Mary Chapin Carpenter chats to TGA about being 14 albums into an incredible career, defying categorisation and not staying in the same place – plus, tour dates announced
Mary Chapin Carpenter: a name you perhaps think is synonymous with country music. But throughout her entire career, Mary Chapin Carpenter has proved difficult for people to classify, with various factions of the press at pains to pin her down. Her music has been variously categorized as folk, pop, country or something else entirely.
Having won countless awards, including five Grammys, it’s fair to say that Mary Chapin Carpenter’s success hasn’t been down to the genre of music she’s at one time or another been billed as belonging to. Instead, it’s down to her talent as a singer songwriter, plain and simple. That’s clear from the diversity of the projects she’s been involved with, from her debut album Hometown Girl in 1987, from which no singles were released, to 1992’s Come On Come On, her most successful album to date spawning seven hit singles and achieving quadruple platinum status in the US. And then from there through to her 2014 orchestral project Songs From the Movie on to her most recent work.
Having just released her 14th studio album, The Things That We Are Made Of – an album she says she couldn’t have written at the start of her career – she’s now gearing up for a UK tour. TGA spoke to the great American talent about her astonishing career, and what the future holds.
This is your 14th album – what’s it like 14th time round?
When I saw that fact I was like: ‘Really?’ I didn’t know that. It’s not in my mind. But I felt a lot of joy in the sense that nowadays music careers last about five seconds. That’s a result of the ever-changing music business, technology making our culture [constantly] want the next thing and short attention spans. Those are just musings but to feel that after all these years, I’m still making records, certainly by choice and with gratitude… playing music makes me so happy.
Do you think there’s an element with a career as long as yours that because you’ve stayed true to yourself as an artist, that’s had a bearing on it?
Honestly, there’s any number of people that I’ve grown up loving that stay true to themselves as artists. But I think it must be a combination of enormous good luck and a wonderful support team – great people that you work with who help you do what you do.
Timing, maybe, and a work ethic as well, and certainly a love of what you do that sort of fuels you through – but also an acknowledgement that a career has peaks and valleys. To accept those peaks and valleys, as opposed to feeling like if it’s not all great and perfect and at a high altitude at all times it’s not worth doing. Not to get too greeting-card sentimental, but it’s those valleys that inform all the other times and teach you things, and make you realise that no one is entitled to anything. You just have to do the best you can. And that’s what I think I try to do.
TGA spoke to Lera Lynn recently who talked about how difficult it is as a musician to make any money these days, but that it’s easier for her because she’s a country musician. Country music is extremely popular and has an enduring appeal, and that’s why she says that, but is it the case that you have frustrations about being labelled as such?
I wouldn’t say frustrations but what I would say is that I’ve always felt that categories are somewhat untrustworthy. And I’ve always been a singer songwriter, and that in itself, depending on who you speak to, has certain reference points.
I mean, I’ve heard this back at me for years: ‘Oh, you’re more of a folk singer; oh, you’re more of a pop singer; oh, you’re not country enough; oh, you’re too country’. If I were to have a dollar for every time someone has said I’m not this or I am that… my head would explode. So I feel like categories are not the whole truth about someone. I grew up listening to all kinds of music. At the time I got signed to a record label out of Nashville, Nashville was undergoing a lot of changes, and a lot of different kinds of artists were being signed.
That’s how I make sense of how I landed there. I didn’t know Nashville until the first time I walked in to the record label’s office. I’d never been there before. But I also didn’t feel proprietary about categories and labels and things like that. And I never have. And at this point I certainly never will.
So there’s never been an element of you that‘s actually kicked against some kind of categorisation?
Right. What I feel like I can truly express is that [for] the years I was getting airplay on commercial country radio as we know it, it was the most thrilling, wonderful, truly amazing experience because you could play to so many people. To have that opportunity, and [to have] people tell me that [my] music meant something – it’s something that I look back on with deep affection and gratitude.
But I’m also a realist and I know that careers change, and I know that the music business changes and you can’t stay in the same place. It’s not like I’ve cycled out of country music but, rather, whatever I was doing artistically has just led me to the next place. And it wasn’t a conscious rejection of something or a desire to go in a different direction. It’s just that’s what I was doing, and that’s the way I’ve always felt about music.
Your new record is really beautiful – what inspired it?
There’s not one thing, there’s many things. I would say that if I had to put it into a few tidy expressions, it’s a sort of artistic insight into middle age and being able to look at yourself and your life. I’m 58 years old, and I have been a working musician for most of my life. I feel like I’m only just discovering that, in a culture that emphasises loss and change in a negative way, a sense that things are winding down or whatever, I’ve never felt more opposite to that.
One of my favourite philosopher poets, G.K. Chesterton says, ‘The soul survives its adventures’. You realise that you’ve reached a point in your life where you just don’t care any more what people think. Yes, you care but it doesn’t limit you. You have a sense of time that you never had before, you feel fearless, you feel like you are really in control of your life. Your priorities are very clear to you. Any one of us would naturally say, ‘Why I can’t I discover those things earlier in my life?’ but I think when I was in my twenties or thirties I wasn’t paying attention to those things.
It doesn’t mean that my life wasn’t worth living. But when I was in my twenties or thirties and something really bad happened, it was a disaster; it felt like the end of the world. You realize as time goes by that if you’re lucky enough to get to this place that of course it wasn’t the end of the world and the person you are now has been formed because of those disasters. You wouldn’t trade them, but at the time they’re happening to you it feels catastrophic.
With my new album, these are obviously songs I couldn’t have written when I was in my twenties and thirties. It doesn’t mean that I’m some wise old yeti or something! I feel like I’m still quite curious and able to discover. There’s a lot ahead of me.
Where do you find your inspiration? Is it from within or does it come from the things you listen to?
It’s everything. Sometimes I will hear a phrase or read something. I was reading a novel recently called My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and in it the narrator is taking a creative writing course. She has this instructor who says to her, ‘We all have this one life but we write about it thousands of ways’. I’m paraphrasing, but I read that and I thought that makes so much sense to me. That’s what the songs are.
But in terms of inspiration it’s certainly my emotions. I look out into the world and I read the newspaper and I’m struck by things I see. I’ve written about a soldier in Tiananmen Square [on 4 July 1989] among other things – these are stories that came to me via reading an article or just imagining something. To me, the joy of songwriting is that you can go anywhere with it and you shouldn’t be limited by thinking that songwriting is only about navel-gazing or writing about heartbreak or something. It’s got to be about more than just those things.
How did your orchestral album Songs From the Movie come about and is that kind of thing something you’d like to do more of?
I’d love to do more! About 15 years ago, Don Henley was trying to raise money to restore this area – Walden Woods – in Massachusetts that was very historical. It was where Henry David Thoreau lived in a cabin in the 1800s and wrote his famous book Walden; or, Life in the Woods. It was falling apart and [Don Henley] did a series of shows around the US where he invited female musicians to sing songs from the Great American Songbook and I got to do the show in San Francisco.
I was standing on the side of the stage with people like Joni Mitchell and Gwen Stefani listening to everybody: these beautiful, classic songs. I got to do this great song called But Beautiful. And this person named Vince Mendoza did all of the arrangements: gorgeous, beautiful, very evocative, sumptuous arrangements of these classic songs. I remember standing on the stage thinking to myself, ‘God, if I could ever make something like this with an orchestra, that’s the guy I’m going to call to say here are my songs – transform them’.
So I got this idea in my head and I filed it away in my back pocket, and I carried it around for years like a bucket list project. Then, about six years ago when I met [my manager] Chris to decide whether to work together, we had a great conversation. [He asked] what my fantasy project was and I went, ‘Oh, that’s easy – it’s [working with] Vince Mendoza’. And he said, ‘Oh, we should be able to put that together’. And within a year, he had scheduled the sessions.
So it was just this germ of an idea and now I so love presenting music that way. I love singing with an orchestra. It was terrifying at first, I didn’t know if I could. The first gig premiered in Glasgow a couple of years ago and I called Chris up at the hotel and said, ‘I can’t do this’. And he said, ‘Let’s go for a walk’. And we walked around the park for two hours and he was talking me down. I was so afraid I would fall on my face. But I got through it and it really fuelled [what came next]. It was a real continuum from that project to this new project, because what it made me hungry to be was terrified.
I wanted to work with all new people and do something I’d never done before because I had had such a positive experience with being terrified. I’m so glad I did it. It’s a reminder to do things that you’re afraid of.
You’re about to tour the UK… are you playing in Europe too?
I think we’re doing Europe next winter or next spring but it’s sandwiched between a US tour. I’m still old school enough where I think of an album as having a window of promotion opportunity, where it’s still new up to about 18 months. So I think for the next two years or so we’re playing this new music.
Isn’t that still the case?
I hope so. But it’s like, again, people’s attention spans… you put out a record and they say, ‘When are you putting out a new record?’ I just did!
There’s a move back to people embracing the album as a whole, and vinyl…
I hope so. I was talking to a journalist the other day about the sequence of this record. I worked so hard on it; it’s really important to me. There’s the first song, then there’s the last one, and there’s a lot of things that happen in the middle. It fits together the way I see it fit together, and I want it to be listened to that way, while acknowledging that people get their music differently now. And the journalist said, ‘I think that what you’re saying is that you hope people don’t put it on shuffle if they buy the record’. I went, ‘Yeah, exactly!’
But sometimes you just want to listen to one track, don’t you?
Sometimes… when you’re listening to the radio in the car and you hear one song, and you think, ‘I want to buy that song right now’ and you Shazam it. I’ve done it.
At TGA, we love albums though, especially on vinyl…
Well, I don’t own a record player. This is the first record I’ve put out on vinyl for eight records, I think. Although I still have all of my records in the basement. Endless stacks. I never threw them away.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to a lot of classical music. I’ve lately been on a real Gerald Finzi kick. Very pastoral. Beautiful work. I listen to mostly classical music at home. I live on a farm in the middle of nowhere and it’s just background every day. There’s a tour mate of mine, a woman named Tift Merritt, I love her music. I think she’s the most insightful, gifted writer. She’s amazing. A person whose music I also love is a great singer songwriter named Gregory Alan Isakov. Run, don’t walk to his record! In particular, This Empty Northern Hemisphere. It’s not his most recent but I think that’s my favourite album. Brandi Carlile sings on that; she’s amazing.
Follow Kim on Twitter and Instagram – @K_imbot
Photos: Aaron Farrington
Catch Mary Chapin Carpenter live in the UK on the following dates in July:
16 – Colston Hall (Americana Weekend) – Bristol
17 – Barbican – London
18 – Playhouse – Nottingham
24 – The Sage – Gateshead
25 – Lyceum – Sheffield
26 – Town Hall – Birmingham
27 – Philharmonic – Liverpool
29 – Concert Hall (Southern Fried) – Perth
31 – Cambridge Folk Festival – Cambridge