“Looking back is not the same as looking forward,” sings Mary Chapin Carpenter over the resonant ring of her low-tuned flattop guitar. “You can’t see what it is that you’re heading toward / All that’s visible is what’s left behind.” Carpenter’s rich alto pulls you in close as she ponders “the dreams distilled and the dreams discarded” and the strangeness of “waking up alone in the middle ages.”
These kinds of soul-searching reflections fill Carpenter’s new album, The Things That We Are Made Of (Lambent Light Records), picking up where her last collection of original songs, Ashes and Roses (2012), left off. (In between these two releases came Songs from the Movie, on which Carpenter sang selections from her back catalogue with an orchestra.) Carpenter wrote the songs on Ashes and Roses in the aftermath of divorce, serious illness, and the passing of her father. On The Things That We Are Made Of, she considers what comes next. With graceful melodies and a poet’s eye for detail, she delivers songs that are emotionally revealing without ever seeming self-indulgent.
Best known for such ’90s country-rock hits as “I Feel Lucky,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” Carpenter focuses these days on her softer side—contemplative songs played primarily in alternate tunings. On The Things That We Are Made Of, producer Dave Cobb, who won multiple Grammies this year for his work with Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, adds subtle band support that leaves the spotlight on Carpenter’s solo troubadour sound.
Nearly 30 years have passed since Carpenter released her debut album, Hometown Girl, produced by John Jennings, which began her ascent from the clubs and coffeehouses of Washington, D.C., to the top of the country charts. She keenly feels the loss of Jennings, who died last fall, and dedicated the new album to his memory.
At 58, Carpenter lives in a farmhouse in Virginia, where I reached her for this conversation on the latest chapter in her songwriting life.
Your album Ashes and Roses came from a difficult time for you. Do you feel that these new songs come from a distinct phase in your life?
I do. It’s always been my desire that a record be very much like a statement of that moment in one’s life. That’s how I always love to get other records by other artists, and it’s how I have always felt inclined to make them, as opposed to [recording] disparate songs from all different times. I take X number of years and write songs, and I come to some place where it feels like I have a collection—and then I’m ready to go into the studio. I suppose it’s an organizing principle, but it feels very spiritual as well.
You are writing in an unusually direct way about what you call “the middle ages” on the record.
Well, I’ve always drawn upon primarily my own feelings or observations about the world, and I couldn’t pretend to be something I’m not. I’m 58 years old as of the other day. If you’re reflecting back what’s authentic, that’s the view.
That isn’t to say you can’t sing someone else’s song, for example, or try to inhabit a different role. But speaking from a singer-songwriter place of very personal songs, that’s the only way I really know how to do it.
Your songs do feel very personal yet obviously connect with listeners, for example “Note on a Windshield.” Is there a certain quality a song needs to make that leap?
There are songs that I thought were so personal or unique to my experience that they might not connect. But I’m surprised and gratified that oftentimes the more personal a song is, the more universal it is as well. As we walk around in our day-to-day, we can’t help but think that our troubles and our joys and our victories are about us.
And there’s an incredible reward to feeling connected when we realize the experiences we have in common, with others.
‘The guitar most of the time is what kicks something off for me. I play primarily in [alternate] tunings because I bore myself to tears in standard.’—Mary Chapin Carpenter
As you say on the album, “The map of my heart looks a lot like yours.”
Right. That’s exactly speaking to what I think your question’s about. I was speaking very generally but very literally. I wasn’t directing that to one particular person, but rather just making a statement of fact that we all are so much alike even though we think we’re vastly different
Give an example of a song that you thought was narrowly personal, but then resonated with others in a surprising way?
A very early song called “Only a Dream” [originally released on Come On Come On and revisited on Songs from the Movie]. I wrote that about my relationship with my sister, but what’s interesting is I don’t think it demands that the listener have the exact same experience. Hopefully it evokes certain emotions that even if you didn’t have that same life experience, you are familiar with those feelings. When people let me know that song particularly affects them, I’m really touched.
One of my favorite songs on the new album is “Note on a Windshield.” It’s such a perfectly sketched scene, like a short story.
That was a true story, and I wanted to try to get it down somehow. I remember that day so clearly. It was this rotten, cold winter day, and I saw someone who could have been the twin of someone I had long ago been very fond of—it was spooky. I wrote a note and left it on this person’s truck, and it summoned up all sorts of conflicting emotions and fears and bravado.
I remember coming home and telling a friend of mine what I’d done because I was embarrassed by it. On a surface level, I thought it indicated how lonesome I was. It spoke to something I felt ashamed of. And her response was, “Oh, gosh, I’m proud of you that you did that. I think it took courage.”
Her response was what made me think about it in such a different way and made me examine all the tumultuous feelings that I’m trying to detail in the song. “We are light, we are weightless and brave”—in the end that’s what I felt, but I had to put myself inside the washing machine and get tumbled around quite a bit before I got to that place.
The end of the song, with the note washing away in the rain, suggests that you never connected with the person. I almost don’t want to ask whether the story actually ended there.
That’s the thing—I don’t think it’s important to the song for there to be an outcome. It’s about the feelings that are part of that entire experience; it’s not about the outcome.
Your lyrics seem so carefully crafted to where there’s nothing extra. Do you work on the words on the page separately from sitting with a guitar and singing?
Thank you for what you just said, because that’s so important to me. That’s a huge part of the songwriting experience for me, which is to try to be as economic as possible in my language and be as specific as I can be in the words. The way I’ve written songs has never really altered over the years. I sit at my desk or my kitchen table, I write on a yellow legal pad with a pencil and eraser, and I just edit, edit, edit, edit, edit, with the guitar in my lap. I want it to feel like that is the word that belongs there and there’s no fluff.
Also, when I’m working on songs and I hit a block, I go what I call song walking, which is just another word for grabbing a dog or a cat and going out and riffing out loud what I’ve been working on as I walk. I live out on a big farm kind of in the middle of nowhere, and I walk endlessly, miles a day. A lot of the time I find solutions on those walks, just singing over and over again until a solution comes to me. I’ve done that for years wherever I am, and it really helps.
What role does the guitar play in the process? Is it usually with you?
Other than when I’m walking, yeah. The guitar most of the time is what kicks something off for me. I play primarily in [alternate] tunings because I bore myself to tears in standard. The different voicings really do evoke things. When I feel stuck about how I’m trying to say something, invariably it’s some sort of voicing that leads me to the next place. Being a player is incredibly important to me, and not just to dress something up or be a part of the band. It’s the way things are created. It’s the difference between inspiration and nothing.
Copping a Mary Chapin Carpenter guitar part off the record ain’t an easy task, thanks to her use of unorthodox tunings, often in combination with a capo. Here are a few examples that she shared from her new album.
‘The Things That We Are Made Of’:
D A C# E A E (capo VII)
‘What Does It Mean to Travel’:
C# A E G# B E (capo IV)
‘The Blue Distance’:
C G D G B C (capo V)
The song “Livingston” is such a specific travelogue. What inspired you to turn that into a song?
I wrote that after I’d taken a trip with two friends that had a couple of purposes. The first part of it was to drive from Denver to just outside of Jackson Hole to Idaho, where there’s a famous old place called the Spud Drive In. I was going there to take a photograph. I had it in my head that if I could capture that old drive-in movie theater screen against a sunset sky, that’s what I wanted as the cover of the orchestral record, which was called Songs from the Movie. And so my friends and I went there to try to accomplish that.
At the same time, a friend of mine by the name of Ben Bullington was in the last stages of his life. He is not exactly a household name, but he was a wonderful songwriter who was a country doctor outside of Livingston, Montana. He was afflicted with pancreatic cancer, and his very dear friend had let us know that if we wanted to say goodbye, the time was coming near to do that.
I remember when we were leaving Montana, we drove this endless straight highway south toward Denver that just went on and on for a day and a half. There were a lot of long silences in that car. I felt so grateful that I was with my dear friends, and I was also so sad about what I had just been through, saying goodbye, and that landscape seemed to say all those things to me. Sometimes music can so capture a feeling, and I felt like the music of that song, how it came out, really did summon a loneliness. To me that is Dave Cobb’s genius.
Speaking of Dave Cobb, how would you describe his role in shaping the sound of these songs?
He’s a really wonderful muse in the studio. He’s an encyclopedia, first of all, of music—of everything you’ve heard in your life and everything you haven’t heard in your life. That was one of the ways we bonded. When I was beginning to talk with different people about working together, I went over to his house and we sat around talking about some of our favorite songs and bands, and it was just that kind of easygoing conversation that led me to wanting to work with him. He never really heard [the new songs] until the day I walked into the studio. That’s how he likes it. He just is so present in the moment and works within that moment.
The thing that I remember from the sessions, which were such an exuberant time, is that there was no such thing as no. The answer to every question was yes.
He’s interested in every idea that you have, and there’s always time to try things. It’s a lovely atmosphere.
It’s been almost 30 years since your first album came out. Do you have any perception of how your songwriting is different now compared with when you were starting out?
All I hope is that as time has gone by, I’ve become a better songwriter. That’s the goal that I have with each project, for sure. Sometimes you write something, and in that nanosecond of clarity when you feel like it’s truly finished, you have this sense that you’re outside of yourself. You feel like, ah, I’ve pushed myself here. This feels like a growth spurt, for lack of a better word. And you hope that you’re not angering the songwriting gods by feeling that way.
I do think it’s mysterious how things come about in this process. You hear people talk about, “oh, that song wrote itself.” That’s how it feels sometimes, and how that happens, golly, I don’t know. But when that does happen, it feels magical and mystical and all those wonderful things that keep you at it.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.