If you haven’t heard of Beth Nielsen Chapman, that’s OK.
But you’ve probably heard some of her songs.
For anybody who attended a school dance after 1998, Faith Hill’s This Kiss should trigger some sort of recognition.
“That song helped put my son through college,” said Chapman.
Mary Chapin Carpenter hit it big with Chapman’s Almost Home.
Bonnie Raitt put Meet Me Halfway on her 1998 album Fundamental.
Even Willie Nelson has taken up some of Chapman’s works with Nothing I Can Do About It Now and Ain’t Necessarily So.
As a performer, Chapman is probably best known as a musician for her 1997 signature song Sand and Water, written following the tragic cancer death of her husband Ernest Chapman.
Elton John popularized the song on his 1997 world tour.
Across continents, Chapman almost seems to have a dual personality. In the United States, she is known mainly as a songwriter.
In the UK, she can sell out halls as a performer. And now, on her first trip North of 60, she’s still waiting to find out what she will be to Yukoners.
“People come to my concerts not knowing exactly what they’re getting into. And some people show up thinking that they’re going to have to bring boxes of tissues because the only thing they’ve ever heard is Sand and Water, which is very poignant.
“But I cut up and crack up and tell stories and jokes — it’s definitely not a depressing thing to come to one of my concerts. You will cry — but not necessarily for every song.”
Chapman calls the city of Nashville her home, the only place where “you can run into Chet Atkins and Donna Summer and Leon Redbone and Leon Russell and Michael McDonald all in the same café.”
“True story,” she said.
But, even while growing up in the musical mecca of Nashville, Chapman was still captivated by the North-of-49 musical poetry of Leonard Cohen. Recently she had to turn down an offer to join her lifelong idol on his current tour.
“I was so tempted to run away from home and join the circus of Leonard Cohen. It would have been such an amazing year — but I had already made a commitment to certain performances.”
She has a distinctly country voice — and she is from Nashville, but she is hesitant to call herself a country songwriter.
On her albums, Chapman has “dipped around” in a variety of Texan musical genres. One album, Hymns, is sung almost completely in Latin.
Plus, her compositions have been covered by almost every genre.
A good song can stand on its own, in any genre, and with any level of musical accompaniment, she said.
Chapman’s latest release has been the farthest cry from her earlier works. Ten years in the making, Prism is a unique exploration into the interconnectivity of people around the globe.
Inspired by Desmond Tutu, Chapman wanted to create an album that underscored Tutu’s idea of the entire planet “being part of one family.”
In two CDs, the album brings together 14 songs representing a diverse range of religions, cultures and races. The track selection reads almost like the Voyager Golden Record, a “greatest hits” of human civilization that was blasted into the cosmos on the Voyager spacecraft.
Crossing continents through song, Chapman switches between English, Latin, Zulu and Hebrew throughout the work.
“I wanted to put my voice through all these different languages and just illustrate the similarity of people from all different cultures and how they express a sense of connection,” she said.
Chapman is also a committed and avid songwriting instructor. For years, she has taught classes, courses and workshops throughout North America.
“There’s not as much money in teaching as there is in writing hit songs, but it feeds me as a writer, and I have to say it’s priceless to see someone’s creative pilot light come back on when they come to remember the gift they carry within them to once again experience that feeling of ‘lift off’ and tap into their creative genius,” she notes on her website.
In her classes, songwriting is often touted by Chapman as a valuable tool for dealing with grief. Along with the painful loss of her husband, Chapman had her own battle with breast cancer in 2000. Songwriting became her outlet.
To delve within the complicated mind of an experienced songwriter, the mystery of music composition only grows thicker. Ever had that feeling that a song on the radio was written specifically for you? Apparently, that feeling isn’t relegated solely to the realm of the listener.
“There’s a song called Every December Sky that’s all about coming through a winter that’s so cold and hopeless — I actually went through that winter two years later when all my hair fell out because of chemotherapy,” said Chapman.
“I realized that this song was written for me, but I didn’t know that when I was writing it,” she said.
And, of course, the majesty of the Yukon has not left Chapman’s song writing intuition untouched. The territory has already inspired the penning of a full-length song.
Chapman described the process.
“I’ve had this wisp of a melody that’s been knocking around in my head for a few months. And I was on a hike, and it twisted and turned and went up and down and the words just fell into it,” she said.
“It’s just a magical thing, I get out of my own way and let it come through — and I try to write it down on whatever scrap of paper I’ve got in my pocket.”
While it may indeed be scrawled on a napkin or a grocery receipt, Chapman will debut her new Yukon-inspired song, The Path of Love, on Monday night.
Beth Nielsen Chapman will be performing at the Old Fire Hall at 7:30 p.m. tonight. Tickets are available at the Yukon Arts Centre box office and Arts Underground.