The Popdose Interview: Mary Chapin Carpenter

Written by Music, Popdose Interviews

On the eve of her twelfth album, Carpenter talks about her songwriting journey.

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s twelfth studio album, Ashes and Roses, reaches stores on (appropriately enough) June 12 — and for fans of Carpenter’s stately side, it’s another gem in a series of quiet beauties, full of songs steeped in the grace we acquire through the acceptance of loss. It’s a subject Carpenter understands all too well: She suffered a pulmonary embolism in the months leading up to her last album, The Age of Miracles, and since then, she’s endured a divorce and the death of her father.

But make no mistake: While the songs contained in Ashes and Roses are certainly contemplative, they’re not entirely sad; in fact, once you really listen, you understand how uplifting they really are. As Carpenter pointed out during our conversation, it’s all about the journey.

At this point, you must be wondering what else you have to go through in order to write an album.

[Laughs] Yeah, I guess I did go to extremes, I suppose.

A lot of people think it’s easier to produce great art in trying times — what’s your perspective on that?

Well, you know, it isn’t something I would have chosen, obviously. But these were the songs I wrote — it would have been somewhat strange to try and write some little…ditty. But at the same time, what’s really important to me is to highlight that there’s a narrative arc to this record. I believe where I’m finding myself now, in my life, inside my heart and spirit, proves it’s a bit of a trip you take. You come out the other side. That doesn’t mean you’re the same, obviously, but you can speak about the journey. I realize that sounds kind of Oprah woo-woo, but I’m finding it hard to express any other way. That’s what I know how to say about it.

I think there’s a difference between sadness and melancholy.

Yeah, and it also isn’t just about someone’s woes, you know? It’s about the journey — about processing something. What it feels like to let go, to address grief, to feel that emptiness. To not be afraid to feel that emptiness. We spend a lot of our energy pushing things away, because it’s too painful. It’s about the place you get to when you can no longer push it away; you have to go through it. The song “Fading Away” — the second-to-last song on the new album — I was trying to write about an experience I had last fall. I was driving home, and it struck me that I could no longer hear in my head the sound of my former husband’s voice. I couldn’t remember it in that moment, and I was stunned by that — but at the same time, there was this kind of relief. It was like time was finally doing its job by letting me forget.

That opened the door to a whole lot of other feelings. We hold tight to our grief and our pain because it’s easier than letting it go sometimes, so in the moment, it was kind of frightening not to be able to remember a detail or a sound. What am I gonna do now? I’m so used to holding onto this. But at the same time, it’s like [sighs] Okay. That’s what’s supposed to happen — you’re supposed to get to a place where you don’t remember things so acutely anymore. And it was a relief.

Do you think it’s fair to say that over the last decade or so, you’ve had to learn how to dig a little deeper to write?

I hope so. My gosh. I hope I’ve become a better writer — I hope I’ve done more to establish my own voice as a songwriter, so that if you heard one of my songs, you’d know it was me. That I’ve become better at being me. Carving out your voice — I’m using all sorts of metaphors here, but yeah. I gave the new album to a friend of mine, and he said, “It’s very you.” That made me feel good, because I sure don’t want to be inauthentic, or sound like I’m trying to inhabit some other persona. It’s one thing to inhabit a character from a distance if you’re writing about that character, but that isn’t what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about being in the best possession of the tools you use to do what you do.

How deliberate is it when you reach for the guitar? Are you getting up and trying to write?

There are days when it can feel like you were just doing a job, because you don’t come out on the other end with anything that feels worthwhile. But those days, in the scheme of things, are as important as the ones when you write an important song to you. You can’t make it great every day, but it’s about exercising the creative muscles you have. I like to write on a regular basis, as opposed to compartmentalizing that process.

The situations that produce the songs on an album like Ashes and Roses are transitory, but do you feel like having to work through them to produce those songs has left you with more overall tools for your craft?

Yes. I feel like when you go to a new level, shall we say, of songwriting, or when you address something you never thought you would — I’ll give you an example. The song “4 June 1989” on the last album, about Tienanmen Square…well, I don’t know what it was like to be there. And if you had told me five years ago that I’d write a song about that — and it’s one of my favorite songs, too, if I’m allowed to say that without sounding whatever. But I was so touched by that man’s story, and to be able to write a song that speaks to the moral compass, and that isn’t just about being lonely on a Saturday night — that made me feel I had grown as a songwriter.

At the same time, I think we’d both agree that there’s nothing more perfect than a simple song that speaks to loving someone. That isn’t complicated. Sometimes, the most perfect vessel is the simplest, most unadorned one, and to feel like you can go there as well, it makes you feel like you’re truly in possession of your power.

You’re talking about simplicity here, and I want to ask you about your approach to chords. How many do you feel like you need?

[Laughs] As many as it takes! Lyrically, I know I go through a process of paring things away, but musically, I don’t know if I look at it the same way. The music kind of goes where it feels like it needs to go — I don’t know how to explain that part of it. Sometimes it’s just sitting on the porch watching the light come through the trees — sometimes it’s waking up in the middle of the night because you had a dream. Sometimes it’s something you read in a book, or a way somebody made you feel. It’s like the Internet — it goes forever.