Beth Neilsen Chapman press photo
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Beth Nielsen Chapman Explores Uncertainty, Grief and Inner Strength on 'CrazyTown'

About a third of the way through my interview with Beth Nielsen Chapman, our conversation takes a turn to the subject of modern day America, conspiracy theorists and the movie Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.

"You have to watch the movie," she implores me. "It's like something has taken over a whole bunch of people. They are living in a different reality and getting their information from a different source and they don't believe any other source. [It's] terrifying! I've actually had planned, sit down conversations with a couple of people I'm very close to that are having that experience. And they're looking at me [like] I'm brainwashed." This is part of the reason Chapman titled her new album CrazyTown.

CrazyTown — which is out Sept. 23 — is Chapman's first studio album in over four years and also her Cooking Vinyl debut. As her longtime fans know, Chapman has been making records for more than 40 years now. And if her solo career hasn't quite scaled the stratospheric heights that some of the songs she's penned for others have ("This Kiss" for Faith Hill, anyone?), it's still been successful and remarkably diverse. This new disc is straight up Americana and includes a dozen tracks which are by turn upbeat and thoughtful.  Chapman actually began recording CrazyTown in 2020 — but like a lot of artists, her plans got derailed when the COVID pandemic hit.

"I finally got to go into the studio with my friend Ray Kennedy, who I've known for more than 20 years and have always threatened to record with," she explains. "He's done a lot of great stuff with Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. And we scheduled it for literally two weeks before the world changed with the pandemic. I had been hearing [about] some weird things happening in China — kind of distant little oddities. But nothing that we could have imagined would end up being what we were looking at two weeks later." Despite encountering some setbacks, Chapman and Kennedy stuck it out and CrazyTown finally emerged.

Two of the album's standout tracks are "Put a Woman in Charge" (which was co-written and originally recorded by Keb' Mo') and the single "Hey Girl." Being that both are odes to female empowerment, I asked Chapman if this was by design. 

"Well,  as a songwriter, I don't normally lean in the direction of trying to be message-y," she replies. "But both of these songs — I love the way they came out. 'Put A Woman in Charge' was written first. It was something that Keb' Mo' had already started. He called me up one day and said, 'I need a woman's perspective on this song. 'Cause I wanna write this song about the ridiculousness of why we don't have more women in positions where their strengths can help the world.'  But he didn't want it to come off in any way [like] 'women are better than men'" or anything like that. We had a lot of fun writing it. Keb' is one of those guys who really values and celebrates the power of women. He's surrounded by powerful ones and he's not afraid [of them]."

"I wrote 'Hey Girl,' with two writers," she continues.  "Annie Roboff, who I've written a lot of hits with, and an artist named Jessica Sweetman. We were here in my studio. Jessica was [discussing] different times in her experience as a young woman   — 'cause she's really beautiful — [when she's had] to navigate past people not looking beyond her beauty and seeing what was underneath. Then we were talking about, in general, [how] when girls come into the world, they kind of have to learn a few extra things in order to navigate through life in a way where they can be seen and heard. Each verse breaks down to a different kind of woman who might have been misunderstood or had to work a little harder."

"We could have written that song at any time," she adds about "Hey Girl.'  "[But] it just happened to be during the time when the whole 'Me Too' thing was had come to the fore. We weren't trying to make any political statement. But it was interesting that it was sort of dove-tailing with [that]. I think the day we finished the song, it was the day they arrested Harvey Weinstein."

One of CrazyTown's few somber moments arrives in the form of a ballad called "The Edge." I saw this song as sort of the centerpiece of the album — both because of its placement (it's track eight of 12) and perhaps because of its gravity. 

"I love that you called it the centerpiece of the album, because I wouldn't have thought that way about it," says Chapman.  "The bones of the song were written after my husband died in 1994. And I had waited to put that song on a record and finish it.  I made a record following my husband's death that was called Sand and Water, that came out in '97. The entire album was really a walk through grief.  I couldn't find a way to get '[The Edge'] on it without it being way too long. Rodney Crowell was producing that record [and] he said, "'If you put one more song on this album you're gonna make all of the songs less impactful. People can only absorb so much at one time.' So I waited. And every time I would make a record, I'd pull that song back out and say, 'Can I get it in there?'  I always felt like 'The Edge' was a really strong song. And it's not my usual fare. I write a lot of songs that make people cry, but they always leave them with the sense of, like, even though this is incredibly difficult I'm gonna be okay. And 'The Edge' doesn't make that promise."

Chapman has certainly had her share of brushes with illness and loss over the years. Between 2000 and 2010, she survived both breast cancer and a brain tumor. And her husband Ernest is not the only person close to her who she's lost to cancer. Olivia Newton-John — who just succumbed to breast cancer last month — was a close friend of hers. In fact, 2017 saw the release of Liv On, a collaboration between Chapman, Newton-John and singer Amy Sky. 

"I had already written a song with Olivia and I kinda knew her, but we weren't super close friends," she remembers.  "But when she heard that I was dealing with breast cancer, she called me straightaway. And she was a huge help — not only helping me find the right doctor but also giving me great advice about how to go through that journey with a positive attitude. Various things I could do to support my immune system and all that stuff. It was amazing how she stepped up right when I needed her. I was so grateful to have her friendship. And I was really grateful to have an opportunity to speak with her a few days before she passed. [Amy and I] both got a chance to sing to her and talk to her on the phone. It's a big loss. But she was such a bright light and she [left] an incredible footprint in the world."

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