A FEW MINUTES WITH: Mary Chapin Carpenter
By Don Wilcock
I like Mary Chapin Carpenter. She’s smart and, although she admits she’s sometimes frightened to push the envelope of her creativity, she’s never let her past success as a country hit maker hold her in a box. 25 years ago she racked up such hits as “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Feel Lucky” and “Passionate Kisses,” and though she may not chart anymore, the sense of adventure in her songwriting is palpable.
She performs at The Egg on Friday night (August 26).
In 2014, she released Songs from The Movie recorded live in London with a 63-piece orchestra and 15-voice choir on which she re-interprets 10 of her songs written from 1992 to 2010 as if they were movie soundtracks. She toured the country playing with big local orchestras, and she admits that the experience was terrifying.
“We have all these various ways we like to present ourselves, and I’ve sort of been having this for so many years, and you know, I think rightfully so, I have a sense of confidence about what I do. In and of itself that feels wonderful, and I’m grateful for that,” she says. “But this was an entirely new thing. And I have to admit I was terrified of not being able to do it adequately. What it has given me is almost a thirst or a hunger or just a deep desire to do more things that I’m terrified of.”
This year she’s back with The Things That We Are Made Of, 11 originals (with three bonus tracks on digital) culled from about 25 songs she’s written over four years. While she’s too close to the project to see an overarching theme, all the songs come across as intensely personal. They’re like a road marker of a woman who at age 58 is married to her career and whose life is rife with missed romantic opportunities if some of these new songs are any indication.
On “What Does It Mean to Travel,” she asks, “Are you coming or going?” I asked her if that’s part of an attempt for her to figure out who she is. “Well, you’d think I would have realized it before this, but it was only when I had to print out all of the lyrics to send to the office for art work… I hadn’t ever looked at the lyrics side by side by side by side by side. I just had no reason to. And it was only when I was proofreading that I realized that every song is a series of questions. It’s such a new project, and it’s as if you’re marinating for a long time.
“Generally, with every interview I’m doing it’s as if I’m musing aloud as I go, still kind of talking about it.”
In other words, the songs come from deep inside her soul, and she doesn’t yet fully understand what they mean. To me as a first time listener, they’re a Rorschach test that offers sometimes painful but wistful acknowledgements of unfulfilled longings based on connections severed, I’m assuming, because of her obsession with her career.
Here’s how she sees it: “This record is about the idea that, as you grow older, that having all of these questions – questioning life or questioning yourself – everything is a tremendously positive thing if you can be comfortable with the idea that you don’t always have the answers. The unknown is something that beckons as opposed to something that creates fear and is something to avoid. And I feel that as I’ve gotten older, I’m so much more comfortable with not knowing and not caring and… I mean I care about a lot of things, but not caring about things that used to drive me batty, you know?”
The title cut appears as the last selection on the new album. I asked her if The Things That We Are We Made Of was meant as an O’Henry ending to the CD because all through the CD it’s like love gained and love lost, but on the last cut it’s like, “Hey, wait a minute, There’s still life in the old gal yet.”
“Well, it’s not about…” and she stops herself. “I’m not going to tell you what it’s about. No, but I would never dictate to anyone song meanings other than to just say, ‘I could reference this or that,’ but it’s a meditation on the spirit as well as the flesh. It’s about the scar on my elbow, but it’s also about how I feel inside of myself, and it’s also about the sky and the light and who I miss and who I’ve lost and what I’ve learned.
“That was the last song I wrote for the record, and I can remember feeling the sense that I’d come to the end of writing. I knew I was done, and I felt this sense of wholeness in a way. Like I had no doubt that I was done. I had spent about four years writing this record and can be pretty open ended, but I knew I was done at that point. It doesn’t always work out this way, but I believed that was the last song on the record. It just tied everything up, and I liked that sense of tying up.”
Carpenter’s songs are poetry set to music, the modern equivalent to the organ that plays behind silent films. They play with your mind and mood. There are sometimes no choruses in her songs. The verses don’t always rhyme. But the lyrics say as much in one line as some short stories, and the complete songs set a definite mood, often sad, even morose, from a woman whose first love is her music – which may be her worst enemy when it comes to a commitment to another human being.
“How do you learn to detect the outline of a spark,” she sings on “Deep, Deep Down Heart.” (The photo on the CD cover shows her with a lit sparkler in her hand.) Her imagery is diaphanous and solid at the same time. On “Hand on My Back” her reaction to a touch is extremely visceral, providing the listener with the yin and the yang. The yin: “I move through the world like an arrow that flies/Slicing the air as I’m mapping the skies.” The yang: “And way deep down the echoes remain/Memories sounding like rattling chains.”
“Oh, Rosetta,” about the pioneering gospel rocker Rosetta Tharpe, is again a balancing act marked by missed connections. The yin: “May I call you sister when we talk this way? You make me feel as if there’s nothing I can’t say.” The yang: “If I wander wide open and cannot feel the sun/And I’m not sure anymore what I believe? Oh Rosetta, am I the only one?”
The differences from her 1992 CD Come On, Come On and this new recording is that she’s much more focused on an intimate self analysis now and less concerned about women’s place in general, but she also leaves the listener with more spaces to fill in in the stories. She’s a tighter writer – you have to listen harder. “Oh, I love that. I love hearing that, and I mean I can’t say that about myself. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say that to somebody, but I love that you’re saying that to me. I love that.”
How long does it take her to write a song? Do these songs come laboriously or do some of them come fast, or is it all different?
“It’s all different. I took about 25 songs into the studio. I wrote somewhat more than that, not incredibly more. Not twice as much, but I wrote a number more than that, and then we ended up cutting these 13. I would never describe it a laborious, and I don’t listen to the songs if they’re not on the actual CD.
“There’s a song called ‘Between the Wars (Charleston 1937).’ It’s a subject that I have been wanting to write a song about for at least 15 years. The best way I can describe it is I tried to write that song and made a zillion attempts to write what ended up as that song so many times over the years, and then finally accomplished it with this record, and it felt like such a victory, and I’m so excited that I finally finished this song, and so some person might say that’s somewhat laborious, but again it was like a joyful exercise for me over the years to try to capture something and then finally doing it to my satisfaction.”