Beth Nielsen Chapman: Uncovering new album after heartache and illness
Beth Nielsen Chapman has always been something of a double jobber. On the one hand, she's a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter in her own right, on the other, she's written dozens of hit songs purely for other people.
Her new album, UnCovered, though, sees her recording her own versions of some of the songs she wrote for other artists, but which she never recorded herself.
It's an idea which came about as she shared a cup of tea in her Nashville home with BBC Radio 2 legend Bob Harris, and Northern Irish fans of the country star will get to hear the result live when she brings them to the stage of Belfast's Grand Opera House later this month.
"I've always had the songs in my back pocket, so to speak," explains the 55-year-old. "But I've recently been working on a box set of my music — which I'm still working on — called Box of Songs.
"As I started going through my back catalogue, I realised what a massive project it actually was and that I was not going to even come close to being ready to put it out as planned this year.
"Bob Harris, a good friend, came to my house for tea when he was in Nashville last year, and I was telling him that the box set would probably take a couple more years, but I really wanted to put a record out in 2014.
"I played him a bunch of songs that had been hits for other artists and he said in his best 'Whispering Bob' voice, 'Beth, the songs you have just played are a record in themselves — songs that you have given to other artists and can now take back'.
"It was such a good idea and making the record and revisiting the songs has been a real joy. Most of them are the hits that have paid my light bill over the years!"
Nielsen Chapman has enjoyed a 34-year career as one of America's most respected songwriters and, as well as recording 12 albums, her work has also famously been covered by Elton John, Neil Diamond, Bette Midler, Roberta Flack and other stellar names far too numerous to list.
UnCovered is a collection of the 'biggies', including This Kiss, made famous by Faith Hill, Willie Nelson's Nothin' I Can Do About It Now, Don Williams' Maybe That's All It Takes, Lorrie Morgan's Five Minutes and Strong Enough To Bend by Tanya Tucker. Most of the songs have been US Top 10 hits, with seven reaching the coveted number one slot.
And it's testament to the high regard in which she is held, that guest appearances on UnCovered include Kim Carnes, Duane Eddy, Gretchen Peters, Vince Gill and Jessie Colter-Jennings, who provides backing vocals on Shine on Me, a song Beth wrote with Jessie's late husband Waylon.
Two of Northern Ireland's rising stars also feature — Ruth Trimble and Eilidh Patterson.
"Northern Ireland is a wonderful place that's very close to my heart," says Beth. "I actually recorded part of UnCovered there and have visited many times over the years.
"It's an absolutely breathtakingly beautiful part of the world. And you have some fantastic musicians that I have worked with and who have become great friends.
"There are also a couple of emerging artists that I've come to know by way of my workshops in America. One is Ruth, who is actually on tour with me at the minute, and Eilidh has toured with me in the past. They are both incredibly talented."
Born in Texas, Nielsen Chapman is the middle of five children born to an Air Force Major father and nurse mother. The family moved around while she was growing up before finally settling in Alabama in 1969.
A guitar intended as a gift for Father's Day ended up in her room and she was soon writing songs. Hearing It First, her debut album, was released in 1980 in the middle of the disco craze and after marrying Ernest Chapman and taking a few years out to raise her son, Ernest Chapman III, the young family made the move to Nashville.
By 1990, she was writing chart-topping hits for Tanya Tucker and Willie Nelson. But her success was to be matched by equally great heartache.
In 1994, Ernest died of lymphoma. In 2000, Beth herself was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She was treated successfully and recovered, but then in 2009, as she was writing the album Back to Love, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Fortunately, it turned out to be benign and was removed. "Getting well again took a few months, but I was so relieved it was caught in time, and benign, that I was just happy to make a full recovery," she recalls.
Her songwriting career over the last decade alone has been eclectic to say the least. As well as trademark albums, there was also Hymns, sung in Latin, Prism — which looked at the world's religions and featured Beth singing in nine different languages — and The Mighty Sky, about the universe and the science of astronomy, for which she was nominated for a Grammy earlier this year, and which she describes as being "for children of all ages". Most of the songs on UnCovered, however, go back to those times of heartache, so was it not painful to revisit them?
"No, it's never painful to me," she says. "It's actually a good release for me to work through emotional stuff with music. One of the songs that was very poignant is the ballad Maybe That's All It Takes. It was written in the mid-Eighties, way before any of the big life-changing things happened to me. Ernest and I had been married a few years and were going through all the normal growing pains of marriage and had gotten to a point where we were sort of estranged from each other.
"When we got out of that stage and back to being in love, it was because of kindness and the simple things couples do for each other, and that song was about that.
"Recording it was a bit emotional because it reminds me of a time which was really special. But it was a nice 'emotional'.
"Songwriting is definitely my 'go to' weapon when things get tough, but it's also something that I end up doing when I'm very happy."
Life is much better for Nielsen Chapman these days — and much more hectic. She now has a seven-month-old grandson, Atreyu, whom she dotes upon.
"He's at that 'the world stops when he comes into the room' stage and whatever it was I was supposed to be doing, doesn't get done," she laughs.
"It's a really good time for me now. My family is in a great place. I'm married again to a wonderful man called Bob Sherman. He's a psychiatrist and an incredible photographer. He loves to come on tour with me, but as soon as we arrive in a town or city, once he makes sure I'm sorted and have my guitar, it's, 'Bye, I'm off to take pictures' and I might see him again before a gig, or I might not."
Given that so much of her work has been covered by other artists, has she always been happy with what they have done with her creations?
"There have been a couple of songs that I've been surprised and taken aback by — but in a good way.
"The Willie Nelson version of Nothin' I Can Do About It Now sounded so different to the way I had demoed it that I thought it might not be a hit. But it went in at number 10 and then went all the way to number one. The higher up the chart it got, the better it started sounding. I've learned that there are a lot of ways to present a song and an artist has to make it their own."
This Kiss became a mega-hit worldwide when it was recorded by Faith Hill. Did she realise it would be so successful?
"You never expect it and you're disappointed most of the time. When Annie Roboff and I first wrote This Kiss, we thought it would be an R'n'B pop song and had keyboards and drum loops and all sorts on it.
"No-one picked it up and then after a year, Annie suggested we put a steel guitar on it instead and make it more country. So we did and it was snapped up immediately by Faith Hill."
Given that it was so successful, she must be sorry she gave that one away?
"No, I'm really, truly, not sorry!" she says. "Faith was on the way to superstardom, had had a couple of big hits, and was primed for a career-defining hit. This Kiss was that hit.
"I was doing well at that time, but was nowhere near that level when it came to reaching people, so as a songwriter, I was thrilled."
But watching other people make global successes of her songs, surely must bring about a few 'it should have been me' moments?
"I'll admit there was a time when I thought I would enjoy being a huge worldwide star, but not now," she says.
"I have friends that I have known since they were unknown and who are hugely famous now and can't go to the store, or walk down the street.
"That's not me. I love being anonymous and being in my life and not constantly having to be 'on'.
"Even though I'm constantly writing, I'm never under pressure to produce material. It wouldn't be like that if I was a huge star."
FROM HENDRIX TO HOUSTON, THE TUNES THAT MADE THEM GREAT
Other famous cover versions:
All Along the Watchtower — while rock legend Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic version is the one people most often think of, it first appeared on Bob Dylan's album John Wesley Harding in 1967. It was also covered in a live version on U2's Rattle and Hum album in 1989.
Respect — arguably one of the best-known releases by Motown legend Aretha Franklin, the song was originally written and performed by Otis Redding in 1965, two years ahead of Franklin's version.
I Will Always Love You — music legend Dolly Parton wrote the song in 1973 and it was released the following year, doing well in the country charts. However, it was the late Whitney Houston's recording of the tune for her 1992 film The Bodyguard which propelled it to the top of the charts and almost constant TV and radio play.
Hallelujah - written by Canadian musician Leonard Cohen, and released in 1984, the song achieved little initial success, but found greater acclaim for the cover version by John Cale, which later formed the basis for a version by Jeff Buckley, who died in 1997 at the age of 30. Such is the now iconic status of the song it even inspired a book.
Beth Nielsen Chapman is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on Sunday, April 27. For details, visit www.goh.co.uk/ tel: 02890 241919. UnCovered is out now