International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting ē Beth Nielsen Chapman Interview

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Beth Nielsen Chapman Interview



Introduction by Jim Liddane
A much-loved singer-songwriter renowned for her poignant lyrics and emotive vocal delivery, Beth Nielsen Chapman was born on the 14th of September 1958, in Harlingen, Texas. The fact that her her father was a major in the U.S. Air Force meant Beth moved frequently, giving her exposure to a variety of musical influences. By the age of 11, while living in Germany, she had taught herself to play guitar and had started to write her first songs.

At 17, she was performing at local clubs and bars in Montgomery, Alabama. Her talent quickly garnered attention. She released her debut album "Hearing It First" in 1980 and although it failed to sell in spite of good reviews, she moved to Nashville in the early 1980s to pursue a career in songwriting.

Her ability to pen deeply emotional and relatable lyrics quickly made her a sought-after tunesmith in Nashville. Twice nominated for a Grammy, she penned songs for numerous country music artists including Tanya Tucker ("Strong Enough To Bend"), Lorrie Morgan ("Five Minutes"), Alabama ("Here We Are"), Bette Midler ("The Color Of Roses"). Faith Hill ("This Kiss"), Mary Chapin Carpenter ("Almost Home"), Highway 101 ("All The Reasons Why"), Martina McBride ("Happy Girl"), Neil Diamond ("Deep Inside Of You"), Waylon Jennings ("Shine On Me") and Willie Nelson ("Nothing I Can Do About It Now"),

In 1990, Beth released her self-titled second album, which showcased her talent both as a singer and songwriter. The album received massive critical acclaim, and songs like "Walk My Way" and "All I Have" highlighted her emotive voice and lyrical depth. Her follow-up album, "You Hold the Key" (1993), continued to build on her success with hits like "The Moment You Were Mine" and "In The Time It Takes."

In the late 1990s, Beth faced significant personal challenges. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, an experience that profoundly influenced her music. Her album "Sand And Water" (1997) was dedicated to her husband, Ernest Chapman, who had himself died of cancer in 1994, with the title track becoming an anthem for those facing loss and grief. Despite the challenges, Beth continued to create and tour, releasing several well-received albums including "Deeper Still" (2002), "Look" (2005) and "Back To Love" (2010).

Beyond her music, Beth is an advocate for cancer awareness and education. She frequently speaks about her own experiences with the disease, offering support and hope to others facing similar battles.

Beth Nielsen Chapman's career has been marked by her resilience, emotional depth, and exceptional songwriting skills. Her ability to translate personal pain into universally relatable music has touched countless lives, making her a beloved figure in both country and adult contemporary music.

We asked ISA Contributing Editor Larry Wayne Clark to travel to Nashville to interview Beth for the International Songwriters Association's "Songwriter Magazine".

Prologue
"I live in Nashville and I have three names, so people just assume Iím a country artist," says Beth Nielsen Chapman on her website. "But Iíve never tried to be a country artist and Iím not played on country radio. Iíve spent a lot of time trying to sort it all out." Many might say that Chapman - whose own recordings reveal the influences of early heroes like Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Karla Bonoff - enjoys the best of two worlds. Country hits, like Tanya Tuckerís "Strong Enough To Bend" and, especially, Faith Hillís pop-country smash "This Kiss," (ASCAPís 1999 Song of the Year and a Grammy nominee) have earned Chapman the opportunity, and the financial freedom, to delve into deeper, more spiritual zones with her own recording career, oblivious to the vagaries of commercial radio. She is both true poet and hook-slinging minstrel, successful and respected in both arenas.

A widow, single mother and, more recently, a breast cancer survivor, Chapman has certainly not been spared a hefty share of punishing life challenges. But, ironically - or perhaps necessarily to her own survival - she has crafted some of her most moving work in the midst of her most wrenching circumstances. Perhaps no Chapman song has had greater impact than the gorgeous "Sand And Water," inspired by the 1993 death of her husband Ernest Chapman. Itís a hymn that never sermonises, a powerful anthem to hope and healing that never speaks above a whisper, and it has changed lives - specially Chapmanís own. (It didnít hurt the songís reputation that Sir Elton John adopted it during his 1997 world tour.)

Chapman was heard regularly on the í90s Adult-Contemporary charts with singles including "The Moment You Were Mine," "Walk My Way" and "I Keep Coming Back To You," and her single "Free" went to # 1 on the BBC Radio 2 chart in the summer of 2004. She has toured the UK several times and also enjoys a sizeable following in Japan. Released on various labels, Chapmanís albums include Hearing It First (1980), Beth Nielsen Chapman (1990), You Hold The Key (1993), Sand And Water (1997), Greatest Hits (1997), Deeper Still (2002) and in 2004, Look and Hymns.

Artists covering Chapman songs include Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Amy Grant, Bette Midler, Neil Diamond, Michael McDonald, Anne Murray and Roberta Flack. The country music community has embraced her with particular warmth. Hits in that genre include "Strong Enough To Bend" (Tanya Tucker), "Happy Girl" (Martina McBride), "Nothing I Can Do About It Now" (Willie Nelson), "Down On My Knees" (Trisha Yearwood), "Here We Are" (Alabama), "All The Reasons Why" (Highway 101), "Five Minutes" (Lorrie Morgan) and "Almost Home" (Mary Chapin Carpenter).

Her songs have also been heard on the soundtracks of many films, including The Rookie, Calendar Girls, and the 2000 Ashley Judd film Where the Heart Is, which featured "Shake My Soul." Her ballad "All I Have" became familiar to millions as the recurring love theme on the popular NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives.

Success, combined with an evolved sense of her own mortality and a fearless aesthetic hunger, have enabled Chapman to make some bold artistic decisions. Her critically celebrated Hymns CD, released earlier this year, is a collection of Catholic church music sung almost entirely (and quite beautifully) in Latin, with only one Chapman original on the song list. As if that werenít enough, Hymns is merely a part of a larger work which will include, besides a Shaker hymn, religious songs in Hindi and Farsi and a Buddhist chant, all delivered in the original "deeply rooted languages of the different traditions," which Chapman learns painstakingly with the help of tutors.

She has served on the Board of Directors of NSAI for 14 years, one of the concerned members of the creative community willing to invest time and energy in the hope of making sure thereís an industry in the years to come to provide people like her own son, Ernest Chapman III - a gifted 23-year-old Berklee student who appears on Chapmanís albums as a vocalist and arranger - with a source of income.

Our meeting takes place in a Nashville Starbucks cafť on a Monday morning. Chapman surprises me by producing her own minidisc recorder to capture our conversation, explaining that sheís gathering material for a book on songwriting (she already is much sought after for songwriting workshops and seminars). You donít nearly begin to encompass a creative being as determined, accomplished and inspired as Beth Nielsen Chapman in one sitting, but some of our 90-minute conversation follows, beginning with the flippant observation that we have three names apiece.

I love what you said on your website: "Iíve got three names, I live in Nashville, everyone thinks Iím a country hick".
Oh no, no - I never said that!

You didnít say that, but....
I said everybody thinks Iím Mary Chapin Carpenter [laughs].

You said something to the effect that people think youíre probably more country than you are.
Well, whatís interesting is, you know, Mary Chapin Carpenter and I kinda joke about this ícause I donít think of her as just country. I mean, sheís certainly written some songs that fit in that genre but we both laugh about people getting us mixed up, you know, ícause of the three names. There are a couple of other three-name [artists] that do get into more of the traditional country.

Youíve written with Mary Chapin, havenít you?
Yeah. Annie Roboff and I and Chapin wrote a song for her last Greatest Hits record, a song called "Almost Home." Itís really a blast writing with her. Sheís one of those people that doesnít really need to co-write but when you do co-write with somebody like that, itís so much fun.

Thatís very true of both of you, though; youíre totally independent writers. I know you play piano and guitar. She plays guitar - does she play piano? I know she has some piano ballads.
Iím sure she does. She mostly writes on guitar. Annie plays on piano quite a bit.

And Chapinís sort of similar to me, I think, in the way that she approaches writing. At least from my experience with her, thereís this kind of subliminal thing that comes through when she gets into the flow of it, based on following the sound of a melody and just throwing some nonsense words into it, and then suddenly one of the words sounds like it makes sense . . . and then the next thing you know, youíre brilliant! [laughs]

And when youíre doing that with somebody else you have to be very uninhibited. You have to be totally unafraid to sound "dumb" or childish.
Thatís right. And thatís one of those things that actually can really stilt the co-writing experience, if somebodyís trying to be too . . . too correct.

Self-editing as theyíre going along.
Yeah. But itís hard not to when youíre . . . like, Iíve had the opportunity to write with some of the people that Iíve been most influenced by as a songwriter, one being Harlan Howard. And the first four or five times we wrote together I was so impressed with the fact that I was writing with him that I didnít have my usual filter of, you know, "letís go for this or that." I was not really showing all the way up; I was too deferring to his wonderfulness, which is true, but it didnít do him any good. I mean he needed me to get down in the trenches and letís write a song and letís argue and letís not be afraid to say, "That sucked, Harlan!" [laughs]

And you were writing with him at a point when he really could use your input, because heíd been at it for an awful long time and staying fresh for guys like him requires, I think, putting your head together with someone new.

He understood rejuvenating his . . . but I would never say in a million years that he needed to write with me or anybody else, except that I do think it does create a whole other level of enjoyment. And we both learned stuff from each other.

This new record thatís coming out called Look, thereís a song on there called "Time Wonít Tell" that Harlan and I wrote. And, you know, some of the expressions that he used that were from the í50s and í60s . . . heíd say, like, "Letís put gal in there" and Iím like, "Canít say gal now, Harlan." Once I got comfortable enough to kinda argue with him, then what we could offer each other went to another level. And I thought that song "Time Wonít Tell" was one of the finest songs Iíve ever had a part in writing.

What was his gift? What do you think made Harlan so special?
Wow, thatís a whole entire book.

It wasnít musical sophistication.
Harlan had an incredible gift for capturing little bits of humanity and floating them into a song. He did it from human beings up, you know. When you really got down into writing he really served the song. He would kid around about writing a hit or not writing a hit - you would think he was fixated on that but he really wasnít. He was really about just writing a great song.

He used to say - Iíve quoted him all the time - he used to say "A great song donít care who sings it." And itís true. I mean the greatest songs, like "I Fall To Pieces"you could just hand that right over to Sheryl Crow or Lee Ann Womack or anybody whoís twenty years old and say, "If you can cry, make that song work." And the songs donít go out of style, the great songs really donít.

As has been proven. One of my favourite cuts on "I Fall To Pieces" is that Trisha Yearwood/Aaron Neville one on that Country-R&B album a few years back.
Oh yeah.

That was splendid. And they did totally revisit it; it had a different vibe and yet it was absolutely true to the original melody and sentiment.
Yeah. When Iím teaching songwriting Iím always trying to get my students to realise the flexibility so they donít have to be so "Is it country, is it not country? Is it pop, is it not pop?" Thatís more about the instrumentation. It is certainly about the structure and some of the chord decisions but, beyond that, you take a song like "Stardust" and you can give it to Willie Nelson, you can also give it to Ella Fitzgerald, you know. And thatís not a simple country ditty, thatís a complex, really incredibly written melody. You can give "The Star-Spangled Banner" to Jeannie Pruett and you can also give it to, you know, Josh Groban, and - you know what? - itís still "The Star-Spangled Banner."

To me, thatís the kind of song Iíve always been most attracted to. The ones that can change outfits and still be themselves.

Are you a big fan of those old Gershwin/Irving Berlin standards?
Yeah. Do you have a copy of "Look"? Itís a new record coming out on Compass Records. It came out last March in the UK on Sanctuary. I do licensing deals in different territories - that's a whole other article too!

But itís got the Harlan Howard song on it; itís also got a song that I wrote with Andy Bey, whoís an amazing jazz artist based out of New York. It was an incredible honour to work with him. And itís really in that kind of vein, you know, the really beautiful old airtight chestnut songs that are very hard to find nowadays. Iíve always tried to write a few of those.

So [referring to Starbucks adult contemporary background music] how often do you come into a place like this and hear one of your own songs?
Oh you know what, itís fascinating - itís usually when Iím in a grocery store and I look like I just woke up and I hope nobodyíll recognise me. And somebody in the checkout line will be ahead of me singing along and Iíll just be, you know, noticing this sort of bizarre occurrence.

When you think of it, isnít that the whole magic of being a writer?
Well, thatís the wonderful magic of feeling like your music has gotten out there.

Do the songwriter and artist cohabit comfortably in you? Would you be a writer if you werenít an artist?
Absolutely.

Would you be an artist if you werenít a writer?
Yeah, I could. Because I feel like Iíve developed into a better singer than I thought I would at first.

Youíre a great singer!
I donít know. Itís hard for me to say Iím a great singer but I feel like Iíve become a very good singer.

You remind me of Jennifer Warnes, whoís one of my favourites.
Well, Iím very influenced by her. You know, Iíve just done an album of old Latin hymns thatís doing quite well. I mean, I wrote one song on there. But as a singer I had no problem just doing those songs. It didnít have to be all songs that I wrote. I wish I could clone myself because there are so many songs Iíd love to perform and sing and cover, but I always have this backlog of songs Iíve written.

Do you sometimes write and have absolutely no inclination to sing the song yourself?
Oh yeah. I would say more than half of the songs I write I donít really claim as an artist, meaning I like the song but itís not something that resonates with me as an artist. I donít want to make that be my statement as an artist.

But youíre still married to the craft of making that the best song you can.
Oh yeah!

Some people donít do that, some artists. "If Iím not hearing it for me, letís move on."
Well, I was very influenced by people like Carole King, you know, people who didnít have to ever even make records, that were making a plentiful living focusing on tremendous compositions as songwriters. Paul Williams, whose songwriting eclipses his profile as an artist. Jimmy Webb. People like that. I think of them all as artists but their songwriting has been so tremendous that itís got a whole life of its own. And the thing is too, I donít really think of someone as an artist or not as an artist based on any level of success, I just base it on when I hear them perform.

I know some amazing artists whoíve never had a record deal, probably wonít get a record deal. And theyíre still artists!
You know, one of the things I feel like I do as a teacher is I feel like Iím a steward of the independence of creative spirit, which I think is the first casualty most always in the music business. Youíre this creative person, youíre developing, youíre growing, you love music, youíre listening to music, youíre influenced, you start writing songs, youíre singing, you go out, you perform . . . and then all of a sudden youíre on this brink of, "Oh my God, I might wanna actually do this," you know.

And then you have to address how do you do this? Then you start taking your little babies and slamming them up against this brick wall called The Music Business. Trying to help young people do that in a way that doesnít destroy the creative spirit that they came in with is very challenging.

The other thing is that as you achieve any measure of success, or look like youíre about to, other people are drawn to you and other influences come into play. And very often creative people, particularly when theyíre young, are very vulnerable to that kind of thing.
Yes, absolutely. I didnít really figure out how to write until I was about in my mid-30s. I wrote some good songs before that but I didnít really have a real sense within me of waiting and giving that song a little more time, going back to it and rewriting it, giving it four or five more months and then going back and looking at it again and then recording it. And thatís not to say every song takes that long to write. Some songs I write really fast. They still take two years to get cut!

Youíre lucky if itís just two years.
The first real hit I had was a song I wrote with Don Schlitz called "Strong Enough To Bend." We wrote that song and thought it was great, you know. I thought, "Well, thatíll be cut in no time." Well, it took about two years. Everybody heard it and passed on it. The Judds passed on it, and Reba passed on it. And then Tanya heard it and she might have even held onto it for a while, and then she went, "Ah, I like that song, Iím gonna cut it."

And then it was nominated for Song of the Year, and here Iíd been living in Nashville for about three or four years trying to get arrested, you know, trying to get some attention, and then this big hit comes along and all of a sudden my phoneís ringing. Thank God Don Schlitz was wonderful to work with. Heíd already had a lot of hits so I was sort of like this new kid that came along and a lot of people would say, "Can you write me a ĎStrong Enough To Bendí? I like that, do that again." And I went into this total writing crisis of, "Whoa, Iíve done this thing and all of a sudden Iíve been defined by this thing, but thatís only one of the things I do." I think thatís one of the doors you have to walk through as a writer, that when you first get successful you sorta have to go through this warp, and then you have to recover your balance from the attention and the definition that gets placed on you. And to me navigating in and out of those phases is one of the great things that you have to learn to have longevity. I mean what I forgot was that Iíd written "Strong Enough To Bend" and then two years went by, and then it was a hit and then I had writerís block for a little while because I thought, "Oh no, how am I gonna write that again?" But, fact is, Iíd written plenty of songs after that song.

Tell me about getting into the co-writing process. I mean, you with somebody like Don Schlitz whoís a fabulous writer who can write totally independently, and yourself who can write independently, can sing your own stuff - how does that mesh? Especially at first, when you were kind of getting into the co-writing thing, which is so much a part of the Nashville process.
It really is a part of the Nashville process and itís a wonderful thing, and itís also something I think you have to be careful about, especially if you can write a song all by yourself. I think itís really important to carve out a little bit of time and space to continue producing songs by yourself. And itís a little painful because youíre used to somebody . . . you know, the difference between going to the gym with a trainer and going to the gym all by yourself and doing as many lifts, you know.

Itís so boring!
But with a co-writer youíve got somebody to go, "Come on, you can do it!" and doing it with you, so it draws you in. For me, it was a great break because I had been hanging around town, knocking around. I was signed to MTM, which was a publishing company Mary Tyler Moore owned. There was a batch of us young kids that just fell off the turnip truck, which was Bill Lloyd, Judy Rodman, Holly Dunn, The Girls Next Door - which was my first cut.

And, you know, [when] I moved to town, Iíd already done an album with Barry Beckett that came out in 1980 on Capitol Records. That was wonderfully helpful to me when I decided to move to Nashville because Barry had moved here and he helped me to connect with people, and so I felt very welcomed, really, for somebody coming into town for the first time. And then I signed as a writer with MTM and, for whatever reason, they just didnít sign me as an artist and I was completely perplexed, you know, like, "Well why? I can sing" - but instead theyíd just take the songs and give íem to The Girls Next Door, and I didnít understand that system at the time.

Looking back on it, everything thatís happened has had a reason and it was really a very deep growing period for me as a songwriter, when I didnít immediately get signed as an artist and I realised that "I have to really write my way out of this. I have to write so good that it competes with anything these singers are gonna write because I may not be asked to be an artist again."

And I went through this sort of period of loss of confidence when I first moved to town. And then I would go to the Bluebird and the in-the-round thing was just starting - Fred Knobloch and Don Schlitz - they were just starting the in-the-round thing. And I used to go and sit over their shoulders and chat with them after the gig and, you know, just eventually kinda got friendly with Don and gave him a tape or something, and he heard the songwriting and he said, "Okay, Iíll write a song with you."

Give me a little bit of your background. I know you were an "Air Force brat," in your own words. Tell me a little bit about growing up and how you ended up here.
Well, you know, I grew up all over - lived in Germany and lived in California and New England. And I was exposed to incredible radio - of course we all had incredible radio in the sixties - but on top of the basic incredible radio I also had different cultural experiences of going into different areas. In Germany I was exposed to a lot of German radio stations and a very different take on pop music. So it all just sort of filtered in. And as the singer-songwriters in the í70s started coming in I really was very influenced by Joni Mitchell and Carole King and James Taylor and Paul Simon, and songs and songwriters. And then extremely influenced by Motown and all those elements that work together.

Were your parents musical or your siblings?
No. My mother and father are both musically talented but nobody did it professionally. My motherís brother is a professional musician. Heís always been in big bands in the Jersey area and played Atlantic City. Great singer. I used to go see Uncle Richard when I was a teenager and just go like, "Wow! Heís on this big stage." Heís still doing it too. He loves what he does and heís continuing to get up every morning and be a singer and go out in the world. So that was an influence to me in terms of, "This is do-able, you can actually do this. "

What did your parents think? Did you display an interest in doing this at a fairly young age?
I was very fortunate in terms of my creativity. All my brothers and sisters are artistic in some way. My sisterís a clothing designer and a very talented painter and sculptor. My brother is a professional artist in New York and makes this amazing jewellery thatís just incredible, and the sisters that arenít actively doing it for a living also have a great deal of creative skill and comfortable-ness in their creativity. And that is, I think, because both of my parents pretty much were very, very positive about - and valued time spent making stuff up.

What was your fatherís area of expertise in the Air Force?
He was chief of procurement, I remember him doing that. And he did mathematical kinds of things, and when he retired he was a high school math teacher for quite a block of years. When I was going into the ninth grade - it was like 1969 - we had just studied all about current events, about Martin Luther King and all this stuff, [when] we got our orders to move from Munich, Germany to Montgomery, Alabama. That was a huge shift for me, you know, where up until then I had lived on Air Force bases. An Air Force base is like a bubble: everybody has the same floor plan, everybody has the same curtains, either blue or red. The children of colour, whatever colour they are, all have the same accent, which is no accent ícause everybodyís born in the bubble, raised in the bubble. So the cultural differences are less pronounced in terms of the way people talk and dress and think, and racism is really something that I couldnít even grasp ícause all the kids I knew I could relate to just fine. There just wasnít the situation in the bubble of having these deep rifts between people - at least I didnít experience it, Iím sure it existed.

So going into the ninth grade, moving for the first time into a regular neighbourhood that was not on base, was a big shift and then, you know, just coming into Montgomery, Alabama, in 1969 when there was and still is a tremendous amount of tension between races and lots of woundedness still hadnít healed. And so, in terms of my songwriting, I had just started playing guitar right before moving there.

Had you played piano first?
I played piano from the fifth and six grades. My parents had a rented piano and I just plunked around, I didnít think I was really going to be any kind of songwriter or anything. But I always wrote songs right from the very beginning. I wrote more songs than I learned of other peopleís.

Interesting.
I just found a notebook like three days ago I hadnít seen since I was about 12, and it had all these songs about it was during the Vietnam War and I had all these war songs: "Will you tell me when the war is gonna end?"and Iím thinking, "Gosh, I was really deep in it, you know." I should have been outside playing kickball or something! And I realised I was a pretty intense little kid. I had songs that were more mature than what I had been through. I kind of extended my imagination into things I hadnít done yet. I wrote a song about a woman whose husband goes off to war, and Iím the woman and, you know, my mom is reading lyrics going, "When did this happen?" But always with a lot of positive reinforcement. Iíd show my mom a picture - I could just draw a black line on a piece of paper and go, "See, I painted this for you," and sheíd be like, "Oh thatís so beautiful!"

I think kids need that. They need unconditional positive regard from somebody so they can go back to that and go, "Well, my mom likes it. Even if everybody else hates it my mom likes it." [laughs] And you do also need a balancing opinion. You canít just have somebody love everything you do and then grow, so I would have different people I would go to for different things.

Yeah, thereís nothing more deluded than a person who has maybe a smidgen of talent, but theyíve been encouraged from the word go and feel they can do no wrong.
No, thatís not fair either. When I do song critiques I always start with something thatís good about the song. And I really donít heartily encourage people who I think donít really look like they [should] be doing this for a living, you know. But I do encourage people to write and to use songwriting as a form of healing, as a very healthy way to get through things. Itís like journalling , you know.

Youíre an excellent representative of that theme.
Absolutely. Iíve actually written my way out of the most difficult things in my life, you know.

But just continue, before we get off track, about how you got here.
Okay. Well, how I got to Nashville was I got married in 1979 and moved to Mobile.

Your husband was a philosopher?
He had a degree in philosophy and he was running a treatment facility for adolescents, and heíd been doing it for about 12 years when I met him. And it was quite successful. He took pretty tough kids that nobody else really wanted.

You were in your 20s?
I was in my early 20s. He was about 13 years older.

I love what you say [on her website]: you sort of woke up one day and realised, "Oh I didnít go to university."
I forgot to go to college. Yeah, I was like, "OhÖ!" Well, I did that age-old thing, you know, I got a publishing deal too early with somebody that really wasnít the right choice and then I had to try and extract myself out of that. Then that contract got sold to Screen Gems.

Was this still in Montgomery?
No, this was in Birmingham, which is about an hour and a half north of Montgomery. Iíd met this person who had a studio and I would go up there and deliver my songs like babies to him, for nothing.

So you were very active in pursuing a career before you moved here?
Oh yeah. By the time I got through high school I knew I was gonna be writing songs. I didnít have a clue as to how I would make a living doing it, but I was a singer and a songwriter and I was making money singing at weddings and I was singing at church. Anywhere there was a barbecue and somebody had a microphone - I mean I just was in it, you know. Actually I met my husband when I was singing in a little bar in Mobile. He came in and I was singing a Bonnie Raitt song. And, you know, he loved Bonnie Raitt. Itís funny because Bonnie and I are really good friends now and itís just so amazing.

Have you had Bonnie Raitt cuts?
I have. Bonnie and Annie and I co-wrote a song that was on her Fundamental record, called [ponders]. Iím horrible with names. See, I donít remember the names of my songs. I can sing it to you!

Well, when they start numbering well into the hundreds that can happen.
No, even if I just wrote it I have trouble.

Itís because youíre in the moment!
Yeah, I am. So in the moment I donít know where anything else is. Oh, Iíve gotta stop trying to remember it ícause itíll derail the rest of my brain. [note: the song is "Meet Me Half Way"]. But anyway, I moved to Mobile. I went from having lived all over the place - I guess the longest Iíd ever lived anywhere was Montgomery from ninth grade through the end of high school. My parents still live there, my familyís based out of there.

Your parents are both still alive?
Yeah, theyíre still alive and still married. And both from New Jersey but theyíre stuck in Montgomery now ícause all the grandchildren are happening down there. All my sisters married Southern men and started having children.

So anyway, the amazing thing about moving to Mobile was we moved into this house that my husbandís grandfather had built. So there was this family house with a lot of history. When I had a son and weíd walk around the block all these little old ladies down the street would say, "Well, thatís Ernest Junior Juniorís boy!" and Iíd run home and be amazed that these people down the street knew who his grandfather was. And [my husband] goes, "Listen, weíve been here a long time."

And so that really had an impact on me as a songwriter. I remember writing a group of songs that were deeply about family. Thereís a song called "Child Again," which I really wrote about my grandmother and her later years. And a song called "Years." These songs got started when I still lived in Mobile. That was between 1980 and í84. They didnít really get finished until like 1990, and then I did the first record on Warner Brothers.

The way we ended up coming to Nashville was that I had stopped writing songs . . . Well, trying to put it in a nutshell, I got married and then shortly after that I had an opportunity to make a record with Barry Beckett producing in Muscle Shoals. So I went there and did a record, [then] went back to Mobile, didnít even have a manager, didnít know what you do next. I had no idea what the process was about, except that I had a wonderful experience making this record, playing with all the great guys at Muscle Shoals Sound. The record comes out right about the same time "Disco Duck" hit, so this sensitive singer-songwriter, kinda Carole King-ish album which was called "Hearing It First" came out and, you know, promptly did nothing. And I was so devastated, thinking, "Well, Iím on a major label, Iím on Capitol Records, I had a major producer, I had he greatest musicians on the world so itís obviously my failure." Because all those other things were in place.

And I wish Iíd known someone in the business who couldíve said, "Well, you didnít have a manager, you didnít have a PR person, you didnít have a plan, nobody knows you put out this record!" I had a few little perfunctory reviews in Billboard magazine, very positive.

A record deal is a baby step at best.
Yeah. I had no idea. So I took it all very personally. I completely decided, "I obviously have no business doing this." Because the record cost over a hundred thousand to make - I didnít understand that it was my money that was being used. I didnít understand anything!

So I went through this major crisis and didnít write a song for two years for the first time in my life. Had a baby, became really good at baking bread. I was having a wonderful time being a mother, so that was a lovely distraction. And then, you know, I started making Play-Doh sculptures ícause all this creative energy didnít have anywhere to go ícause I wasnít writing songs, and Iíd be sitting there at three oíclock in the morning trying to fix the nose on one of these little Play-Doh heads, you know. And I remember this one night [chuckling] when my husband came in the kitchen and he put his hands on my shoulders, and he said, "Honey, itís time for you to start writing songs again."

And I burst into tears. It was like somebody connecting me to my root again. And he said, "Iíll help you. Itíll take you about six months; youíll write every day." We carved out time every day for me to write. The first six months of songs were horrible but he was a great sounding boardí cause heíd been a writer and heíd written poetry - not being a songwriter but just being a coach, you know. And then I started writing some good songs.

Then I saw "Coal Minerís Daughter". When I saw that movie . . . about the same time I saw "Coal Minerís Daughter" I got into Emmylou Harrisís first record, which brought me into a whole world of country music. Iíd never listened to country music. I didnít know about all those great songwriters. I mean, I knew about Patsy Cline but I didnít follow that trail to who wrote this? and who wrote that? So I became very interested in the art form of that kind of songwriting, which is really not an easy thing to do. The simpler the more difficult, really.

And so connected to the Tin Pan Alley tradition of writing songs for people to sing, all kinds of people to sing.
Exactly. And where you serve the song - you donít serve the artist, you serve the song. My theory is that all the songs are already written perfectly and they exist on shelves somewhere, and your capacity to download them into the hole in the top of your head is equivalent to your sense of belief in that, whether or not you ate your Wheaties, whether or not you read great works of writing and you feed that part of yourself that needs nutrition. You canít get nutrition from People magazine; you have to feed it with deeply, well-written stuff. And thereís also variety in that. You donít have to read something boring and dry if you donít get it just ícause itís well written, you know. Find something that you love.

Ever notice when you learn a new word bring a new word into your vocabulary or a new name, the name of a writer or something - and the moment youíve learned that, you hear it everywhere.
Exactly.

Which seems to say itís always been going around, you just havenít been paying attention. And songs and ideas come of their time. Itís not just you. Itís not just me in my little pea-brain and my experience - there's a whole thing going on collectively. Thereís a collective consciousness. Many, many times thereís been a song written on one end of Music Row and the same title is being written on the other end, and nobody knew anybody else was doing it.

In fact when I had this opportunity - because of "Strong Enough To Bend" I had an opportunity to write a song for Willie Nelson, and I was so honoured to be called up by Fred Foster, who said, "Willie really liked that song and heís not writing right now and heís doing a record with me, and we want you to write him a song." And Iím like, "When do you need it by?" I was so excited. Then I hung up the phone and I went, "Oh shit! Now Iíve gotta write a song for Willie!" [laughs]

But I had listened to him so much and was such a huge fan. And then I immediately got this title called "Thereís Nothing I Can Do About It Now," and for me to get the title first is really scary ícause usually I write from the sound of the melody, and then I kinda hear the sound of the vowels and I kinda hear the sound of the consonants and then I think, "Oh, thatís what thatís called." Then I engage my brain, layers later. So to come up with the title first and have to work backwards was really intimidating. But I thought it was a great title. "Thereís Nothing I Can Do About It Now" sort of encapsulated Willieís way of just rolling with the punches, and the way he goes through life, and you know, "Hey, sorry, Iím gonna move forward ." And everywhere I went, every conversation, people would say, "Well, thereís nothing I can do about it now," and Iíd be hoping nobody would go, "Hey! Thatís a great idea for a song," you know. I was so sure somebody was gonna write that song out from under me. But thankfully they didnít and I ended up writing it, and it ended up being a hit for Willie. It was amazing.

But anyway . . . so after seeing "Coal Minerís Daughter" and starting to listen to Emmylou Harris, my writing took a focus: "I wanna learn to write these great three-chord country songs." And I didnít so much think of it in terms of, "This is what is what I wanna sing" or "I wanna be a country artist" - I didnít think I deserved the right to be an artist after that first record.

Wow, that really cut deep then.
It cut deep for a long time. And so moving to Nashville was a result of many months of writing, and then my husband was trying to encourage me to send tapes: "Now that youíve got these really cool songs" - you know, with two or three songs that had really come together - "youíve gotta send tapes." And I kept putting it off ícause I didnít wanna be rejected. So we were both pretty heavy smokers at the time and we had quit smoking a number of times and we were really doing good, and it was like the fourth time weíd quit smoking. And one afternoon he came home and he said, "If you donít have a postmarked proof that you sent that tape to this address and this address and this address by Friday, Iím gonna start smoking!"

What a threat!
And I knew if he started smoking again I was gonna start smoking again. [laughs] So the pressure was on, and I sent a tape to Mac MacAnally, whoíd been an old friend and played guitar on my album. I sent a tape to Barry Beckett. I sent a tape to Roger Sovine at BMI, who Iíd met through someone. And I sent a tape to Joan Baez.

Joan Baez! Howíd she get in there?
I donít know, I got her address from someone. I didnít hear back from Joan, but I did hear back from everybody else and it was a shock to me. Mac called me and he said, "Hey, thereís some pretty good stuff on here. Thereís this new group called The Judds; theyíre not signed yet but this song ĎFive Minutesí that you wrote really sounds like a hit to me [for them]." And I was just so glad he called me back and he remembered who I was . . . see, I had such a low opinion of myself as an artist and a writer at that time. And then Roger Sovine got back to me and he thought I should come to Nashville and start co-writing. He didnít think I was "there" as a writer at that time. But just having the feedback was great.

We made a trip to Nashville. I went and met with [former ASCAP representative] Tom Long, who was an old friend of mine from Mobile. I sat in his office, I played this little three-song tape that Iíd been going around town playing for different people. I met with Cliff . . . canít think of his last name . . . he had a new publishing company. He wanted to give me $5,000 right on the spot for that song "Five Minutes."

He wanted to buy it from you?
Well, he wanted it would still be my song but he wanted to just own the publishing flat out. And boy, I could really use that money, and I was like, ĎYou know what, I think I may need to hold on to that song ícause I need to move to Nashville. I need to get a publishing deal, I need to get a salary, I need to really get some help, you know."

Bob Beckham became interested. I mean I was talking to some really reputable, wonderful publishers. And then I met with people at MTM. They were able to offer me more financially, which gave my family more of a sense of security, so I went with MTM although I really would have loved to have worked with Bob Beckham ícause he was a great song man. And one of the other catalysts for moving to town' cause after we sent the tape and started getting positive feedback I still wasnít really ready to move and then one night I was singing at the Riverview Plaza Hotel, which was where I sang for two years instead of going to college! - and the Beach Boys were playing in town. And one of the Beach Boys was sitting right in front of me all night. I didnít even know it was him. It was Bruce Johnston who plays keyboards for them. The rest of the Beach Boys were going up and down the elevator across the lobby and I kept looking over there going, "Wow, thatís the Beach Boys, thatís cool!" Little did I know that one of them was sitting right in front of me, and at the end of my set.

Didnít he write "I Write The Songs"?
He did! And he came over to me and he goes, ĎYou know, I wrote "I Write The Songs."í And Iím like, "Oh, really." I totally thought he was just, you know, blowing smoke. And he said, "Yes. First of all, your speakers are totally out of phase." And Iím like, "Who is this guy? Who does he think he is?" And he goes, "Iím with the Beach Boys, I play keyboard." And all of a sudden I looked at him and I went, "Oh my God, yes. This is really the guy."

And he said, "Okay. The last set, you played two songs that were hits, okay? I donít even remember which ones. Doesnít matter. So Iím gonna tell you one thing: you will not get anywhere here. So you need to either move to L.A. or New York or Nashville, as soon as possible, and just go for it. Goodnight." And I was like [stunned expression]. So I go home, itís like two oíclock in the morning, and I literally wake my husband up and go, "Weíre moving to Nashville!" íCause it was the closest.

It sounds like everything you were doing was bringing you into contact with good people, though.
Oh yeah. I was very guided and very fortunate. And moving to town, the whole thing unfolded. But I still was extremely . . . I know why I didnít get signed as an artist right away, because I didnít think I deserved to be an artist. It doesnít matter how good you are, if you donít think youíre deserving of that spot on the stage - if you donít step all the way into your shoes as an artist - you will never be all that you can be given whatever talent that you have. Thereís a lot of people with talent, and then there are people with even more talent who donít make it because they have that fear. So one of the things that I talk about a great deal when I teach is how to deal with the fear.

Youíre not gonna get rid of it but you have to relate to it differently. So I have all these tricks and tools and stuff for how to realise your fear is along for the ride, and just donít let it behind the wheel. The fear actually has to ride in the trunk [laughs].

I have this whole scenario, itís called Taking A Ride With The Family. When you set off on the journey of writing a song itís like getting in a car, and you donít know where youíre going. And you might have some distinguishing things, like you might decide youíre gonna drive an SUV or you might decide youíre gonna drive a Maserati that day, and that might have to do with whether or not youíre thinking, "Maybe thisíll be a pop song, maybe thisíll be a country song." But your creative spirit and your muse gets behind the wheel, and the critic - which is a very important part of the process of finishing a songs - its in the front seat with duct tape over its mouth. And then you have The Whiner, and the whiner is the part of you that goes [whiny voice], "I donít know, I just canít do this," you know, about halfway through the morning when youíre trying to write and you just go, "Aw yeah, this isnít going anywhere, Iím gonna go play golf or, you know, watch TV." That part of you is also along for the ride.

So, you know, be a parent. Let the muse be the parent and you give the crybaby a lollipop and you make sure that youíve locked the childproof windows, and just let it whine and wait it out. All these things I didnít know when I first moved to town. I was overwhelmed with the amount of talent that was here. I was like, "Oh, what was I thinking?" I lost my voice for about four or five months. It was just stress and fear. Iíd be sitting there at the Slice of Life, which was this restaurant that was popular a few years back, and the waitress would come over to take your food order, and sheíd wander off writing things down and sheíd be singing something and have the most amazing voice. That was like the third day I was here and I remember looking at my husband and going, "Did you hear that? I mean, sheís a waitress - did you hear her voice? And he was like, "Youíve got to stop comparing yourself."

All the psychology he could use on me didnít go very far. I just had to dig my heels in and get through my own brick walls that Iíd put up for myself. I worked with a voice teacher here named Gerald Arthur, who really helped me a lot, remembering how to sing with my speaking voice, which is the most effortless way you can sing. My whole experience with Gerald was, he was like, "Donít sing! You have a really good speaking voice; donít sing." I was like [perplexed], "But Iím here to learn to sing!" He goes, "No, youíre not. Youíre here to communicate. Youíre gonna communicate with your voice in the most profound way; just get out of the way of it."

And that analogy fit for everything I was going through. Fit for my songwriting - you know, I had to just get out of my own way, and that is always . . . if youíre stuck, itís usually you in the way.

Letís talk about these healing songs again. Obviously "Sand And Water" is an amazing song and one that many people immediately connect to you, and I know that came out of possibly the most stressful time in your life. Now some people are totally paralysed going through emotional trauma. they become totally non-creative or just have to shut down until later on but that didnít seem to happen with you.
Well no, I had periods of time when I shut down. When my second record was just getting ready to come out on Warner Brothers . . . we had just finished mixing, I was slated to go - this was like early 1993 - I was slated to go on tour with Dan Fogelberg and have a summer release and a big campaign, you know. At this point Iíd had a little bit of success as a songwriter and Ernest, whoíd been working various jobs in the mental health industry around here, finally was able to quit his job and concentrate fully on some creative things he wanted to do, some writing and publishing - doing my publishing, which was great - and sort of being Mr. Mom. And right about the time that he was able to quit his job, within a few months, he was diagnosed with a very rare form of lymphoma and given about six weeks to live. And so our whole world fell upside down. During the year before we even knew he was sick there was this group of songs that I started writing. They were really strong, like "Seven Shades Of Blue" on the Sand And Water album. Thereís about four or five of them on the Sand And Water album. And one of the things we liked to do was get a little shot of Grand Marnier and go into the music and I would play him things I was like halfway through writing, things I was working on. I would play him these little bits of these songs and he just thought they were like, "This is gonna be the best stuff youíve ever written." And he said, "What are you writing it about?" and Iíd be like, "I donít know." And the first verse of "Seven Shades Of Blue," he said, "That sounds like when we first met" and I said, "Yeah! I know."

But then the chorus says, "We hold it all for a little while, donít we/Kiss the dice, taste the rain like little knives upon our tongue/We can do no wrong when the lights go on and the music plays/And we take the stage like we own the place/As if time were cheap and the night forever young." And this whole thing about time slipping away and how precious life is and how we think weíre just gonna live forever and then . . . you know, we hold it all for a little while, meaning we have the sense of immortality for a while and then eventually we realise we donít get to live forever. And he just thought that was the most powerful thing Iíd ever written. This is like a year before he was diagnosed. And there were other songs like that. And what Iíve noticed over the years is the tendency to write ahead of some things, you know. When I donít really know where itís coming from Iíve learned to not try to figure out where itís coming from; just let it seep up. And when I wrote "Sand And Water," it was about a month after his death. He lived about eighteen months and that was an extremely intense, powerful, devastating but also really profoundly magical time. Life became magical when the idea of death was actually not a rumour anymore. It lights everything differently, and to this day it still does. You know, all the thing we went through and, when he finally passed, the place that he was at and the way that he let go, and just the amazing qualities of that.

How old was your son?
He was 12 going on 13. Thatís when your father archetypically is supposed to take you out in the woods and teach you how to hunt. And there he was, gone.

So I wrote the song "Sand And Water" about a month he passed. He and Rodney Crowell had become really good friends and I think he told Rodney to be sure and keep checking in on me and donít let me not write for too long. And after he died I just could not imagine how anybody would want to hear me get up and sing any more, because I didnít know how I would ever sing without just crying. So I sort of shut down and kind of got very still. I mean I was sort of on automatic pilot for about a year. I didnít really cry. I just was like trying to be there for my son and just trying to get through that year.

So when Rodney calls me up one day and he says, "I wanna come by, and maybe weíll write a song or something," Iím like, "Oh great, Iím so rusty!" So I pull out my guitar, and I hadnít even picked up the guitar but when Rodney Crowellís coming over you better tune the sucker, you know. So this whole thing . . . I just happened to be near a tape recorder and I turned it on, and the whole song almost came out perfectly written. And I remember thinking it didnít make any sense. Thereís a line in there about "sand and water and a million years gone by," you know that line thatís kind of a brain twister. I had no idea what that meant when I wrote it. You know that whole thing - I didnít write it, I just wrote it down? I felt extremely guided and I felt surrounded by assistance in writing that song.

Iíve had that feeling and Iíve become more comfortable with it when itís happened subsequently. That was the first time I really could feel it and acknowledge it, you know. And Rodney comes over and I played him the song and I said, "I wanna play you this just ícause Iím not sure it makes any sense; itís probably too personal and too sad and I probably wonít ever take it out of the house." And I played the song and he said, "Not only are you gonna take that out of the house, youíll never finish hearing how many people that song will help. Itíll never be over." And I just thought, "Really? I donít know." And he goes, "Trust me."

And almost a year later I was ready to record and Rodney, my good friend, was helping me figure out who to get to produce the record. And he was setting me up meetings with people and, you know, helping me find the right producer, and all of a sudden I just picked up the phone one day and I went, "Rodney, this is so stupid - you need to produce this record with me." It was so obvious. So we went in the studio and it was an incredible experience. The first few days of recording that record I spent absolutely sobbing in the studio. Got nothing on tape. Iím like, "Oh great, you know, now Iím gonna fall apart, now that Iíve got studio time and a producer and a band, these great musicians." I was like, "You know what, I think we need to just come back in a month." And Rodney, to his credit, he goes, "No. No, you have to sit right in this studio at whatever it is per day and cry and wade through this. And when you get on the other side of this wall of tears youíre gonna have some of the most amazing performances youíve ever experienced." And I was like, "I donít think so," you know.

But four days later I finally was just so exhausted from crying every day, and I came in there and that song, "Seven Shades Of Blue" was the first one I got on tape. I said, "You know, Iím gonna try something different. Iím just gonna close my eyes and picture myself going through my house picking up laundry, and get my head out of my situation and let my heart sing what this song has to say. In other words, just let the song be what it is without me in the middle of it. And so I put myself at the microphone . . . closed my eyes, started strumming it and got a nice big pink laundry basket and went through my house room by room picking up clothes, while my body sang the song. And thatís the performance thatís on that record. Iíd been doing it for three days trying to get through it - I knew it really well, so I was not consciously aware of what I was doing when I was singing. I didnít know if I was singing in tune. I mean, I completely evaporated away from the part of me that was singing the song, and that to me is the same thing that happens in writing when you get your ego out of the way, get your brain out of the way, get your "I wonder if Faith Hill will cut this song" thing out of the way and you allow this thing to happen. Itís so natural and effortless, and doesnít need you.

There is something universal that runs through you.
Absolutely, itís called divine intervention. And I donít care what your religious background is, I donít care what you believe or donít believe - if you have a belly button and youíre breathing, you have a hole in the top of your head and in it will pour divine intervention. I think all of us who create art - which is all of us; some of us do it for a living and some of us donít - every manifestation of artistic expression is sort of like the groundwork of healing.

At the other extreme you have songs like "This Kiss," which couldnít be lighter and fluffier and yet is a terrific song. It certainly did its job; people responded to it.
Oh yeah.
And that was a tri-write, so that came out of a whole different creative process.
That came from me and Annie [Roboff] and Robin [Lerner]. And the interesting thing about that song is there were three people healing on a beach. I was a widow. Annie was very much focusing on her career, you know - not in any kind of crisis but certainly in a place where she wasnít in a relationship, she was just nose to the grindstone. And Robin was going through a divorce. So we had a widow, a career woman and a divorcee - none of whom had been kissed in a really long time! And then we had this great melody and this thing just went beep! But if you read into the lines of that song - even though itís lightly put, you know . . . "Cinderella said to Snow White/All I wanted was a white knight" . . . "Itís the way you love me" - itís very much about just that moment of falling in love with someone and finding the right kiss and stuff. Itís certainly not a deep song and yet paints a deep picture of that ascension into love.

No, itís very romantic, very well-crafted and it works. But itís just so totally at the other end of the spectrum from what weíve just been talking about.
Well, you know, soís Latin! [laughs] See, Iíve always just been fascinated by great songwriting no matter what style it comes from.

What do you look at thatís going on today among young artists coming up that lights your fire? John Mayer?
I think that the song is alive and well in artists like John Mayer. I think we go through periods of time where songs get obscured a little bit by the sounds of records or the production. There was a thing in the í80s where there werenít as many great songs but there were these big records and stuff like that, but I donít think the song ever completely loses its pulse in the fabric of our society. And if nobodyís writing new songs then theyíre digging out the old ones and redoing them. And, to me, to write a song that goes beyond my generation would be the greatest thing in terms of my ego being satisfied. I think that would be incredible.

Youíve done that already.
Well, I hope so. I donít know. We donít know till after I die, do we? [laughs] And the other thing too is that it happened again. Four years ago, you know, I went through breast cancer and the entire album that I had just finished literally the last day of mixing, I was diagnosed - the whole album, if you listen to it, you would swear that I wrote it after going through breast cancer, ícause thereís a tremendous amount in the spirit of those songs about pushing past fear and getting through difficult stuff and staying positive.

Itís just amazing how it worked out ícause my treatments were such that I lost my hair all through the fall when all the leaves came off the trees, and then in the spring, when leaves were coming back on the trees, my hair started growing back in. So Iím sitting there on my couch - I thought I was gonna be touring my new record and instead Iím sitting there going through breast cancer and going, "Whatís this about?" And the song that gave me the most comfort, which Iíd written two years before, was "Every December Sky," which is about trusting that youíre gonna come out of the darkness back into light. It says, "Every December Sky must lose its faith in leaves/And dream of the spring inside the trees/How heavy the empty heart, how light the heart thatís full/Sometimes I have to trust what I canít know."

Itís like I could have written the song to sing me to get me through the fear of "God, I canít believe Iím going through this, itís never gonna end" and, you know, the fear of death and all the things that are in the winter. And inside the trees, the spring is just waiting.

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