Mary Chapin Carpenter Shares Insights on Craft, Creativity and Conversation

It’s little wonder that Mary Chapin Carpenter is considered an American musical icon. Over the course of a career that goes back to the late ’80s and encompasses some 15 studio albums and 41 singles, she has wracked up enough accolades and acclaim to ensure her status as a much revered and highly beloved artist, as well as a consistent contributor to the song catalogs of other performers of a similar stature, Joan Baez, Wynonna Judd and Trisha Yearwood among them. Having been responsible for sales of over 14 million albums, she can boast a list of awards that would likely fill any oversized mantel place, including no less than five Grammys, double wins from both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, and membership in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, one of a very few females to be inducted into that hallowed institution.

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With a new album being released, The Dirt and the Stars (a follow-up to her last effort, 2018’s Sometimes Just the Sky, a set of songs that featured new versions of some of her best known material), Carpenter is back with her first collection of original offerings in five years. It’s cause for eager anticipation, not only from her fans but curiously enough, by Carpenter herself.

“I said to a friend earlier today that I’m feeling that oh-so familiar feeling from 30 plus years of making records,” she remarks. “This entire week I’ve been asking myself, ‘Oh God really, do I feel that way still?’ It’s such a joy, and yet so terrifying at the same time because you’re putting yourself out there.”

Nevertheless, she says she maintains a standard MO.

“I haven’t really veered away from the approach that I’ve taken to making albums and writing songs,” she explains.” I’ve always preferred to take a chunk of time and immerse myself in writing. After all these years, I don’t have a tidy way of explaining the process or showing you how I do it. It’s an honest day’s work, but it’s also somewhat mysterious how certain ideas come to you and how one can be inspired to write certain songs.”

Considering her sumptuous body of work — Grammy-winning songs such as “Down at the Twist and Shout,” “I Feel Lucky” and “Passionate Kisses” and the classic albums for which she’s best remembered, Stones in the Road, Come On Come On, Age of Miracles, Ashes and Roses and the like —it’s somewhat surprising to hear her share those sentiments.

“On the one hand, I feel that I’ve learned my craft after all these years, and I have these tools that I can bring to it,” she reflects. “But on the other hand, there’s a whole lot of magic and things that kind of hover above you. It’s the creative part that’s so mysterious and therefore so lovely.”

As a result, her writing regimen can vary to a degree. “I wish I could be one of those people and have immediate gratification,” Carpenter concedes. “But I never could be one of those people who sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a song today.’ I’ve never been able to do that. So for me, it’s more of a slow burn. I find myself immersed in long periods of just writing every day, putting many, many hours a day sitting at my kitchen table. I take a lot of walks, where I just kind of sing through songs that I’m working on and do a lot of thinking. I know that sounds kind of goofy, but that’s a large part of it. I don’t know how to explain it beyond that.”

Still, the process isn’t simply left to chance. “I also feel like there’s a side to it that requires discipline, so that’s what I’m referring to when I talk about putting the hours in. There’s a discipline and a work ethic for me that’s part of the process.”

In fact, the title of the new album, The Dirt and the Stars holds special significance. It encompasses a vast span of thought and introspection, from the things that are near and often hidden below the surface, to the higher realms of upward-gazing optimism that often seem to be just beyond reach.

Chapin concurs with that assessment. “Thank you for recognizing that,” she replies when that interpretation is shared. “You put it much better than I could. That was a lyric in the title song, and when the album was finished and I was sitting with it trying to think what I wanted to call it, that was the phrase that just kept coming back to me. I suppose I love it in large part because it is so broad. It can be interpreted in a variety of different ways, but I love how wide open that is. It also is very deliberate and it refers to some of the things that come through on this record.”

Even so, the music on the new album shares a softer hue, and as a result, it’s also very embracing, Yet given the noise and the racket and the turmoil that surrounds life these days, it could be considered something of a challenge to break through the din. Nevertheless, Carpenter isn’t overly concerned.

“I don’t think of myself as communicating at a lower volume,” she muses. “I think of myself as crunchy and loud, especially in live shows. That’s part of the lift-off in live performance. You can only connect with who you can connect to. You can’t make something and hope an audience finds it. It’s just a hope that it will find its listeners somehow. And then also, I’ve been so fortunate for all these years to have been able to nurture an audience and continue to tour around the world and make records. So I’m very grateful for what I perceive to be the folks out there who have come along for the ride, and also those who have told me through social media and various other ways that they’re onboard.”

Given her past accomplishments and the high bar she’s set for herself, one might imagine that it’s almost intimidating in a way to have to compete with her own revered reputation. Here again, she demures.

“I never think about that,” she insists. “If you talk to anyone who knows me, they will tell you that I don’t think of myself in that way. I feel that sense of accomplishment. I love these songs and I’m deeply proud of them. For me, this is the record I wanted to make.  That’s how I feel about it. One always hopes that the world agrees with you, but that’s impossible and I know it. Not everyone’s going to like it, but you have to satisfy yourself artistically, and then you put it out there and feel that joy and that terror. But deep down, you feel that you did what you wanted to do and you have to remember that.”

That said, one song in particular on the new album is likely to attract attention immediately. “American Stooge” seems to sum up today’s political predicament and the confusing quagmire that America’s leadership has led us to. Carpenter describes the track as an ode to all the apologists who have caved in on their principles simply for the sake of political survival. She says it was inspired by something that Senator Lindsey Graham told the media while trying to explain his sudden unabashed allegiance to President Trump, with whom he had battled for the presidential nomination in 2016.

“People were sort of saying, ‘What happened to Lindsey Graham?’,” Carpenter recalls. “Suddenly he was this sycophant for Trump. So I thought it was an interesting character study. I was listening to this podcast with him and he was being very forthright. He said, ‘Nothing happened to me. I just want to be relevant.’ It attached him to power and power begets power. He was very unapologetic. It was actually very refreshing in my view for a politician to be very transparent in that way. But it was also breathtaking in a way. So it started out as a general character study in a way inspired by Lindsey Graham. I was just writing and writing, and by the end of the song, it became an indictment of all those sycophants that inhabit the halls of congress. It’s not just Republicans, but it’s Democrats as well. They’re all over the place. So it’s all about those stooges. It was just my humorous take on the whole thing.”

Carpenter clearly isn’t reticent about sharing her personal perspective. She recently concluded a  series of podcasts with poet Sarah Kay titled “One Story.”

“The last episode was very bittersweet,” she reflects. “I’m a pod freak. I walk miles every day. I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and it’s a very rural area. I just love to walk with my dog, and I love pods because they keep me company. So I thought that I’d just love to have a podcast where I could just talk about stuff. It was on a wishlist of things I wanted to do. It was conceived before the pandemic but then when the pandemic arrived, we had to be very creative about getting the word out that I have new music. It nudged us for sure and it’s been so amazing to do this with my conversation partner Sarah Kay. She’s a celebrated spoken word poet and an educator. She’s really a hero of mine for the work she does and her beautiful spoken word poetry. We were put together by our producer and we would just start talking for hours and hours. The conversation went so many different places and our producer was able to edit it down to three episodes. I heard from so many people from all over the world and it’s been just such a wonderful project and I hope that I can do another one. It’s been wonderful to be involved in such creative conversation.”

Clearly, creativity is one of the many things that Mary Chapin Carpenter excels at. And as her efforts continues to confirms, when she shares that creative impetus, people are prone to listen.

The Dirt And The Stars will be released this Friday, August 7 (pre-order). 

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