Interview with Beth Nielsen Chapman
Songs about vulnerability and strength.
That’s how Beth Nielsen Chapman describes her new album ‘Hearts of Glass’. She plays the Portico in Portaferry, Co. Down on 2nd April and The Waterfront Hall, Belfast on 3rd April. We asked about her latest album and how it felt to be inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
You were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame last year; the ultimate accomplishment, to have your work recognised in this way. What did that mean to you?
I think being inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame may be number one on my list of things to be honoured for it! At least professionally that is… These are the most creative and inspiring folks on the planet and my tribe! To receive this honour from them tops them all.
You’ve written songs for many major artists and household names from Bonnie Raitt to Bette Midler, Emmylou Harris to Elton John, Neil Diamond to Roberta Flack. How do you decide which songs to give away and which songs to keep for yourself?
I have never kept a song for myself that might have held some interest for any other artist. I have always been thrilled to have my songs covered and some of the artists that have covered them have been some of those who have influenced me the most. I go right ahead and record my own version of any song I feel drawn to putting on one of my albums. In 2014, I released ‘UnCovered’, which was a collection of my versions of songs that have been hits for other artists that I wrote. I perform these songs throughout the years in my concerts.
Do you have a personal favourite song of yours that has a) been recorded by another artist and b) from your own recorded catalogue?
Very tough question. There are so many covers of my songs that I have been so delighted with. Probably the one that stands out to me is ‘Peace’, which I wrote with Michael McDonald. As you well know he can sing the phonebook and make it sound absolutely spectacular but to hear him sing something I was a part of writing is truly medicine to the soul.
You openly share your creativity with others – in your many creativity workshops – it is in sharing your skill and musical gifts that you get so much back. What have you learned from teaching others?
I’m always learning when I’m teaching others. And I really do believe you can’t actually teach someone to write a song. You can show them some ways to get better at the craft and the analytical side of sculpting songs and making them better structurally. But in order to “download the clay” One has to be comfortable in a place of not knowing what’s going to happen next or not even knowing what you’re doing. That’s the precipice of creativity. So I think of myself more as a creativity whisperer or creativity midwife haha! I have all sorts of tricks up my sleeve to help people get their brains out of the way so that his other force of nature has a space to come in and magic happens even though sometimes when it’s first happening it doesn’t look all that magical. It can feel quite boring and like nothing much is happening when creativity is gearing itself up for something really big. Getting folks to hang out there and not give up and have fun with it is what I most focus on when I teach.
I read that in your creativity workshops that you “always end up talking about grief, and in my grief workshops I always end up talking about creativity” – that you view both as interwined in the healing process. How has your music and songwriting helped you heal through grief and loss?
Creativity and creating music especially has been my number one medicine for all things life!
You are a breast cancer survivor (we have that in common). That diagnosis throws you into a spin, a centrifuge that spills forth the full spectrum of human emotion and takes a woman through the five stages of grief. How did that experience change your life and impact on your songwriting? Did you address it directly, or via more subtle means?
I was creating an entire album called ‘Deeper Still’ and putting the finishing touches on it when I found out I had breast cancer in late 2000. It was a shock to me and it was especially illuminating to look at the songs I had just recorded and realize that the whole album sounded like it was written after going through breast cancer, not before. It brought me a great deal of comfort to know that on some level my spirit was preparing me for that journey.
I often write songs and I’m working on them not knowing what they’re about and then something in my life will happen which will be what the song is about. Happens all the time and it’s quite curious.
Your latest album ‘Hearts of Glass’ is not only a collection of beautiful songs, but is an album of emotional contrast – from the upbeat, up tempo opening tack ‘Come To Me’, love songs such as ‘Enough For Me’ and ‘You’re Still My Valentine’ to the darker, pain infused ‘Rage On Rage’ and the poignant imagery in ‘Epitaph for Love’. Did you set out to explore these themes or was it simply that these contrasting songs emerged in your creative process?
I work for the young producer named Sam Ashworth who is very involved in helping me sort through what songs were going to go on this album. It was a wonderful experience for me to let go of the reins a little bit and incorporate another viewpoint of someone was a strong sense of songs.
As the list came together I felt like the common thread with the songs was actually the contrast between vulnerability and strength which to me is what the heart is all about.
This is also a reflective and retrospective album in some ways – I felt a sense of reminiscence and nostalgia – particularly in the songs ‘Old Church Hymns and Nursery Rhymes’ and ‘Child Again’, about an old lady in a nursing home. Your lyrics here are so beautifully moving. Do you feel that your songwriting is influenced by your life stages, in that you draw from both the present experience and from reflecting back on far-flung times?
I don’t seem to have any times zones when I’m writing a song. Which is good because they seem to hold up over time! I was drawn to re-recording a few old favourites of mine that were on earlier albums in the early 90s. I love those versions of the songs as well but they were heavily produced at a time when that was just the thing that was done. I wanted to sort of strip them back and reveal the songs with less around it.
‘Church Hymns…’ is one of my favourites and it’s a song I have never done my own version of on any album. Waylon Jennings made a beautiful version which he recorded with his daughter Jennifer singing background vocals.
You’ve been a recording artist since 1976. You will have seen some changes over four decades. What has changed and what has stayed the same?
So much has changed in the business it’s beyond possible to even begin to sum that up. There is a glaring mistake of our times in which the creative community has had the bottom dropped out from under them and the profession of songwriting has been in dire straits since Napster days ensued. I am hopeful that this is in the process of getting rectified somewhat but what I tell my students is “write anyway” because the reason to write is much deeper than the economic rewards for the possibility for success. It’s really important to separate those two in order to do your best work I believe.
As much as things have changed and been upended from the business side, the creative side to me never changes. I believe every human being is born with access to the same amount of creative flow as anyone else. Some of us are more creatively active than others depending on how we were raised, how much confidence we have, life stuff that happens etc. but creativity itself is like the air – it’s just hanging out waiting for you to breathe it in. If you’re not getting enough oxygen the problem is usually internal in someway— if we are both standing in the same room with the same amount of oxygen in the air between us. I have found that once I can get this thought across to folks who have never felt that they “were creative” it is often as if a lightbulb goes off or as I like to say “the pilot light gets lit” and it’s so much fun to see the energy unfold within them to realize they just have to get moving with this creativity thing and it’s going to be fun! That never changes.”
Finally, if you could summarise ‘Hearts of Glass’ in five words, what would they be?
Songs about vulnerability and strength.