Some songwriters take a very businesslike approach to songwriting.
They clock in, come up with a strategy and then spend the day hammering out lyrics and music, breaking for coffee, taking lunch around noon, but assembling the song almost mechanically on a roughly 9 to 5 schedule.
Beth Nielsen Chapman is not one of those songwriters.
Chapman, who headlines Sunday night’s “Mountain Stage” at the Culture Center Theater, in Charleston, works from someplace that’s a little outside her head.
Once, she was working with her writing partners, Annie Roboff and Robin Lerner. The three of them had the chorus and the first verse — a kind of mixed blessing, Chapman said. They were stuck on the second verse.
“If you’ve done a great job, the song feels really complete,” she said. “All I know in a situation like that is to take it from the beginning and take a flying leap.”
Chapman’s flying leap was to blurt out, “Cleopatra was a snowflake.”
Roboff and Lerner thought she was nuts.
Cleopatra was definitely not going in the song and Chapman nodded. That was fine.
“But then why are you writing that down?” her partners asked.
Chapman explained the line was given to her. She needed to figure out what it meant.
Her partners shrugged and went to lunch. When they came back, Chapman was still dithering over the lyric.
“Annie got right up in my face and said, ‘We’re not putting Disney characters in the song,’” Chapman said.
Cleopatra wasn’t a Disney character, Chapman thought, but Snow White was.
“It’s not Cleopatra,” Chapman told them. “It’s Cinderella and it’s not snowflake, it’s Snow White.”
Her partners weren’t having any of it, but Chapman was on a roll. She said, “What if they’re having a conversation about love? Wouldn’t that be cool?”
“Cleopatra was a snowflake” became “Cinderella said to Snow White, how does love get so off course?” — the second verse to “This Kiss,” a Grammy-nominated crossover hit for Faith Hill that became one of the country star’s signature songs.
Chapman said those little epiphanies don’t always play out like that.
“Some things get served over the net,” she acknowledged. “They don’t always get in the song, but I always pay attention and sometimes there’s a little clue in there.”
She’s had some success with it. Along with Hill, Chapman has written hits for Willie Nelson (“Nothing I Can Do About It Now”), Martina McBride (“Happy Girl”) and Alabama (“Here We Are”), to name a few.
Chapman has also recorded 15 albums of her own, and scored several hits through the 1990s, including “All I Have,” “Walk My Way” and “In the Time it Takes.”
As a songwriter, she said she believed in the power of showing up.
Chapman said she tells her songwriting students, “If you show up and write for 20 minutes and nothing happens, instead of beating yourself up, you should consider that you’ve done the hardest kind of writing — that is, the kind of writing when nothing happens, but you stay present.”
There’s strength in that, but songs come from who knows where, exactly.
She said she’s started songs about things that didn’t make sense until things happened in her life that gave her the experience to complete them.
“Sometimes, the most devastating things to me, I don’t write about them while I’m feeling devastated,” Chapman said. “When I’m crying and sobbing and grieving, I might write that song six months before or six months after.”
When her first husband died of cancer in 1994, she said she’d already half-written a song about grief months before he’d even been diagnosed. The loss gave her the perspective to finish the song.
Chapman thought it was weird how that worked, but respected it.
“Where that comes from is smarter than I am,” she said.
Every songwriter wants to be successful, but there are different ways to measure that, she said.
“I’ve written seven number one songs,” she said. “But I don’t write to make a hit.”
Good songs can come from hard work. Great songs can come from someplace else.
“I really believe that songs are already written,” she said. “They just exist out there in the netherworld and we draw them out.”
Chapman laughed and said she understood that she sounded crazy, but a song is bigger than a paycheck.
“It’s super valuable, even if it doesn’t chart,” she said.