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Interview: Beth Nielsen Chapman reflects on her career, the craft of writing and new album ‘Crazy Town’

We talk to the Hall of Famer about her new album, ‘Crazy Town’ and more.

Beth Nielson Chapman
Credit: Beth Nielson Chapman

Beth Nielsen Chapman is an artist with many accolades to her name: mega-hit ‘This Kiss’, sung by Faith Hill, was ASCAP’s 1999 Song of The Year, garnered a Grammy nomination and Nashville NAMMY’s 1999 Songwriter of the Year. Chapman has written songs performed by numerous artists including Trisha Yearwood, Tanya Tucker, Martina McBride, Alabama, Waylon Jennings and many other notable artists.

As an artist in her own right, Nielsen Chapman has been making albums for over 40 years and her latest release, her 15th studio album, ‘Crazy Town’ is out tomorrow, Friday 23rd September. We were thrilled to talk to her all about it and lots more besides.

You have a lovely home.

Well, thank you. This is not my home though, this is actually my manager’s home and I’m in Oxfordshire at the moment.  Over the pond, over in England. 

I write for a site in England, but I’m in the States. I’m outside of DC.

Oh, we’ve switched switched jobs, then, you’re in the States, and I’m in England!

With everything being on the internet now you can do anything from anywhere. Did you have some experience doing more stuff online? With everything being shut down?

Absolutely. And you know, I got pretty good at writing songs on Zoom, which I never thought I could ever do. But you know, we adapt as we have to!

I went through the new album.  I can see how you’re you’re working through some of the things that happened to us all in the past two years, but you’re not explicit about your references to concrete and specific events. It’s more at a level of abstraction, where you’re connecting it to broader themes in a way that will allow it, I think, to speak to more to a more permanent audience.

Well, here’s the funny thing that happens with me, Mark. This is the fourth time I’ve put a record out. A lot of the record feels like it’s connected to the stuff that’s just happened but it was actually recorded in six days, right before we found out the pandemic was a thing and it was going to happen.

So we put all the songs down and then we were just going to roll on and keep finishing the record but then, all of a sudden, everything locked down. As we were finishing the record, I’d be listening to the songs and thinking, ‘Gosh, this doesn’t sound like we wrote this about this crazy stuff we’re going through right now’.

I put a record out in 2002, called ‘Deeper Still’ and if you listen to that record, you’d say “Oh, well, she obviously wrote this whole record after going through breast cancer,” which I did in 2000. I finished making the record and I was on the last day of mixing it when I found out I had breast cancer and had to go take a year off and go through all that. So, I don’t know why but I think it’s some kind of wacky way that I write ahead of life sometimes! That’s what’s happened on ‘Crazy Town’.

I can see in some of the stuff how it it probably leads back to stuff a few years ago. ‘Put A Woman In Charge’ strikes me as being a response to where we were politically still today, but also even more explicitly a few years ago, when we were stuck with the last guy.

It was definitely not so much a directly political, like, vote for this person song. I tend to write in a way that connects with things but not necessarily really hit the nail on the head.

I wrote that song with Keb’ Mo’, who is a brilliant artist and songwriter. He called me up and said, “Come over here, we need to get you, we need to get a woman. We need to get a woman involved on this song.” He was writing it with John Lewis Parker, who he writes a lot with and I love that. When we were writing that song, you know, he really wanted it to be more about the humanitarian side of, “Hey, guys, let’s put a woman in charge. Since we haven’t really tried that idea before!” I think when you can entertain people and get a little message in there, it goes a little farther than when you just say, here’s what I think, you know?

The songs you write really range over such a wide variety of styles and genres. And you in your own recordings have moved around a bit. And I noticed as I was going through your stuff that you have, over time, revisited some songs, you’ve sort of done them in in ways that are not radically different, necessarily. But, you know, they, I could see where you’re exploring maybe slightly different emotional tones. And, you know, in that cave somewhat through the mixing and the instrumentation, and yeah, and I noticed was on Hearts of Glass you went back to “Life Holds On,” which is all the way from that first album. And it’s it’s a different the arrangement brings out a different vibe to it.

Yeah, I really loved that. I was working with the producer, Sam Ashworth. He’s a young man, he’s like my son’s age, in his late 30s, early 40s, and I really kind of loved that I had all these new songs but John was like, “I’d really love to do this one, you know, and it was “Life Holds On” or “Child Again” or “Dancer To The Drum,” I think were three of the ones that we did that had been songs that I had put out before.

It was an opportunity for me to kind of let go and really let someone who’d heard the song from a production standpoint totally different than what I had already gotten used to. So I loved doing that. I love that record.

It brought me into this adventure with my old songs and it prepared me for the record that I would make with Ray Kennedy. I’m an old control freak and I really had a great experience with Sam, letting go and just enjoying what he did with the songs. So when I worked with Ray, I let him pick the band and I just walked in and we just knocked out the whole album. We cut 17 tracks in six days and then we had to hone that down to 12 or 11. I don’t know how many is on there but it was an amazing experience because I just had this letting go kind of thing, perfected, by the time we went in and did ‘Crazy Town’.

Ray [Kennedy] knows what he’s doing. He’s produced some great records. Can you talk a little bit about working with Ray?

Absolutely. He’s so knowledgeable and he’s also always very attuned to the artist, because he wants to find out what the artist wants even before the artist knows what it is. These were all new songs, most of which I hadn’t ever recorded before. And as even as we went through songs, we picked songs out – we sort of did that together. We had a number of songs picked out — I think we had 12 songs picked out — and once we got in there, by day three, I was remembering other songs that I forgot that I wrote that were in my computer, and they were on the bathroom wall!

I had songs everywhere that had fallen out of me in different places and times and I just ended up coming in and going, “Well, I had this other song too.”

He was always super accessible, too. “Well, let’s cut that one. Do you have any? Are there any other songs? You’re gonna bring it here? Where are you finding the songs?” It could have gone on for days. I mean, you know, we did 17 of them and they all came out so good. I’ve got half of my next record already recorded!

So, anyway, working with Ray is great. He’s also an artist and a songwriter, so he gets a lot of the inner workings of the brain of an artist and a songwriter. He just is an absolute technical genius of sound.  He has this board that, when you put anything through his board, it sounds way better. It’s all got kind of crazy things connected, he’d have to explain it to you. But it’s just like magic!

You mentioned  that you’ve learned to let go to some extent and get a little bit past being a control freak. Do you think some of that comes with age and experience and having gone through some of the things that you’ve gone through that are some pretty heavy stuff?

I think some of that is definitely in there. I noticed when I went through breast cancer in 2000 and all my hair fell out. I went through this really, very difficult period of time, going through treatments, not feeling well. When I came back out of that and I started to get my hair growing back in. I was just starting to feel more like myself, again but I had let go of a lot of stuff that used to really distract me.

My whole world became much clearer because of it. When you’re at the end of your treatment, they go, “Well, you’re cancer free. So go on back to your life and good luck.” And you know, it’s very like, “Well, okay, if there’s nothing else I need to do. Is there anything else I forgot? Should I take any more medicine?” They’re like, “Nope, you’re good to go.” Then the next year is like, okay, and you really realise how much you can waste time if you’re not conscious about what’s important and what’s not important in life.

So I got less bogged down in a lot of things post each trauma of my life. I definitely would say, as you get older, I think that’s a natural process for most people. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the collective grief that we are like way down with right now from having gone through two years of all the stuff.

Some people have had immediate, direct trauma from losing family members, others have just been over here, seeing that happen over there.  I mean, globally, collectively, as we maybe, hopefully, get out of the dangerous part of it. I think we’re sort of heading that way now but there’s going to be this lull and then I think there’s going to be a whole lot of grief coming up.

I think that’s the reason I wanted this record to be sort of entertaining and fun to listen to. There’s a couple of ballads and tear jerkers on there but for the most part, I wanted it to feel like one of those records that you put on and you just groove along with it. You just go “Yep, things are crazy. Let’s keep going!”

I sometimes come back to a David Lynch, quote: “Why do people expect things to make sense? Life doesn’t make sense.”

I like that quote. I’m going to use that quote.

I think it was actually more along the lines of, “Why do you expect my movies to make sense when life doesn’t make sense?”

There you go.

Over the years, has the writing process changed for you?

That’s a really good question. I feel like when I am really in the right place to start a new song, I’m back where I was when I was 11, when I didn’t know what I was doing. That, to me, is the sweet spot, because that’s where you stay young as a writer. I do have a lot more knowledge and experience in what to do as a song progresses and how to make it airtight, hopefully, and really make it good.

To get back to the beginning of writing a song – I’m always stressing this to my students when I’m teaching workshops – if you come to my workshop to try to learn how to know how to write a song, I’m going to immediately tell you that we’re going to do the opposite of that. I’m going to teach you how to become comfortable not knowing what you’re doing while you’re just playing around and until something starts to bubble up. The song will lead you, if you let it.

I think if I’ve learned anything now more than what I knew back when I first started, then it’s letting go more and more and more and more. Less control at the beginning of the writing of the song; less judgment.  I write everything down. I’ll sit there, play the target, blahdy blahdy, blah, and I’ll just throw all sorts of weird, stupid lines around until something goes, “Oh, wait, that wasn’t bad.”  Being able to be free flowing like that that’s where you get the good stuff!

Rodney Crowell said almost exactly the same thing about letting  the songs be what they want to be. If you just wait, they will tell you. That was some genius advice I used to be hold my foot down on the gas all the time with my stories, and I’d be like, I have to drive forward every day. I learned, If I’m not on a deadline, there’s no real reason to keep my foot on the gas pedal. To just keep driving myself forward relentlessly, it doesn’t really serve my state of mind. And it doesn’t necessarily make for better work. Sometimes you have to just let things stew in your mind. And eventually, they, they sort themselves out.

I think the longest I’ve had a song on the burner, on the back burner, from not finishing it, but still loving it and wanting it to be finished, but it’s not finished yet, and I can’t seem to make it be finished is 18 years: “Epitaph For Love,” on my ‘Hearts of Glass’ album. It was 18 years from the time I started the song till I was finally satisfied that it was done!

That’s a beautiful part of the writing process where you just have to show up. The show up muscle is  the most important songwriting muscle ;just showing up to do it and saying, “Okay, I’m going to spend 30 minutes, I’m going to look at this thing, I’m gonna see what happens.” 

I tell my students, “If you sat there for an hour, and nothing happened that you liked or nothing, no forward movement, no progress, instead of looking at that as a waste of time, look at that as probably the toughest workout you could ever do.” That’s building a muscle that’s going to make your songwriting better, because you hung out with nothing happening and you tolerated nothing happening for a period of time. It’s like lifting 3000 pounds of weight in the gym of creativity. It’s like, “Oh, I’m gonna go by myself, Sunday or something to celebrate that I did that.”

When you encounter a wall, the best solution is not to try to drive through the wall. Sometimes you have to go around, sometimes you have to divert yourself, work on something else.  Every Wednesday, my writers circle does writing to prompts. I’m pretty religious about showing up for that.  You may just get a phrase or something in there that will pop into your mind. And you find that it leads to other things. You have to be open and let these these little keys sort of unlock. 

I’ve been kind of foraying into the world of writing, working on writing my life story, which I’ve been putting off for years.  One of my best friends was a book agent, and she died last summer. She was ill for a long time with metastatic breast cancer. She planned way ahead. She had what you would call a beautiful death. She had a lot of preparation. She was ready. But one of the last conversations I had with her was,  well, for years, she’d pestered me about writing my memoir. She said, “I have a dying wish for you.” I was like, “Oh, what is it?” “You have to promise me, you’ll be just open to writing your memoir.”

So, I started just being open to it. I’ve been writing these little stories from my life, not trying to bite off too much, because I don’t know what I’m doing. It was fascinating to me.  You probably already know this, but I’ve never tried to do that before. As I would start to write about something, I would suddenly remember things I hadn’t thought about that. I didn’t even remember that I remembered.

If you try to fit things into a very narrow box, you lose some stuff, it can make it harder to figure out what exactly to do with some of the stuff. If you try to hem yourself in, it creates some real boundaries.

I was born and raised on Air Force Bases up until I was a teenager. So I moved all around. We lived in Germany and we did all this traveling. I remember, just, of course, it was also the 60s as I was growing up as a child, and all the music was all on one radio station – it was a melting pot of great songs from all different styles.

I’ve never thought of myself as any kind of one thing of any style. I’ve done the most wild albums — I did an album in 2004 that was all in Latin. Then I did have a record in nine different languages in 2007, from songs of all different faiths.

Did you have to learn languages to pull that off?

I don’t speak any other languages. But I sang in 9 different languages on that on that record, and it was Hindi, Hebrew, Farsi and Welsh! It took 10 years to make that record. I did a children’s record about astronomy with a guy named Rocky Alvey who runs the observatory in Nashville! He wrote most of the lyrics I wrote the music – that got nominated for Grammy! I ended up being the only person invited to the JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory] lab that didn’t have a blue shirt on and a PhD  in astronomy!

My adventures have been amazing from just going and doing whatever I want to do. Part of the reason I’ve been able to do that is because my songs have been recorded by other artists and then I’ve had some big hits. That’s provided me a little bit of a base source of income so I can go off and be a crazy artist and do whatever I want.

I’m Jewish, and I grew up singing a lot in Hebrew and Aramaic. The meters and the measures are different when you switch to different languages. I’m not a bad singer, but English is almost a second language when I’m trying to sing. I took a classics sequence in college. When they try to translate Homer, there are all these issues you get into, because Greek has entirely different meter structures from English.

I found it really grew parts of my brain out way farther than it ever had to grow out before. When I was doing research for what song I was going to do in Hebrew, I found some beautiful pieces of music. Of course, I’m not going to remember the names of them now because this was back in 2007, but they were beautiful pieces of music.

There’s a gentleman that was Jewish, who was going to be the producer with me on that track, Gary Malkin, and he’s like, “OK, yeah, this is a beautiful piece, but it’s really reserved for the high ceremonies and  it wouldn’t really be appropriate to just to take it out of that context and put it on your record alongside of all these others.” I wanted to be very respectful so then he started playing this beautiful,  almost folk-like song – it’s a song, you probably know called “Shalom Alechem.”

Oh yeah, yeah. 

I started that one and that came out so beautiful. I was so grateful to him, because I, not knowing any better, could have easily picked that other song which might have been considered sacrilege to someone of that faith to do.

I ended up performing it at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London with a 100 voice choir and a string quartet!

It was just amazing to do that project. That’s the part of the adventure to me. I want to do all kinds of different musical things. I don’t like anybody telling me I have to get this on country radio, or else it’s not going to ever see the light of day. Maybe it won’t see the light of day, but I’ll do it anyway!  I just follow my gut and my heart when I go on another musical journey.

You’re going to be in the UK, this fall, touring. You’re there now. Do you spend all the time over there?

Not all the time, no. I’ll be coming back. I’ve got quite a few things coming together. There’s a few dates in December that I’m going to do. Then in January and March, I’m going to hit the ground running in the US and do a tour of different sections. The USA is so big after doing the UK. I’ll do a West Coast tour and an East Coast tour and something in the middle. I’ll be doing a lot of touring behind this record for the next year, which I’m excited about. I’m hoping that we don’t have any more interruptions to the possibility of doing that. I’ll probably do a tour in January, Scotland and Ireland, north and south, and see as much as I can of those beautiful countries.

Are there any favourite places you really enjoy hitting on the road?

All of those places I just named I’d love to go back to. Japan, as well. I love travelling and I love being able to perform my songs and find new audiences.

It’s hard to pick one because they’re all so different. I’ve had some amazing shows in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. It’s been amazing!

One obligatory question I want to ask is, What did you do to get through these past couple of years, when you were kind of stuck on your own? How did you make that time go by?

I actually learned pretty well to write on Zoom, which is not perfect, because so much of writing a song with another person is when you’re jamming with them and something happens between you.

The difference with Zoom is you have to wait, and they’ll play you what they’re doing and then they have to stop. Then it’s a kind of taking turns thing because of the delay but I’ve been pretty successful with some of the stuff I’ve written on Zoom.

I’ve been continuing to write, I’ve been doing some work on this memoir but that’s going to be a long time in the process. Spending some time just being really quiet and still has been great — it’s good for people to do that, in general I think.

I now have two little grandsons, so I spend time worrying about them. They’re doing great, they, all of my my family have been pretty lucky throughout the pandemic. It was such a surreal experience that sometimes I look back and go ‘Did that really happen?’

 There’s still the possibility that we’ll go through some more waves but, hopefully, we have enough people that are vaccinated and enough folks with immunity from either vaccinations or people that have been sick already to, hopefully, put behind us the the more intense kinds of experiences with this thing. I do think there’s going to be a big wave of grief, collective grief at some point in the near future though.

 I’m not single anymore, as of the last few weeks. But I was through most of the pandemic, living on my own in a 700 square foot apartment, basically being home all the time. There were always things that I could occupy myself with. But there were times when I just got to what I called a motivational dead end:  I’m out of steam. The stress of having to keep myself occupied and entertained, all the time really got to be a lot, and I’m not someone who’s the most social butterfly. But, man, you really start to appreciate how much you need to be around people.

This new record, I feel like it’s so ironic, that it sounds like something where I thought of all that as I went through the pandemic as well but a lot of the songs will feel like that – it’s been wonderful to get it finished. I’m really looking forward to being out on tour and being out singing the songs. Maybe it’ll help take away some of the crazy!

Beth Nielson Chapman’s ‘Crazy Town’ album is released on Friday 23rd September

Her UK tour dates can be found on her website.

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