It’s never too late for new beginnings. In that spirit, celebrated singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman will make her long-awaited New Jersey debut when she takes the stage of Avenel Performing Arts Center for a special afternoon concert on Sunday, November 12.
She may not be immediately familiar to some, but rare is the person whose life has not been somehow touched by her artistry.
Lauded by her industry peers and a career spanning decades, Chapman has somehow managed to evade becoming a household name in spite of a talent that would warrant that recognition.
With stirring melodies and a lyrical prowess that has long stunned listeners with its marriage of depth and poetic economy, she has a voice that is entirely distinct — one that slices cleanly through the bone to the marrow of the human condition, leaving no mark except one of intrigue and joy.
This explains why she has long been a shaman of sorts to stars as varied as Waylon Jennings, Bette Midler, and Neil Diamond, all of whom have relied upon her to craft the right song. She scored so well on this front with Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” — a major pop crossover hit — that it put her son through college, something she cheekily reminds him of to this day.
She has also worked intimately with gay icons such as Amy Grant, Melissa Manchester, and the late Olivia Newton-John. Her most well-known acquaintance with the LGBT community may be when Elton John covered her song “Sand and Water,” finding it expressed his feelings better than his own “Candle in the Wind” when he wished to pay tribute to his friends Gianni Versace and Diana, Princess of Wales. Written after Chapman lost her first husband, Ernest, it remains the quintessential song for processing grief.
Driven as ever to share her gifts, Chapman continues to teach songwriting workshops and play her music around the world. Her new album, Crazytown, with its intoxicating blend of soundscapes and collaborators, proves her gift for invigorating storytelling and uncommon beauty has only grown stronger. She has enriched that with a trio of new single releases, including a duet with journeyman musician and trans pioneer Cidny Bullens.
Such is the importance of her art that when Chapman’s second husband, Bob, faced his final days of terminal leukemia in December 2022, he insisted she not cancel any scheduled performance dates. Chapman was on stage again within days, finding comfort and solace in music and communion with those in attendance.
The bond she has with audiences, she finds, is one that remains sacred — as much a balm for the giver as the receiver.
Chapman took time to speak with me from her home in Nashville about her New Jersey connections, the nature of creativity (hint: we all have it!), and the importance of showing up for life during challenging times.
One thing I thought of while I prepared for this interview was how I wore out Faith Hill’s “Breathe” CD single back in the day, where your song “It All Comes Down to Love” was the B-side. I liked that song even more and eventually heard it on your own record.
Beth Nielsen Chapman: [Laughs.] That’s right! That’s one of my favorite songs. In fact, we’ve been doing it in my shows, so you’ll get to hear it live if you come out to hear us play.
I was surprised to learn this is your first proper New Jersey show.
BNC: And New Jersey and I go way back! My parents were both born in New Jersey, and I used to go visit both of my grandmothers [there] – one was in Newark, and one lived a little further north. My mom is from East Orange, and my dad was born in the Bronx — they both lived a lot of their childhood in New Jersey. I have lived a ton of time in the South, so there’s a lot of that that got into my accent, but every once in a while, I go right back to a bit of Jersey — know what I’m sayin’? [Laughs.]
It’s really in your roots, then.
BNC: Also, my late husband Bob, who I just lost this past December, spent a ton of time living in Toms River, where both my uncles lived, too – I’m just always surrounded by a lot of people from New Jersey. I’m very comfortable there. New Jersey people shoot from the hip. In fact, my husband was a psychologist, and when he moved down here [to Nashville] in 2005, he said, “I don’t know how I’m going to go over as a psychologist ‘cause I don’t fool around; I don’t waste time, I get right to the point – we just fix people up and get them on their way.” He had a sign in his office that said, “I don’t speak Southern.” [Laughs.] Yes – it’s very good to be coming back to New Jersey this time to perform.
How does it feel when someone calls you a genius? How do you process that? I can’t be the first to use that word when it comes to you and your art.
BNC: Well, I live my life as a teacher, and my deep belief is that I am a genius — but it’s also that every other human being is a genius. So whether or not they step into their full genius-ness is a matter of a lot of things. A couple bad things in childhood, for example, could shut you down, where you might say, “I’m not a creative person — I’ll just be an accountant” or “My sister’s the creative one; I’m not.” I don’t even believe that I am creative — I believe I am very well developed in my ability to open to creativity, which is already there. It’s sort of like oxygen — I think of creativity and creative flow and all the things you can choose to do to make something beautiful in the world artistically or creatively. It’s like oxygen that’s in the air. It’s more about whether [people are] open to it — they already are creative.
Touching on that, there’s kind of an instant thing that happens with your music — even for someone who’s not acquainted with your work, they can just play a song, and you take them there quickly because you’re heady without being challenging, like you’ve already done all the work for us. It’s very pure.
BNC: And there’s a lot of work that goes into fine-tuning it, which is what I teach about [in my songwriting workshops]. Like, okay, you have all this stuff you blurted out — now let’s [refine] it, because it’s not quite making sense yet. Thank you for that compliment, though, because I think one of the most important things to me is that I’ve communicated something that the listener doesn’t have to work to understand, and that is what has always drawn me to the best songwriters. Even somebody like Paul Simon – he’ll write a line like “she wore diamonds in the soles of her shoes” — he’s communicating something so deep and you get it and go, “Wow, that’s a piece of poetry right there.” I don’t really have a desire for my lyrics to be obscure — I want them to be straight, like an arrow to the heart.
And your new album [Crazytown] has many songs like that, songs to savor — it’s certainly my favorite album released in the last year — and yet the release of it began a bittersweet year for you, with much loss and transition. How are you doing now? I know you chose very deliberately not to press the pause button, but that couldn’t have been easy.
BNC: My husband was diagnosed with leukemia about five years before he passed – I was working on my album Hearts of Glass at the time. It was initially a more curable kind of the disease, so life became a cycle of being in and out of remission. It was a process of years — it’s sort of like a dance with what reality is supposed to be because you just don’t know.
Interestingly, we started working on Crazytown with [producer] Ray Kennedy in early 2020, and we cut tracks for six days toward the end of that February. Then, within a week of finishing the tracking sessions, everyone started to go into lockdown – my son had warned me about it and [prepared me], but we just couldn’t believe it. So we finished the record very slowly over the next year and a half, adding a few little things to the songs, and it didn’t come out until last September.
Again [in my career] the record I was getting ready to put out was written and recorded before the thing it’s about! It sounds like all the things I went through during the pandemic — all the craziness, the “what the hell” and “let’s hang on for dear life” moments. It’s like you’re hanging on to a rope, and life is pulling you through a hurricane. Even [the song] “Walk You to Heaven” — there are so many people who passed.
It’s like the record made itself, and I stepped into learning what it was really about after the fact, which really secures my belief that we’re not doing any of this without help, without guidance — without the opportunity to work with a much wiser entity than we can fit into our little pea brains. To me, that’s very comforting — even as my husband was dying, which was devastating, there was also [a sense that] things were going to be okay. There’s a way to go through this and through all things, and trusting that is something I’ve had a lot of practice at. The fear about going through grief is what I think is more crippling than the actual going through it. It’s like, “This person’s going, we’re doing it, it’s happening. How’s this going to work? I don’t know. But it’s going to.”
It seems like this knowledge gave you the strength to forge ahead.
BNC: Well, when Bob said to me, “Hey, don’t cancel your shows,” I had all this stuff booked for the next year and [wasn’t sure I could go through it]. He said, “Yeah, I think you’re much better off going out, playing your music, letting your audience cry with you — whatever you need to do. These songs are like medicine — put ‘em out in the world and go do that. What are you gonna do? Sit around at home and miss me? Or not miss me?” [Laughs.]
And so I went and did the first show just four days after he passed, with Rodney Crowell and a bunch of great artists coming out to support me, and I told the audience in a little pamphlet up front, “Hey! Just to bring you up to date — my husband just died. I’m gonna be fine — I could fall apart, but I have a whole bunch of reinforcements up here. I’m so happy you’re here. I have no idea what’s gonna happen, and let’s play some songs.” And it was magical. It really gave me permission in my heart to know there’s a way to entertain and also be honest and have whatever comes up emotionally for me do so in a safe space.
There’s some serious girl power in your band, and you also have some serious girl power anthems on your new record with “Hey Girl (We Can Deal with It)” and “Put a Woman in Charge.”
BNC: Oh, I surround myself with talented, beautiful young women because they’re so much fun! Mia Morris, I saw at a songwriter night here in Nashville — it was at a show called Song Suffragettes where it’s all young women; they do it in New York sometimes, too — and her song was the best. She was 17 at the time, she plays everything, and I thought, “That girl’s a star!” She’s also a lovely human. It’s been really fun to kind of mentor her a bit and kick her ass and make her a better songwriter — she’s absolutely got a brilliant career ahead of her.
Kellie [Lin Knott] is also unbelievable. During the pandemic, I was going crazy trying to figure out the whole livestream thing and she helped me so much. I didn’t even realize she was a songwriter and singer until I was well into working with her, and I thought, “Wow, she’s a find! She’s just really brilliant!” She also helps manage me on the road and just sings and plays so beautifully in my band.
They’re really intelligent young women who are such a pleasure to be around and play with, especially with [this new material].
You’ve written for or been covered by icons in our community, such as Amy Grant and the Indigo Girls, but I can only imagine how you must have felt when Elton John chose to put his own stamp on “Sand and Water.”
BNC: I think one of the greatest moments for me as a songwriter was having a phone call from Elton asking if he could sing “Sand and Water” in place of “Candle in the Wind” in his shows.
I had met him many years earlier, in 1991. I went to Atlanta and sang at a concert to raise awareness for AIDS research. He was there with the Indigo Girls and we did a bunch of stuff together at the concert. In fact, the year before that, he had gotten ahold of my first album around the time he was going through an incredible breakup or a big crisis – he might have been in recovery, but I don’t know the situation — and he literally fell in love with my album and began [championing me]. He’s done this with a lot of artists, where he discovers them and really shares their work in earnest with anyone who will listen. Bonnie Raitt is like that, too. I love that about them — they’re excited to share new music they’ve learned about.
I remember I was playing in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day at the time and got two dozen long-stemmed roses with pussy willows sent to my dressing room and thought, “Oh, my husband just went wildly over the top!” Then I read the card, and it said “I love your album — it’s so beautiful. Love, Elton John.” Finally [he called me], and we spoke for 20 or 30 minutes, going over each song on my first album – [he wanted to know] what inspired this one, or how I wrote that one. It was surreal.
Years later, when the Sand and Water album was released, so much suddenly happened — Princess Diana died, and Mother Teresa.
And Gianni Versace.
BNC: Yes. It felt, in a way, like the universe was doing its thing. And Elton had already heard the rough cut of the title song when I’d shared a cassette with him of some songs a year earlier.
After Diana died, he appeared on Oprah and spoke about how much my album was helping him [get through his grief], and soon he called me up and asked if he could sing the song as a tribute in place of “Candle in the Wind.” He said, “If you don’t mind, would you consider changing one of the lines in the third verse?” It concerns raising my son alone, and since he didn’t have any children then, it needed to be changed to reflect that.
And made more universal.
BNC: Right. And ironically, now [that he’s a parent], he could sing it — he was already married to David [Furnish], but the thought of children wasn’t on the table for same-sex couples [like it is now].
You’ve been a supporter of our community for quite some time.
BNC: I remember recognizing the racism I saw around me in the South as I was growing up — all that stupid, unnecessary crap some have to grow up with just for being different — and I have certainly seen gay and trans people go through it, too. It amazed — and still amazes me — how reactive some people can be, how they can’t [empathize] with others. Like, what is the problem here? I still feel naïve about it in a way.
I’d say your perspective is a part of your programming and that the example is the best teacher more than words. Letting people marry who they want to marry, then having these people raise families — it’s absolutely clear what makes somebody a great parent has nothing to do with anything except with how they parent.
I’m no expert [in what it means to be LGBT], but I do think of my uncle Steve — my mother’s cousin – who, you know, never married. As I got to be an adult, I realized he had been gay and just never talked about it – never discussed it, never openly said it. Now he would, I think because I think things have progressed. Yet I know there’s also so much still to do, like this craziness going on in schools where kids are not allowed to be who they really are — I know, had my son started to express the desire to be a girl if that was how he had felt inside, of course I would have supported and honored that.
Speaking of allies to our community, you were very close with Olivia Newton-John. I know you helped each other through your mutual breast cancer battles. She was not only an LGBT ally but an absolute icon.
BNC: Yes. She came to my rescue when I was first diagnosed. I remember talking to her on a payphone when I was literally crumbling, trying to figure out what I was going to do. She gave me the phone number of her oncologist, one of the top oncologists in Santa Barbara, and he [pointed me in the direction of] Vanderbilt [University Medical Center] right down the street from me. Her help kept me much more centered, and she remained a great friend through the years. It was so wonderful to make the Liv On album with her and Amy Skye and tour with them. In fact, I’ll never forget the very last night of the tour – she had found earlier that day that the cancer had returned in her spine. She stood strong and kept going, of course, full steam. When I sang at her family’s memorial, it was an amazing gathering of friends – she always brought people together.
I’d be remiss not to ask you about the new songs you’ve released this summer as standalone singles. “Back to this Moment” is especially lovely.
BNC: Thank you! I’m excited to play them and see how they go over live. I’m especially honored to be a part of Cid[ny] Bullens’ new single [“Not With You”]. He is incredibly talented – you should do an interview with him! He just put out a book about his life [TransElectric: My Life as a Cosmic Rock Star], and it’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
I’ve known Cid since he was Cindy, and we met when I was recording the Sand and Water album. My husband had just died, and her — I’m still working my way through the pronouns because I’ve known Cid so long — his daughter soon was diagnosed with cancer, and when she died, of course, he was devastated. Yet he kept going through the grief.
The story of his life is incredible. He’s toured the world, including working extensively with Elton performing with Bob Dylan. He’s truly had an amazing life, and he’s now fully transitioned and married to a woman and more self-actualized than ever before.
The song we’ve done together is beautiful — truly special — and it needs to get heard. Now that I think about it, it may be the first duet between a trans man and a cis woman. Could we be the first? I’m just honored to be a part of it and also honored to talk to you! To be brought into the LGBT community, with people who understand being in a difficult world on another level and the absolute best fans there are – it’s a wonderful thing.
I must tell you, when I first heard “With Time” from the new album, I listened with my mom, and we let the song wash over us. We just looked at each other like, “She did it again!” It’s stunning — profoundly moving.
BNC: You know, having someone who’s passionate about your music and really takes the time to listen is a gift to me, so thank you for that. It really speaks to that connection I always try to forge with an audience. It feeds my soul, you know? It’s an honor to have that experience as an artist and an incredibly lucky thing.
I mean, sure – of course, I sometimes think, “Why can’t I be Brandi Carlile? I also want to grow up and hang out and have dinner with Joni Mitchell!” [Laughs.] But, you know, I’ve got nothing to complain about. If I have even one person that gets my music and appreciates it, that’s a treasure, so I really appreciate you letting me know that.
Beth Nielsen Chapman performs at Avenel Performing Arts Center on Sunday, November 12. Please note the afternoon showtime of 3 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit avenelarts.com