Interview With Beth Nielsen Chapman

Ahead of shows in Belfast and Derry, Beth Nielsen Chapman talks to Folk and Tumble about her music and life.

Beth Nielsen Chapman has had her work covered by artists such as Elton John, Bette Midler, Neil Diamond, Barbara Mandrell, Michael McDonald, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Roberta Flack, Olivia Newton-John as well as numerous others. On the release of her 15th album, the wonderfully eclectic ‘Crazy Town’ and in the midst of a UK and Ireland tour, Beth took time out to talk to Folk and Tumble about the album, Loss, Creativity and her undaunted sense of optimism,

FT: So sorry to hear of your recent loss Beth

BNC:  Thank you

FT:  You’ve sadly suffered great loss in the past as well, Beth, and yet your music has served as a source of comfort for so many people at times of bereavement, and great sorrow in their lives. Is your music capable of providing you with some degree of consolation and support at a time of such great loss?

BNC:  Yes, I actually do. It’s interesting how songs I’ve sang for many years about going through loss, are now so applicable to where I find myself in this moment. It was very sudden, in a way, even though my husband had been ill for a couple of years with Leukaemia, suddenly it became very aggressive and he only had a few weeks left. It was a magical time that we spent going through those weeks, and I had these conversations with him, during that time, and I was debating whether to take a break, and just cancel everything. He just insisted. He said, if you feel you can do this, I think you should go out and just do what you do, and play your songs. I said what if I fall apart on stage, and he said, the people who come to hear your music will support you, and it will be fine, it will be better than not doing it.

I had a show, about 4 days after he passed, in the Franklyn Theatre, that was already set up, and I went ahead and did it, with a lot of support from my family and friends, and I’m so glad I did it. There were some moments, when I was pretty emotional, but overall, I sang those songs, and it felt very like what I should be doing. The audiences have been fantastic, at all the gigs I’ve done. I just played Glasgow last night at Celtic Connections, and the audience was just incredible. You know, not everyone knows the situation, so I get about three songs in, and then I just share it with them. And they are great about it. And I find that talking about it, is so much more healing than not talking about it, and it also gives other people who are going through their own losses the opportunity to open up about it. It is the kind of thing we all go through, at some point in our lives, we all go through loss. and have these things to navigate, and I am very grateful that my songs help other people, So I suppose to answer your question in a long-winded way, the songs actually help me as well.

FT:  I don’t think it was long-winded at all, I think it was a very brave thing for your husband to say, as well as showing your own bravery, and the power of song. Are there artists you listen to, in the ways others might listen to your songs for that degree of consolation we spoke about?

BNC:  Oh Absolutely. When I’m on my own, I listen to other people’s music for the same reason. I was listening to a beautiful song the other day, it’s one of my favourite songs by Mindy Smith, I can’t remember now, it’s off her first album? It has Angels in the title (‘Angels and Doves’). It’s just an incredibly beautiful song. So many great songs. I love listening to, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchel, Sting

I go back to my old favorite songs, and they really go back to that place of wonder about life, and how precious it is.

FT:  Beth If I could ask about the new album. Fantastic album too, The title is ‘Crazy Town’, but is it Crazy Town, or Crazy World? Is it a reflection of when we all are at this point in time?

FT:  Yeah. It’s interesting the way I got that phrase in my head, I was writing with a young songwriter, Gabe Rhodes, Kimmie Rhodes’s son, and we were working on a song called ‘Everywhere We Go’, and the line ‘Its Crazy town from coast to coast’, came up. And apparently, that is what young people say nowadays, ‘Man that’s crazy town’! It’s like everyone’s gone out of their minds. And I thought, that’s perfect for this album. So many of the songs on this album, are kind of, short, poppy, rocking songs, unlike a lot of my records, and I realised looking back on them, I realised how many of them sound almost as if they were written after the pandemic. A lot of the songs are about just trying to get through stuff, and trying to navigate the chaos. We recorded all the tracks and more, in six days with Ray Kennedy, a brilliant producer in Nashville, and two days later, Lockdown came in. So it was a bit crazy trying to finish the album, we had to respect careful protocols, and we had one musician come in at a time, everyone wearing masks, spraying them down. It was Crazy Town! (Laughs)

FT:  You’ve alluded to it in your answer already, but the album is a much more eclectic mix, is it fair to say? There are standout beautiful ballads, which are a given on BNC albums, but there are a lot of other sounds going on, poppy, and rock at times too. It’s a lot looser sound, perhaps that is what I’m suggesting?

BNC:  Yeah, Absolutely, and I love that about it. Working with Ray was great. He has a way of microphoning the instruments and vocals up, and capturing the sound, of me playing and singing at the same time, and just rolling through the tracks. Ray’s way of approaching it, is to capture the moment really quickly, and I think it really worked. What we captured, had a real energy to it, not dissimilar to when we play live. It’s a type of recording, I’m excited to keep doing. Basically, not take it so seriously, just roll in there, hit the button, and go, and try not to think about it.

 Part of it is, I’m 66 now and I don’t get bogged down anymore in the details, I just go for everything in the moment, and there’s a kind of letting go, which makes for better singing, and actually makes for better living as well.

FT:  Every now and then, I’m struck by a particular lyric, or one line in a song, which encapsulates so much in such a short number of words. There’s a lyric in ‘Everywhere We Go’, which says:

‘Cause the road less traveled is a freeway now’

Initially, I thought it was quite funny, but the more you think about it, it is such a clever line.

BNC: Yeah, you know, I think I should make a T-Shirt that says that! (laughs). There are people walking around who don’t think Climate change is happening, That’s my way of putting a little message in there.

FT:  I think it’s a beautifully succinct way of stating that ideas that were regarded as kind of ‘out there’ maybe 20 years ago, are now seen as scientific facts, and something that we need to act on. It’s a great line, on a great album.

BNC:  Well thank you.

FT: Can you explain the cover art of the album?

BNC:  Well I had the idea, not to put my face on the album, but I wasn’t sure what to have on it. I walk past a painting of the ‘beach painter’ in my house every day. The story behind the painting is my brother painted it for me, because my son, who at the time was 5, was at the beach, and he asked his dad and I, ‘How come the sand is white?’, And without missing a beat, my husband said, ‘Oh that’s because the sun comes out at 3 a.m. each morning, and the ‘beach painter’ has to repaint the beach. Which was cute at the time, but kinda ruined our vacation, as our 5-year-old was getting up at 3 o’clock each morning, to see if he could catch the ‘beach painter’.  My brother kinda made him look like Santa Claus. When my son asked him, and at 5 still believed in Santa Claus, my brother told him, ‘I think he’s Santa Claus’s Cousin actually’. (Laughs)

I put the city in the background there, with all the major skyscrapers in cities all around the world

FT:  You touched on this already, in a way, but ‘Crazy Town’ hits on issues that could be seen to be about people in Lockdown, yet it was recorded pre-pandemic, and another album, ‘Deeper Still’ reflects on many issues of loss, and matters that many fans would think were written about your health crisis and your fight against breast cancer, yet that album was again released before that battle.  Are you a fortune-teller?

BNC:  I think so. I think a lot of writers and artists do this, although it’s not so obvious all the time. I’ve been reading a fantastic book by the great producer, Rick Rubin called ‘The Creative Act’. You will love this book, I can tell just from talking to you. He talks about creativity and how this great well of wisdom is just sitting there, waiting for us to draw from it. Aside from being blown away by this book, and how he writes, I was also kind of annoyed at the same time, because he’s really written the book that I wanted to write right from out under me. I’ve talking and teaching about creativity for many years, and one of my own conclusions is that this thing, you don’t have creativity, you don’t own it. You can’t say one person is more creative than the other. You can say one person is acting on their creativity. We are in creativity. He’s just amazing in how he puts it into words. We tap into something all-inclusive of everything that has been, and will be. And I think we have access to some of that. Maybe fortune-tellers have their version of that. I’ve never known myself to have that skill, as a songwriter, but I definitely have something weird going on with that’s a person I’ve learned to accept it, and be grateful for it.

 I’ve had people ask, ‘If you writing a song about going through something terrible, do you not get paranoid about it’?  And I say, I hope it’s in the past, not the future, but you don’t have any control over it, so, I just go with it. (Laughs)

FT:  You’ve worked with, and had your songs covered by so many huge stars from Neil Diamond, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Emmylou Harris, and the wonderful Bonnie Raitt.

BNC: Oh! So many! I wouldn’t say no to Van Morrison, Annie Lennox, Or Sting. There are some amazing young artists, and I love working with other artists any chance I get, it’s just a joy. The list is endless

FT: So which do you prefer, Songwriting or performing?

BNC: I think they both feed each other. If someone held a gun to my head, I’d probably have to say Songwriting, but I do love performing though. I feel like I’m going to write songs as long as my brain is working, and I might be cranking out songs performing even as my voice is cracking. Might not be as much fun to listen to as I get older. I think the songwriting will feed my soul the most.

FT:  You faced amazing challenges and losses in your life, and yet, there’s a lilt in your voice, and you present such an optimistic outlook on life and a need to share those experiences and help others. Is it time to write the autobiography?

BNC: It’s so funny you mention that. One of my best friends who sadly passed last year was a book agent, who represented some huge names like Bishop Tutu, and even Jacqueline Kennedy back in the day. We were very good friends, and she would have pestered me to write my memoirs. Last year I visited her before she passed away, and she said ‘Okay, it’s time for me to tell you my dying wish is for you to write your memoir, promise me that you’ll start writing it’.

You know Mary Gauthier?

FT: Yes, incredible singer and songwriter.

BNC:  Well, Mary had just published her autobiography, and we were chatting away, and I asked ‘How the heck did you manage that’? The next day, Mary rang me and said, hey a friend of mine has just been diagnosed with Breast cancer, would you call her, just have a chat with her, maybe help her try and figure it out? So I did, and I had a lovely chat with this woman, and she was doing great, and at the end of the conversation, I asked her how ‘Well how do you know Mary’? And she said, oh I worked with her, and I teach people how to write their memoirs. So I ended up working with her for a year, so I have started. I’m writing little chapters, I’d have to take off six months to do it otherwise. But I’m enjoying it. I’ll pick a little story to tell, and as I’m writing it, I’ll remember other things, that I hadn’t thought about, like opening up an old dusty book, and looking inside again. So that’ll be coming. It might take me 10 years, but it’s coming! (Laughs)

FT:  There’s that element of serendipity, meeting that lady through Mary by doing a good deed. There’s something about you Beth! 

BNC:  I think it’s because I’m so dense, the universe has to kick me in the butt, ‘How about this for a coincidence’! (laughs)’m very much in the world, with a sense of wonder about the magic of it all. And even though I’m devastated, and I have my moments, falling apart over my loss of my husband, and worrying about things and all the people suffering, in the core of it all. I’m centred on not missing things that are important to do. I’m just grateful to be in the moment.  It’s getting more fun all the time. Aside from all the devastation, it’s been a blast!

FT:  That sounds like the title right there Beth.  Thank you for your time and optimism, and all the help and hope you’ve given to other people, and hopefully, with the help of family, friends, and lovers of your music, you’ll get through this difficult time.

BNC:  Oh they’ve been great. They’ve been absolutely wonderful.  I’m very grateful to the people who have been caring for me and checking in on me. I’m so grateful to be doing what I do, and as Bob said ‘Get on with it’. I feel very connected to both him and my first husband, it’s really interesting, I feel very lucky that I found love two times. Some people never find it at all.


Beth Nielsen Chapman plays Carlisle Road Methodist Church in Derry on Saturday 4th February and Theatre At The Mill in Newtownabbey on Sunday 5th February.