A Navajo chant, a song from the Zulu tradition, two songs that suggest that God is present in the atheist as much as the believer, a song from the Cuban Santeria practice, Gregorian chant, and a variety of songs, recently created and older, which deal with how people connect with and express faith: that is the collection called Prism.
You might think, from that description, that it is a collection of the work of many artists. In fact, there is the voice of one artist which anchors all the tracks.
A dozen years a ago Beth Nielsen Chapman was asked to sing a Tibetan chant on a project a friend was doing, “and I got this crazy idea that I’d create this collection of chants and hymns from all different paths of faith, with my voice as the thread pulling through,” she said. She realized the idea resonated with her past.
“I grew up on Air Force bases, and they had this building that was the church, and the church would change. They would roll in the star of David for the Jewish services, and roll things in for the protestant services, and then they’d roll in the crucifix for the Catholic services. Even then, from a young age, although my family was Catholic and we went to the Catholic mass, my sense of spirit was that it showed up in all sorts of cultures.” Music was there, too. “I always thought music was the greatest connector. It didn’t have to be a religious song just anything musical,” said Chapman, who recalled figuring out guitar chords by ear while the family was stationed in Germany and being busted from piano lessons because “the teacher told my mom Beth’s acting like she’s reading music, but really she isn’t, she’s learning it all by ear.”
Chapman made that gift her career. She’s a top songwriter, who has written hits for artists including Trisha Yearwood, Bette Middler, Neil Diamond, Elton John, and Faith Hill. Her own solo recordings rate high with adult contemporary listeners and are favorites on BBC2. Chapman has not always stuck with commercial music, however. One of her best known albums, Sand & Water, is a collection of songs she created while dealing with her young husband’s unexpected struggle with cancer and his subsequent death, “songs I never thought would make it out the door of my house,” she said. Several years ago she recorded an album called Hymns, mainly music from the Catholic tradition and most sung it Latin. Meanwhile, as she continued to write radio friendly material, she was working, off and on, on what would become Prism.
Thinking about what to include, what to leave out, and how to sing all the varied styles in respectful ways proved daunting at times, and Chapman set the project aside for a while. Hearing Bishop Desmond Tutu speak about the interconnectedness of the human family gave her a key as to how to go forward. Chapman had a chance to talk with the bishop and sought his advice about how to choose the music. “He said, ‘You know, if you stop worrying about the how and just say yes, the people will show up as you need them, and when it’s finished, in your mind and in your heart, you’ll know.’ I started doing that, and it was uncanny,” she said, relating how a contact with master musicians who could help her with Sufi music came from a chance conversation with an acquaintance, how her son’s classmate read a piece of poetry that became part of the project, and how hearing a song at a folk festival stage added another color to the mix.
Chapman’s ear and musical instincts, and her trust in the bishop’s words, served her well. Through twenty three tracks on two discs, the songs unfold in both natural and surprising ways. From the beat driven contemporary song God Is In, through the eighteenth century hymn Be Still My Soul, to the traditional Hebrew song Shalom Aleichem, through a wide range of songs arising from of how people connect with faith and spirit in differing cultures and languages, to the close of Navajo Chant, Chapman proves herself an artist in service to the song.
Working on the project also opened wider doors of service for Chapman, who has become involved with PeaceJam, a group which brings Nobel peace prize winners such as Tutu to meet in mentoring sessions with students, helping them see ways they could contribute to peace in the world. She’s since completed another album of her own songs, as well, called Back to Love, and is giving part of the proceeds to the Whole Planet Foundation, which offers micro finance programs to people in developing countries.