april 2008

Spirituality Through A ‘Prism’

Beth Nielsen Chapman’s Challenging Journey to Faith

‘I just feel spirited everywhere, and I always have.’

By David McGee

“Army brat” is a term rarely employed as anything but a pejorative to denote the rootless, self-centered offspring of professional soldiers. In the case of Beth Nielsen Chapman, though, being an Army brat—or more precisely an “Air Force brat,” in that her father preferred the wild blue yonder to caissons rolling along, anchors aweighing or the shores of Tripoli—produced instead an enlightened and enlightening sense of the beauty of diversity and inclusiveness in race and religion, along with an abiding curiosity concerning the nature of faith, religion and spirituality that continues to animate her inner life and, not insignificantly, her music.

Speaking from her Nashville home recently, the acclaimed singer-songwriter, who will turn 50 in September, recalled a childhood of moving around from base to base—“we lived in New England, California, we lived in Germany. When somebody asks, ‘Where are you from?’ I have to ask in return, ‘Which era?’”—and attending Catholic Mass not in grand cathedrals but in what amounted to multi-purpose facilities. “When I was a kid I had this perspective of riding my bike past the building where we went to Mass, which was the church. But it wasn’t a Catholic church; it was a spiritual center that looked like a church but it also functioned as a Protestant church, a Jewish temple—it changed religions depending on the hour of the day and the day of the week. If you had been there an hour earlier, you would have gone to a Protestant service. Then they’d roll out the cross and roll in the Star of David for Friday night, so people who were Jewish on the Air Force base had someplace to go.

“So there was this flexibility that I perceived about spirit, visually and experientially, from seeing it. My parents were very devout and still are very devout Catholics but all of our friends were of all different faiths, and not an inkling of prejudice was ever in my house. If somebody came in with something on their head and they were from India or Iran, they were fascinating! We got to ask them all kinds of questions. There was no question that my mother and father felt very deeply about their faith, but it never seemed to come in a package that kept anybody else from making their own decision. And even as I’ve grown up and become an adult, I don’t have any problem feeling connected spiritually when I walk into a Hindu temple, or a Buddhist prayer room. I just feel spirited everywhere, and I always have. So I think there’s some beautiful things in every faith, and in every kind of tradition.”

In a telling aside, she adds: “The music, of course, is the fundamental thing I’m drawn to, period; I’ve always been drawn to the musical celebration of spirit that shows up in every culture and every religion.”


Her new two-CD album, Prism: A Human Songbook, is an exploration of faith in nine languages (Chapman sings them all), the latest, and finest, manifestation of her journey, which has been fraught at times with formidable challenges to that faith. As she reveals in her liner notes to Prism, the project began formally in 1998, when she was asked to sing Tibetan chant on a friend’s project, then gestated for four years before kicking into serious overdrive on the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, which found her singing at a service at the Washington National Cathedral at which Bishop Desmond Tutu offered up a moving plea for tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, understanding and a coming together as “one human family.”

Those who have followed Chapman’s distinguished and hit-filled career as a songwriter and recording artist in her own right know the journey began even earlier than she lets on in her liner notes. In 1994 her husband Ernest lost a long battle with cancer, a tragedy for which he had spent some time preparing his wife, so that she would live fruitfully without him. Easier said than done, of course, especially from a spiritual standpoint.

“There were ways I felt abandoned by God and in the darkness during the process of going through the 18 months that Ernest was really sick,” she recalls. “We were hoping for some sort of miracle, and that didn’t happen, and it was a long process of letting go. Finally, in the last several weeks of his life he was so illuminated with purpose—‘Okay, there’s no way to figure my way out of this.’ He kind of just shifted into a place of acceptance, that this was ultimately going to be the end of his life, and in those last several weeks, he, as gently as he could, gently encouraged me not to get too far gone into loss, and try to turn it around at some point after a period of time, start writing again.”

At this point another towering songwriter comes into the picture, he being Rodney Crowell, a close friend of the Chapmans whom Beth suspects of conspiring with Ernest to help pull her back together after his death. “I think [Ernest and Rodney] had a few little discussions about how long to let me wait until I started writing again. Rodney called me up. I think Ernest and Rodney’s plan was for Rodney to wait about a month and then he was going to call me up and say, ‘Let’s write,’ or ‘Let’s get together.’ And he did. Of course I always wanted to write a song with Rodney Crowell, so it forced me to get my guitar out of the closet. It had dust on it.”

Before Crowell even arrived, Chapman had written one of her most personal, most poetic and most moving songs ever—“Sand and Water,” which became the title of a heralded album of similar spiritually redolent ruminations on love and loss, the good and the bad of it all. Prefacing her performance of the song for Crowell by stating it was “really sad, really personal, almost depressing, I’ll probably never take it out of the house. In fact if you want to write it with me, maybe we can fix it,” she plunged into it. Crowell’s response was unflinching and immediate: “You’re not only going to take this song out of your house, but this is probably going to be one of the songs you’re most remembered for.”

Crowell’s words proved prophetic, but the larger point about “Sand and Water” (song and album), in retrospect, is it being her first articulation in song of her spiritual quest. It was a watershed moment in her healing process, especially after performing the song at Bonnie Raitt’s request at a concert in Sedona, Arizona, where mystical things have been known to occur. In an instant, she recognized a link between music, healing and spirituality, and embraced it fully.

“Everybody stood up and cheered at the end of the song, and I realized that between the birth of that song and that moment, it was a gift, it was my license to continue. I wasn’t only going to just continue as a songwriter, but I was going to be a much, much better songwriter because of the depth of the experience I had gone through. And I wasn’t going to shy away from using it, and I wasn’t going to apologize for using it; I was just going to embrace it as a gift—in the midst of great loss, that was my gift. Would I have signed up for that and offered my husband in return? No! (laughs) But you know, as I found out when I went through breast cancer and had a whole bunch of other gifts to open, and a whole other level of writing, hat was the way to get through it.”

Take note: breast cancer. In the year 2000. Which she surmounted and looks back on with her typical self-deprecating humor. As she recounts on her website (www.bethnielsenchapman.com), “Having lost my hair while going through chemotherapy for breast cancer has resulted in my never ever again having the experience of having a bad hair day! Any hair day is a good one.”

This was two years after Prism had begun to take shape following Chapman’s performance of the aforementioned Tibetan chant, phonetically singing syllables that had been written out for her in the Tibetan ancient script. During this process, she felt a stirring within related to the memory of singing the Catholic hymns of her childhood. “Something happened to me in the two or three days I was doing that where I made a correlation between how I felt physically when I sang those chants and how I felt physically when I sang the old Latin hymns that I grew up with. I was learning to play guitar and singing at folk Mass when I was about 16. There would be a little group of musicians and we would be doing the folk mass, and they’d be all doing these new songs and ‘Kumbaya’ and Leonard Cohen songs, which were great, but there were these incredible pieces of music like ‘ave verum,’ these ancient pieces of writing I wanted to incorporate, and they were always going, ‘No, we’re not gonna do that; that’s old fashioned.’ I would be going home and playing those old hymns for the sheer resonance of connection they gave me. Well, when I sang this Tibetan chant, I was transported, almost as if I had been meditating, and felt very restful; and I was thinking, This is not really different than the old Latin hymns. Same tools—repetition and deep vowels and ancient tones put in a certain order that are tried and true, and really remove you from the world, put you in an altered state, which is a good place.”

This led directly to Chapman assembling the first few bits of prospective material for Prism, which then was conceived as “a record where I do chants from all different cultures and see if [that feeling]’s true across the board.” The sheer enormity of the project overwhelmed her, however, and she set it aside while she worked on other music.

Then came the Washington National Cathedral experience on September 11, 2002, and a piercing moment when Bishop Tutu spoke: “Everything he was saying seemed like he was saying directly to me. It was the weirdest feeling. He spoke about all of us being one human family; above and beyond all the rules and regulations of all the religions there was something much broader that was much more godly and much more important, and that was that we find a way to work together and coexist. This was in the wake of the 9/11 disaster, so you could feel this sense of urgency in the air and deep grief. All these religious leaders were sitting in front of him, and some dubious people from the government. It was so inspiring, and I thought, Well, there’s no way I can get out of this, meaning Prism. I have to do it, even if it takes another five years. Of course it took another seven years! After that I never lost sight of the fact that at some point I was going to finish it.”

Recording other albums—Deeper Still, Look and especially 2004’s collection of her beloved Catholic hymns titled, yes, Hymns—to support Prism, she interspersed Prism sessions with her other work over the years—“I was shooting into the studio to record these other songs in weird languages.” Hymns turned out to be one of those “great gifts” in her life, in that it sold well in the U.S. and “really helped fund my habit of trying to finish Prism.”

Hymns was more than a significant stepping stone on the road to Prism. In her liner notes, she sounded the theme that resonates throughout that album and most abundantly throughout Prism: “Just as beams of light sparkle and bounce in every direction when the sun shines through a diamond, every voice of praise in every spiritual language comes from and goes back to the same source of light. These are the songs of my childhood spiritual roots. They center me, even as I believe faith to be something beyond the boundaries of my own religion.”

“I hadn’t planned on it but I think it was a critical spiritual move on my part, my centerdness and focus on finishing Prism went to a higher level after having really investigated and deeply moved through my roots religion,” she relates, “and doing a whole CD of Catholic hymns—that is my root religion, no matter how many times I walk in a Hindu temple. It’s like being born Jewish; you’re born Catholic and it’s very much a part of your culture. It doesn’t mean I have to go to Mass every Sunday, and I don’t follow all the rules particularly, because I feel that, for me, God is in the woods and in my music room and in a Hindu temple. I connect spiritually in many ways, but I still contend that’s my root religion. So that’s where I come from.”

Recorded on multiple continents and in multiple languages, Prism is anchored on Disc 1 by a BNC original, “Prayers Of An Atheist,” on Disc 2 by a Joe Henry-John Jarvis original previously recorded by Trisha Yearwood, “The Flame,” which posits the notion of “a covenant of brotherhood that joins our open hands” and sets the stage for the multilingual assertions of faith to follow.

“Prayers Of An Atheist,” though, begs the question as to whether Chapman hasn’t received, at the least, puzzled response to its presence on an album exploring faith, atheistic spirituality still being a foreign, and thus widely misunderstood, concept. Quite the contrary, it seems, as she offers an anecdote of the power of this music to focus a listener’s thoughts on the inner voice, and to provide clarity where confusion or doubt might otherwise reign. The sole player in this story is a mature female fan of Chapman’s who attends her every U.K. show, and over the course of the years has revealed a tortured personal history. “Prayers Of An Atheist” made a difference


'I’ve always been drawn to the musical celebration of spirit that shows up in every culture and every religion.'

Chapman: “She’s gone through some serious abuse as a child and at the hands of some people who were very religious—people of the cloth. So it had brutally ripped her spirituality to shreds, and she spent many, many years trying to learn how to get close to God without feeling threatened for her own well-being. She started e-mailing me years ago and would come to my concerts regularly. At first I was a little concerned; you never know when someone’s gone a little over the edge. But she’s absolutely not over the edge and is very intelligent. She wrote me an amazing e-mail after Prism came out. The first time I performed that song in the U.K. it was at St. Paul’s Cathedral, with a 150-voice choir. And this woman was there, and it was the first time she had been in a church in thirty years. She was hyperventilating because it brought up a lot of bad memories for her. The first song she heard was ‘Prayers Of An Atheist’ and she said it healed her so deeply to feel that even if she could never believe in God that she would still feel loved and included. She wants to believe in God, ‘cause everybody else is doing it, y’know? She feels like she’s damaged in this way. She told me, ‘It’s the first time I’ve felt that close to God, finding out that I could just be, even if being meant that I didn’t have a belief or a sure feeling.’ That God would let her in, even if she was an atheist, even though that sounds ironically impossible. I think that song gives people permission to even not know—beyond agnostic.”

At the April 4 funeral service for conservative titan/author/intellectual and cultural gadfly/sailing enthusiast William F. Buckley, Henry Kissinger reminisced about a spirited debate with Buckley on the relationship of knowledge to faith. Kissinger’s position was that “there required a special act of divine grace to make the leap from the intellectual to the spiritual.” Buckley disagreed, saying “no special epiphany was involved. There could be a spiritual and intellectual drift until one day the eyes opened and happiness followed ever after.” Having opened her own embrace of faith and spirituality to public scrutiny, has Chapman encountered cases of intellectual resistance to an embrace of faith, or at least to admitting it? The answer is in the songs.

“I’ve run into all sorts of reactions. It opens the door to discussion, so I end up in conversations about it more than I would if I were just singing the next batch of BNC pop songs. One of the publicists I hired in Ireland was an interesting case. He was pushed away from spirituality in the business sense, so he was really challenged in having to promote this record, because he didn’t want it to be thought of from a religious standpoint. So what I’ve done over and over again is come back to the human, back to that speech that Bishop Tutu made that really inspired the title, The Human Family Songbook. It’s everybody’s struggle as culturally diverse human beings to feel that connection. I feel like everybody ultimately gets to it through death or through love or through some kind of crisis usually, and what they do with it from there. I think this music is not necessarily going to create a connection for someone, but I think it will underline what’s already there, which they may not be consciously aware of. I think when people hear a song like ‘Be Still My Soul’ that’s very moving musically, the music on Prism offers people a way in to what’s already sitting there waiting for them, that they hold within them, depending on their background and experience. I’ve had so many e-mails from people saying they feel nostalgic when they hear this or that song. But then they’re also in that kind of vulnerable place and the next song is from a completely different culture. I’m hoping that being able to listen through the project that people can make the leap between their spirituality and their roots to an appreciation and respect for other peoples’ roots. Which could be an intellectual thing or could be a spiritual thing.

“Music is what makes it come through more spiritually than intellectually.”

Stargaze With BNC

Beth Nielsen Chapman’s website is one of the best artist websites on the Internet. It includes complete details on the making of each song on Prism: A Human Family Songbook, as well as information of courses she teaches in songwriting and creativity. Of special note is her forthcoming BNC Songwriting & Creativity Stargaze 2008, set for April 25-27 at the Dyer Observatory in Nashville, TN. Sponsored by Performing Songwriter Magazine, Stargaze is described on the website as “two and a half days and evenings of incredible hands-on classes in songwriting, creativity boosting, and performance at the historic Dyer Observatory in Brentwood, Tennessee. Bonfires, guitar/banjo pulls, incredible organic lunches, powerful instruction, Drive-By Hit Songwriters, critiques, and tons of inspiration all for $325” ($275 for members of the Nashville Songwriter’s Association International). BNC says a few spots remain open for this Stargaze event, so check out the website for further details and sign up now!

prism PRISM
BNC Records
Beth Nielsen Chapman

Inspired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu's concept of a common humanity, Beth Neilsen Chapman continues a spiritual journey that began even before her celebrated 2004 collection of Catholic hymns, Hymns, with the moving meditations on life and death she penned in the wake of her husband's passing and unveiled on her powerful 1997 CD, Sand and Water. Exploring the universal spiritual light infusing diverse religions, Chapman here presents two discs of music. Disc 1 is comprised of original and traditional songs that examine the common ground shared by all faiths, sometimes within the same song (the propulsive, percussive "The Mystery"); each in its own way demonstrates as well a common humanity informing the different styles of music on this disc—pop-country on "God Is In (Goddess In)," hip-hop on "My Religion," a stately, stirring reading of the Protestant hymn "For the Beauty," and so forth, all rendered seamlessly, with conviction as profoundly deep as it is lovingly understated. Disc 2 takes the same tack, but with a critical difference: the yearnings expressed are similar to those on Disc 1, but on Disc 2 Chapman goes global, singing songs centered on the spiritual quest in nine different languages, including English (the stark, a cappella rendering of "The Flame"), Zulu, Welsh (her voice an ethereal near-whisper in a tender old Gaelic hymn, "Durrow"), Farsi, and others. She concludes her ambitious journey with a solemn "Navajo Chant" to summon the Great Spirit, as Bobby Klein adds a rumbling, commanding baritone vocal, accompanied only by John Ragusa's airy flute lines carrying these souls' humble appeal aloft, as if on an eagle's wings, born ceaselessy to a place where there'll be no distinction, but rather an embrace of all as one. Remarkable and challenging, Prism is the stuff of life, and Beth Neilsen Chapman's finest hour.—David McGee


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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