Beth Nielsen Chapman Goes Fishing

“I believe that the song is already absolutely perfectly written, and I’m just fishing for it in the ether,” says Beth Nielsen Chapman. She’s landed a boatload of trophy specimens over her long solo career. She’s also cowritten and had songs covered by an immeasurable list of performers including Faith Hill, Willie Nelson, and Bonnie Raitt. For Chapman, the process is not so much about dropping a line in the ol’ fishing hole as it is about placing her mind on standby, and tapping into the Big Brain via the imaginary hole in the top of her head. “All creativity is divine intervention,” she proclaims. “Our brains are like hard drives, and creativity is like going online where everything is available. That’s where you get the good stuff.”

Chapman usually starts with a blank slate, and her custom Huss & Dalton acoustic/electric guitar, which she tunes down a half-step. “I just throw the capo on anywhere, start strumming some chords, and let the melody come,” she explains. From there, she takes the fabled Paul McCartney approach, manifesting vowels and consonants into words (as in Sir Paul’s “Scrambled Eggs” demo of “Yesterday”) until the meaning of the song becomes clear enough to suggest a stronger lyric.

“I record everything when I’m engaged in songwriting because I won’t remember most of what I just did,” she explains. “I usually find that the better something is, the more I forget it, because it just passed through my open mind.”

Chapman does some of her best and most accessible work to date on her latest album, Look [Sanctuary], which examines love from an array of angles. “It’s easier to write a love song than anything else,” says Chapman. “If you’re getting out of the way of your brain, it’s what we all go back to, whether it’s love toward your mother and father, a child, or God. That’s what we’re here to work on. It’s actually pretty hard to avoid.”

Chapman is so connected to her muse that she can usually come up with a song practically on cue, although she admits to coming up blank on many occasions. According to her, that’s not only acceptable, it’s actually healthy. “It’s important to do the time, even if you don’t write anything that day,” she professes. “Instead of beating yourself up, realize that the greatest muscle-building thing you can do is show up and not have anything happen. It’s like lifting weights in the gym of creativity.”

Chapman is as tapped in as anyone you’ll ever come across, and she openly shares her creative secrets. “I teach workshops, and last year I began the BNC Songwriting & Creativity Stargaze at the Vanderbilt Dyer Observatory in Nashville,” she says. “All day long we talk about how each of us is a creative genius with a hole in the top of his or her head where all this stuff comes through. And then in the evening we look at the stars and planets for perspective.” She applauds other teachers who emphasize songwriting academics, but she’s quick to point out: “Rules and regulations have nothing to do with the actual writing process. Rules are only useful for straightening up what you’ve already written because, let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to recognize when something happens from a place of real genius.”