Mary Chapin Carpenter has a snake problem. The Grammy-winning songwriter has been finding outgrown snakeskins around her home in Virginia and it’s freaking her out.
“Just talking about it makes me want to vomit everywhere,” she says, pausing our phone call to get an update from the exterminator. “They say I have, shall we say, a mouse buffet under my crawlspace.”
Despite the pests’ gut-churning effect on Carpenter, there’s a metaphor in all those snakeskins: the idea of constant evolution and leaving prior confines behind. The 62-year-old explores that concept on her new album The Dirt and the Stars. The theme of the record, she says, comes from a column by the writer Margaret Renkl, who wrote about the “process of becoming.”
“She was making the point about how you don’t reach a certain point in your life and say, ‘Oh, I know everything there is to know,'” Carpenter tells Rolling Stone. “It was a call to being open to everything in the world and not to feel limited by the ageism in our society, by the things that hold us back. You just have to remember that you’re a living, feeling being and you can’t possibly know all there is to know. And the minute you start thinking that you do, you’ve lost a lot.”
For the follow-up to 2018’s Sometimes Just the Sky, Carpenter reunited with producer Ethan Johns, leaving her Virginia farm to return to Real World Studios, Peter Gabriel’s recording facility in Bath, England. With Johns and her band, including the guitarist Duke Levine, she recorded in January and February, wrapping up just before the pandemic took hold across the globe. “We got very, very lucky and literally finished it on the last day of February,” she says.
The Dirt and the Stars is a gorgeous listen, with its easygoing arrangements and folky nature in lockstep with the record’s theme of empowering self-love. There are song titles like “It’s OK to Feel Sad,” “All Broken Hearts Break Differently,” and “Where the Beauty Is,” which makes the case that true beauty is found in life’s flaws.
Carpenter drew inspiration for the song, and its very title, from an art exhibit titled “Where the Beauty Is.” The humanity is not in the finished painting seen from afar, but in the crooked lines up close, Carpenter says. Likewise, a scar is not a blight, but a visible sign of healing.
“I was listening to the radio and they were asking people to send in poems and haikus, and they would read them on the air. One day they read this beautiful haiku, that was something like, ‘You see a scar and you think that’s where you’ve been injured. But actually that’s where you started to heal.’ That was the essence of it. And it was just such a perfect piece of wisdom,” she says.
But The Dirt and the Stars isn’t fully a peace, love, and understanding album. Carpenter eviscerates the enablers of our current President in “American Stooge,” a blistering account of a “yes man.” She says it’s based on Lindsey Graham but grew to include all toadies.
“It started out as a generic character study that he was sort of the inspiration for. And then as I was finishing the song, I was thinking it’s not just about him. It’s about all those people up there in the halls of Congress, men and women. The Susan Collins, the Jim Jordans, Mark Meadows, Stephen Miller — all these people are stooges. As well as Mark Zuckerberg, too,” she says. “They are just these sycophantic people.”
Released in early August, The Dirt and the Stars was preceded by a podcast — Carpenter says she’s “a pod freak” — in which she discussed the songs on the LP with the poet Sarah Kay. Titled One Story, the three-part series centered on the concept that artists are always writing one song about the human experience, but it manifests itself in different ways.
During Carpenter’s 30-plus-year career, that song has emerged as country, folk, Americana, and even rock. Or in the case of her 1991 hit “Down at the Twist and Shout,” as a Cajun song. She’s amazed that the upbeat track, and the album on which it appeared, Shooting Straight in the Dark, turn 30 in October.
Sometimes that “process of becoming” happens quickly, right before your eyes.
“I have a different way of taking things in than I did 20 years ago and measuring myself against the world. Everything has sort of shifted,” she says. “I find that to be both terrifying and joyful at the same time. Terrifying because the unknown is the unknown and it’s easy to be fearful that way. But at the same time, if you remove the fear, there is euphoria to have new experiences.”