by Jane Roser
“The hardest years in life are those between ten and seventy.” – Helen Hayes
“Wow. That’s a blast from the past!”
I’m chatting with multiple Grammy Award-winning artist Mary Chapin Carpenter about her early days spent cutting her teeth on the singer-songwriter circuit in Washington, DC, when I mention our mutual friend, local musician Reuben Musgrave. Carpenter once helped throw a surprise 40th birthday party for Musgrave under the guise that they would be playing a “great gig” that evening.
Carpenter hosted open mic nights at DC’s Gallagher’s Pub (now Nanny O’Brien’s) in the mid-80s before signing with Columbia Records. By the 1990s she had scored several hits including “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, “Down at the Twist and Shout” and a cover of Lucinda Williams’s “Passionate Kisses”. With five Grammy Awards, two CMA awards, two ACM awards, a spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, 14 albums, over 14 million records sold, plus overcoming a life-threatening pulmonary embolism to boot- she’s one of the great pioneers of women in the music industry. Carpenter is like America’s very own Wonder Woman.
After graduating from Brown University in 1981, Carpenter’s first instinct was to return to DC, never dreaming she would make a living with music. “Unless you live in a particular city, you probably aren’t aware of what kind of [music] scene it has.” says Carpenter. “There was a lot going on musically in DC, especially with acoustic music, and places like The Birchmere had an enormous influence. I lucked out getting the gig at Gallagher’s and loved the fellowship you had there; a sense of mutual support. There were a variety of artists and everyone was so kind.”
Carpenter laughs as she recalls how she used to “wrangle the cats, as it were. I got to play a song at the beginning of the night and then by the end I’d tell everyone to go home. I did that for many years, but now I think of Wolftrap as my hometown show; I feel so much humility and gratitude to be able to come home and play my music there.”
The Things That We Are Made Of, Carpenter’s highly anticipated new album, released Friday on Lambert Light Records via Thirty Tigers to rave reviews. It includes eleven very personal, honest songs dealing with themes of joys, sorrows, regrets and nostalgia.
“Songwriting is at times cathartic,” says Carpenter, “and at other times it’s energizing. I’m exploring life- there’s a bonus track on the album; a song that I’ve been trying to write for the last fifteen years about Vanessa Bell and the circle in Bloomsbury where she and her sister Virginia [Woolf] lived. It’s not about me in any way, but I love it when a topic draws me to it and I can write to an idea.”
When I mention two of my favorite songs on the album, “The Middle Ages” and “Hand On My Back”, Carpenter confirms how personal those songs are to her. “I like the idea of trying to speak about not only what seems to be happening inside of you, but about what’s happening on the outside, too. I have an elderly neighbor who has a beautiful, thick head of white hair. One day she points to her head and says to me ‘when you have this, you become invisible in our society.’ She’s an artist and so vibrant; it’s just sad that our culture thinks that way. ‘The Middle Ages’ is about how when you’re in your ’20s you think you’re going to live forever. That song is trying to account for myself and how I feel. At the end of the song you feel as if you can only conclude that the important things in life are love and kindness.”
Carpenter’s fans appreciate that she speaks to them about simple, universal themes that suddenly include profound revelations. One iTunes reviewer wrote: “Her lyrics are therapeutic and revealing…I am at once embarrassed by the proximity of her songs to my own experiences, yet comforted by the shared emotions.”
Recorded in Nashville with Grammy Award-winning producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton) during the spring and summer of 2015, Carpenter says one of the great things to come out of the experience of working with Cobb was that he taught her the value of backing down.
“When your producer says ‘this take is perfect’, you don’t think so and you want to squeeze every ounce of soul out of it, but I have high standards for my singing,” says Carpenter. “If Dave feels a certain take is the best one to go with he can be really persuasive. Plus,” Carpenter laughs, “he believes in having lunch before a session because you don’t want to be hungry and moody; so we show up, hang out, have lunch and then we’re ready to go. Another thing about Dave is that if you start to ask him, ‘is it possible to…’, he’ll say ‘what is the answer to any question? It’s yes!’ He’s so positive and open-hearted; a true guru of good energy.”
Carpenter’s live shows are something not to be missed. Besides her incredible stage presence and energetic backing band, Carpenter is a huge fan of Celtic music and will at times incorporate this love into her shows. Folk groups such as Ireland’s Altan and Solas have opened for her and Carpenter’s bandmate Jon Carroll recalls, “when Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson) was in the band and Solas was opening the entire tour, we did a combined encore that sounded like nothing I’ve heard since. Cajun meets Celtic meets American country and R&B.”
In fact, former Solas guitarist John Doyle played with Carpenter’s band last year. “Every audience has walked away [from those shows] thinking oh my God that was amazing!” says Carpenter.
Edgar Cayce once said: “Know that the purpose for which each soul enters a material experience is that it may be as a light unto others.” Consider Carpenter’s music your sunbeam to guide you on your own path no matter where it may take you.
Carpenter will be at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia this month for the annual Non-Comm Conference. You can also catch her in at the American Music Theatre in Lancaster, PA on 6/13, at Wolftrap in Vienna, Virginia on 7/2 with The Milk Carton Kids, and back in Philadelphia on 10/10 performing with Joan Baez.