Like the Roman god Janus, with an eye trained on both beginnings and endings, Mary Chapin Carpenter opens her new album The Things That We Are Made Of with a song that beautifully sums up where she's been and sets the stage for what's yet to come. In "Something Tamed Something Wild," Carpenter stares into a shoebox full of old letters and gazes at "a map I've memorized of everywhere I've ever been, and the faces of everyone I loved and left to try again." As that song's title and the subsequent tracks on the LP suggest, there is comforting stillness at the heart of movement and something wondrous and unexpected in the familiar. Listen to "Something Tamed Something Wild" below.
The Things That We Are Made Of is the 14th studio LP from Carpenter, who first shot to mainstream country success in the Nineties with a string of hits that included "I Feel Lucky," "Shut Up and Kiss Me," and the Grammy-winning cover of Lucinda Williams' "Passionate Kisses." "Something Tamed Something Wild" and indeed the entire new album finds the songwriter at her most thoughtful and also at times sweetly whimsical, perfectly capturing the buoyant spirit of her early successes and also serving as a reminder that she remains one of the most grounded, sentient songwriters of her generation — a generation that for the most part regarded the LP as a whole rather than as individual (and disconnected) tracks. With that in mind, Carpenter reveals that she took great pains in making sure the album's tracks were perfectly sequenced, with "Something Tamed Something Wild" leading the way.
"It was important to me that it be the first song on the record," Carpenter tells Rolling Stone Country. "I think sequencing is really important. I'm old-school; I still think of the excitement of getting a full album. I still think in those terms when I'm writing… trying to create a particular environment and a thematically-related collection of songs. That's how I grew up listening to music and how I grew up receiving an artist's work."
The song, she explains, is a summation of how events in her life have unfolded and also serves as a declaration of sorts.
"This is what I think after where I've been," she says. "This is how it looks from here. That first song contains the most obvious themes, those being the importance of place, the power of memory, the transformative effect of loss in our lives, how it changes us, how it affects us."
The tracks that follow it on the LP carry such evocative titles as "The Middle Ages," "Map of My Heart" and "What Does It Mean to Travel," and while they neatly summarize aspects of Carpenter's three-plus decades as a touring musician, they also speak a more universal truth, revealing what the 57-year-old sees as "the utilitarian aspect of resilience and strength… to recognize in a universal way that all these things that make up your life, the good and the bad, the lovely and the difficult, these are the things that make you who you are. It may sound very simple on the face of it, but we tend to just get lost in the day-to-day minutiae of our lives and our troubles and forget that these are the things that power us through."
Guiding the recording process for the singer-songwriter this time around was Grammy-nominated producer Dave Cobb, whose acclaimed projects with Americana standard bearers Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell convinced her to reach out to him to gauge his interest — an initially awkward step she likens to sizing up a potential prom date.
"I was in the process of writing these songs and I wasn't sure where I wanted to take them, and I mean that in a wide-ranging kind of way," she says. "I just wasn't sure who would be interested. My publicist suggested Dave. I tend to live under a rock. I'm not really that aware of what’s going on, who's doing what. I stopped into Nashville between tour dates and I went over to his house and we just had a really fun talk. I didn't play any music for him. We just talked about all the bands we loved. We talked about Simon & Garfunkel, Glen Campbell, the Beatles, Crowded House, just all the things you talk about when you’re with your friends. It was that one meeting. It was really quite simple in that regard. It wasn't a complicated process."
At the time of their first meeting, Cobb had yet to experience what Carpenter calls "the hyper-white light of attention" that descended upon him, thanks in large part to his production on Chris Stapleton's multi-award-winning 2015 LP Traveller. And in a strikingly different approach from what she has done with previous producers, Carpenter didn't play any of the new music for Cobb before the two entered the studio.
"I wanted to work with Mary Chapin because very few people can cut with words like she can," says Cobb. "She's an absolute poet and legend. I was so happy to collaborate on this album together."
The new album is the follow-up to 2014's Songs From the Movie, Carpenter's first orchestral LP, which afforded her the opportunity to perform alongside symphony orchestras throughout the world.
The Things That We’re Made Of will be released May 6th on Lambent Light Records via Thirty Tigers. It is currently available for pre-order.