymns record came out last year in the UK and that was just a tangent I went on after Deeper Still and Look. I was still working on this collection of songs in all different languages and I realised that I needed one in Latin, and I thought it would be easy. I would get a CD that had all the great hymns that I grew up with but the only one I could find was by a priest with a guitar and it wasn’t well recorded. I thought it was sad that I couldn’t find all the songs that I remembered so I made the record on my own and I got my son to sing the tenor parts and my dad to sing bass. It has done very very well. There are a whole lot of people who missed those hymns.
So you didn’t go through a record company?
I was on Warner Brothers for 10 years but for quite a few years, I have been doing my own records which has been wonderful. I will make a licensing deal with a label in the US and another in the UK and I get a more direct relationship with the people I am working with. With Hymns, I didn’t particularly look for a label, I thought it would sell 200 copies and my mother would give it to all her friends. In the States, I put it on my own record company and then I got a publicist as I thought it would be fun. I never expected to get on National Public Radio on a show called All Things Considered. After an 8 minute segment on that show, the CD went to No 3 on amazon.com. I sold out in 12 hours and I was getting emails from nuns and priests who wanted to get it. It was a labour of love and it was just one of those things that nobody had done. My favourite email was from a woman who was a survivor of the Holocaust and she had been meeting with other women who were survivors. They needed some music to play in the background when they shared some time together. She told them that this CD was very soothing and they put it on and they found it was lovely music – it wasn’t about the lyrics and the dogma and what the words mean although that is very important to some people – on a tonal level, they were able to feel comforted by the sound of the beautiful songs. One of the hymns I love is called Shalom Aleichem which is a beautiful Hebrew hymn about peace. Someone from the Jewish faith would know it immediately.
When you heard Penny Lane, did you have in mind that you wanted to be a songwriter?
Not in terms of a profession, no. I thought vaguely that I would like to be a veterinarian. I would sing in folk mass and in folk clubs and then as I got a little older, I was singing at weddings every weekend. I was writing the whole time and I always wrote the melody first. My experience of writing has been that the song is already written and I am unfolding it in layers. I will get a melody out of nowhere, just by stumbling around on guitar. I record what I do as so much of what comes out in the very beginning is subconscious. My creative spirit is taking a leap off a cliff and going – whoosh! My fingers go to chords and I don’t know what they are going to do next and it is magical. Often I will do that for 15 minutes or so and turn the tape recorder off and I will have no idea what I have played. I will get a cup of tea and listen to it, and I am hearing it like a listener for the first time. I will find the things in it that are working and I will go with that and learn how to play it. I have to go, “What was that chord that I went to?” At the some point the melody will be in place but I won’t necessarily have the words. Then I start singing in tongues (demonstrates) and very often the vowels that start coming through with some regularity will be the same vowels that line up when the song is finished a week later, a month later or two years later. I have had songs that have taken me years to finish and yet if I go back to the first work tape, you can hear ‘o a i’ all in place on the line.
Your first country hit was Strong Enough To Bend, which was a great title and a No 1 for Tanya Tucker in 1988.
People write songs in different ways and the hardest thing in the world for me is to write from a title. I walked into Don Schlitz’s office and I was thrilled to be writing with him. He said that he had this title, Strong Enough To Bend. I do have a very healthy, loud, obnoxious intellect and my intellect is a know-it-all, and if it gets in charge, it interrupts the good stuff, which is coming from another direction. The creative spirit that flows through every single person won’t interrupt anything that is already there. If there are a lot of other things going in the psyche, it won’t interrupt as it is too self-conscious. So when I started writing with Don, my intellect goes, ‘Oh, we have to figure this out now. “What does Strong Enough To Bend mean?” I said, “Can we just make up a melody, something we can play around with and we will get to the title.” So we started and I went (Sings) “There’s a tree out in the backyard.” We wrote it in 20 minutes and we wrote another song and went to lunch. My head was spinning as I hadn’t written a song in one day before, much less in 20 minutes, but Don would do a morning session and an afternoon session. He calls his songs his children and he said that The Gambler has been to college and graduate school and kept going.