Mary Chapin Carpenter: Her Songs Are Her Voice

All aspiring singer/songwriters are thrilled when they land a recording contract, but the day that means more to Mary-Chapin Carpenter is the day she was signed to her publishing deal with SBK.

“I didn’t come to town looking for a publishing deal,” she says. “The day I got one it was ‘wow are you kidding?’

All aspiring singer/songwriters are thrilled when they land a recording contract, but the day that means more to Mary-Chapin Carpenter is the day she was signed to her publishing deal with SBK.

“I didn’t come to town looking for a publishing deal,” she says. “The day I got one it was ‘wow are you kidding?’

“It really made me feel great. The day I signed my record deal was a really wonderful day. I was so excited. But the day I got my publishing deal it was sweeter somehow. I’ve always sang and played guitar but this was somebody saying it doesn’t matter if you sing or not, it’s your writing that we want. Writing was something in my life I loved so much and was very dear to me. It just made me feel so good that they thought I had something to say.”

Songwriting has always held a special place in Mary-Chapin’s heart, but she never dreamed it would take her this far. “If you had told me 11 or 12 years ago that I would have a record deal I would have told you you were crazy,” the petite blonde says with a smile. “I’ve been very fortunate. I was just happy to get paid to play music. I mean I just like to do it.”

A New Jersey native, Carpenter lived in Princeton until she was 12. Then her family moved to Tokyo for two and a half years, where her dad was the publisher of Life magazine’s Asian edition. After returning to the states, she lived in Jersey again briefly before settling in the Washington D.C. area where she still resides.

Her interest in music began in grade school. Her 7th grade science teacher played the guitar and she developed an interest in the instrument. She had always written little poems and that, combined with her burgeoning guitar skills, just naturally led the way into writing song. She began her professional life performing in clubs around Washington D.C. where he poignant writing and engaging voice earned her a reputation as one of the city’s hot new talents.

A tape she had cut made its way to an A&R man in Nashville and soon she found herself with a record contract and a publishing deal. Since then Mary-Chapin has become one of the most respected writer/artists in the industry. Hits such as the infectiously flirt “How Do,” the powerful “Never had it so Good” and the melodically mournful “You win again” garnered her the support of country radio and its listeners.

Along with this acclaim, Carpenter has developed a reputation for being the voice of the 90s woman. Her songs deal with the pain of lost love, the uncertainty of relationships, the adventures of single life and the struggle of being a modern woman. Her music reflects her experiences. However, she doesn’t see them as being strictly ‘women’s songs.’

“I’m always amused by that because it’s not something I ever imagined myself as,” she says of being viewed as the voice for women of her generation. “I’m not a joiner or a follower or a voice in the wilderness. I’ve just been kind of writing for me. It’s a delightful surprise to be described that way, yet at the same time, there are difficulties because I never set out to write to one gender.

“If anything I find I have so many fellas that come up to me and say they relate to my songs. I don’t really offer any assumptions. I think it’s great if anybody, male or female, can identify with a song. That to me is the reward…I want to believe the things I’m addressing are common to men and women.”

Carpenter does admit that her songs are intensely personal and it’s not always easy to share feelings with a mass audience. She says some of the tunes she writers will never be recorded but are mostly just to vent emotions.
“Writing to me fulfills a lot of things. It’s cathartic. It’s an outlet. It’s a discipline,” she states. “I find a lot of the time I write because I’m working something out for myself. “It’s a very personal thing. So there are a lot of songs no one will ever hear.

“On the other hand, the ones that I do choose to throw out, there’s always a certain amount of risk in being truthful and candid…But it’s the way you express yourself and show who you are to the world. And while that’s risky, at the same time I don’t know of any other way to do it. I don’t know how to put myself forward if I wasn’t telling the truth.”

Like many singer/songwriters, Carpenter has found fame to be a double-edged sword. It exposes her songwriting to a broader audience, but the hectic schedule leaves less time to devote to her writing. For her current (and third) album, Shooting Straight in the Dark, Mary-Chapin says she went through “writer’s hell.”

“I had to make myself do it,” she says of the time she spent locked away in her Alexanderia, Va., home. “When your career is going good your time gets so chewed up. It’s a struggle for balance.”

It was difficult but she’s pleased with the songs on her current project. One that she’s especially fond of is, “Halley Came to Jackson.” It was inspired by a line from Eudora Welty’s book One Writer’s Beginnings. Welty says when she was a baby in Mississippi, her father took her to the window to watch Halley’s comet.

Carpenter turned that brief experience mentioned in the book into the song. “Besides the fact that I love the source. I love it because it tells a story,” Mary-Chapin comments. “I tend not to write stories. I feel like I write slices of life. I pull out anecdotes. But in ‘Halley” I tell a story. And it’s special because it came about in a different way.”

Another song that is special to Carpenter, but for entirely different reasons, is “Opening Act,” the little ditty that won her a standing ovation on last year’s Country Music Association Awards show and great deal of post show attention.

“My boyfriend said ‘never has someone gone so far with so little,'” she laughs. “I wrote that three years ago, just goofing of. It was just a little throwaway ditty. I never dreamed it would be my entrée to an appearance on the CMA awards let alone a standing ovation. I guess I should treat the song with more respect.”

“Opening Act” is uncharacteristically glib for a Carpenter tune, and she admits she tends to explore the darker side of love and the more complex issues of her life in her tunes. Since she confesses that she’s currently in a “relationship that’s very satisfying,” does she ever worry about running of inspiration?

“Yes,” she admits. “I think about that and where do I look for trouble or pain. But it’s a maturation process. Hopefully you grow as a writer. You become more able as a writer and you expand what you write about and if you feel you’ve become a one dimensional writer, you stretch yourself.”

Mary-Chapin is always interested in growing and improving her craft. One of the ways she’s stretching these days is by co-writing. She says she has occasionally collaborated with her co-producer John Jennings, but she generally writes and then gives it to him and has him work with it. So actually sitting dowm in the same room to write songs, as she recently did with Radney Foster and Don Schlitz, was a new experience.

“It’s a real interesting process, real different,” she says. “I like what one of my cohorts said. He feels that co-writing makes you a better writer because if forces you to get to the point quicker, be more economical…Co-writing is an intriguing process and I plan on doing it again.”

When asked to give advice to aspiring tunesmiths, Mary-Chapin modestly says she doesn’t feel comfortable dispensing advice. “I think what I’ve learned after writing songs for many years is that it still takes a lot of time. It still takes a lot of patience and it’s still as fulfilling as the first time. It hasn’t grown old. I just expect it to always be a part of my life. I don’t ever want my life to get to a point where I don’t have time to write songs or that I’ve lost my inspiration. I guess that’s the incentive to keep taking risks and being curious about life.

“Your songs are your voice, not to confuse that with your actual voice. They’re your vision, your take on the world. My songs are definitely a part of me.”


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