From Darkness to Light in Ashes and Roses and Her Return to the Philly Folk Festival
The lovely songstress Mary Chapin Carpenter will be playing this year’s Philadelphia Folk Festival, and they are very lucky to have her. She has had a very long and prolific musical career thus far, having put out ten studio albums, including songs like the Grammy-winning “Down at the Twist and Shout” and “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”. She has collaborated with artists like Shawn Colvin and Lucinda Williams, and written songs for singers such as Joan Baez and Wynonna Judd. Her latest record, Ashes and Roses, was released in June of this year, and it is perhaps her most personal album to date.
Carpenter has been on the music scene for about twenty-five years, and has been playing guitar and piano much longer than that. She released her first record, Hometown Girl in 1987 through Columbia Records. It’s rooted in a country/folk vibe, and was received with fairly open arms, as were the subsequent State of the Heart and Shooting Straight in the Dark. But a gem early on in her musical output was Come On Come On, which hit shelves in 1992. About her career around the time of releasing that record, Carpenter recounts:
“Things started to get a little crazy before that. It was so exciting. There’s nothing more tremendous than seeing lots of people out in front who are feeling connected to what you’re doing. To play for as many people as possible, it’s a privilege. I was just grateful. I look back on those years as so many incredible opportunities- traveling the world. I got sick a few years ago and had to take time off work. When I was able to resume working, it was an ultimate sense of gratitude being able to do something that brings so much meaning and purpose to my life.”
Carpenter has indeed had many privileges as a musician and songwriter, one of which was touring with folk rock singer Lucinda Williams. She loved Williams’ song “Passionate Kisses” so much that she recorded it as part of Come On Come On, and her version was a hit.
“Lucinda and I were on tour with Rosanne Cash in Australia and we were playing sets when we’d all be on stage at the same time, swapping songs and stories,” says Carpenter. “I had loved Lucinda’s music since the early 90s. She played “Passionate Kisses” every night and I accompanied her on guitar and harmonies. Afterwards in the dressing room I would tell her how much I loved her music. One night she just got tired of it and said ‘Why don’t you just record that song?’ Informally I got her blessing. It’s one of the greatest songs in the world. It’s an anthem.”
One of the great things about music is that it’s a good creative outlet for self-expression, and it’s always amazing when someone can find something to hold onto in that expression. Many of Carpenter’s songs recount personal stories, and undoubtedly many people feel connected to her music because they can empathize with her.
“When people tell me that something feels similar to their lives- I think that’s how people respond to art. If it moves us, if it provokes us, if it allows us to feel less alone in our experience,” says Carpenter. “I always feel very humbled when someone tells me that. Initially it’s about certain expression and creative muse, something finding you and you want to write about it. If at the end result someone tells you that they connect with it in some way, it feels extraordinary.”
Ashes and Roses is a collection of songs that Carpenter wrote after having been through divorce, experienced the loss of a parent, and encountered a serious illness. It’s a record that encompasses a great deal of grief, communicated poetically yet very candidly through words, as well as beautiful and, at times, forlorn melodies.
“There were some songs that felt very harrowing”, shares Carpenter. “‘What to Keep and What to Throw Away’ is a song that comes to mind, about a day of having to clear out my former spouse’s possessions from my house. And a song called “Learning the World”, which is about the sensation that grief ends up being a companion that’s living with you and you can’t get it to go away. It’s instructive, yet strange and daunting at the same time.”
But just as much as the album conveys loss and emotional pain, it also conveys a journey from that dark place to the illumination of spiritual liberation.
“There’s a narrative arc to [this record]. The songs are sequenced in such a way that, to reference a lyric in the first song, you go from darkness to light. It’s important to point out because that’s what life is like. When you come out of these experiences, there’s a future that awaits you at the end. The reaching out that I have received from strangers saying that they can relate to some of the things I’ve gone through is comforting because you feel less alone.”
Carpenter was fortunate enough to have the legendary James Taylor sing with her on one of her songs on Ashes and Roses, “Soul Companion.”
As for her thoughts on this experience, she shares, “I wrote this song, and I remember thinking that it would sound so wonderful with him on it. I listen to the song now and I always start weeping like a baby. It’s happy tears. He’s an iconic, seminal artist in this world, so to have him singing with me is truly a dream come true.”
Carpenter will return to this year’s Philly Folk Festival, along with Steve Earle and the Dukes, Lucinda Williams and The Secret Sisters, among others. Carpenter started playing the fest in the late ‘80s and is thrilled to be back this year.
“The first time I ever played at the folk fest, it’s like the granddaddy of folk festivals, so to be invited to play, I was just ecstatic. I’ve been there a couple times since then and it’s like returning to the most important, famous folk festival ever. I’m really excited to be doing that.”
Over the course of her career, Carpenter has written some songs that fit easily into a musical genre, and some that bridge a few styles together. Her songwriting has definitely grown over the course of her career as she has encountered new experiences.
“I want to feel like I’m in full possession of whatever tools I bring to the process. With every record, I want to feel like I’m satisfying myself artistically. As far as being a songwriter, I want to find the details, and I want those details to be part of music that evokes them. I want to be the best songwriter I can.”
by Michele Zipkin