‘Home is where I can play guitar or write songs’

Singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman
Singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman

Famous for the songs she has written for stars like Faith Hill and Willie Nelson, Beth Nielsen Chapman is now reclaiming her old lyrics with a new album and a tour which will see her play Belfast’s Grand Opera House. She talks to JOANNE SAVAGE about her creative process and why her late husband’s advice has helped her let go of performance anxiety

Beth Nielsen Chapman grew up in Harlingen, Texas, one of five children born to her father, an Air Force Major and her mother, a nurse. A Framus guitar that was bought as a gift for her father ended up in her bedroom when she was just 11 and she soon began strumming along on it and then to write songs - the art of composing lyrics came naturally, an innate gift perhaps.

Because of her father’s career the family moved about a lot, even spending time in Germany, before eventually settling down in Alabama, where Chapman saw the evils of a still racially segregated firsthand.

Hoagy Carmichael, Tony Bennett, James Taylor and Carole King were the soundtrack to her formative years, and some of their lyrical and melodic style may have made its way into her oeuvre.

“When people ask where I grew up I just say “all over” because we stayed in so many places,” explains Beth, on the phone to the News Letter. “And in a way I think it helped me to be creative because for me feeling at home was wherever I could write or draw or play guitar or make songs.”

She would go on to have several popular songs in the charts in the 1990s but remains best known for the songs she has penned for others: Faith Hill’s seismic hit This Kiss; Trisha Yearwood’s You Say You Will and for country legend Willie Nelson, Chapman penned Nothing I Can Do About It Now, Ain’t Necessarily So, and If My World Didn’t Have You. The apparently effortless hitmaker has also written songs for Tanya Tucker (Strong Enough to Bend), Waylon Jennings (Shine On Me) and actress/singer Bette Midler (The Colour of Roses).

Beth, 55, is chatting ahead of her performance at Belfast’s Grand Opera House on April 27.

Warm and friendly, she has no regrets about handing out her hits for other artists to ride to fame with; Nielsen Chapman sounds like a generous creative spirit.

“Sometimes it simply makes better sense to give a song to someone who is at the top of their game in the limelight because they can then take it to the top of the charts,” she explains. “This Kiss was a song I was hugely proud of but Faith Hill made it a big hit because she was already at the top of her game when it came out.

“And I’ve been so thrilled throughout my career to have been asked to write songs for artists I so admire like Willie Nelson, for example, who’s a total legend and someone whose music I have always so enjoyed.

“My new album is about adding my own spin or vibe to songs I’ve written but have all been performed by other artists, so it’s reclaiming the lyrics in a way, overcoming old fears of performance to really own the words and the sentiments.” And she adds: “I’m so looking forward to touring with this material.”

UnCovered, as the album is titled, is Beth singing those hits that others made it to the top of the US charts with, put ting her own stamp on them, reclaiming the melodies and words she sent out there for others to make their own.

Chapman has enjoyed huge success as a songwriter and as a singer in her own right, but her life has also had its share of sorrow and challenge. In 1994 her first husband Ernest, died of lymphoma. Then in 2000, Beth herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered, but was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2009. Luckily it was benign and Chapman made a full recovery, her experiences taking her into more spiritually-oriented musical terrain. She recorded hymns in Latin and her album Prism looked at world religions and saw Beth singing in several different languages.

Now remarried to psychiatrist and photographer Bob Sherman, Beth is happy to be touring and feels her life has reached a place of new balance, wisdom and contentment. She is now a grandmother and continues to write songs nearly every day.

How does her creative process work?

“I often start with the melody and then play around with words that fit.

“Sometimes I’ll end up dealing with emotions I’m working through o r things that are happening in my personal life.

“For a long time I struggled with the anxieties of performing on stage and worried a lot about what people thought of me to a point that really hindered me. But I let go of that when my first husband died in 1994 because he made me promise to let go of the fear and to just seize the moment of being up there on stage and enjoy it to the best of my ability.”

Hence UnCovered - which includes This Kiss, Willie Nelson’s Nothin’ I Can Do About it Now, Don Williams’ Maybe That’s All It Takes and Lorrie Morgan’s Five Minutes - and her tour dates performing many songs she wrote for others to sing - songs she says “helped pay her electric bills over the years” . These are resonant hits about the joys of love and the anguish of heartache.

Grammy-nominated Chapman now lives in Nashville but is very much looking forward to visiting Northern Ireland; she has spent time here before and describes it as “very beautiful”.

Two of Northern Ireland’s rising stars also feature on the album - Ruth Trimble and Eilidh Patterson.

“Northern Ireland is a wonderful place,” says Beth. “I actually recorded part of UnCovered there and have visited many times over the years.”

Grand Opera House, Belfast, April 27. Visit www.goh.co.uk/.