Acclaimed singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman indulges in a bit of nostalgia when asked about her first outside cut as a songwriter.
“I think the first one was ‘Baby I Want It.’ It became a single for The Girls Next Door,” she recalls. That group respresented the foray into the music business by Mary Tyler Moore, which also gave industry jobs to Scott Borchetta and Trisha Yearwood for the first time. “I was signed to their publishing company,” she adds.
It served as a mere preview of what would be in store for the Texas native. Tanya Tucker (“Strong Enough To Bend”) and Willie Nelson (“Nothing I Can Do About It Now”) would top the charts with her compositions by the end of the decade, and the ’90s proved to be a very successful period for Chapman, who penned such hits as “Here We Are” (Alabama), “Happy Girl” (Martina McBride), and most notably, Faith Hill’s 1998 crossover smash “This Kiss.”
Chapman — who cut her first album in 1980 — also enjoyed success as a vocalist in the 1990s, with such AC hits as “Walk My Way” and “I Keep Coming Back To You.” This spring, she returns with a new album entitled Hearts of Glass. It’s a project that she says was a departure for her, as it marks the first time she has ever turned over the production keys solely to someone else – in this case, Sam Ashworth, a Nashville veteran who’s worked with Dierks Bentley and The Lone Bellow. She tells Billboard the idea took some getting used to.
“I’m a good old control freak,” she explains. “I wanted to make a very sparse record. I would notice going back over the years that my tendency would be to think that I was going to keep it sparse, then I would keep adding things, and I’d get attached to them. I couldn’t quite get rid of them without missing them. I was listening to The Civil Wars. I love their records that they made. I was talking to my friend Bob Harris at BBC Radio. He knew Charlie Peacock, who produced those records. He put me in touch with Charlie and he said, ‘Get him to produce for you.’”
She pursued that idea, but the timing wasn’t right. “I met with Charlie, and I was going do it with him — then his schedule changed,” she relates. But the producer had a suggestion: “He was saying, ‘You know, even though I can’t do this now — in this time frame — why don’t you talk to my son, Sam? He grew up when all these records were being made, and he knows all the tricks.”
After meeting him, Chapman found there to be a creative spark – and the two were off and running.
“I thought, ‘You know what, I’m just going to take this crazy leap,’” she recalls. “We picked out the songs together. I had some new ones and then there were these songs I really wanted to do in a much more sparse manner and just revisit them – ones like ‘Life Holds On.’ He was into that. I even let him decide what musicians were going to play on it. For me, that’s unbelievable,” she surmises.
Hearts of Glass touches on many emotions – ranging from the unbridled romanticism of “You’re Still My Valentine” to the emotional anguish of “A Child Again,” a longtime fan favorite (originally cut by Chapman on her 1990 self-titled album) about a patient in a nursing home. Chapman says that writing that one was very personal.
“I would go and visit my dad’s mom,” she relates. “She lived with us for a long time when I was in high school. Then, she needed to go into a nursing home. My grandmother had a really amazing mind. She read voraciously, and she was just a brilliant woman. She had all this information and she would just sit there, but her body was full of arthritis and she couldn’t barely move. She refused to exercise. She didn’t take care of herself very well, but she would write down these notebooks of all these tiny little pieces of information – like King Henry VIII’s fourth wife had mole on the back of her left knee, things like that. You’d be like, ‘Really?’ Her mind was this steel trap, but physically, she couldn’t move.”
She remembers the woman next to her in the home having significant memory issues, but a much sunnier attitude: “I just thought, ‘Okay, she doesn’t know who you are, but she’s happy.’ [Then] there’s my grandmother, who’s completely aware of everything, she’s just depressed and wants to die. That had a big effect on me. You couldn’t cheer her up. This other woman — inside of her mind, she’s running in the summer wind, she’s in this beautiful place.”
Chapman will be hitting the road to promote the new music. One stage she recently hit for the first time was that of the Grand Ole Opry. Though she isn’t a country artist per se, she said the moment gave her the same feeling that you often hear newcomers talk about.
“That was probably one of the great moments of being a musician, an artist, and a songwriter,” she raves. “There’s just a chill to walk out and stand in that spot. It’s so iconic. I felt so cared for. When you do it for the first time, they give you your own parking space. They treat you like you’re the queen coming in. They’re very, very lovely about it, they make you know that they know how special it is. It’s just incredible, and I can’t wait, I’m was so excited, and hope they’ll have me back.”