Beth Nielsen Chapman has an appreciation for the smaller but no less significant things in life: a good bowl of oatmeal, the smell in the air when the seasons change, waking up in the morning with a full head of hair.
Surviving breast cancer has a way of cracking people open and letting them grow again and learn to embrace the things that could easily be taken away, and for that the singer-songwriter is grateful.
“Of course, I wouldn’t have necessarily dialed this up as my choice for my way to learn it,” Chapman said recently, with an infectious laugh, “but since it’s happened to me, I’m trying to make use of it.”
And she has, with gusto.
Her debut Artemis album, “Deeper Still,” released March 26, is a monumental personal achievement – not only for the prophetically introspective songs and an impressive lineup of all-star friends on hand (Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Vince Gill, Joe Henry, John Hiatt), but just for the fact that it’s out. Period.
“I really made the record that my heart wanted to make, and ironically, three days after mixing it, in August of 2000, I found out I had breast cancer,” Chapman said. “I was having conversations with Artemis around that time and a few other labels, and I ended up just being in complete shock. I couldn’t put the record out; I needed a year to heal, to go through three months of chemo, three months of radiation and quite a few months recovering from that.
“Fortunately, it was caught early, and I’m able to say I have a real good prognosis, though I don’t get any 100 percent guarantees. Nobody does. It’s funny, so many of the songs on the record sound like they were written after the fact or with the knowledge that I was going to be going through that.”
The same can be said of 1997’s “Sand and Water,” Chapman’s last album for Warner, her label of 10 years.
“There were a few songs that were half-written about a year before my husband was diagnosed with lymphoma (and later died), and really fit the situation,” Chapman said. “It seems as if I write ahead of my life. Believe me, I’m kind of careful what I write about now.
“My songs have always been my cataloging of myself going through these shifts in feelings, and sometimes those shifts precede the events. And I don’t think I’m the only one who has that experience. I think that happens a lot in writing and painting and artwork.”
Elton John performed the album’s title track at his memorial concerts for the late Princess Diana and fashion mogul Gianni Versace and throughout his 1997 “Big Picture” tour, and Chapman was on top of the world in 1998 when Faith Hill scored the biggest hit of her career with Chapman’s “This Kiss.” The gold-selling song peaked at No. 7 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and logged 48 weeks on the pop chart.
One thing Chapman couldn’t have foreseen was her departure from Warner. After the “Sand and Water” album failed to chart, despite wide exposure, she felt it was time to move on and get a fresh start with a new label.
“The people at Warner were very gracious and allowed me to leave,” Chapman said, “and in fact, had put out the ‘Greatest Hits’ album after I had left the label, which I appreciated.
“I don’t get caught up in what should’ve, would’ve, could’ve, but I remember feeling at the time that I couldn’t have had more of a door open for me than that – for Elton John, the great songwriter that he is, to choose my song to play at Diana’s funeral, was just unbelievable.
“After I left Warner, I decided to make a record completely on my own steam, and see what that felt like, without a record company paying for it. I had a lot of success with ‘This Kiss’ and I was in a place where I could make a record and send my son to college. I decided to take the initiative and make the investment in myself and then get the record deal after I make the record.”
Before she could finish “Deeper Still,” Chapman wanted to make sure her mind was still sharp and creative enough to write again.
“The first song I wrote after going through all those treatments was a song I was asked to write with Jim Brickman,” she said. “I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t be able to write as well. I had this fear that my writing would suffer because I had been on chemo and the drugs. The song we wrote was ‘Simple Things,’ which went No. 1 on the adult contemporary charts. That’s pretty cool and comforting. It gave me a lot of confidence that everything was going to be okay.
“I say that for all the people going through chemo right now, that it does feel like you’re adrift on this raft out in the middle of the ocean and you don’t see the shoreline and it’s really hard to imagine feeling better and getting back into the swing of things. I’m here to tell you, it does end, and for the most part, you can believe that you’ll feel better. I’m having a wonderful time now, and I feel great.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “Probably Judy Collins’ ‘Wildflowers.’ I remember getting a Judy Collins, Joan Baez and a Bob Dylan in the late ’60s when I was about 12 or 13. Those were the things I was listening to when I got suspended from school for bringing my guitar into the smoking bathroom because we were disturbing the typing class.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “I think it was Joni Mitchell, somewhere in Alabama. I haven’t gone to many concerts in my life. I’ve gone to small venues, but I never went to huge concerts, mostly because I hate the way the sound reverberates off everything. When I saw Joni Mitchell, she seemed like such a tiny dot because I was up in the nose-bleed section. She was going ‘Help me, I think I’m falling,’ and like five minutes later I would hear it again.”
WORST JOB I’VE EVER HAD: “I’ve never actually had a real job, I must admit. I was a guitar teacher, which was okay. I was about one page ahead of my students; I don’t know how to read music, so I had to pretend to know more than I did. Then I worked at a nursery school when I was in high school; I remember walking there with my radio and earphones listening to Carly Simon’s new single, ‘The Right Thing to Do.’ I got to entertain 40 3-year-olds and two 5-year-olds for like two and a half hours a day. That was very challenging, but I loved it.”
ON THE WEB: www.bethnielsenchapman.com.
BWF (before we forget): The Beth Nielsen Chapman album discography – “Hearing It First” (Capitol, 1980); “Beth Nielsen Chapman” (Reprise, 1990); “You Hold the Key” (1993); “Sand and Water” (1997); “Greatest Hits” (1999); “Deeper Still” (Artemis, 2002).
More updates: Stone Temple Pilots, Matt Redman, Greg Dulli, MAITA, Neneh Cherry, The Meters, The Honeycombs, etc