Beth Nielsen Chapman Interview

Beth Nielsen Chapman was born in Texas in the 1958. In 1976, Chapman was playing in Montgomery, Alabama with the group Harmony for whom she played acoustic guitar and piano as well as singing. She later achieved success as a songwriter in her own right with many artists recording her songs. Beth has released 12 solo albums since 1980. The latest titled Uncovered came out this year.

When you started as a musician, who were your main influences?

Being brought up in an air force family we moved every few years all through my childhood. I think I was exposed to so many more types of music and culture.  But when I was around 11 or 12 and starting to write songs, I would say I was hugely influenced by the late 60’s troubadours to the singer-songwriters of the 70’s. Also, by then I was already dialled in on the great song writing of the 30s and 40s by way of my parent’s record player! Then throw in the Beatles and stir! 

Did you find it hard to gain a foothold in the industry when you started out and what was your first big break?

Initially in my late teens I found myself already signed to a publishing/artist agreement,  not a very good one.  But by 1980 I had signed with Screen Gems Publishing and Capitol Records.   I recorded my first record at the legendary Muscle Shoals sound studio with Barry Beckett producing.  The record came out at the same time as the huge blastoff of disco.  So it wasn’t to be my time. Ten years later I put out my second record on Warner Reprise,  so I guess you could say it as a long process!

With 10 studio recordings, spanning 20 plus years, what changes have you noticed in your approach to song writing over the time?

I teach a lot around the process of song writing. And I continue to re-learn myself that (the) best approach to song writing is always from a childlike place of play and openness. So after all the years of writing I’m still courting that fresh intuitive step off into the “unknown”.

Do your early songs stand the test of time or do you ever wish to review them and bring the perspective of an older view to bear, in hindsight?

In my very early songs there are a few gems I think still hold up today. But most are me trying things, and though they are good, there is still a lack of consolidation for the idea or what the song exists to say. Not that they all have to be super important, but there is an element of coherence and focus in a great song—no matter the subject matter---that illuminates it clearly and resonates. I don’t feel drawn to go back and rewrite from an older perspective. Too busy writing from now!

You have written many songs for other artists; Bonnie Raitt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Faith Hill, Waylon Jennings and Martina McBride to name just a few. Tell me about the challenges here and how you got started on this road

Not sure I understand the question; the challenges of having my songs recorded by these artists?  None whatsoever!

When you tour and hear your creative muse affirmed and celebrated by admirers all over the globe, how do you feel and does the affirmation encourage you to continue playing live?

All of the above! Performing feeds writing and writing feeds performing and both feed me!

I have heard you say that the creative spark flows through you when you open yourself to the opportunity – is this the secret to successful song-writing?

I believe that creativity is like air.  Like oxygen. It’s there for everyone to tap into and pull through the filter of each person’s perspective, history and heart. It’s like a flow that washes through us as we breathe it in and breathe it out with our renderings. Just like some people can take a deeper breath than others, I believe some of us are breathing into our creativity much more shallowly than we have to. There are many reasons for this, from being damaged, or discouraged, or being caught up in a belief that they are “not creative” masses of people live their lives defining themselves this way and by doing so limit their own experience of the “divine intervention” of the creative flow. Nothing pleases me more than seeing someone shift out of this prison and start to experience their birthright as a creative person.

If you have a unique insight into the creative firmament, it lies in the fact that so many artists have wanted your song-writing talents and a guiding hand – is this ever daunting?

Hmmm….well I do feel very fortunate to have had some incredible artists record my songs. It’s always a thrill and I’ve never had any feeling whatsoever of it being daunting. I’ve also enjoyed co-writing with some of those artists. But most are really great songwriters and don’t need me to write with them. But it’s such a blast to write together! 

You are very generous with your gifts and have mentored many young musicians over the course of your career. When I look at a local talent like Ruth Trimble, who now tours and plays with you on a regular basis; what does it take for artists like this to break through the queue of talented hopefuls to sit at the commercial table for the feast?

It takes great songs or the potential for great songs and also it takes a very centered good head on their shoulders. Ruth is very rooted and a joy to work with.I often tell her the biggest threat to me (who’s now grown to depend on her organizational skills!) IS the fact that she’s a very talented artist and writer and it won’t be long ‘til she’s going to be doing the full time “Ruth Trimble” career! Learning about the business is essential to a long successful career in music,  that and producing great music -  both very different muscles, but both important in the long run. It’s rare to find someone so young who’s got a command of both. But then Ruth was managing a Boots Pharmacy when I met her!  So coping with a tour is probably a walk in the park by comparison. Still she needs to make time to keep writing great songs. In other words….try to clone herself!  If only!

As an Irish Artist, how great a talent does Ruth Trimble have when compared to the long line of recognised singer-songwriters that you have worked with?

I’m not sure I’d make a distinction like “as an Irish Artist”. She stands on her own as uniquely talented and original. Where she can go with that is limitless.

You have toured Ireland previously and I wanted to ask about the reaction that you received to your body of work at the various shows?

I’ve always felt very welcomed by Ireland and aware of a deep appreciation for poetry and songs. It doesn’t get better than that!

You display a deep spirituality in your writing and you speak of the love of God in our lives. Given the cards that you have been dealt, with the death of your first husband and your battles against both breast cancer and a brain tumour; what do you draw on for continued strength along your journey?

I’m a very hopeful person generally and I have always felt deeply connected in my beliefs and at the same time have, even as a little girl, always believed that all cultures and paths of faith reflect back from the same source of spirit. (It is)as if humanity was a big diamond with lots of different angles, but one big gorgeous light shining through it all. That comforts me and as I draw from my spiritual roots for strength in my life~ and it also brings me a deep respect for other cultures and their way of celebrating their connection to the divine light of spirit. 

I wanted to ask about your approach to song writing, in that you can appear to write essentially from personal experience. Does this sensitivity and vulnerability, when you share difficult themes, challenge you in trying to strike an appropriate balance?

It’s interesting that in most writing the most specific incidental detail can illuminate and trigger a much broader emotion in a song. When trying to be broad or general a song ends up being very boring.  It’s the personal bits that connect folks to the stuff of life and the deeper meaning. I sort of write my way through my grief, joy and feelings. Even if not one of those songs ever went out the door, the writing of them has already had a value to me. Add in that a song can then go off into the world and lift someone else who hears it later and there’s the gift. 

Finally, having pleased your rural Irish fans with a recent tour, can we expect a return visit in the near future?

Yes!  I’m thrilled to be working with a great company MCD and Mission PR and will be back in September 27th performing at Whelan’s and there will be other gigs coming throughout the south around that time!

Interview by Paul McGee. Photograph by Vincent Lennon