Unwrapping a new Mary Chapin Carpenter album is not unlike the experience of cracking the spine on a highly anticipated memoir. While the Grammy winner’s 14 albums have been less linear autobiography and more a resolute collection of sharply observed sketches, each has offered glimpses into the artist’s life, brimming with literary detail and ringing with universal truth. With the recently released The Things That We’re Made Of, the five-time Grammy winner broaches the subject of middle age, embracing change in its myriad forms.
“Over the last few years, I moved to a new town and I ended a relationship. I started over,” Carpenter tells Rolling Stone Country. “It’s an enormous amount of change in my life and I think this is what these songs reflect. It’s just sort of a declaration: This is what it looks like from here.”
One of the changes reflected on the new LP is the commission of producer Dave Cobb, whose career-making production on the records of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton was just beginning to garner attention when Carpenter’s publicist suggested she enlist him for her project. But before they convened in the studio, the material for the album had to be written, a process aided in no small part by Carpenter’s habit of “song-walking,” composing melody and lyrics while ambling around the land on her remote Virginia farm. The new material follows the singer-songwriter’s first orchestral album, 2014’s Songs from the Movie, which revisited 10 of her tunes in a symphonic, classical setting. The newness of that experience, in part, led to this latest album emboldening Carpenter with a deeper desire to stay outside her comfort zone.
Carpenter, whose mainstream country success included such Nineties hits — and continued concert favorites — as “I Feel Lucky,” “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses,” was something of an unlikely country star. An Ivy League graduate (of Brown University) who counts Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell among her chief musical influences, Carpenter played coffeehouses in the Washington, D.C., area, and has always emphasized lyrical substance over image. Times were certainly different, especially at country radio, when she, along with Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea and Wynonna (to name but a few), enjoyed a healthy string of hits alongside their male counterparts. Now, as she no longer needs to rely on country-radio airplay, Carpenter is only peripherally cognizant of the publicity generated by 2015’s Tomatogate, which started when a male radio consultant relegated country’s female artists to the similar role tomatoes play in garnishing a salad, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have something to say about it.
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In this candid and wide-ranging conversation with Rolling Stone Country, Carpenter reflects on the often poignant and personal inspirations for the tracks on The Things That We’re Made Of. She also shares her sense of despair at the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and dismisses the “offensive” theory that musicians should, as the saying goes, “shut up and sing.”
Working with Dave Cobb as producer, were there ideas or processes of his that you think helped you understand your songs more fully?
He’s got this word, “hangry.” You’re getting hungry and you’re getting agitated or angry because you’re hungry. So, in other words, he believes that the best sessions come from you getting to the studio but then going out to eat. You come back and after you’ve had lunch, that’s when you start working. I know when he’s talked about the Chris Stapleton sessions, they would talk and drink and they probably wouldn’t even get started recording until later in the evening. So that was a different version of that. But whatever works for everybody involved. Ever since I learned that term “hangry,” I get what he’s talking about. You just can’t work that way so you’ve got to make sure that’s out of the way.
One of the album’s many highlights is ‘Oh, Rosetta,’ which is sort of a meditative conversation with legendary musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe. How did you first become aware of her and how did she become the person you’re reaching out to in the song?
I was aware of Sister Rosetta’s music for a very long time, just having sort of an awareness or working knowledge of iconic musicians in American music. I wouldn’t say that I was a true scholar of her music but she’s sort of a cultural figure as well as a musician. Years ago, when I read one of the first really good biographies of Johnny Cash, he cited her as one of his favorite, favorite musicians. When he was a child, he was comforted by her music. That’s a very meaningful thing, the way we think of music and what it gives us. About a year ago, I was driving down the road listening to a newscast when word came out, it was that terrible day that ISIS had taken a soldier prisoner and burned him in a cage. I don’t want to talk about it in that context because it’s just so awful and hard to talk about. We tend to become inured to the horrors of life when it comes at us day to day. But it was as if that had hit me in a new, low place. I turned the radio off, I couldn’t listen anymore. I don’t even mean to pick that out as worse than any one other thing. It was just that that was what was going on that day. I went back to my farm and I had to just get out and walk. I do that every day anyway, but I just needed to get out. It was almost like I was just trying to leave it behind.
This day that I was walking, I just started singing what was becoming the repeated part of the chorus: ‘Oh, Rosetta, what shall I do, what can I do, oh, Rosetta.” She popped into my head. I’m not sure how that happened but I think of it now that maybe it was just a subconscious thing the way that Johnny Cash talked about how her music comforted him. I needed comfort. I got back to the house and I was working on it for the next day or two. I just tried to place myself in this imaginary conversation. Then I started thinking about probably the most famous song of hers, “Up Above My Head.” I was in New York later that week, standing there in midtown near Carnegie Hall and I just imagined, “What was it like for her when she came to play Carnegie Hall?” I just started imagining it in my head and I could hear the music. New York can be a really lonely place to even though you’re surrounded by millions of people standing on a street corner near Carnegie Hall.
Another song on the album, “Note on a Windshield,” has that sense of loneliness in it. But this time, you’re reaching out, literally, to a living person in a real situation.
It was a gray, cold and wintry day. I was in a parking lot and I saw this fellow who could have been a double for someone I knew a long time ago whom I was very fond of. Sometimes when you see someone’s doppelgänger like that, it stops you in your tracks. It summons all sorts of nostalgia as well. . . missing someone terribly and yearning and self-consciousness and a lot of deeper feelings about being alone. I wrote a note. [Laughs] I sat there in my car thinking, “Do I have the courage to possibly reach out to a stranger simply because they reminded me of someone?” It’s sort of like at that moment you’re face-to-face with yourself and thinking what do I have to lose other than the sense of aloneness that I feel? I don’t really know what I was seeking. I just wanted to make contact. It’s like E.M. Forster’s famous saying, “Only connect.” Sometimes these are connections with people that you know very well and sometimes these are connections with total strangers. Occasionally in my life when I have sort of done something completely spontaneous like that, I’ve ended up making a friend or meeting someone who has had an enormous impact on my life. So I never wanted to be afraid of doing that. The song is sort of a narrative, in a way, of leading up to the moment where I did it. Then there was this sense of, “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen here.” But I’m in my car watching the rain sort of wash the piece of paper dry. Then I decided I had done all I could in that moment, whether it was crazy or not, and I pulled away.
You never heard from the person after that?
No, they could have looked me up, obviously, and thought, “Who is this nutcase?” I have no way of knowing. But you’re so glad you did it, you’re so glad you pushed through that notion of propriety, or shyness or fear of rejection.
Looking back to the beginning of your career, how was it for you as a woman dealing with males in the radio industry and the music business?
First of all, it’s important to state that it’s a different world now than it was when I was being played on the radio, so it has to be put in that context. That said, the only time that I ever felt like there was a disconnect between me and my record label, and sort of a “I don’t know if I feel comfortable with this,” was this song, “Let Me Into Your Heart.” I had a horn section on there. I was told by the radio department at Columbia that country radio was uncomfortable with horns. It was almost like production by committee. It seemed so arbitrary. Then, a few years later I had an electric sitar on a song and again the feedback was, “I don’t think country radio’s going to be comfortable playing that, you’ve got to take that off the track.” So there were these arbitrary musical issues that didn’t make any sense to me. I think it’s a lot looser now. But back in the day there just seemed to be these straight, arbitrary statements about what country radio would play and wouldn’t in terms of production values on them.
But, in terms of women in country music as a demographic, I read some of the quotes from that fellow who wrote about. . .
Yeah, that whole salad business! First of all, that’s just so ridiculous to begin with. I don’t know if it was ever borne out to be true or not, based on what he said, that stations that he consults for have this [certain] kind of listenership, therefore they want to hear guys versus women. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it was offensive. Is the question really that women have a harder time getting played on country radio because they’re saying that their audience doesn’t want to hear women? Or that they have a harder time being played on radio because there’s just a patriarchal kind of thing going on? The obvious answer to all of these floating questions is that women have always had to work harder to be recognized, whether you’re Ginger Rogers dancing in heels or you’re a young singer-songwriter in Nashville who wants to succeed in today’s contemporary country music. You just have to write the best songs that you can and work your ass off. No one’s going to hand it to you. I don’t think they ever have handed it to anybody. It’s just about being true to yourself and doing the best that you can. I don’t really know how you can possibly do any less than that. But if it’s true, as we have sort of been musing aloud, that there’s a patriarchal sort of thing hanging over part of the radio landscape and that’s why they don’t play as many women, or if it’s from some deeper, darker menacing reason, it would be great to root it out and get rid of it. But I don’t know if that will ever happen.
There’s a great line in “Hand on My Back,”: “I come on quiet but I’m fierce as a lion.” When does that fierceness manifest itself for you?
There are different times in my life where it had come out. I’m essentially a quiet person and I’m comfortable in my skin, but I feel like based on the way life has gone in the last few years, that has shown me I’m tough as nails. I’m fierce as a lion when I need to be. We don’t know what we’re made of until we are tested. It’s another version of that, perhaps. When I doubt what I’m capable of, sometimes you just need to be reminded of what you’ve been able to navigate and it reminds you that you’re strong. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that.
We’re in the middle of a crazy political climate, obviously. Are you a news junkie?
I try not to be but it’s a hard habit to break. Some days I just don’t have my armor on. I can be brought down by the story. It’s just like it pierces me or something. That’s how “Oh, Rosetta” began. It was coming from a news report that I just couldn’t get over. That’s how it is sometimes. I just feel like I don’t have a tough enough skin or something, and I don’t know how to fix that. And yet, what I would criticize in someone else about not making the effort to educate themselves and be cognizant of world events and have enough to form an opinion. I don’t want to be one of those people who puts my head in the sand. It’s a delicate balance to feel like I’ve informed myself enough but I’m not in despair.
Why do you think Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have resonated with their respective followers?
I can repeat what the pundits have said. In Bernie’s case, he speaks to a generation of people who happen to feel they haven’t been addressed in a way. That accounts as well for [Trump’s] constituency. It’s a similar situation although the circumstances may be different. There’s nothing revelatory to me about that. I think that’s the nature of politics, to try to find a constituency. Where we will end up is another matter. I’m one of those people that, if I were polled, I would be in the column that says I’m very afraid of what would happen if Trump were to win the election. I’m very afraid of that and make no bones about that. I feel a sense of despair that the message he has put out has found such support, because I think it’s a message of all the things I do not admire: hate and bigotry.
Yet, when people disagree with an artist or a celebrity expressing their political opinions, they often go right to the Dixie Chicks thing of “Shut up and sing.”
That’s so offensive to me. What? I’m not allowed to have a brain? I’m not permitted to speak to issues that affect me? They affect all of us. I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking. I never have and I never will. How can I write songs about life if I’m not experiencing it and forming opinions and having opinions and advocating on behalf of things that are important to me. I just never felt any other way about it. People who are dismissive or critical — or at worst, hateful — of artists who speak out or who choose to align themselves with a particular viewpoint or cause, I didn’t ever think that wanting to be an artist would preclude me from having an opinion. I mean, I don’t sing about flowers.