|Interview with Beth Nielsen Chapman
26 April, 1999
Beverly Hills, California
© Debbie Kruger
This is a tour promoting the Greatest Hits CD?
Yeah. It's a very mini-tour. I mean I really concentrate on songwriting, mostly, and I haven't been a touring artist to the full extent... I mean there have been times where I've had a lot of airplay, and I could have probably taken better advantage of it and gone out and toured more. It seems like every time I've started to tour, something in my life shifted and it made it very difficult. Like the last time I was really geared up to start major touring was in 1993, and that album You Hold The Key came out, two weeks before its release is when Ernest got sick, so it was like, okay well, I had to streamline that back.
Although I read that he forced you to do one particular tour.
Well he begged me, he begged me to go out and open for Dan Fogelberg in the fall of '93 because that was something we'd planned on and it was already in place, and for him I think it meant that life was going to go on as regular as possible.
So I saw on your fabulous website that you are doing a little ocncert tour over in Europe.
I am. That just sprung up out of nowhere, and I'm really... I'm sort of wondering how all that will work, but the promoter there is really on top of things, I've never worked with someone quite so together. Not that I have't worked with people who are together, but... He had been talking to my road manager a few times over the past couple years about why doesn't she come over here and tour, she's sold lots of records over here, and I just keep intending to, and just getting through the last few years and my kid's just about ready to go off to college, and he's graduating from high school this spring, he just turned 18, so I'm really free right now to go and do all that stuff that I wasn't really focusing that much on before. So I said okay, I'll go over there and try it, and next thing I know he's got three or four things booked in a row. We're going to go to Ireland and do a gig in Dublin, so I'm very excited about that. And I'm opening up for James Taylor in July 16th in Manchester. That'll be like about 10,000 people. I mean, it could be really cool.
A nice combination, a nice pairing.
He's just been one of my great heroes, I just love his work.
Can I ask how old you are?
The first time I heard Sand and Water and I read that there was always a big response to the verse about your son and I just listened to it and assumed from it that he was a very young child.
He was, when I wrote it. He was 13.
No, I got like three, four, a toddler.
"Bursting towards tomorrow." You don't think about a strapping young teenage boy.
But they're still doing that bursting, in fact they're bursting on a larger scale.
Totally. But it gave me a whole different insight into the whole experience for you. It's one thing to havea little toddler and not to be able to communicate to your child what you're going through; it's another thing to have a growing boy who has intellectual capacity, who can hopefully be there with you through the whole thing.
Yeah, and there's a real rites of passage that a child, a boy goes through right at the age his father died, I mean there's so many cultures and historical rituals all through time where when a boy turns 12 to 13
In the Jewish religion it's a barmitzvah.
Right, and there's confirmation in Catholicism, and in tribes in Africa they go through these challenging excercises to show their manhood. So this was a huge shift for him, normally for that age, and then losing his Dad right at that time was profound. But he and his dad talked about, his dad was very open with him about dying and talking about the process and his feelings and how he was so sorry that he had to leave, and it was a really incredible gift to my son that my husband was able to talk to him about it as directly as he could, and they cried together and they really went through that grieving process a little bit together before he died, so that when my son was moving forward with his life he felt really connected and they'd shared some of that. I mean, I remember him sitting on the edge of the bed telling him that he basically forgave him for everything that he was going to do the rest of his life. He said, you know, I'm not going to be judging you, I'm going to be with you, I'm going to be close to you and watching out for you, but I'm not going to be judging your mistakes, in fact I forgive you for all your mistakes that you're going to make, so when you make those mistakes you don't have to feel that you're not clear with me. So that's given him a lot of freedom to kind of grow up and go through all his stuff.
It sounds like your husband was quite a man.
He was. And his degree was in philsosphy and his passion for life was the meaning of life so he used all that accumulated knowledge and reading to learn how to die in a way that really opened up a lot of people that we knew.
Did you all read The Tibetan Book or Living and Dying?
Yeah that book was incredible. Really taught me a lot about allowing him just to be wherever he was at that moment, you know.
.... [Talking about the mourning process] ...
That happened to me when I was 18, I had been seeing someone for six months
You had a boyfriend who had a brain tumor?
Uh huh. And I just couldn't imagine that it had happened, you know it was very... in a way it was like having it all dumped on me at one time, the grief, it was like whoom! With Ernest, it was like finding out he was ill, and then going through a long period of trying to see if we could beat the odds, and then him dying and me very slowly grieving, I mean it took me a year to cry. And during that year I wrote those songs.
So while you were writing those songs you weren't crying.
I was walking around numb. I was totally numb. I was trying to, you know, find where the sorrow was. It was so deep inside of me, it was so deep, and that's why those songs were written, I think, to help me access.
So when that man wrote to you and said he had lost his wife and hadn't cried for 15 years...
That was one of the most touching letters to me, because I know that feeling of just feeling dislocated from my heart, it was just like, I can't possibly be okay because I'm not even sad. But I knew I was sad, I knew I was just putting one foot in front of the other.
So at what point did you write "Happy Girl" after you had cried?
Oh yeah, that was later on, that was actually one of the last songs, that was the last song to go on the record. See I wrote the songs the first year after he died, and the second year, some of the songs I wrote before he was even sick, you know there was this sort of odd thing about that. But I started recording in '96. So I waited a full year before I started recording, and then it took about almost a year to record the thing. And so all during that time I was contiuning to write, and "Happy Girl" came as a result of going to this thing; Rodney Crowell had told me about this week-long therapeutic thing called the Hoffman Process, which is world-known, it's all over the world, it's been going on about 30 years. And it's basically two years of therapy in seven days. And you go into this really caring group of 35 people with four teachers per each person, and you just literally go through your whole childhood and you do a lot of visualization and you do a lot of energy work and anger work and everybody that goes there they take your picture the first day you're there and the day you leave and everyone has 10 years off their face, just like gone. And I really went there to deal with my grief, and I never even got to my husband's death, I was so busy dealing with stuff from my childhood that really informed the way that I made decisions and lived my life and certain things that I just, why did I do that again, you know. It was all about clearing with my parents, just their mistakes that they made being my parents, which, one of the things you do is you forgive them because they were just doing the best they could, it just goes back and back. It's pretty amazing. So I'd done that and then I came out of that and I just was really filled with creativity, it was like I'd cleared out all the cobwebs. And Annie Roboff, who's here with me, she and I write a lot together, she ended up going about six months later, because she saw how it changed me, and then she ended up coming back after her experience, and she walks in the day she got back ans she says, we have to write this song, "I'm the Happy Girl." And it just flew through the air, in about three or four days we wrote it.
I know from what I've read that some people found the song to be a little incongruous, but when I listened through the album it seemed absolutely perfect. Because there are times even through your grief where you do feel jubillantly happy. Sometimes you don't even know why, maybe you connect with a really happy time you had with the person you've lost, or you just can see the light at the end of the tunnel and then maybe you deal with the guilt for feeling happy...
Well see the guilt is not necessarily a healthy thing. Grief is such a pure drug. Grief really does have a purity about it. Grief allows you to be happy in a more pure way I think, if you are able to grieve, you are able to be more grateful, when you feel joy again you really feel it on a deeper level, I think, I mean I certainly did. The whole process of the devastatingness of that experience also opened me up to being able to notice the smallest little thing and be able to notice it and see it and go wow, that's amazing, I'm not just walking around in this tense fog of my life, I'm like, every day that I'm here I'm really that much more awake than I was before. I mean that process started right after we found out he was diagnosed, because we had so little time together and we didn't know how much time it was going to be, so we started being ultra kind, we just naturally put aside stupid trivial stuff that everybody kind of gets caught up in, and I still do, everybody does, but it really helps me get back on focus of what's important, you know. So I think that when you've come through a lot of difficult stuff and you're able to grieve, you're really getting balanced back and are able to face the next stuff that comes up because nothing's going to be perfect and you're going to still have more things to grieve later, but you get this sort of grieving muscle going where you're able to assimilate difficulty as it's happening with a lightness of being. I mean, I see people, walking around in LA, and there is here to me a concentration of energy spent, an agonizing amount of energy spent with appearance, weight, nose jobs, and people who are worried about money and they're worried about these things that when you drop your body and you move out of this shell into whatever's coming up next, makes absolutely no difference. It's like going to an amazing place and spending all your time in the corner going nanananana and you miss this whole thing, and I think that's the gift to me. I mean, I'm still vain and I wanna be beautiful and thin and all that, but I don't give it that much energy any more and I just try to be nurturing my insides, and that's about as good as I'm gonna look... It's just the wrong emphasis to me for where we're headed, it just seems like it's a lot of emphasis on something that's very temporary.
Which last week just reinforced to a lot of people, in Colorado. You keep seeing the parents of these children on television going, just hug your child, don't take anyone for granted.
Yeah. I went there the day after that.
Yeah. And the feeling in the air was so heavy, and interestingly enough, well it wasn't any surprise, the show I was supposed to do was cancelled, but they didn't realize it until after I go there, so I had this night off. So I went by the hospital where Ernest had his bone marrow transplant. So for me it was like this opportunity it was a very sad reason for me to be there, for the show to be cancelled but I just decided to go back to this little apartment around the corner from the hospital where he had his bone marrow transplant and just go by there, to sort of do closure. Cause it's been, well '94, it's been going on five years. And it was so eerie to go with the sadness and heaviness that was in the air because of that tragedy, to go revisit another tragedy in a way. But it was a, it's like walking into a really dark deep huge church with a lot of stillness. It's very, it's like a space that you go to if you meditate, you know, where we, I think it's so important if people can stop and go there for little periods of time, it doesn't matter what church, but just that place where you stop. And that was my little church, to go back and stand outside the hospital, and just say, hello building, and it's just a, it keeps priorities straight, especially being in the entertainment business, it's really important to keep your priorities straight.
I knew once I sat down to talk with you I would talk about everything except what I've got in front of me. So, we'll go back to earlier times. I've read that you first started writing at the age of 11 and that your formal musical training was short-lived, as you were playing and writing everything by ear. Can you tell me what you remember listening to as a very young child and whom you might have been emulating when you were writing songs about cowboys?
Well I don't know where I got my cowboy song, that was the first song I wrote. Because most of the music I was hearing was piped in through the airforce bases in Germany where we lived. Perry Como, Robert Goulet, my Mom and Dad's records. And then all of a sudden one afternoon my brother brought home the Beatles and the Monkees and all that, Rolling Stones, all that got mixed in. I was always really just surfing for songs, I was always interested in what made something a great song.
So even as a child you were interested in a song rather than an artist or a group.
Yeah, the form of a song. There were certainly artists that I loved that did great songs consistently, there are so many of them. But I was, you know, a great song could catch my attention. So when somebody says who did you listen to, well I listened to this song from that person, and this song, I mean I just listened to so much.
Did you put tapes together?
No I wasn't that organized. But I caught it as it went by. And then when I was older and I was working at the Riverview Plaza for two years, when my son was first born I was singing in a little happy hour, I went to the public library and I got every record that was, every top ten of every era of every year, and I just started learning the most popular songs that had been like songs of the year, so I got this overview of, you know stylistically there's great jazz, great blues, great country, great pop, but a great song you can do in any of those songs and it'll bend and be flexible.
So at what age, or at what point in your evolution as a songwriter or development as musician do you form an idea of a career as a songwriter as distinct from a performer?
Well I really don't know that I had them separated and in some ways they're really intertwined always. But I had my first success where money actually appeared in my mailbox as a result of Tanya Tucker recording a song that I wrote with Don Schlitz, a song called "Stong Enough To Bend." That was a number one hit for Tanya Tucker, who's a country artist. And I'd done an album, I'd done a pop album in '79 but as an artist I wasn't established and I didn't have a big hit or anything, so everything I did as an artist was money going out and everything I did as a writer well not everything but the things I did as a writer seemed to create income and I was amazed that I actually made money out of it, I couldn't believe it.
So the concept of being a writer whose songs could be performed, recorded by other artists was actually very attractive to you?
Yes, I like that a lot. And I never really intended to record as a country artist, I mean I think my songs, some of them even the ones I've recorded as an artist are certainly under that style where you can say they're in that line of style. But I didn't want to just have to do one style of music so I just always thought of myself as a singer-songwriter who wrote a lot of different styles. And I happen to live in Nashville. So, "Strong Enough to Bend" wasn't something I was going to record on an album of mine, so it was great, it was like this song, I thought it was lovely, I love the song, and then having someone else record it
What year was that?
That was 1989 or '90.
Quite recently. But you were already quite a prolific writer, I take it. As your writing was blossoming, perhaps even before your ecorded your first pop album, did you used to think that there were specific artists whom you hoped might record your songs, long before you were even in the business and could aspire to that?
Yeah, I mean, Roberta Flack, Barbra Streisand, all the great voices, I was like, oh, I'd love that. And the singer-songwriters who very much influenced me Carole King, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, absolutely. And then there were singers like Ella Fitzgerald and artists like Billie Holliday whose phrasing and music I listened to and studied and tried to, I tried to feel how each one would interpret a song. So sometimes I would be influenced to write a song with more of a jazzy bent to it from listening to that, with the idea that somebody with that kind of a voice would record my song. And all the time I was always thinking in terms of things that I was singing myself as an artist, too. Like, I know there are some artists who write their own material who you like save it for themselves and they don't want anybody else to cut it. And that always mystifies me, because just because someone else records my song, like Trisha Yearwood has recorded songs off of the albms that I have done that are more pop versions, she's done more country, I'm thrilled for her to do her own version of it and make it her own and, you know, as an artist I'm honored and as a writer I'm honored and also paid so I mean there's nothing to lose to me.
It reminds me of in the '70s when Linda Ronstadt was recording a lot of Karla Bonoff's work. Karla was recording it, too, but it didn't hurt Karla to have Linda recording it.
No, and I have the utmost respect for Karla as a writer and an artist, I mean, I actually like her versions of some of those songs better, and I consider Linda a much broader, more accomplished singer but there's a tenderness and an honesty with the way Karla sings her... to me of course I'm a biased songwriter.
There's a song she has on her first album,"If He's Ever Near"
I love that song.
And I knew Linda's version and loved it to death and then when I and often what will happen with me is that a very famous artist like Linda will lead me to a songwriter and then to that person's recordings and when I heard Karla's own version of that song, I thought it was something very, I don't know, sincere.
Yeah. And as a singer I was reallya late bloomer, I was really good at doing sort of imitations of different singers, when I worked in little clubs and stuff, all through my early 20s and through my early 30s, I was writing with my own voice more than I was singing with my own voice I think. I would just be so adaptable, it was like if you came out to hear me perform, I would sing Joni Mitchell songs as much like Joni Mitchell as I could. I would sing Karla Bonoff songs, you know, just I'd do the character of her voice, she does very little vibrato [sings] "They say just once in life" and I'd get those, and I think part of it was a sort of a slow, what's the word, I was tentative to have my own voice as an artist for some reason, but I look back on it now and I think one of the things I was doing was shaping myself as a songwriter, because there are so many ways you can write a melody, and so many little instances, little things you can put in there, and I really don't think I started really singing to the full extent of my ability in terms of my comfortableness until after my husband's death. I used to get terrible nervousness and stuff before I'd go on stage, and I'd always be fussing with, you know, and I remember one of his great frustrations with me was that, in his mind I should have been a huge star and I had all this talent, and I was just holding myself back because I was not believing in myself enough to just go out there and enjoy singing and just give them what you already have. I just didn't understand the concept, I was always feeling, I was like, maybe they wouldn't like me, am I going to sing flat, sharp, and of course as soon as fear comes into anything it creates whatever you're most afraid is going to happen.
And after his death, it was almost like I just sort of got it, you know, it was like, okay, if I'm going to do anything, I'm going to go out, and if I ever walk on another stage and sing which I wasn't sure I was going to right then I'm going to make sure that I don't do it unless I enjoy it. And people don't have to like it, or whatever, I can't control them, but I'm going to have a good time and I'm going to just get over my stupid fear. And the first time I walked out on a stage I sang at a party for one of my best friends, three months after Ernest died. She had breast cancer that came back, and she had only a couple of months to live. So she had a party to celebrate her life, cause she decided not to do chemotherapy again. And she asked me to come out on stage and sing "Color of Roses" a capella. Well for me that was like going right to the core of my broken heart, cause Ernest hadn't been gone but a couple of months, and I don't even know how I did it but I walked out on that stage and I sang the song for her. And it was like the best singing I'd done in my life, I couldn't believe my calmness. I was thinking okay, but I'm going to lose it.
And you had everyone else in tears?
Everybody, well, yeah, cause everybody knew what that meant for me to do that, but also for her, only a friend dying of cancer could have gotten me out on stage. But it really helped me to know that there was a whole level of my power I had never even accessed. And I mean power, just meaning self-acceptance, which is "Happy Girl" again, the whole thing. Anyway, I'm sorry I give such long answers but I get on a roll.
You've talked about how you feel that your roots are probably in folk, and you've just recorded Judy Collins' "Since You Asked" on the Bleecker Street Collection. Was she also an inspiration to you? Because her voice is such purity.
You know I always mean to mention her. She was a huge influence. A huge influence to me. I learned a lot about air in the voice, she had incredible air and lightness in her voice where she just rode a note and let it drift, you know like a butterfly. And I spent hours learning her songs and trying to copy exactly what she did with her voice. And there are elements, as I sort of came into my own voice. I worked with this really great teacher named Gerald Arthur in Nashville when I moved there in '85. And he taught me how to sing with my speaking voice. He said, you know, you've got this instrument, you can sing like this person, that person, you've got all these ranges, but you just don't know who you are. And I was like I know, I know. He said, well for one thing, when you speak, you speak perfectly clearly and you're always the same person, you don't have different speaking voices. And I went yeah. And he said well you just need to sing wtih that voice. And so he wouldn't let me sing, he just made me say the words to the song. First I just had to say the words to the song, and then I had to say the words in pitch but not sing, it was like this trick I had to play. And eventually I learned my speaking voice is my singing voice, and that's the most honest, so if I sing [sings] "I went home for Christmas to the house that I grew up in", it's just the same voice that I'm talking to you now and it really changed the way that I approached singing, and from that time on I was like, oh, and so then I tried to pull some of the elements of all these other voices that I'd learned, these things that are colors, you know, where you can hold a note out and add air. And, anyway, Judy Collins was a master of that.
And did that in turn affect your songwriting because you were conscious that there was a way that you were now going to sing?
Yeah, anything I did to clarify myself in any other way usually affected my songwriting. In a way that clarified my songwriting. But mostly what's clarified my songwriting has been just writing more songs and just digging through. You know, I always tell songwriters, just keep writing.
You moved to Nashville from Alabama more because it was the music center most ideally located where you could stay close to family, rather than because you wanted to become part of the country music franternity. But what aspects of the scene there did strike you and affect you when you got to Nashville? Because it must really saturate you.
Well it was a melting pot, it was a total melting pot. And I went through the horror of finding out that the waiters and waitresses could all sing better than me, and half of them were songwriters, and you know I went from being a big fish in a small pond to
It's like coming here to be an actor, isn't it?
Exactly. So that was interesting. And then another thing that shifted was that my husband was the director of a treatment facility for adolescents, and he had a very regular income, and so we kind of picked up roots and came up here. And within about six months he got a really good job, but it was really scary at first because all the pressure was on me to succeed. And he was working with the idea that eventually I would be making enough as a songwriter. Because he was so sure, I mean he was much more sure than I was that this was the place to come and the thing to do, and unfortunately just about the time when I was in a place where he could really take off, and he had taken off about six months before he became ill, he was going to go back to law school and he was really looking forward to his turn, and that was one of the things that was heartbreaking about his becoming ill, was that he helped me get here and he helped support me while I went through all my growing pains. So that's another thing that I take into my performances and I take into what I do, I just really feel grateful that he did that for me and I try to honor that, I try to make sure that first and foremost I'm enjoy myself.
It was obviously part of his life's work to do that, regardless of what the payback was for him.
Yeah. And he in many ways acted as a great sounding board for me as a songwriter developing, because he was a good writer, too, so
He was a songwriter?
No, he just was very good with words and had written poetry in college, and had a very astute understanding of human nature, and that was a great thing to bounce off songs of someone who had the gist of that. My son seems to have that too, and he's quite a songwriter, he's really gotten amazing; he started writing the year his dad died, he really started becoming involved in music, and that for him has worked the way it has for me, as a healing process and it's sort of his passion now, so it's great.
Why was there a ten-year gap between your first album on Capitol and your first one for Reprise?
You know I've never really gone after like a, I've never needed to be a star or needed to be, have to have a record out, kind of, I've mostly been like I need to write songs. But I love to perform, and I feel like I have kind of blossomed into really loving it and getting a great exchange with an audience, but I don't know, after that first album, after the first album didn't do well back then I didn't know why that was, never occured to me, it never occured to me that I didn't have a manager and I didn't live in a musical center, and I just didn't have a clue, you know, I just thought maybe the music wasn't so hot and maybe I shouldn't do this, and so I ended up having my child and for a couple years I sort of took off from songwriting. And then by the time we were ready to move to Nashville I had about 40 songs written and I was sort of getting my sea legs back a little bit. And then it took a few years, because when I got to Nashville at first I had offers to do a country album, cause I was writing those kind of songs as well, but the songs that I was really feeling as an artist that I would want to sing were songs like "Child Again" and "Life Holds On" - they were more in that Shawn Colvin/Joni Mitchell camp than they were country. You wouldn't have put a steel guitar on them and you wouldn't have worn a cowboy hat and that whole thing would have been a caricature for me to do. And I may do a bluegrass album, cause I've got a whole bunch of bluegrass songs I really love, and if I did it I would do it sort of like Linda Ronstadt did a Mexican album, it doesn't mean she just does Mexican songs the rest of her career, so I would do it as a special project and that would be fun.
Would you work with people like Alison Krauss?
Yeah, oh I love her. And Ricky Scaggs, he just blows me away.
Can you talk about the different writing experiences you have writing alone and writing with other people, and what draws you to write with other people? Because that always fascinates me, why some very accomplished songwriters choose to collaborate with other writers.
Well my personal reason is very selfish. I want to learn something I don't know many times. And I will write with people who I resonate with who we're sort of already on the same wavelength, like Annie Roboff, whose doing really well, she's got so many songs coming out, she's very successful at the moment. She and I have very similar tastes and very similar influences. But she comes from a hooky musical kind of key change let's do the bridge over here and come back, she's got this expertise in this way, like when we wrote "This Kiss" where we had to get back to this key before the next verse and she just, oh, piece of cake, and she goes around here and comes back. And she's got a real expertise in that department. And there's a way that I have an expertise in terms of lyric writing that she seeks out when she writes with me, so we have a real sympatico, we write a great deal together. And there's other artists and writers that I just, you know, for me to sit down with them and spend the day is a treat, so the natural thing is you just write a song.
Like writing with someone like Eric Kaz.
Oh, you know, he's my, I mean to be able to sit down and write a song with him, and he wrote "Love Has No Pride" and these incredible songs. I know. To me I'm just seeking out that inspiration. And I have to be really careful to balance that out, like, I'm going to take a week of this summer and go to an artists' colony in West Virginia to write by myself. Because my life has gotten so incredibly hectic and it's really hard for me to say no. Because there are so many people I like, I mean I love the people and I love writing with them and I'm getting pulled in so many directions. And I'm starting to get requests to write with really established artists and it's an honor to be asked and it's like really being pulled. Annie and I wrote with Mary Chapin Carpenter, the song that's her new single that just came out. That was a mutual love thing, we all wanted to write with each other, and that was a blast, I mean, to write with somebody of her calibre of a writer and pop popcorn and hang out all day and eat popsicles, we just had a great time.
Has Elton ever talked about writing something with you?
You know, one time Elton made a comment to me that was just kind of off-hand I think, I don't think it was serious, cause he certainly doesn't need to look for people to co-write with, but it was so funny because he said something like, I really love your lyric writing, it would be great if you ever sent me a lyric sometime. It was very, it was almost like, did I hear him say that? And I never write the lyrics first, so it was like oh, if only I wrote the lyrics first, I would send you every lytic I ever wrote, but usually I don't have any lyrics that come.
Do you think it would be an interesting experiment to take a song that you haven't used but that you're fond of, and just, and if you're not too attached to the music just sending him the lyrics and seeing what he comes back with?
I thought about that. It's like taking off one of your baby's legs. It wouldn't work, that's what's so funny. It's not about not wanting to, of course I would be thrilled. In fact it's very rare for me to be able to write a melody when someone gives me an already written lyric.
So the music is always what comes first for you.
For me the music comes either right with the lyrics, or just before it, or long before it. The guy that I wrote "Say Goodnight" with on Sand and Water is a lyricist named Joe Henry now there's a recording artist named Joe Henry who's a different one, but Joe Henry the lyricist, he's from Colorado, he wrote a lot of stuff with John Denver, he's very very talented with words. He's been writing this novel for 15 years, and he wrote this poem called "Sleep," and the words of this poem were so extraordinary to me, and he gave me a copy of it and one day I was just sitting around and I wrote this melody to it. And it was so unusual, which was almost like it just fell through the top of my head. And I'll probably put it on my next album. And then I got him to write the last half of it lyrically, cause it was only a half-written song by then. But that was a gift, I don't normally naturally do that. Normally I get sort of a melodic idea and then it's almost like I'll just sing these nonsense syllables into the air, and I just keep the tape recorder going the whole time, cause I get into this sort of unconscious place of just playing around with the melody and I go back through and I sing it again and I change it and then I decide I liked it better the other way. The whole time I'm singing nothing syllables. And what's interesting is when I go back and listen to the work tape to try to see how I'm shaping it up, see what I like about what I did, sometimes I don't remember what I did, I mean I'll go back and listen to it and I'm like listening to it as an observer for the first time. And the vowels will line up in a certain way and I'll hear a line and it'll be the vowels will line up, you know, like I might have said "hand it over" instead of "sand and water", and then two weeks later I'm singing "sand and water" and it means something.
It's like "Scrambled Eggs."
Yeah, exactly, I think that's a process a lot of writers do. So I have that going on, whatever that's called.
What makes you start some songs on the piano and others on the guitar? "Sand and Water" could have been a piano song.
I believe that the songs are actually in the instruments and you've got to dig them out. It couldn't have been a piano song.
So you'll be compelled to pick up the guitar one day and a song will spring forth, and another day you'll be compelled to sit at the piano, and it's completely random?
Yeah and there are some guitars that have more songs in them than others, I think. I've gone into music stores and thought, now that's got a lot of songs in it, that guitar right there.
So how many guitars do you own?
I only have really one that I play all the time that I've written all my songs on. But you know, I have to get over this guitar, I have to get another guitar to take on the road. And I do have a couple other ones but I haven't been able to bond with them yet.
And you still don't read or write notation?
No. I don't even know the names of the chords... I mean one of my beliefs is that, this is really kind of spacy, but I have this perspective that every song is already perfectly written. And really if you're a writer your job is to keep your antenna dusted off and try to get enough sleep and eat your wheaties and try to be in the receiving mood. And you can't do that and stay drunk, and you can't do that and be too tired and you can't be depressed or sometimes you can do that and be depressed but there's a... Sometimes I'm writing with someone and they're frustrated and they want the song to be finished, they're very impatient for the song to be finished, and it might be six months or a year and I've been waiting for one line or one word that rhymes with this word, and they're going, there's not, just go back to that other line, it's just find, you know. And that's why I kind of choose my co-writers, I warn them on the front end, and say look I am a stickler, I will wait a year, I won't sing a song for a year til I feel like I've done it. I actually have a rhyme, this is a great thing for songwriters that everybody thinks you can't rhyme with "orange," that no word rhymes with "orange." It's like a classic songwriter, and when I get into a thing with a songwriter over a rhyme I'll say, no, I waited for five years until I figured it out, and they go, no there's not a word that rhymes with "orange," and I say, there's a rhyme, no there's not, and we go back and forth. And there is one. And it's "door hinge." And you can actually make that work in a song.
For your Greatest Hits collection you drew heavily from your first [Reprise] album and from Sand and Water but you chose only one song from your second album, You Hold They Key. Why is that?
Oh, I love so many songs on the second album. I'm in pain over this. My most difficult, least favorite part of being an artist, is having to pick. And that includes when I sing somewhere at night and I have to decide what songs to do in a set. I'm just a real baby about it. I'd rather just go, what do you guys want to hear?
But only one song from the second album?
That was the only one that really, because at the time that that album came out my husband was so sick, there was only one single that came out, and that was the song that was the single, and I love that song, and it did get some good airplay. I really wanted to put "Faithful Heart" on there, which is a kind of hymn-like song that I wrote. But I was just trying to go with the songs that resonated the most deeply with me and seemed to be the ones that resonated with people when I get letters and letters and letters. And there were so many songs from Sand and Water, and as it was I didn't put "Child Again" on that Greatest Hits album, and that's one of the ones I get tons of letters from, but I'd already put so many from that album. It was torture. I always said, can I put out a Greatest Hits double album? What's really funny is I'm not really established in the larger sense as an artist like some other artists are. I think it's kind of a very kind of funny thing. I'm glad to have it out, it's kind of nice to have it out.
For a lot of newer fans who didn't know your earlier work and who came to you specifically through Sand and Water, this is your way of saying, "I wasn't always sad. I dealt with all these other issues."
That's right. Except I put "Emily" on there.
Well but there's sadness in all sorts of areas of life. I wondered if it was important to do this retrospective at this time to show audiences who only discovered you through Sand and Water that there are many other facets to you as a writer, as a woman, and many other things that you're capable of exploring.
Yeah and I'm always exploring and you know I'm sort of working on my next record right now, but I'm not on Warner Bros. I actually las fall I requested to leave, and they put the Greatest Hits album out anyway. There was a lot of people there that have supported me and really didn't want me to leave. Jim Ed Norman was wonderful to let me go because he had several more albums he could have insisted on getting. But I felt that being signed through Nashville and not being a country artist and trying to get the Los Angeles office to adopt me fully, you know there were certain people that did certainly and tried really hard and worked really hard to try to get the full treatment but it was like being from here and there at the same time and it was still confusing to people. Like, it's changing now, but when you're from Nashville you're automatically thought of as country. So I just felt like I'd been there ten years and my gut feeling was that it was time to make a change.
So you're looking for a new deal now?
I actually haven't started looking yet, but I will certainly feel around. I'm not sure exactly how I'm going to approach the next record, I may do something on my own, I may do something with a major label, I may do something sort of in-between, you know, a distribution deal. Because there are so many things that have changed in the environment. Even since last fall. I just literally felt, my gut feeling was it's time for me to move into another realm. And Jim Ed really was very supportive, in fact he made it very comfortable for me and he's been a great friend and creatively he's been a mentor for me. And I feel lucky. And you know, there's a different regime in Los Angeles and they weren't really up with the history that I'd had with the company and it was a little more corporate stuff going on, and it was, you know, I'm a singer-songwriter and I would rather do this in a fresh beginning the next time around. So I really feel rejuvinated by being able to have these options now, you know, and the funny thing is, as soon as I left Warner Bros I got a song in a Prince of Egypt soundtrack, and then I got two songs that ended up in Message in a Bottle, and then all these things just sort of started happening. And each of these masters that I've done are available for me to put on my next record, too, my manager's worked it out that way. Anyway, I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens next.
Having said all that, I feel bad going back to Sand and Water but I have a few more questions I want to ask you about that.
Oh I love that record. And there's been such great angels like you come along that help get the music to people. Like you being given it as a gift. And I have a really good relationship with people at Warner Bros and I left it on really good terms with them, and I hope that they'll continue to put that album out there because it does seem to, it seems to continue to grow.
There must have been a lot of letters of the kind that that man wrote to you, whose wife had died 15 years before. How does that sort of feedback infuse your relationship with the song and when you perform it now are you conscious of some sort of responsibility as like a guide through grief?
I don't know that responsibility is the right word, but there is definitely an awareness that I have of the power of that song, just that particular song. And there's other ones on the album that are powerful, but that song sort of became the consolidated one. I flew here the other night and did a radio show and I went in, and they were typical talk radio guys they're just having a good time, they want to keep it moving and I knew this was going to be uncomfortable for them, possibly, potentially. But I just walked in with my guitar and smiling and they think I'm upbeat and everything's cool, and, okay what song are you going to do for us? Well I'm going to do the first song I wrote after my husband died of cancer. And they just went... okay. And I don't have any apologies to make if somebody's going to be saddened by that. The thing I carry into it isn't a responsibility like serious, it's more like lightness. I feel a consciousness about being light of heart when I sing that song, because for me the most powerful thing about that song is that it allows people to feel comfortable enough to allow room for their sadness. Cause they have their sadness, they're walking around with it, they've got it battened down and taped up, covered over, smiled on, and it's this lightness that when I sing that song and I get to the chorus I put a little bit of a smile on my face, because I really feel that smile on my face, not because I'm making light of it in that sense.
Do you feel that you're so asssociated with the grief genre , if you like, that that could be hard to move onto other themes, and was something like "This Kiss" really important to move you into that direction?
Well I always felt that I would be able to love someone again, I always felt that, because even Ernest and I had conversations and he said I want you to go through this and then I want you to come out on the other side and I want you to be able to fall in love again and be happy and live a full life. I never felt that my relationship to him, even through his death, was in any way standing in the way of whenever that time came when I was ready to open up and feel that way, or a new way, about someone else. Cause to me it's like you don't really feel that way about someone else, you create a new space with a new person. And when I wrote "This Kiss" I was still deeply in the middle of the process of grief, but my heart, you know, my wanting to be kissed, my body, everything about me as a woman, was up and running, but I wasn't ready emotionally, I wasn't quite there, but I could still access all those emotions. I wrote many love songs. I've written quite a few songs about coming through, sort of tentative attempts to, you know, like a couple of men that I started to feel very close to, that really weren't available to me emotionally, and I really wasn't available, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to them. I was sort of dancing around a little bit, and then it wasn't the right time, it wasn't the right thing, and so that was fodder for songs. I mean everything in my life is fodder for songs. And you know, I mean I think the process of healing is about trying to just stay open and being able to love fully.
You're not worried about what your public might think?
No, no. I think, I mean I have a very healthy attitude about it and I think that it would be okay for me if I didn't have anyone in my life and it would be okay for me if I did. And in fact there's not a timetable either. You know some people within six months are ready to meet someone and fall in love, and you know. I spent quite a bit of time with the process my son was going through, and he's in such a great place, and things in the last year have just seemed lighter in a more substantive way.
You've described how "Seven Shades of Blue" and "No-one Knows But You" were premonitions, because they had started to come to y ou before you even knew that Ernest was ill. Are you more alert now when songs spring up from somewhere that they could be premonitions , not even necessarily of bad things, but some sort of portending to something that's going to happen, and you're watching what's happening in your creativity more closely now?
Yes, absolutely. And I've always known that before but I didn't really have it hit me quite so strongly as when those songs came out, but I think we all kind of already know on some level, there's a part of us, our higher self, or whatever, already knows, a lot more than we know in our down in our grounded part. And I really trust this unformed sort of sense of connection, I guess, it's God or whatever, I just trust that there's accessibility available if we're open to it and we're receptive to it. If you ask for help it just is amazing how it shows up. And I did that many many times after Ernest died and it's never let me down.
© Debbie Kruger
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