Exclusive Interview with Beth Nielsen Chapman

Beth Nielsen Chapman - Photo courtesy of Beth Nielsen Chapman
Beth Nielsen Chapman - Photo courtesy of Beth Nielsen Chapman

Beth Nielsen Chapman is a singer/songwriter who was born in Harlingen, Texas in 1956. Beth joined the rock group Harmony (previously called Harvest) in 1976. The band included Montgomerian Tommy Shaw (pre-Styx days) and they played at Kegler’s Kove, a small bar inside Bama Lanes on Atlanta Highway in Montgomery, Alabama.

Chapman has had many songs on the Adult Contemporary charts; “Walk My Way,” “The Moment You Were Mine,” “All I Have,” just to name a few. Beth is a successful songwriter and co-wrote Faith Hill’s hit, “This Kiss” ASCAP’s 1999 Song of the Year. Beth has also written for numerous other artists including Willie Nelson, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Alabama, Bette Midler, Crystal Gayle, Tanya Tucker, Roberta Flack, Waylon Jennings, and Bonnie Raitt.

Beth will be the recipient of a special award from the Alabama Hall of Fame. Chapman will be given the Alabama Distinguished Artist Award at this year’s Celebration of the Arts Awards Gala on May 13 at the Montgomery Performing Arts Center.

Beth has very kindly consented to give “Our Prattville” an interview:

Beth, how did you end up in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1976 singing with a group called Harmony at Kegler’s Kove?

I used to sneak into the Kove just before I was 18 and Tommy Shaw was still in the band…when he was tapped by Styx, Eddie Wohlford called me and invited me to join the band. I was thrilled to be a part of such a great group of musicians. I think I played there a couple years six nights a week. It was a great experience and taught me a lot about performing live.

Is it true that you and Tommy Shaw were not in the band at the same time? What is the story behind the name change from Harvest to Harmony?

Yeah…Tommy and I were never in the band at the same time. I think the name change was a result of there already being a Harvest band and it was during a time when the band was starting to record.

Do you often visit the Montgomery area? What kind of special significance does the city of Mobile, Alabama have for you?

My family is based in Montgomery since 1969. Having moved quite a bit through my childhood (my Dad was in the Air Force) so that’s home to me! I married Ernest Chapman in 1979 and moved to Mobile where we lived until we moved to Nashville in 1985. Our son Ernest lll was born in Mobile in 1981 so his Dad’s side of the family is there. I always feel connected to Mobile because although my husband Ernest died in 1994 the family ties remain.

Your brother Bob is an extremely talented artist. Were your parents artistically inclined also?

Yes! Bob’s art has always been amazing. He and his wife Billie Tannen make “Billie Beads” which are indredible pieces of art. They sell them in places from Bergdorf’s in NY to the Jazz Festival in New Orleans. My younger sister Laura designs clothing www.lolasanfrancisco.com and my other two sisters Barbara and Beverly are talented and artistic too. I can say that our parents were very encouraging about the arts and we got lots of positive reinforcement along the way. I never remember my folks saying we couldn’t pursue our dreams and use our talents to make a living. Oh yes…and they both dance and sing pretty good!

Your music is obviously influenced by Joni Mitchell. Was she an idol of yours growing up? Joni uses esoteric chords to color her songs. Is this something you strive to incorporate into your music?

I was hugely influenced by Joni. And Carole King, Motown, the Beatles, the great songs of the 30s and 40s, and on and on…. I try not to strive when writing. I am of the belief that the songs have their own wisdom about how to come into the world and I just try to stay centered and let the creative spirit drive the car!

What is the most successful song in terms of sales that you have written and who was the singer? Is there a difference between composing a song for an album as compared to writing for other people?

I would have to say “This Kiss” was the most financially successful song I’ve written. I co-wrote that with Annie Roboff and Robin Lerner. In general I let the songs develop into what they seem to want to be and then when I’m finished I step back and look at it to see where it might fit best. The songs I put on my records are sometimes also recorded by other artists too. I’m always thrilled for them to be covered!

What was the inspiration behind the album entitled Hymns?

I recorded Hymns during a time when I was searching for a Catholic hymn to include on another project I was working on called Prism (a double CD sung in nine languages released in 2007). I discovered that there wasn’t really a CD out there with a collection of my favorite old Catholic latin Hymns. So I decided to stop right there and record that CD for my parents. I didn’t even shop it to a label as I thought it would just be a small release. Ironically, I was a guest on NPR All Things Considered and after that show Hymns went to #3 on Amazon.com! So I had to manufacture a bunch more!

You have also written music for movies and for television, even a love story for a soap opera (Days of Our Lives). How does the writing for that genre differ from composing songs for an album?

Writing is always the same to me. Follow the songs. Many of the songs I’ve had in movies were chosen already written. Songs find their way…

You wear so many different hats: singer, songwriter, teacher, philanthropist, activist. Which hat do you feel most comfortable in?

I really feel like they all fit in the same hat! I guess I’d say I’m a songwriter first, as far as my work. Everything in my career has come from the root of being a songwriter.

Congratulations on being a breast cancer survivor. What advice can you give to those who are struggling with that disease?

First and foremost, stay vigilant and do regular exams and stay current with mammograms. If faced with a diagnosis be sure and have someone come with you to the swirl of consultations that will follow. Having an advocate is essential because it’s very overwhelming. And finally, try not to think if it as a “battle”. I think language is very powerful. I thought of it as a “journey” and I thought of chemo as a light blue liquid that was traveling through my body clearing out all that I didn’t need. That probably sounds somewhat pie in the sky…but it worked for me and minimized my stress! And just remember….when on the other side of breast cancer life can open up like a beautiful deep rich flower again.

Please tell us about your performance in March with the Alabama Dance Theatre and any other future plans for this year.

Oh I’m so excited about the Alabama Dance Theater performance! I got to see some of the choreography that has already been completed and it’s fabulous! I’ll have a sweet time concentrating on singing with all those beautiful dancers swirling around me!

This year is already getting busy! February 14th I’ll be singing at the Washington National Cathedral and teaching a couple of workshops on creativity and healing. I’m also working on my next BNC record having fun writing a lot of songs. In addition to that I’m writing and producing a project with my friend Rocky Alvey, a songwriter and astronomer. We are writing songs about astronomy for a children’s record. So it’s busy around here!


Interview by Melissa Parker

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