Interview Austin Songwriter Group
Interview BBC 2 Radio, March 1998
An interview with Beth Nielsen Chapman I found at the Austin Songwriter Group website.
Of all the writers I've interviewed, I don't think I've met any more articulate
than Beth Nielsen Chapman. The precision and passion of her lyric writing spill over into her
conversation. Charismatic, intelligent, with a natural, subtle elegance in the poetry of her
Alabama-tinged manner of speaking, she might seem an angel were it not for her hard head for
business. For Beth is a multiplatinum songwriter for Trisha (2 hit singles), Tanya, Amy, Willie,
and probably everyone else who's on a first-name basis with the public. Prior to this interview she
had spoken to the ASG's monthly audience following the Texas School of Songwriting 1996 for an hour
and a half. That following two exhausting days of helping guide TSS 96 students through the process
of lyric writing and composition. She illustrated her talk to the ASG with performances-with equal
skill on guitar and keys-of some of her own emotional material. Despite a scheduling mixup she was
gracious enough to do this interview. She kept up the pace well into the evening, socializing and
dining with various members of our Group. And in that tirelessness, I believe, lies the secret to
Beth Nielsen Chapman: her tenacious pursuit of-well, not success so much as great music. She has
amassed for her publishers-and, lately, herself as publisher-several different immense, high-quality
catalogs. This while finding time to be a mother and to tour as a Warner/Reprise recording artist in
her own right. An idyllic life, except that Beth's life was wrenched by the loss of her husband of
many years to cancer not very long ago. The heartbreaking songs she wrote as therapy, not for their
commercial potential, are today being regarded as some of her finest work. If you're brilliant,
according to Beth, all the rules (like having to live in Nashville) go out the window. She is far
too well bred to pin the label brilliant on herself, so we'll just let the platinum records on which
her song appear gleam for themselves.
ASG: You seem more concerned with writing great songs, and they turn out to be commercial, than with writing commercial songs. Is that a fair impression?
Chapman: Yeah, I'd rather write great songs because the word "commercial" is so subjective. -So is "great."
ASG: I guess what I'm getting at is, while you're writing, you're writing something you feel is a quality song, rather than worrying, "Is this going to sell a million?"
Chapman: ... You're right. The focus that I've had has been ... I wanted to write something that, if I heard it, [I'd say] God! I wish I'd written it. And there've been a lot of really commercially successful songs that I don't feel that way about. So I'm really just trying to write the songs that I would feel that way about if I were hearing them. Just from the song standpoint.
ASG: You spoke a little about this in your talk, but I want to explore it a little further. How valuable is being in Nashville itself?
Chapman: It's very valuable if you're extremely interested in being enmeshed in the music business there. But I also qualify that by saying you don't have to be there. ... You know, the whole thing of being present to win? I think your odds of being able to compete are greater. But, if you're brilliant, all those rules go out the window.
ASG: Would you say it's more important for someone from a city that's not a regional music center like [Beth's former hometown] Mobile to go ahead and head to Nashville than for someone who's in a regional music center like Austin, Texas?
Chapman: Yes, I think you're much better off in Austin than you are in Mobile. And, to tell you the truth, I had never really spent any time in Austin. And I went out to a couple of clubs during the couple of days I was here and I was really impressed with the realness of the music that was here. I enjoyed the, ... the way that the music sort of breeds on its own, without the industry rules and regulations. And I think that probably puts the music in a better position to grow into something purely out of somebody's heart. And if I were, like, the head of a record label I would be hanging out down here a lot, you know?
ASG: Well, we've got two major labels here now.
Chapman: ... Yeah, there you go. I think it's really undeniable when you have that much talent in one place, the world will come to you. If you want to be able to hang out with and meet, like the country producers that are hanging out in Nashville, then the best way to do that is to go to Nashville and meet them. If you just want to write great songs purely from your own life and you're going to be the next Beatles, or you're going to be the next whatever, ... you don't have to go to Nashville to do that.
ASG: That leads me to my next question: Could you comment on the importance of the Bluebird in Nashville?
Chapman: I think of the Bluebird as sort of the Town Hall, the meeting place of the local songwriter, of every level. The last time I played at the Bluebird, well the second to last time I played at the Bluebird, there was me, Rodney Crowell, J. D. Souther, and Larry John McNally from New York. And in the audience was Amy Grant and Vince Gill and-you know, they just happened to be in town. And there's a real feeling of community and sharing ... it's just a real natural thing. It's a really nice thing. The Bluebird has a vibe to it of just very easygoing about people stopping in. I don't know, it's been a place I've played regularly over the past couple of years when I haven't been out touring and, you know, it's been a great place for me.
ASG: Obviously it's unique in Nashville. Are there other places that are somewhat like it, but maybe more up-and-coming?
Chapman: Oh, there's lots of really cool singer-songwriter venues where people are playing around. ... There's several the Bluebird just kinda set the tone and started it off.
ASG: Other than the Bluebird ... you don't spend much time out touring in support of your albums?
Chapman: Well, I haven't been out performing because I haven't had an album out in about three years. But I haven't toured a lot. Part of it has just been circumstances; it's not that I haven't wanted to and I intend to tour on this next record coming out in the spring.
ASG: It's on Warner/Reprise, is that right?
ASG: And they expect it of you, I imagine, right?
Chapman: Well, they're always glad when an artist gets out and works.
ASG: They're glad.
Chapman: They're glad, yeah. They don't demand it; they're really an artist-oriented label. But it helps. I mean, I very much want the record to be heard. So I'm happy to go out and help promote it.
ASG: You write for some of today's most reputable female vocalists, like Trisha Yearwood. ... When you release one of your own albums do you feel like you're competing on their ground somehow? And, if so, how does that make you feel? As a vocalist, I mean.
Chapman: Yeah, I don't ever feel like I'm competing because I feel like we're really different and I'm just so happy that they cut my songs! I put out my own record and "Down on My Knees" was one of the songs on the record. My version was more pop. And also another song called "You Say You Will But You Never Do." And Trisha cut both of those songs and put them on her album that came out about the same time. Both of hers became singles. And they had steel guitar and mine had B3 ... So her rendition was more country and my rendition was more pop.
ASG: Now today a "single" doesn't really sell much as a CD single. Does that mean that's singled out for radio airplay?
Chapman: I think, a single, meaning it just went onto the radio. ... They put both of those songs out and they were both hits for her. ... It really was a great thing for me; neither one was a single off my record. Um, I don't feel a competition; I would absolutely invite any female singer-and males!
ASG: Do you ever write for males?
Chapman: Oh, yeah, I had a hit with Don Williams and I had "Nothin' I Can Do About It Now" for Willie. I had a #1 hit with a song called "Here We Are" that I wrote with Vince Gill for Alabama.
ASG: When you write songs for males, are you trying to imagine life from a male persona, or do you just write something that feels good to you and it turns out that could suit a male performer?
Chapman: Well, I try to keep the character and color it in a certain way. Like when I wrote "Nothin' I Can Do About It Now" I was really pulling things from my own life, but I sort of put it into the language that I thought Willie would use. And Waylon Jennings also-when he heard that song he wound up asking me if I would write another song, [one] that he recorded on his record at the time. It wasn't a single; ... it was a song called "Old Church Hymns and Nursery Rhymes." And, at the time, he was just in this place, you know, I just happened to tap into this place in his life when he was being more refiective and the song was really laid back and was not a big outlaw song ... I would have no business writing an outlaw song. But I did have something to say that I sensed about where Waylon was at on some other levels. So I try never to write something that I don't emotionally have some knowledge of. Otherwise it just really sucks. You know, you have to really write from your own truth. But a lot of songs that guys end up doing, I didn't necessarily write male or female; they just wind up being recorded by males.
ASG: It seems like you have an enormous body of work. I mean, you've talked about catalogs of over 100 songs, and that's just in one particular catalog. Is that really all drawn from yourself, or do you observe other people and say, "I wonder how he's feeling; he must be thinking such-and-such."
Chapman: Well, I definitely draw from other people but I put myself in their position. So my self is always in there. And what makes me choose a certain person's life to draw from has usually got to do with [whether] it's a refiection back on my own life in. So you can't really escape it, you know. You're really always just trying to work through your own stuff [laughs].
ASG: Of course since you lost your husband you've had reason to write a lot of heartbreaking songs, but some of the heartbreaking songs that you sang today came from before, when you were in a stable, committed relationship. How does one write heartbreaking, heartrending, passionate songs while in a long-term, stable, family-oriented relationship?
Chapman: Well, I'm not sure which song. Like I sang a song called "Say It to Me Now"-is that one that you-
ASG: And that did come out of your relationship, didn't it?
Chapman: My relationship in-it was sort of a broader view than was in my relationship, but it's really about-that song's about intimacy, about feeling like you're not really connected with the person that, you know, you can be married to someone and all of a sudden you wake up one day and you go to yourself, "Wait a minute! We're not really connecting."
ASG: Sure. But we know Nashville thrives on songs about people leaving people.
Chapman: Yeah. Well, I can always-I can write cheatin' songs; I can put myself in those different places because of different things in my life from a long time ago.
ASG: Right. And so it's partly a kind of empathy with characters that aren't just yourself.
ASG: Do you feel that's essential to being a songwriter for other people-because you're generally expected to put out a large volume and you're expected to do it to fulfill contracts and so on; if you just waited for every time you felt like crying you wouldn't necessarily come up with something you could use.
Chapman: Yeah. I mean I just do it every way I can. ... It really depends on what's sort of comin' through. I try to keep the antenna dusted off.
ASG: In your talk you mostly focused on the creative aspect ... but how important is entrepreneurship to survival in the songwriting-music publishing world?
Chapman: Well, it's very important. Um, I think you just find your way along, and if you get any positive reinforcement to keep moving forward it's good to keep moving forward. If you don't get enough positive reinforcement-like if you're a guy and you've got 20 songs, and you've already called all the phone numbers, and you've already tried everything and nobody's liking what you did, then you've got to go, "Okay, I've got to look at what I've got here and try to get some objective advice." And there are a certain number of people that aren't cut out to do this. So you have to find out if you're one of them. You have to look at yourself at some point and go, "Well, am I going to do this out of the love of my heart and give people my songs for Christmas presents and play 'em at private parties and enjoy my creativity? I don't have to have Reba McEntire's next single." If you can be happy with where you're at, then, you know, that's probably a good thing.
ASG: Would you say don't pitch your stuff if you think, if you know, maybe, that it's not ready?
Chapman: No, I wouldn't say that, because I was at a point when, you know, I was practically forced to send a tape when my husband was, like, trying to get me off my butt and send a tape. And one of the songs on my tape that I had no belief in ended up being a #1 hit for Lorrie Morgan five years later, after moving to Nashville.
ASG: Could you elaborate on the utility of fake words [a topic that came up in her talk] of course "blah blah," but also words that you know won't be the final words in the draft of the song? What is it about the fake words that lets a person go forward? Is it that the vowels sound nice to sing, and things like that?
Chapman: Yeah, it's the vowels, really. My true belief, as far as I'm concerned, is that when a song is trying to be born it's inside of you, and it's already written. And one of my tools for ... getting into it is this leaping into nothingness of sound that I make ... out of my mouth. And over and over and over again through the years, it's just that the words just fall out of my mouth sometimes. And I'm not even in the room. I feel like I'm in sort of a-an inner space of trusting that it's worked before; I guess it's gonna work again. And I'll be goin' effneffneh, you know, they won't even be real words! They'll be over your dead body and da da buh da. And then it'll be, you know, instead of Over your dead body the ending line'll be I know it was somebody and maybe it was you. And that'll end up being like this big title, you know?
ASG: Uh, huh. And so what mattered was the "body," which suggested something else with a similar sound.
Chapman: It's-the vowel sounds of the lines often present themselves before the consonants. Only the people who have that happen themselves don't think I'm totally crazy.
Beth Nielsen Chapman interviewed by Richard Allinson. Broadcasted on Wednesday 18th, 1998 on BBC
2 radio. I want to thank Maureen for sending me the tape.
Richard: If you love music don't touch that dial. The woman that's sittin accross from us, fingers at the ready (?) is the multi-platinumtop 10 singer / songwriter from Alabama. "The woman who", and I am quoting now ", has a flair for creating music which resonates with a wide audience and also has an abilityto express musically her deepest personal feelings." I should have just said Beth Nielsen Chapman (BNC: Yeh), that would have said it all. How are you doing Beth? Welcome to radio 2.
Beth: I'm great, oh I'm ... I'm very happy to be here.
Richard: Now, how long are you with us for?
Beth: Well' I'll leave tomorrow ectually, go back to America, go back to Nashville after having been in Europe for about 10 days and eh I had agreat time, I went to Paris, Hamburg uhm Amsterdam and then I ended up here in London.
Richard: So why only 10 days this time?
Beth: Uhm just to kind of float through and say hello and figuring out where I'm coming back to cause I'm definitly coming back
Richard: Oh it's a reckie (?) ?
Beth: Yeh [Laughing]
Richard: The current album Sand And Water uhm it was out in December in this country. The single's called Sand and water, both have been raved upon by the critics. Uhm you obviously know this but Elton John has made it clear publicly that he is very moved. Sir Elton John who said he loves it and he has bee using Sand and water in place of Candle in the wind recently in his concert. You ust feel pretty good about that.
Beth: That's pretty much the high mark for a songwriter to have a songwriter like Elton John sing your song. It's been incredible uhm and I just didn't know what to say when he called me and ask if he would mind if I used uhm he used Sand and water on his North American tour last fall. Of course I said "Let me think about it . Ok" [laughing] oh it was great, it's been incredble. It brought a lot of attention to my record and I feel really touched because ofcourse like everyone else I was watching when he sang Candle in the wind at Diana's memorial service and uhm ... (?) was such an inpact. Her death impacted so many people and you know I lost my husband to cancer three and a half years ago so death has impacted me for quiet a while now and this whole album is sort of a journey through coming through loss and grieve and sort of re-birthing who Iam and moving forward in my live and re-discovering joy and ... it's a very helpfull album and there's a lot of comfort in there I think for people who are greaving.
Richard: What other people do your songs? Do you find more often than not that your own interpertations are the most meaningfull cause all the lyrics come ... you know from you deep down inside? Do you sometimes find that you are pleasantly surprised by someone else?
Beth: Yes I've been pleasantly surprised many times. I think if you had a really strong artist performing a song uhm they make it their own
I'm working on the rest of the transcription that will include a few Real Audio soundclip of Beth talking and singing live and some more photo's I took in Amsterdam. I will also make a transciption of the interview that was broadcasted one week later in which Beth talks about her song writing for other artists.
Don't forget to check this page in a couple of weeks ... uhm it all takes a bit longer then I thought, just added a few lines (it's now May 10th, 1998). Alex
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