A Conversation with Beth Nielsen Chapman
Art is our way through.
I first came to know the work of master singer/songwriter (and Yamaha artist) Beth Nielsen Chapman in 1992 when my girlfriend Lisa asked me to sing Beth’s song “All I Have” at her wedding. Bonding with this beautiful ode to love, I wondered about the voice behind it. Many years later I was introduced to Beth while on a trip to Nashville. We have since become friends, shared recipes, exchanged vocal tips, and yes, written songs together. Funny how people find each other.
Not surprisingly one of our favorite subjects is creativity. What holds it back? What sets it free? I thought I was the muse around here but Beth is truly the Queen of Inspiration — full of insight about how we access our inner life. I’m wide-eyed and all ears in her presence.
Needless to say, neither of us has been able to travel recently so Beth and I decided to catch up via, you guessed it, Zoom. I thought I’d share some highlights of our conversation here so that you’ll see why I lavish her with so much praise.
Immediately upon clicking “Join Meeting,” I have to admit that I felt some background envy — the angled placement of Beth’s pianos, keyboards and guitars; the decorative string lights, the abundance of tchotchkes. And yet it all seemed uncluttered and purposeful. I guess we design spaces that allow our creativity to thrive.
Shelly: Just when I thought your studio couldn’t be any more bling.
BNC: Yeah, well, I need it!
Shelly: How have you been staying connected? Have you done much livestreaming?
(Turns out that indeed she has, but since Zoom was not designed with audio fidelity in mind, nor for concerts, Beth has wisely implemented an external webcam and audio interface in order to enhance the experience for viewers on the “other side.”)
BNC: I just thought, “Why do I want to plug a little microphone into my computer?”
(At this point Beth must have sensed my lack of confidence in my own tech savvy.)
BNC: You can do this, Shelly. That box [an audio interface] will change your livestream game!
(The day after our conversation I ordered one. And the webcam too.)
BNC: I think there needs to be an app where, when the audience taps on the screen, the performer hears actual virtual applause.
Shelly: I love that you’ve thought of all this.
BNC: Well, we’re all helping each other because we’re going to be doing this for a while.
Shelly: I hear you. So, have you been writing a lot?
BNC: The thing is, I belly right up to the bar when I have an assignment. But it’s a really unusual time and I’m finding that the impact of what I’m living through is getting centered into my body and will become songs, but maybe a year from now. So I’m probably not writing more, but I’m writing more deeply.
(A woman after my own heart!)
BNC: Of course, left to my own devices, I can find lots of ways to skirt around writing a song.
Shelly: Like cooking?
BNC: Well, that’s like writing a song. I always have like 15 or 20 on the stove.
(This made me smile because a few years ago when I first walked into Beth’s home, she literally had five pots on the stove, stirring this one, simmering that one. She’s a multi-tasker if there ever was one.)
BNC: Some songs go on for years. I’ve developed a sense of confidence in those times when you’re not quite writing that line yet but you know it’s coming, it’s moving towards you. I try to teach people some tricks about how to get out of their own way. The song is going to come when it darn well wants to. Instead of putting yourself down, I’m like, “Go get a banana split, dude!” You’ve shown up. That’s the important thing. Now be nice to yourself.
Shelly: I wonder why the process of songwriting is so interconnected with food for us? Anyway, yeah … you can’t give those negative voices power.
BNC: Unless it’s one of those times when you think, “It’s gone forever.”
Shelly: But it always comes back!
BNC: Well, it never went anywhere. If you’re not feeling creative, the door’s locked from the inside. For me, the process of writing is a way to take care of myself. “Sand and Water,” a song I wrote while going through loss, actually healed me. I didn’t write it thinking, “Wow, this is really good.” I didn’t know what I was writing at the time. I was a vehicle. Twenty years later, I still get emails from people who say they heard it when they needed it.
Shelly: It’s like therapy; I examine and discover so much about myself in that three-minute window.
BNC: Right! And it doesn’t have to be a sad, poignant song either.
Shelly: Have you been drawn to any particular instrument lately?
Shelly: You are a truly a singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter. You’ve done the hard work, had success, reinvented, experienced longevity. How do you keep it together?
BNC: I used to think that you had to have super talent and write great songs to be successful. But a big part of being a successful artist is making good business decisions. There’s a massive amount of people trying to do it. I have a T-shirt that says, “Write anyway.” So be an artist anyway. Don’t let anything stop you. What if van Gogh thought, “Nobody’s really buying my paintings. Maybe I should stop”? There are more important reasons to write than whether or not you make it. If I lose sight of those reasons — if I focus on getting on the charts — the songs are not going to be as good anyway.
I think with what’s happening collectively in the world right now, there’s going to be a massive output of art from people trying to process it all. In the meantime, I have to respect taking care of myself. I’m really bad at not going to bed early enough. Sometimes I stay up till 2 in the morning and eat cinnamon toast.
But we’re going to come out on the other side of this thing. More than any other time in our history we have a job to do as musicians and creators. That’s always been the human answer to everything. Art is it. Art is our way through.
I love talking to and writing with Beth. Simply being in a room with her — even a virtual one — feels like a magical place where anything can happen. Because it can!