Take away a singer-songwriter’s stage and they will find a street corner where they can perform. Take away their musical accompaniment and they will serenade you acapella. But take away their words, and they are left paralyzed without the vessel through which they communicate.
Such is the situation that celebrated singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman (Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, Faith Hill) found herself in recently as a rapidly growing but benign brain tumor damaged the language center of her brain, preventing her from being able to process raw emotion into poetic lyricism.
It was only through the love of her family and friends, her craft, and ultimately life that allowed her to persevere and successfully battle breast cancer in 2000 and recover from her benign brain tumor. Now she is returning the love with her latest release Back to Love. With songs such as “I’ll Give My Heart,” and “I Need Your Love,” Nielsen Chapman is celebrating her newfound joyous state of being.
PopMatters spoke with the storied songstress about the insatiable appetite for media sensationalism, her recovery process, homosexuality in country music and more.
As someone who recently dealt with battling illness in the public eye, what’s your take on the media’s coverage of a celebrity’s health? Do you find it too invasive and indicative of the public’s hunger for gossip?
I don’t think having an illness should be aligned with shame. This time last year I had a brain tumor removed and went through cancer but I happened to be very comfortable talking about it. Talking about it and sharing about it is a way for me to heal. It’s helpful to other people to hear stories of others. That’s different than the way the media feeds on the drama. That aspect of the media and emphasis on celebrity is very unsavory and unhealthy for us. There is great literature and pieces of art and accomplishments we could all be talking about and celebrating. So much attention is captivated collectively on stuff that takes up a lot of our internal space.
In one of your blog entries you talked about western medical practices, stating that doctors are trained to save costs and didn’t offer you additional tests. So what do you think of Obama’s health care plan?
Well, I voted for Obama and still support giving him as much support as possible during this transitional time. He was handed an unbelievable mess from many, many years prior. It’s unfortunate in some ways that he hasn’t had as much support. I just hope we get to a place where every person in our country can raise our children without fear of being destitute if someone gets sick. I would support anything that leads us to that place. We have a lot of issues under many categories that are deeply negatively affected by corporate ownership. There is this dangerous trend that corporations are people. There are laws being passed that say they should be treated like another citizen and I think that is causing problems systematically. Corporations are now copyrighting genes and they own the breast cancer gene. They can tell a woman she can’t get tested by a different company. There is a movie called, “The Corporation.” It’s a little cheesy since it is dated but what it talks about is accurate. The bottom line is that we have to protect the regular families.
When you had the brain tumor, what was the state of your creative process? I know it was hindered, but to what degree?
I had creative flow, but the function of my brain was impaired. The tumor pressed on the left frontal lobe, which is the language center that mechanically takes emotion and finds the right word for it. So it was weird. I was in the middle of the record and wanted to finish the song, but I couldn’t get the words. After surgery the lines started barreling in and it was like a miracle. It was an incredible feeling to finish the record and have it come out.
I think that experience serves to highlight the connection between the body and creativity. There is a basic general process there that people take for granted.
Yes, the body will find some way to communicate with you if you listen to it. I found out after the surgery that I had a birth defect in my inner ear and that I should have had more trouble with hearing my whole life. 0 years ago I went through breast cancer and I got checked out because of bladder infections. It was my body telling me to go see a doctor. So our bodies will let us know if we are tuned in and listening.
You also did some painting while undergoing chemotherapy. How did working in another creative medium affect the music you were creating?
Interestingly enough, during chemo, I wasn’t writing lyrics. It was too much to process cognitively and my brain cells were falling by the wayside. So I was drawn to color and I wanted to see it and play with it. In a melodic sort of way it influenced the music, but not so much in a direct lyrical way. Melody is always there, and I see color and hear melody that flows along with it. That kept my muscle in shape during that time. I love painting still; I just don’t have time.
Many of the songs on this record are tempered by the limitations of love and that it’s not all great or bad, addressing some of the paradoxes of love that are not often explored in mainstream media. Do you think we resist the understanding of love’s full dynamics?
There is always a paradox to me in this balance between light and dark. For a couple that’s together for years I think they learned that balancing act of life. In most songs on this album, there is this paradox that comes up again and again. I don’t think you can live without knowing the paradoxes–I think great music always has that balance and kind of representation of life. There are people looking for the richness of something that will resonate and it’s about truth. The interesting factor to me of anything is the truth.
After years, free music downloads remain a huge concern for the music industry? We hear a lot about the effect this has on artists and labels, but what about those behind the scenes who typically get less recognition?
I think that if you’re an artist and wrote your songs and want to give them away, then fine. But some of the time there are people behind the scenes like producers and engineers, so we need a system to make sure they are not getting ripped off. There are still people providing these websites to take music for free. They are making hundreds of millions on advertisements and hits on the backs of people that are contributing what they are providing for free. With radio, there were laws in place to protect those that wrote the songs so that we could hear it for free. So people should be able to get music for free, but anybody who makes money off of that song should pay the creators accordingly. I’ve asked a lot of students if they would be willing to only download songs for free from accredited websites that pay the composers and avoid the ones without it.100% of the time they say ‘Absolutely,’ because you don’t want to make people have to work at a bank because there is no money in the music business. This is all because of the idiotic greed of the music industry business dinosaurs. The record companies haven’t paid nearly the price that artists and writers have paid. I think it will get sorted and it’s a matter of educating people. When most hear the argument from regular folks trying to make a living, they come around, saying that there should be some laws for the goose that lays the golden egg. If not, there will be a lost generation of songwriters.
You’ve written for several country artists. Country music can be a very conservative genre so what are your thoughts on the coming out of country artist, Chely Wright?
I know Chely and I think it’s wonderful. I think people should be in the world and be who they are. Music is one of those wonderful things that melts the boundaries between people–I think it’s difficult to be in the world with controversial aspects, especially in country music where it’s considered controversial to this day. I think it’s a person’s choice and something people are allowed to choose and it’s brave of her. I wish her well and hope some people that might have a problem with that will acclimate. I think most people just need to meet someone and get to know them and form a relationship to see that they are just people.
Do you think this will open the door for other country artists to come out of the closet?
I think it will certainly help. It’s just folks and people being in the world honestly, and that’s the important thing for the music to be heard. Hopefully she’s alleviating that factor of shame with regards to who people love. Good for her.
After all you’ve been through, how is your spirit now?
I’m in a very good place in my personal life. I am happy and in love. This is my ten year anniversary of getting through breast cancer. This time to the day, I was having a brain tumor removed and now I can play my music and I am so grateful.