Sodajerker presents… Beth Nielsen Chapman
Our favourite podcasting duo Sodajerker bring you a real treat, with a songwriter full of tips to aid your writing
It’s not uncommon to hear a musician referred to as a ‘songwriter’s songwriter.’ Rarely, though, can you be certain that the description is completely accurate and Texas songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman is one such writer for whom the term couldn’t be more true. Growing up as an ‘army brat’, Beth spent her formative years moving from town to town, state to state and continent to continent. It was at age 11, while her American Air Force Major father was stationed in Germany, that she began learning guitar, before then picking up the piano too.
Having played in rock-pop group Harmony in the mid 1970s, it’s as a solo artist and co-writer that Beth has achieved her greatest success: she co-wrote Faith Hill’s This Kiss, while her songs have been performed by artists such as Willie Nelson (Nothing I Can Do About It Now), Tanya Tucker (Strong Enough To Bend) and Terri Clark (Sometimes Goodbye). In addition, she’s released 12 studio albums and runs a highly successful songwriting school.
You’d expect a songwriter of such repute to have plenty of information to impart and you’d be right, as our friends at Sodajerker discovered. Let the lesson begin…
You’re coming to Scotland in May for a couple of the retreats that you run. Are they specifically for songwriters or can anybody attend?
“They’re geared from songwriting, but I teach creativity really. A lot of the people who come to my workshops have never written a song and it’s kinda of like ‘I’ve never cooked so I don’t know how to cook’. I think of creativity as this thing that’s just available to be used like a raw material that’s like air that’s all around us, it’s literally ever-present and if you feel uncreative the door is usually locked from the inside. So even if you haven’t written a song you can come to one of my workshops and learn about how to get that flow going and how to open up to more of a creative life. Interestingly some of the people who have never thought they would write a song have written some of the most amazing stuff, I guess because they don’t really feel any pressure to be a songwriter and so then they do. It’s really great, it’s very exciting to watch.”
Do you get people turning up that want to develop their existing songwriting skills?
“Absolutely. Occasionally we get some very well-developed songwriters who want to go to the next level and they’re also interested in understanding more about how to attack the business side. When that happens I usually carve out some time to sit with those songwriters to specifically address some of those things, and that’s a different workshop in a way.
“But I feel like besides wanting to be a better songwriter, so many songwriters want to know what to do now that I’ve written all these songs, what do I do with that, and it’s an important part of it but it’s also the part that I don’t want to have anything to do with writing a song. So I try to get them to think of it as two different worlds; the t-shirt that kind of sums that up is “don’t plant your seedlings too close to the superhighway of the music business.
“The idea of nurturing the creative process is to really think of it as a very delicate tiny germinating seed, it needs to be in a little tiny eggcup on the counter for a few weeks and then it grows into a sprout, then you take that and put it into a bigger pot and then you’re ready to put it into the garden. I think so many people lose their sense of creative power early in life because of some well-meaning advice that squelches them. Sometimes it’s hard to even know how that happened to you and it doesn’t matter what it was, but every single person can reclaim their ability to access creative flow.”
It sounds like a lot of your songwriting process is intuitive, but is there an element of being organised about it?
“Absolutely. You have to take all of the crazy whimsy floaty stuff and put it into containers of time. Because we have lives, we have to pay the bills, take our kids to school. So it’s not romantic, you don’t just sit down and go ‘now I’m floating!’ So I have a whole system, where I create a space to write in – get a couple of candles, whatever it takes. Sometimes I’ll take a break and get a pot of tea and I’m having worries that I’m not going to be able to get the writing flowing then I’ll pour a cup of tea and hand it to that part of myself over in the corner with a magazine.
“I do these little rituals to create the space to let things come through and every day you’re not gonna write the greatest song in your life. So what do you do with that? First of all you have to have the muscle, which I call the ‘show up muscle’. That’s a muscle that you work out, just like going to the gym; if I show up this many days-a-week then I’m keeping that muscle in shape. After that who knows what’ll happen, maybe I’ll write This Kiss today, maybe I’ll write nothing, maybe I’ll hate what I write. The point is that I showed up and I get points for that. The other thing is you sit there for two hours and you don’t love anything you’ve come up with then what do you do? Instead of feeling bad about that, the reply to that is “I just spent two hours in the gym of creativity, I just spent two hours lifting weights of three thousand pounds and I didn’t run out of the room, I stayed and I did my time. Then the next day while I’m at the grocery store, the whole second verse will just come barreling through my mind, because of the day when nothing was happening, because there is something happening even when nothing is happening.”
How does your editing process work?
“If you’ve ever been to one of my critiques, there’s a finer and finer sieve that the song goes through, as the holes get smaller and smaller. I’m a real stickler, I don’t just want something to make sense I want it to be really clear; if you come and play a song for me I’m gonna ask you questions and if you don’t have the answers then the song’s not finished. And if you do know the answer and it’s not in the song then the song’s not finished; or you might want to change the song to change what the song’s about; or you might want to pick between three things that the song’s talking about and then pick one and focus it into a point. If you go to a museum and look at paintings, there’s a focal point of every great painting and a song is like a snippet of a conversation between a human being and another human being in the universe, and if someone asks you what it’s about you want to be able to sum it up in a very short sentence.
“At the same time, the critic in me loves the Paul Simon line ‘she’s got diamonds on the soles of her shoes’. And what’s that about? There’s a lot of space in that line, something that transcends our little pea brains that is brilliant. So at the same time, I’ll be giving you a lot of rules about whether you need to have a verse/verse/chorus, or all these things about structure, everything you can read in every great book on songwriting – from the Jimmy Webb book on songwriting to the Pat Pattison book on songwriting – all the knowledge that serves to make you a better editor and a better analyser, has nothing to do with being a better creator, because the creativity part still has to flow. So the rules are just a structure that you can go by, but always be open to other options.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 80 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Ben Watt, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full hour-long interview with Beth Neilsen Chapman – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.