Country singer Beth Nielsen Chapman told David Hennessy about her new album, surviving breast cancer and the support she got at the time from John Prine and Olivia Newton- John and being diagnosed with a brain tumour even though she wasn’t ‘due’ for anything like that.
Grammy Award-nominated Beth Nielsen Chapman’s new album Crazy Town seems prescient following the crazy couple of years we have all endured but the well known singer- songwriter told us it was written and recorded before Covid. But it is not strange for Beth to not know what she was writing about until afterwards.
When she was playing some of the songs that would go on to feature on her 1997 album Sand and Water, an album about grief, to her husband Ernest, neither could know that she would have lost him by the time the album was out.
When we spoke to her, she told us about playing one song from her new album to her friend and collaborator Olivia Newton- John, who has since passed, and how that same song refers to the passing of John Prine.
Both Olivia and John were supportive of Beth during her cancer battle.
However if you thought a conversation that dwelled sometimes on people who had passed would be sombre, it was not the case.
Beth keeps these people with her and that is evident in The Edge, a song on the new record about her late husband.
She also believes John Prine sends her the odd song lyric.
Also, on the subject of loss, it is worth pointing out The Irish World spoke to Beth before the Queen’s passing but has also paid tribute to the monarch who she once sang for.
Beth told The Irish World: “I’ve had this uncanny weird pattern where I will write a bunch of songs, and I won’t really be sure what they’re about.
“Then something will happen in my life and I’ll record the album about the songs that were started before the thing ever happened in my life that the songs are about.
“I put an album out in 1997 called Sand and Water, and I had lost my husband, but half of the songs on Sand and Water I was writing a year before he was even diagnosed and we even knew we were going to go through all that.
“I used to play him songs and he would go, ‘What’s that one about? Sounds like somebody’s not going to be here long..’
“We had those conversations.
“It happened again six years later when I made an album called Deeper Still.
“It was sort of about moving forward and getting through something difficult, but not losing hope.
“I finished the album- The last day of mixing and that’s the day I ended up finding out I had breast cancer.
“If you listen to that album, you say, ‘Oh, Beth did this amazing piece of work after going through breast cancer’, but I had already done it.
“So fast forward to the early part of 2020, we went in the studio.
“We finished the tracks, we had been hearing about some kind of weird thing going on in China.
“I remember my son calling me early in that week, and saying, ‘You need to go to the store and get a freezer and get a whole bunch of food’.
“And I’m like, ‘My child is crazy’.
“And then the last day of recording, everything went into lockdown.
“I had this line in one song that’s called Everywhere We Go that says, ‘It’s crazy town from coast to coast’.
“And I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is one of those ones, I did it again without knowing I was doing it’.
“I guess maybe I should open up a palm reading shop or something, since I’m such a psychic.”
The Edge is written about Beth’s husband Ernest who passed away from cancer in 1994.
“I’m really glad it’s ended up on this album because in my opinion, there’s a collective grief that we’re just starting to feel as all the people that have gone through this pandemic, which has been global.
“I remember when I went through breast cancer, the year that I was going through the treatments, I was too busy trying to do everything right so that I got through that so that I would survive.
“I got through all that and then they said, ‘Well, you’re cancer free. Go back to your life’.
“And I went home and I went, ‘I should feel really happy about that’.
“But I felt strangely empty.
“And it was because I had just been through this horrendous thing and I hadn’t really dealt with the emotional part of it, I was just dealing with the physical part of it.
“And I think what’s happened is that the pandemic has been such a emergency for so many people and now we’re kind of settling into trying to live with it and I’m starting to feel like people are starting to really go, ‘Wait, what just happened?’
“That’s what The Edge is really about, coming to the precipice of deep grief.”
Beth mentions her battle with cancer. Someone who was very supportive of her with this was Olivia Newton- John who she had worked with on her Liv On album and had had her own battle with cancer.
“Oh my god, yes, she was (supportive).
“I had written a song with her called Stronger than Before and then a couple of years later, I was diagnosed and she had gone through it.
“I mean, she just came right to my rescue.
“Over the months that I went through chemo and treatment, she was incredibly helpful.
“She would tell me things to do like get up and walk outside.
“She’d be like, ‘You gotta be in the sun for ten minutes every day’.
“And she was an amazing friend, and always an inspiration to me.
“I don’t think we’ll see anybody like Olivia in this world for a while. She was really, really special.”
Beth was saddened to hear of Olivia’s passing in August this year.
“But I was able to have a conversation with her a few days before which I will treasure forever.
“So I was very, very relieved that I got to say goodbye.”
Someone else who was supportive of Beth when she was battling cancer was John Prine who has also sadly since left us.
“Just to give you an inkling about his heart, he had heard about my diagnosis from somebody and out of the blue, he called me.
“He had just gone through some of his initial treatments for his throat cancer so he calls me up and leaves this message on my answering machine and he goes, ‘Hey, it is John Prine’.
“And he goes, ‘I hear you’re dealing with cancer. I really am so sorry to hear that and I’d like to come by and see you’.
“And he came over and we had tea, and just had a lovely visit.
“I’ll never forget that and it just meant so much to me that he was so kind to reach out to me like that.”
John Prine passed away in the early days of the pandemic, but Beth still feels his presence.
“I was in a writing camp with two other writers and this line just popped into my head and it was very John Prine and I went, ‘Thank you, John’.
“And they were like, ‘Who are you talking to?’
“I’m like, ‘Oh, anytime I get a line like that, and it comes out of nowhere. I’m figuring John’s just kind of dabbling around writing some songs with people down here when he’s got some free time’.”
Beth has already given fans a taste of the album with singles Hey Girl and With Time.
Next there will be a double single of two very different songs.
“We’re gonna put out a song called Walk You to Heaven which is a beautiful song.
“In fact, I played it for Olivia and she loved it.
“It’s like a song you would sing to someone who is getting ready to pass over who might have some anxiety or some concern.”
If it is about someone passing away, were you thinking of anyone when writing it? “I think we were actually tapping into John Prine.
“It’s a very comforting song and the other song couldn’t be more different.
“It’s a crazy song called The Universe.
“It’s really about the wonder of what we’re all in here on this little blue marble that’s floating around in space.
“Because if you just were stuck with reality as you see it, it can be pretty bleak.
“It’s very easy to lose a sense of hope.”
Have you ever lost hope? “Yeah, I’ve lost hope many times.
“There’s a song that I wrote called How We Love which has been a really big song for me. And when I was trying to finish that song, I was really struggling because I couldn’t write lyrics all of a sudden.
“I couldn’t remember how to write lyrics.
“I was just really depressed because that’s something I teach other people how to do.
“And then I woke up one morning during that time, and I had this weird ringing in my ears, and I ended up going to the doctor and getting a brain scan.
“They told me I had a brain tumour.
“And I was like, ‘What? I’m not due for anything. I’ve already had my husband die, and I had breast cancer. I’m really not due for anything else like this, you know?’
“And it was on the left frontal lobe, which is the language centre.
“I remember when they asked me, ‘Have you had any trouble with words and language because you should have some symptoms?’
“And I’m like, ‘Well, I can’t write lyrics for the last six months. Is that why?’
“And they went, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s why’. And I’m like, ‘That’s great’.
“I was so excited that there was a reason.
“When I woke up from the surgery, I literally got the third verse that I had been trying to write for months, it just came floating through the anaesthesia.
“And over the next several weeks, I finished all the songs that I hadn’t been able to finish.
“Creativity had been coming through, it just couldn’t get through the block.
“So once I got rid of that brain tumour, all the flow came back, and, and I’ve used that over and over and over again when I’m losing hope about other things. I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m just forgetting that there’s something bigger than this. And it’s going to be okay’.”
The album also contains a song called Four Leaf Clover.
“I was thinking about my Irish roots when I wrote that song.
“Yes, everything about my songs is connected to Ireland in one way or the other probably.
“I love Ireland. All my people are from there.
“My mother’s father, and then his mother and father were from the north and the south so I’m from the whole of the island of Ireland.”
Does Beth feel at home in Ireland? “Absolutely.
“I did an album with Olivia Newton-John in 2016 so we came through and played in Dublin with Olivia, which was so sweet.
“That’s a beautiful memory that I have of getting to do that with her. She loved Ireland too.
“I absolutely love those beautiful old Irish songs.
“I just feel like there’s a kind of depth to the writing and the art and the poetry in Ireland that’s not like anyplace else.
“I really feel that I can see myself going there and staying for a year at some point.”
Beth would like to know about her Irish heritage and plans to do some searching when next there on tour.
The album also has an unmistakable message about female empowerment with tracks like the single Hey Girl and Put a Woman in Charge, but this is more incidental than taking inspiration from the recent #metoo movement.
“It’s true that it was happening around the time of the #metoo movement, and that probably is something we were aware of, but I’m always careful.
“I don’t want it to be misunderstood.
“I wrote Put a Woman in Charge with Keb’ Mo’.
“Put a Woman in Charge has this humour in it and it’s sort of like, ‘Why aren’t we using these people? They’re really amazing. So it doesn’t dwell so much on, ‘Woe is me. I haven’t been treated fairly’ even though you could look at history and say women have not been treated fairly.
“On Hey Girl, we were talking about how much women and girls have to kind of jump through more hoops to get to the same place, and that is just true.
“The day that we finished it was the day they arrested Harvey Weinstein, I think.
“It’s basically saying they’re patting us on the head.
“And that is the way he looked at women, as something that was disposable.
“In between the lines, we’re trying to speak the truth but we don’t want to get bogged down in the politics of it because that then ends up not being as strong.”
Born in Texas to a father who was in the air force and a mother who was a nurse, Beth grew up on various US military bases including some time in Germany before the family settled in Montgomery, Alabama.
Some would describe her upbringing someone with that upbringing as ‘a military brat’..
“I don’t mind it. Yeah, it’s true. I was a brat and my dad was in the military so that fits,” she laughs.
“It was just I lived in a neighbourhood that was called an air force base and I didn’t know until many years later that that was weird.
“You were in a bubble of families whose other parents were working in the air force so all the kids just played with each other: All different races, colours, religions.
“In fact, I remember getting to turn 10 or something and hearing about this thing called racism.
“I’m like, ‘What is that?’
“‘Well, you know, people that are that are darker skin getting it’.
“Because I just I couldn’t figure out what would be the difference.
“I started playing guitar when I was 10, 11.
“And then when I was 12 we did was a school field trip, we went to Dachau (concentration camp).
“No 12-year-old should go there.
“I was so sensitive and it completely messed me up.
“I put all my dolls away and I was like, ‘What time does the news come on? I gotta find out what’s going on in the world because this is not a safe place’.
“It was getting on for 1969. What’s on the news? The Vietnam War. All this stuff going on with the civil rights movement, and they showed people getting hosed down and I was like, ‘See, it’s the same thing, you know?’
“And then we got my dad got orders to move to Montgomery, Alabama, which is the hotbed seat of the Civil Rights Movement.
“I remember I clung to that guitar like my life depended on it.
“I was in a neighbourhood with kids that were just much more embedded in their culture.
“I had a lot to learn so I had a hard time making friends at first.
“I was trying to make friends with the black girls, and they were gonna kick my ass because to them, I was just a white kid.
“It was like a brutal meat grinder of new things I had to process but I think it really informed my whole way of being in the world.”
Beth says it would not be until 15 or so that she would realise she did not have ‘fix’ everything that was wrong in the world and could just write songs that might reach someone and change something.
Crazy Town in Beth’s 15th studio album but she was not always certain that a long recording career was for her, especially after her 1980 debut didn’t have the effect she hoped for.
“In 1980 I did an album but the record came out the minute that disco came on the scene.
“I had done this beautiful singer-songwriter album, and then Disco Duck hit the same week, so I didn’t get much traction on that first album.
“It was ten years before I put my second album out.”
What was she doing in those ten years? “When my first album did not go gangbusters and I wasn’t a household name- Which was a shock to me- I was like, ‘I’m not writing anymore’.
“And I literally stopped writing for about four years and I had a baby and had just gotten married.
“And I was happy as I could be, or so I thought.
“My husband was like, ‘You need to get back to your writing. You’re gonna be sorry’.
“I’m like, ‘No, no, I’m fine’.
“And then I finally started thinking about it when I went to see Coal Miner’s Daughter, which is a movie about Loretta Lynn’s life.
“I thought, ‘You know, I’m probably being too much of a baby about this thing. I’ll start playing around with some songwriting’.
“I started writing again, but it was terrible.
“I remember playing it for my husband, and he was very opinionated.
“I knew it had to be bad because he didn’t even say anything bad about it. He would just say, ‘You just keep on writing’.
“I was like, ‘Is it that bad?’
“He goes, ‘Just keep on doing it’.
“So I finally wrote this song called Five Minutes and he was like, ‘Okay, now you got it back, you’re ready to go’.
“When I did go back to it, after I got over the initial bumpiness, I wrote much better songs because I had taken a break and just lived life.
“Before that, all I was going to do was be a singer songwriter, and maybe have children somewhere in the middle of it.
“But I was going to be a singer songwriter, and I was going to be really good at it and it was going to be great.
“And then that shock of my first album doing nothing really set me back in a way that was really good for me.
“Because first of all, when I listen back to that first album, they’re not great songs.
“I had a lot more work to do. You couldn’t have told me that, but I did.
“I always think things work out the way exactly the way they’re supposed to.”
Crazy Town is out now.
Beth tours the UK from 18 October.
For more information, click here.