Debbie Kruger
Opening pages Beth Nielsen Chapman feature You can also read the full transcript of my interview with Beth Nielsen Chapman.
September/October 1999


by Debbie Kruger

What strikes you first about Beth Nielsen Chapman, and then again repeatedly on further meetings, is her lightness. She is a woman who has been through profound darkness and has come out the other side of the tunnel exultant and radiant. Proudly wearing her heart on her sleeve, Nielsen Chapman has reached a career peak, ironically, due to the personal and artistic growth and creative outpourings that resulted from personal tragedy — the death from cancer of her husband Ernest Chapman in 1994.

Already an established recording artist and prolific songwriter whose songs had been cut by members of the Nashville recording elite — Tanya Tucker, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Alabama and Trisha Yearwood to name a few — Nielsen Chapman found a new and expanded audience worldwide following the release of her 1997 album Sand and Water, inspired by her loss. Prior to its release, she gave Elton John, already an admirer of her work, a copy of the master cassette. A few months later, when interviewed by Oprah Winfrey about his feelings over the deaths of close friends Gianni Versace and Princess Diana, Elton credited Sand and Water with having provided him with great solace. The album was already destined to become a major musical statement on enlightenment through grief; Elton's endorsement propelled its success to unimagined heights.

While some people are still discovering Sand and Water, Nielsen Chapman is moving on to happier themes. The hit song she co-wrote with Annie Roboff and Robin Lerner, "This Kiss," was taken to number one by Faith Hill last year, and her songs have also been popping up on popular soundtracks for films including The Prince of Egypt, Practical Magic and Message in a Bottle.

Born into an Air Force family, Nielsen Chapman lived in different locations across America and in Germany as a child. She wrote her first song, with a cowboy theme, at age 11. In 1979 she married, moved to Alabama, signed as a writer with Screen Gems, and recorded her debut album, Hearing It First, which is now a collectors' item ("My mother has the only copy left," she says). After the birth of her son in 1981, she took time off from songwriting but when she relocated to Nashville in the mid-'80s, it was with a focus and commitment that soon paid off handsomely.

Talking with Beth Nielsen Chapman about her music is to talk with her about her life; the two are inseparable. As she moves on after 10 years with Warner/Reprise, a Greatest Hits collection, drawn from her three albums with the label, affords her the opportunity to look back on the enormous changes and developments in her life, and to look ahead with ecstatic optimism. She is performing more than in previous years, and is currently on a European tour that includes a concert date with James Taylor. With a beauty that comes from clarity of vision, Nielsen Chapman is indeed music's "Happy Girl."

I've read that your formal musical training was short-lived, as you were playing and writing everything by ear?
Most of the music I was hearing was piped in through the airforce bases in Germany where we lived. Perry Como, Robert Goulet, my mom and dad's records. And then all of a sudden one afternoon my brother brought home the Beatles and the Monkees and all that, Rolling Stones, all that got mixed in. I was always really just surfing for songs, I was always interested in what made something a great song.

So even as a child you were interested in a song rather than an artist or a group.
Yeah, the form of a song. There were certainly artists that I loved that did great songs consistently, there are so many of them. But a great song could catch my attention. So when somebody says who did you listen to, well I listened to this song from that person, and this song, I mean I just listened to so much. And then when I was older and I was working at the Riverview Plaza Hotel for two years — when my son was first born I was singing in a little happy hour — I went to the public library and I got every record that was, every top
ten of every era of every year. I just started learning the most popular songs, so I got this overview. You know, stylistically there's great jazz, great blues, great country, great pop, but a great song you can do in any of those styles and it'll bend and be flexible.

At what point did you form an idea of a career as a songwriter as distinct from a performer?

Well I really don't know that I had them separated, and in some ways they're always really intertwined. But I had my first success where money actually appeared in my mailbox as a result of Tanya Tucker recording a song that I wrote with Don Schliss — a song called "Strong Enough To Bend" — that became a number one country hit. And I'd done a pop album in '79, but as an artist I wasn't established, so everything I did as an artist was money going out and the things I did as a writer seemed to create income and I was amazed that I actually made money out of it.

So the concept of being a writer whose songs could be performed, recorded by other artists was actually very attractive to you?
Yes, I like that a lot. And I never really intended to record as a country artist. I think some of my songs — even the ones I've recorded as an artist — are certainly in that line of style. But I didn't want to just have to do one style of music, so I just always thought of myself as a singer-songwriter who wrote a lot of different styles. And I happen to live in Nashville. "Strong Enough to Bend" wasn't something I was going to record on an album of mine, so it was great.

By then you were already quite a prolific writer, As your writing was blossoming, perhaps even before you recorded your first pop album, were there specific artists whom you hoped might record your songs?
Yeah, I mean, Roberta Flack, Barbra Streisand, all the great voices. And the singer-songwriters who very much influenced me — Carole King, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell — absolutely. And then there were singers like Ella Fitzgerald and artists like Billie Holliday whose phrasing and music I listened to and studied and I tried to feel how each one would interpret a song. So sometimes I would be influenced to write a song with more of a jazzy bent to it from listening to that, with the idea that somebody with that kind of a voice would record my song. And all the time I was always thinking in terms of things that I was singing myself as an artist, too. I know there are some artists who write their own material who save it for themselves and they don't want anybody else to cut it. And that always mystifies me. Like, Trisha Yearwood has recorded songs off of the albums that I have done in more pop versions, and she's done them more country. I'm thrilled for her to do her own version of it and make it her own. And as an artist I'm honored, and as a writer I'm honored and also paid. So, I mean, there's nothing to lose!

Can you talk about the different writing experiences you have writing alone and writing with other people, and what draws you to write with other people?
Well my personal reason is very selfish. I want to learn something I don't know. And I will write with people who I resonate with, where we're already on the same wavelength. Like Annie Roboff, who's very successful at the moment. She and I have very similar tastes and very similar influences. But she comes from a hooky musical kind of key change... "Let's do the bridge over here and come back." Like when we wrote "This Kiss" where we had to get back to this key before the next verse and she just, "Oh, piece of cake," and she goes around here and comes back. She has a real expertise in that department. And there's a way that I have an expertise in terms of lyric writing that she seeks out when she writes with me, so we have a real simpatico. And there are other artists and writers that for me to sit down with them and spend the day is a treat, so the natural thing is you just write a song.

Like writing with someone like Eric Kaz?
Oh, you know, to be able to sit down and write a song with him — and he wrote "Love Has No Pride" and these incredible songs! I know. To me I'm just seeking out that inspiration. And I have to be really careful to balance that out. I'm going to take a week off this summer and go to an artists' colony in West Virginia to write by myself. Because my life has gotten so incredibly hectic and it's really hard for me to say no. There are so many people I like — I mean I love the people and I love writing with them, and I'm getting pulled in so many directions. And I'm starting to get requests to write with really established artists. It's an honor to be asked and it's like really being pulled. Annie and I wrote with Mary Chapin Carpenter, the song that's her new single that just came out. That was a mutual love thing, we all wanted to write with each other, and that was a blast, I mean to write with a writer of her caliber, and pop popcorn and hang out all day and eat popsicles... we just had a great time.

Beth with Gladys Knight, July Collins and Bonnie Raitt

So the music is always what comes first for you.
For me the music comes either right with the lyrics, or just before it, or long before it. The guy that I wrote "Say Goodnight" with on Sand and Water is a lyricist named Joe Henry — there's a recording artist named Joe Henry who's a different one, but — Joe Henry the lyricist is from Colorado. He wrote a lot of stuff with John Denver, he's very very talented with words. He's been writing this novel for 15 years, and he wrote this poem called "Sleep," and the words of this poem were so extraordinary to me, and he gave me a copy of it and one day I was just sitting around and I wrote this melody to it. And it was so unusual, which was almost like it just fell through the top of my head. And I'll probably put it on my next album. And then I got him to write the last half of it lyrically, cause it was only a half-written song by then. But that was a gift, I don't normally naturally do that.

Normally I get sort of a melodic idea and then it's almost like I'll just sing these nonsense syllables into the air, and I just keep the tape recorder going the whole time, because I get into this sort of unconscious place of just playing around with the melody and I go back through and I sing it again and I change it and then I decide I liked it better the other way. The whole time I'm singing "nothing" syllables. And what's interesting is when I go back and listen to the work tape to try to see how I'm shaping it up, see what I like about what I did. Sometimes I don't remember what I did — I mean I'll go back and listen to it and I'm like listening to it as an observer for the first time. And the vowels will line up in a certain way — like I might have said "hand it over" instead of "sand and water", and then two weeks later I'm singing "sand and water" and it means something.

What makes you start some songs on the piano and others on the guitar? "Sand and Water" could have been a piano song.
I believe that the songs are actually in the instruments and you've got to dig them out. It couldn't have been a piano song.

You've described how "Seven Shades of Blue" and "No-one Knows But You" were premonitions, because they had started to come to you before you even knew that your husband was ill. Are you more alert now when songs spring up from somewhere that they could be premonitions — not necessarily of bad things, but some sort of portending to something that's going to happen?
Yes, absolutely. And I've always known that before but I didn't really have it hit me quite so strongly as when those songs came out. But I think we all kind of already know on some level — there's a part of us, our higher self, or whatever — a lot more than we know down in our grounded part. And I really trust this unformed sort of sense of connection, I guess. I just trust that there's accessibility available if we're open to it and we're receptive to it. If you ask for help it just is amazing how it shows up. And I did that many many times after Ernest died and it's never let me down.

I wondered if it was important to do this retrospective at this time to show audiences who only discovered you through Sand and Water that there are many other facets to you as a writer, as a woman, and many other things that you're capable of exploring.
Yeah, and I'm always exploring, and I'm sort of working on my next record right now, but I'm not on Warner Bros. I'm not sure exactly how I'm going to approach the next record, I may do something on my own, I may do something with a major label, I may do something sort of in-between, you know, a distribution deal. Because there are so many things that have changed in the environment. Even since last fall, my gut feeling was it's time for me to move into another realm. And Jim Ed Norman [at Nashville's Warner Records] really was very supportive — in fact he made it very comfortable for me and he's been a great friend and creatively he's been a mentor for me. And I feel lucky. There's a different regime in Los Angeles and they weren't really up with the history that I'd had with the company, and there was a little more corporate stuff going on. And, you know, I'm a singer-songwriter and I would rather do this in a fresh beginning the next time around. So I really feel rejuvenated by being able to have these options now. The funny thing is, as soon as I left Warner Bros I got a song on the Prince of Egypt soundtrack, and then I got two songs that ended up in Message in a Bottle, and then all these things just sort of started happening. And each of these masters that I've done are available for me to put on my next record, too. My manager worked it out that way. Anyway, I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens next.

This was written with David Austin, an English songwriter who has worked quite a bit with George Michael. It was a very different kind of approach to both writing and recording for me. I really learned a lot from the process, kind of building it from the track up. "Walk My Way" deals with letting go of a relationship and letter the other person know that you're really okay about it. It does have a little bit of an attitude to it, but basically it's sort of a graceful way of saying, "I'm over you, baby."

Written with Matt Rollings; it was very subliminal in terms of the way the lyric presented itself. The vowels seemed to have been lined up in place on the early work tapes where I tend to just sing nonsense syllables prior to having lyrics. I noticed this after the lyric was finished and happened to hear an old work tape from months before. I love what this song says. That to believe is the manifest, and that in spite of all we must grieve, there is incredible hope and beauty in life.

One of the most requested songs that I've written. Every time I perform live, somebody from the audience calls out for that song. It took a couple of years to write. I just noodled around with it and I didn't even know who in my life it was specifically about. It's really about friendship and was emotionally a result of the combination of two important friends in my life; one was a high school girlfriend and one was my boyfriend at about the time I was 18, who died suddenly of a brain tumor. So the story of "Emily" is like a collage of these two powerful relationships and the impact of death on my life. It was many years later that I wrote the song. Sometimes all that stuff of life has to process down deep inside until it comes back through a song.

This goes so far back into my childhood. When I was little my mom told me that every time an ambulance went by I should say a "Hail Mary." And to this day, I do. It just goes right through my head automatically. And then I'd always wanted to write a song about the way that grass can grow up through pavement, the way life holds on. There are examples of it over and over again in the world. So I was vacuuming one day, watching TV and I saw this documentary; there was a little boy who had been under water in a pool and it basically looked like he was gone. They pulled him out and he was very limp. This whole thing was shot with a home-movie camera so it was very real. They did this artificial resuscitation on him for what seemed like eternity. I turned off the vacuum cleaner and I sat down on the coffee table, mesmerized. Finally, after many minutes, he was brought back to life and the next thing you saw, a split-second later, was him sitting on his mom's lap drinking Coca-Cola with a towel wrapped around him. It just blew my mind. I had all the other parts of the song already written and I couldn't figure out what else I wanted to say. And then this whole verse came into my head after seeing this documentary:
There was a third grade boy that we knew in school
He was found face down in a swimming pool
And as they worked on that kid every minute was an hour
And when his eyes fluttered open we could feel that power...

This is a very important song for me, the first song I wrote after my husband's death. I was really not sure how I was going to proceed with my life. I couldn't see my life beyond just what I was going to have for breakfast the next morning. I wrote it very quickly and I wasn't even sure what I had written. It came from such a very deep place. I played it for Rodney Crowell and he said, "This song is going to help so many people," and I looked at him like, "I don't know what you are talking about." I wasn't even sure I was going to take it out of my house. I mean, I thought it was too sad, or too personal. But I have to say it's the most powerful song I ever took out of my house! By virtue of its being so intimate and true... it has been the most universal.
I got one letter from a man who heard about "Sand and Water" from watching Oprah in the afternoon. This was one of the most incredible letters I've ever received. His wife had died 15 years before and since that time he basically went to work every day, he came home, he watched TV, he ate a TV dinner, he went to bed and he got up and he did the whole thing again. All of his friends had been trying to get him to go out, to do anything besides this "nothing." He was in this numbness. He said, "So I was watching Oprah and I saw Elton John talking about your album" — his language was very simple — "and I went to the store on Saturday and I got your record, brought it home, waited until Sunday night to listen to it and I said down and I put it on and I cried all the way from the first song... all the way through 'Happy Girl.' I stayed up pretty late crying because it seemed like once I started, I couldn't stop. Then I went to bed and I got up Monday morning and I started to live my life again." It was like he broke through this paralyzing numbness that he had. I'm so grateful to Elton for mentioning my album on Oprah because so many people heard about it through him doing that. Many of the songs on Sand and Water are about the connection that remains between all of us beyond this life, the acknowledgment of the sorrow, and a moving through it towards acceptance of this great mystery... and ultimately, joy.


1. Joni Mitchell - Blue
This one is so deep and purely from the soul — it stands the test of time. I love the understated production, of course the songs, and even just the sound of this record.

2. Randy Newman - Good Old Boys
Brilliant...the string arrangement on "Marie" is one of the finest expressions of sweet sadness I've ever heard in music.

3. Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour
It had Penny Lane on many of the Beatles records would qualify!

4. Jennifer Warnes - Famous Blue Raincoat
Singing the songs of Leonard Cohen. Two masters coming together! Her voice on 'Song of Bernadette' is so exquisitely beautiful.

5. Ella Fitzgerald - 30 by Ella
This is Ella pared down with a trio going from one song to the next...great songs...and of course her voice!

As I've compiled this list I realize all the many I had to leave's not possible! Artists like James Taylor, Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Sting, The Jackson 5, Aretha, all the Motown artists, etc and on and on...have influenced me and been my favorites.

Beth at piano

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