As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 7
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote of the five stages of grief; Beth Nielsen Chapman turned them into an album, Sand and Water , a journey through mourning that she created in the aftermath of losing her first husband, Ernest, to cancer. It wasn’t her only gift to the brokenhearted. “Child Again,” “Emily,” and so many others in her vast, decades-long repertoire explore loss, sorrow, and pain. But Chapman also knows great joy, love, and the delights of a life well lived, and those songs, too, are part of her acclaimed catalog.
Cover photo by Patricia O’Driscoll
A prodigious writer, Chapman has a wealth of songs archived. However, in 2018, she decided to explore songs from her past and give them new life in a “less is more” package. Hearts of Glass features stripped-down, recorded versions of some of her classics alongside several new tracks. The project was both effortless and challenging, as she took a leap of faith in handing the reins to producer Sam Ashworth, relinquishing control — an admitted tremendous step — while at the same time freeing herself from micromanaging the process.
Chapman was in Michigan, wrapping up a “mini-tour” with The Accidentals and singer/songwriter May Erlewine when she spoke at length with Guitar Girl Magazine. The artists were performing together in the round, “telling stories about how we wrote songs, singing on each other’s songs, and trading songs, and it’s been so much fun,” she said. “We cry and laugh, and the night goes by so fast. It’s been a great time. We have a couple more shows, and then I’m heading off to another SongwritingWith:Soldiers.”
This project is different in many ways, yet the same in that some of the material appeared on previous albums. Does it feel like new material, or does it feel like revisiting material?
Overall on the album, four or five songs are new, so they’re always wonderful to have. I had plentiful amounts of new songs, but I started working with Sam Ashworth, and he’s a brilliant young man, a very talented up-and-coming producer; he also cowrote a song for H.E.R. and he’s having success with that. He started going through my catalog and we decided to make a record including looking back, seeing if there was anything I wanted to revisit, and giving it a fresh palette. I love the original versions of all the songs, but it was the early ’90s and there are a lot of synthesizers and a lot of production. I wanted to carve all of that away and get back to the songs.
It was probably the first time in thirty years that I decided I was not going to “helicopter mom” the producer. I decided I was going to turn it over to him. His father is Charlie Peacock, and I was originally making the record with him, but our schedules couldn’t work, so he suggested his son, and I’m so glad I went with that. It was wonderful to let go, and he did a fantastic job. What he put in there only served the songs, and I love how sparse it is. That’s one of my favorite things about it.
What are your thoughts on the state of the music industry? We hear and read a lot of complaints that “back in the day, songs were better,” as if to say that good songwriting no longer exists. Is that fair, or is that just romanticizing the past? Where do you fit in all of this?
I never pay attention to what’s out there. I pay attention to great songs, but I don’t pay attention to what clothes they’re dressed up in. My love affair with songs is sacrosanct, and I don’t know that I’ve ever thought much about doing what everybody else is doing at the moment. I’ve always been my own rudder in whatever direction. I look at the Blue album by Joni Mitchell, and early Bob Dylan and those are timeless records. They can belong in any era. When I said synthesizers, some of those early tracks — “Rage On Rage” was done with no synthesizers, recorded at Abbey Road, and it’s very big with lots of reverb, so to me, it’s still beautiful, but I love exploring bringing it down to the bones. I’m an explorer that goes all over the place. I’m hard to pin down that way.
I would say things now are in a uniquely different place, and the last couple of generations of songwriters have been deeply affected by the onslaught of piracy and the technical world ripping the rug out from under us. I think that will get sorted, but it might take another twenty years before it’s fair. It’s really not fair right now, the way these big tech companies have hijacked the music, given it away for free, and then used the energy from the value of that, which is intrinsic, to build their empires.
That’s happened a couple of times in history. Anytime there’s new technology, a land-grabbing thing can happen, so I tell my songwriting students, and people I work with, and people coming up, “Write anyway.” You have to do your body of work. You have to be the musician you were born to be. Do you get to do that for a living? Maybe not in 2018. Maybe you have to get another job. But it’s your life’s work and it’s more important than just working at it as “Can I have this as a job?” There are reasons to write that need to be self-powered that don’t have anything to do with the outcome and don’t have anything to do with the success that you have. I always bring up Van Gogh as a perfect example of someone who toiled away their whole life, created this incredible body of work, and never got compensated. It takes a brave, creative being to push ahead and keep finding ways to be inspired and keep passionate about it in this weird time.
It is also true that every generation reaches a certain age where they start complaining about the new music because it’s not as good as what they were listening to. I was telling a friend of mine, they were complaining about it to me, and I said, “You know what you are? You’re old.” I realize that I do that too, I really do, and I make myself dig a little deeper because brilliance has never gone out of style. Genetically and biologically, there are brilliant young artists, writers, painters, and creative game-changers born every day and they’re creating as we go. I don’t believe, if you looked back at all the generations of all time, you would see any time where they disappeared. You might see where they had to go underground because they weren’t being recognized because there was no business for it, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. So it’s a weird time that we’re in right now.
And I tell people, “Don’t let them fool you into thinking you’re not creating something of value just because you aren’t getting paid for it. Somebody’s getting something from it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t ask you to do it. So they’re just taking advantage of being able to get away with it.” I encourage people to do their due diligence and look at ways they can become actively involved in trying to help change the situation, and to songwriters, that’s “Forget about it.” They just want to go back and write another song. They don’t want to deal with laws and legislature. The system that we have now to make change is arduous, and so many writers get on a board of directors and try to change things for songwriters legally and protect their rights. These are heroes to me, because many of those songwriters aren’t writing when they’re doing those things because it’s exhausting. It wears you out and drains you, and the last thing you want to do after a whole day of fighting for your rights is go home and write a song. I’ve become active at different times, and sometimes I have to pull away from it to go back to writing and being creative, and when I refresh myself, I go back.
But the good news is, to me, that long after we’re gone, all the physical stuff doesn’t come with us, so I encourage people to think that you have a cave, which is your life, and you get to decorate that wall all the way down from the beginning to the end, and what are you going to leave behind? What’s going to inspire people who come after you? That excites me. That makes me feel like whether or not this song gets to be a hit, I’m going to write it, and it could be the best song I ever wrote. That may sound Pollyanna, but that’s the way I get myself re-motivated.
When you listen to and perform your catalog, particularly the songs you revisited on this album, who was the woman who wrote them, and who is she now?
“Life Holds On,” for instance, I wrote in 1987 or 1989, and it was a watershed song for me. It was at a time when I was having success as a country songwriter. I had moved to Nashville five years before and I had a hit for Tanya Tucker with a song I wrote with Don Schlitz called “Strong Enough To Bend,” and I had another one that had come out. My phone was ringing, and producers wanted to make a country record.
I was writing catchy country songs, and I love that genre, but I had grown up on the spectrum of the James Taylor/Carole King/Joni Mitchell 1970s, with a big shot of Motown in my blood, and songs from the ’30s and ’40s — I just love all great songs. So, to have to think of my artist career in terms of steel guitars and backbeats and the same genre all the way through, I thought I would never survive artistically, because I could do a country album, but I didn’t see myself as a country artist, and I thought it would be disingenuous to try to sell myself that way. Right at that time I started writing a group of songs — “Life Goes On,” Emily,” I was working on “Rage On Rage,” I had written “Child Again,” which I started when I was 17 and finished when I was 32, so all these were getting finished up, and I had the sense that this was the record I wanted to make. I saw myself more folk than country, per se.
So that girl who wrote those songs was just finding out who she was as a singer, what I wanted to sing, and now I’m 62 and I feel like I can sing anything. I don’t have to limit myself, I don’t feel as concerned about somebody calling me “country” or not calling me “country.” Maybe it’s my life experiences — I lost my first husband, I got breast cancer, I got a brain tumor, I had all kinds of fun between then and now, and now my mind works in such a way that I’m more in touch with being grateful about just making music and not overthinking it so much.
So, coming back and doing “Life Goes On” with just a guitar and finding a way that spoke through my guitar, because I wrote it on piano and I play it on piano on the first recording, the same with “Child Again” and “Rage On Rage” — all three of those are piano songs. When Sam and I went in the studio and boiled it down to the least you could put on it, it was truly wonderful to let them breathe in this new realm.
I’ve come a long way from that original girl, but I’m still in there. I don’t think we change that much from the time we turn 11, so I’m still in touch with the 11-year-old.
One of your teaching points, as you mentioned earlier, is “Write anyway.” How much did you “write anyway” between this album and UnCovered, which was released four years ago?
I’m writing anyway all the time. I have such a backlog that I could do five albums of new material right now, and the reason is that I’m not fast about getting them recorded and gearing up to promote them. My desire to be out there promoting is much less than my enjoyment of writing, recording, and performing. I tell my students, “When you get ideas and you’re starting to write a song, stay as far away from worrying about what happens after as possible because then you get the purest rendering of creativity and you keep it in this place of just satisfying yourself.” If you wonder if someone will cut it, you’re taking yourself out of the creative realm into the analytic, “figure it out” realm, which has nothing to do with writing and with writing your best stuff.
Let’s talk a bit more about your working relationship with Sam Ashworth. What did he bring to the album, and how did that carry into your performance?
It was a personal victory of letting go, and I was fortunate to work with someone who did a great job. We had this day where we went in and I put down performances, mostly guitar and vocals, and on one or two I played piano, and I left him to create around my performances. I came to a couple of overdub sessions because I love being in the room, but I really stepped back and let him produce. It was a little nerve-wracking for both of us because he felt responsible for wanting me to be happy and also he knows what he wants. There was a period of time for maybe a month and a half that he was putting things in and adding things.
My first album [Hearing It First, 1980] was recorded in Muscle Shoals, with all those legendary guys and Barry Beckett producing. I walked into Muscle Shoals Sound studio, I was 20 years old, and I basically said, “I don’t know anything; whatever you guys think.” I gave up my power in a way of being overwhelmed with where I was. My instincts were always very good. I just abandoned my instincts and said, “Whatever you think.” So there are things I listen back on my first album and I think, I would have done that differently, I should have done this. But I didn’t know that. I just let myself be produced completely. The second and third albums I struggled with “Who do I trust?”
Overall, I’ve had fantastic experiences with all my producers, but I struggle with letting go and letting somebody else have an idea, and also understand that sometimes when they do that, you have to be able to say, “That’s great, but it’s not for me.” That part I didn’t know how to do for a long time, and I would overcorrect until I had to be in control of everything. I drove my producers crazy. I had a reputation for being so detailed and in their face.
Rodney Crowell produced Sand and Water. He coproduced, but he really produced. I learned so much from him. I was cracked open anyway, so I was learning a lot during that period of time, and he taught me how to trust and let go. He said, “Go away, come back in three days, and if you don’t like what I did, we’ll change it.” He taught me that I could let go and let other people have great ideas.
When I got to Sam, I had pretty much produced myself on my last couple of albums. I’m proud of my production skills, but it’s so much work, and I had a tendency to add too many things. I listened to the Civil Wars albums and I loved them, and I went on my journey to meet Charlie, and met Sam. I gave him a couple of months, and he came to my house to play me everything he had because we were getting ready to mix. He was terrified and so was I, but I loved it. I thought it was so creative and beautiful. Overall it was a magnificent success. For whatever reason, I got lucky, and I would do it again. I went off and lived my life and came back to a great record, and I’m totally going to be produced next time! He did a fantastic job.
Of course, we have to talk about your guitars.
I started out on a Framus, which I still have. It’s a German-made guitar. I’m an Air Force brat, we were living in Germany, my dad got it for Father’s Day, and it ended up in my room. My next one was a 12-string Framus, which I still have. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten rid of any guitar I ever had. I moved to Martins around ’72. I got a sunburst Martin, which was my main guitar that I wrote with and traveled with. I accumulated a few on the side, but that was the one.
I was playing a place in Ann Arbor called the Ram’s Head, and a couple of guys from a young company called Huss & Dalton came in. Their guitars now are very successful. They had this beautiful sunburst guitar and they let me try it out. On my way home from the tour, American Airlines lost my Martin for three days. I was so traumatized that something like that could happen again and I wouldn’t get it back that I decided I needed to retire it. That’s when I called and said, “Send me the Huss & Dalton.”
I started playing it on the road, and to this day it’s my favorite guitar. I told them I wanted them to make a replica, so I could leave one in the U.K. because I play there a lot. They made a replica, and I started a tour in Scotland at a 3500-seat theater in Glasgow, so I had them ship it directly to a music store there. It was a beautiful guitar, and I have it with me right now; but with guitars, sometimes the intonation is there but they haven’t opened up yet. So, this guitar had some opening up to do, and also it wasn’t quite the same size. I put my capo up really high and everything was different. I did send it back and they fixed the difference.
I kind of panicked because it was a big show, so I looked around the music store for something with a smaller neck and I found a Faith guitar, a parlor-style guitar, designed by Patrick Eggle, who is a very well-known luthier in the U.K. I bought the guitar off the wall, played the show, liked the guitar, it’s small and punchy, but when I put the capo high on the neck, I couldn’t reach where I needed to get my fingers. I needed it to be a cutaway. The guys from the company were at the show and were blown away that I had their guitar. They wanted to give me an endorsement in the U.K., so they gave me several more guitars. I asked for a cutaway, but the parlor size would lose too much tone, so I asked if they could scoop it out. They created this “BNC Scoop,” and it’s just enough of an indentation to get the capo up a little bit more.
So those are the two main guitars that I travel with and play. Both are on the album and they’re featured heavily in my live performances. I also have done some things with Taylor. I have several Taylor guitars, and I love the little songwriting guitars, the Baby Taylors. I’ve painted guitars for charitable events or fundraisers, and they auction them off. I get them from Taylor for cost and they’re not finished, so they’re beautiful to work on. Around 2006, I created a gift for an organization called PeaceJam that puts young people together with Nobel Laureates. They spend a weekend with them and talk about how to change the world. I had local artists paint the guitars and submit them to PeaceJam to celebrate the Nobel Laureates at this event and got them signed, including by the Dalai Lama. So, guitars, for me, are also a way of creating visual art that can serve another purpose.
In the topics on your website, you mention paper and pencil. Do you still write lyrics that way?
I have made the transition because my life is so hectic. I do a lot of time have paper and pencil or pen and notebooks, but I don’t drag them around with me anymore because I lose things too much, so I take a picture if I’m writing on paper, and I have a picture on file, or I do it in Notes. I do a lot of lyric writing in Notes because I can dictate it, and then it shows up on my computer and my iPod and my phone. That has become my go-to, and it lives in the cloud, so even if my phone got lost, I wouldn’t have lost that. But there is something organic about writing, the experience of ink leaving the pen and going onto the page, that is richer in lyric writing, so I do that if I’m home or I’m in a place where I can easily do that.
There’s also something about reading that I stress to my students a lot, like, “Don’t think that if you watch a bunch of movies that you’re feeding your songwriting brain. You have to read, and you have to read physically.” You can’t just listen to books on tape. You can get a lot of knowledge, but there’s a deep nutritional value to having your eyes scan across the printed word, and to read literature and poetry and things that are enriching. If you watch great films, go to museums, drink in as much art as you can, it feeds so much of what we bring forth as creative people.
You speak publicly about grief, and certainly you’ve had your share. Did yours travel hand-in-hand with depression and/or anxiety, as it often does?
I don’t think I’ve ever had depression. My father had some depression, and I have friends who have dealt with it all their lives. I don’t think I have the chemical thing in my brain where I go to depression. I certainly have gone through periods of great sadness and feeling down and trying to work through grief, which I think is different from depression. Depression is when you are stuck in a mode and you can’t get out. I don’t think I’ve suffered from that, and I think the reason partly is because I have written my way through. Writing and expressing myself through music has been the way I’ve worked through stuff I’ve had happen my whole life, good and bad, and that, to me, is what we have as humans as our greatest gift — if we can find a way to release ourselves into creativity, we can heal through so much.
So many people come to my workshops who don’t want to be professional songwriters. They just want to find a way to tap into their creativity and enrich their lives. When I went through breast cancer, I couldn’t write lyrics. The chemo affected my cognitive skills. So, I went to art school and got paints and pushed colors around. It was so satisfying and so helpful, and I can’t even tell you why. I just know that finding a way to creative expression was my saving grace every time.
Why is grief still treated as something shameful, as a mental illness, as something that carries a stigma?
I think it’s important that people learn, even if they’re not in grief, and it’s really hard to get someone to see what it’s like to go through a huge loss if they haven’t been through a huge loss. They feel the fear of, “Oh god, I hope that doesn’t happen to me,” so there’s this feeling of almost like they want to separate themselves from the person who’s grieving because they want God or the universe to know that what happened to that person, “I couldn’t handle it, so don’t let that happen to me.” People say, “I don’t know how you’ve come through this, you’re so strong, I could never have that happen to me,” and I say, “Eventually, before you leave this planet, you will have lost people that you love, or you’ll be lost to them.” So, the earlier we can start to understand that it’s part of life and open up to it, the better it is for us.
Some of the deepest people I know have been through hell and back, and they’re still smiling and still finding humor in life. One of my dear friends is Olivia Newton John. I did a project with her called Liv On that came out in 2016. We had so much fun on that tour. Olivia, during that time, was having recurrence of breast cancer, and she’s doing great now. Being able to know how to get through the worst stuff makes you so much stronger and flexible, like in “Strong Enough To Bend” — you’ve got to work on that flexibility.
The avoidance of grief is much more staggeringly exhausting than actually grieving, so when I’m facing someone who’s not grieving but needs to, I think the greatest gift I can give them is to sing a song like “Sand and Water,” or the songs on the Liv On album that cross that wall they have up because they don’t want to feel the feelings. It permeates through that and then they fall apart, which is the first part of getting it back together. You have to fall apart first, and hopefully, land in a place where you have support around you. People who don’t understand — it’s not my job to fix them. They’ll have a chance when something happens to them and they’re dropped to their knees. When they’re faced with grief, they’re pitted against it instead of letting it flow through them. That’s the only way to get to the other side of it.
“Sand and Water” — those lyrics talk about this feeling I had after my husband died. I was being told I had to get on the other side of this boulder that was the size of a huge building. I’m standing on one side, and I’m being told by the universe that I have to get to the other side, and you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go around it. How am I supposed to do that? I don’t have anything to break this rock with. In that song, there’s a line that says, “Solid stone is just sand and water, sand and water and a million years gone by.” It’s a transformation. If I stand here long enough, this rock will melt. Everything transforms into other stuff, so that in a weird way, my husband Ernest is always with me. I feel him within me and around me. I’m happily married now for the second time for many years, and I share this with my husband, Bob, now, that there’s a connection that’s always there and it’s precious. I would never get rid of it.
It’s an adjustment to “that’s how it is now,” that you go through devastation, you work through that grief, and you can settle into a place of acceptance, and you can still feel them and call them into your memory. It’s an amazing thing. It’s a different system of feeling connected. But yes, you’re right, there are things in a collective sense about grief that are way behind the times, but that probably goes for every subject.
You cowrote “The War After The War,” on Mary Gauthier’s latest album, Rifles & Rosary Beads. When did you become involved with SongwritingWith:Soldiers, and why is that project important to you?
I wrote the song with Mary, with the soldiers’ wives. I love that album. It’s such a beautiful piece of art. Darden Smith started Songwriting With: Soldiers, somebody told me about it, and I said, “I would love to do it.” I’ve done a few of them. They’re very powerful weekends where you sit with someone who has maybe not tried out this method of working through grief.
The first time I did it, I worked with a soldier who was sharing his experience and not shedding a tear, and I was trying not to cry because it was so intense. I was writing down lines — he was talking in lyrics — and when I read him back the lines I wrote down, he was like, “Oh yeah, I said that.” Then I put a melody to it, and when he heard it sung back to him, he started to tear up, and I realized music goes beyond what any lyrics can do. It’s not just the lyrics. It’s the lyrics with the melody. The melody has such power to shift people, because telling somebody about it and feeling it are two different things, and he had not felt it until then.
I feel so honored to be part of that program and be able to be a midwife for the healing that happens when they write those songs. It’s a great fit for me because it’s something I’m already doing in my shows — I talk about grief and I play songs that I wrote coming through grief, and in that way it’s not that much of a leap, but again, I did go through a deeper level of appreciating how important melody is in the process.
What is coming up for you in 2019?
I’m going to the U.K. for the Americana Awards and doing a show with Mary. We’re going to have guest artists, and it’s going to be in the round. And I’m writing with a lot of people for different projects. I say yes to so many things, but I love it. Life is good — I can’t complain.
Photos provided by artist