Irish roots run deep for Beth Nielsen Chapman

Ahead of dates in Derry and Newtownabbey, singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman talks to Richard Purden about her Irish roots, being drawn to the Mournes and 'going to Mary when I’m in trouble'

Singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman says her Irish roots and Catholic upbringing run deep
Singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman says her Irish roots and Catholic upbringing run deep Singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman says her Irish roots and Catholic upbringing run deep

ALTHOUGH she hadn't yet seen Co Down's majestic Mourne Mountains for real, they were nonetheless a fixture in American singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman's childhood.

Her connections to Ireland are one of the reasons she is looking forward to her dates in Derry and Newtownabbey this weekend.

"I'm excited about coming back, it's been too long with the whole pandemic, and the last time I played was back in 2018," she tells me.

The daughter of an American Air Force Major and nurse, she was raised in a Catholic home - "I still go to Mary when I'm in trouble" - with Irish roots.

"I just found out in the last couple of years that my mother's grandfather is from the south of Ireland," she explains.

"His name was Timothy Kelly so it's like looking for a needle in a haystack. I found out that he married a woman from the north and that they had met in Dover as their families had been struggling for work.

"I have north and south in my blood which makes sense as I've connected with both. The family had a plot of land they rented at Rossglass beach in Co Down - it was fabulous to find that out because I had been there and seen the Mountains of Mourne. I also had a picture of them in my bedroom when I was a kid, I was very drawn to that place."

Nielsen Chapman has scaled the heights of music industry success, scoring no fewer than seven Number 1 hit records, has co-written with Neil Diamond and had her songs performed by the likes of Elton John, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson and many others.

The twice Grammy-nominated songwriter won the Country Music Association Award for Song of the Year in 1999 with Faith Hill's smash hit This Kiss.

Her latest long-player, Crazy Town, is produced by Ray Kennedy, who has worked with crossover country-music heavyweights including Taylor Swift, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.

It's a shift in sound with Kennedy bringing a more potent live sound to Nielsen Chapman in the studio.

"Recording with Ray was a joy," she explains. "We captured the whole thing pretty much live, it was fun being with the band, I was bashing around having a good time and the result was so uplifting.

"I came back the next day when all the musicians were gone. Every attempt I made to sing wasn't even close to the live recording. I was glad it was in tune and just had to fix a few little spots. It sounds like the way I sing in front of an audience, people would often come up to me at the end of a show and say: 'I've got all your records; do you have anything like tonight?' I can now say Crazy Town is kind of like that."

As Nielsen Chapman suggests Kennedy put together a "slamming" band. "I'm doing my best Tom Petty imitation on Dancin' With The Past, it's kind of like Tom Petty going to lunch with The Byrds and Buddy Holly and they write this song. There's another track, The Universe, which I describe as Jumpin' Jack Flash meets Last Train To Clarksville, which is also an upbeat rocking song.

"I've just turned 66 and I'm not afraid to say it, it's kind of permission for anyone of a certain age to say life is just beginning."

Beth Nielsen Chapman is playing in Derry and Newtownabbey this weekend
Beth Nielsen Chapman is playing in Derry and Newtownabbey this weekend Beth Nielsen Chapman is playing in Derry and Newtownabbey this weekend

The Nashville-based and Texas-born songwriter adds that she will be playing many of her most-loved ballads at her Irish shows, including one of her most recent.

Nielsen Chapman first began writing The Edge back in the 1990s and had been looking for the right fit for the track until she recorded Crazy Town.

"I love that song," she says, adding: "My first husband died of cancer in 1994. I wrote a whole album called Sand And Water (1997) and was going to put the track on that album.

"I had so many songs on there already so something else would have had to come off. I hadn't recorded the song yet and the producer, Rodney Crowell, said, 'This is one of my favourites but we're full, the album is complete'."

Since then, Nielsen Chapman was consciously saving the song for the right moment: "I realised how many songs were written as a result of going through the pandemic, even though it was written prior.

"This has happened before when I have written records, I made a record and found out I had breast cancer and that seemed to be what the songs were about.

"This happened with The Edge - it's about deep grief and the darkest part of feeling sadness and loss and it wasn't pretty. So many of my songs are about hope and light but this was written from despair, its good to go there but you don't have to get stuck."

Nielsen Chapman suggests the songs have almost been like premonitions foretelling of events before they've happened: "I could never have known about my second husband Bob, who passed on December 9."

It was on the last night of her recent UK tour that she found out her husband's leukaemia had become "aggressive and that he only had a matter of weeks left".

It was a tough decision for the songwriter to continue with tour plans in light of such a loss. "We talked about it as he had been sick and in and out of remission. He told me, 'Do what you do and don't cancel on my account. Sing your songs, your audience will be with you'."

There is no doubt that the connection between Nielsen Chapman and her Irish fans will be a source of healing. Just days after her husband's death she decided to press on with a concert at the Franklin Theatre in Nashville.

"It was a big show and I was on the fence until the last minute, at the theatre everyone was handed a note explaining what had happened, just so they had that information. It gave me permission to talk about it and move forward. I have my moments when I hit the wall but I'll be OK," she says.

It's now over 20 years since Nielsen Chapman recorded her song Every December Sky with the late John Prine for the album Deeper Still. Around the same time she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "When John found out he called me on Valentine's Day and said, 'I heard you got cancer; that sucks'.

"He came over and we had tea, he was one of the most beautiful humans that was ever around. When I was writing Walk You To Heaven with Kimmie Rhodes and Mindy Smith I said, 'Let's invite John in spiritually to join us'; it's one of my favourite songs on the album."

Beth Nielsen Chapman plays at Carlisle Road Methodist Church in Derry on Saturday February 4 and Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey, Belfast on Sunday February 5. Ticket information at bethnielsenchapman.com/tour