Grammy-winning singer-songwriter crafts elegant new music from real-life tragedies
By Mark Brown
Special to MSN Music
Mary Chapin Carpenter has never hesitated to put into song what's on her mind. And in the past couple of years, there's been a lot on that mind. The death of her father, the end of her marriage and the resulting despair and redemption resonate through her new disc, "Ashes and Roses," and its themes of loss, heartache, betrayal and, ultimately, strength. Like Loudon Wainwright III's painful new album, "Older Than My Old Man Now," or Mary Gauthier's anguished autobiographical journey in "The Foundling," Carpenter holds nothing back.
"Chasing What's Already Gone" is the song from which the title, "Ashes and Roses," is taken. It's about accepting the past and embracing a future -- even if you're not fully ready, even if you question your very purpose. In these songs, five-time Grammy winner Carpenter found her purpose to move on, at times frightening, at times thrilling. Parts of the album would be almost unbearably heartbreaking to listen to if not for Carpenter's achingly nuanced and vulnerable vocals, couched in elegant, engaging music by a backing band that includes drummer Russ Kunkel, guitarist Duke Levine, bassist Glenn Worf and producer- pianist Matt Rollings. James Taylor guests on "Soul Companion." Anyone who's a fan of real emotion and real life in their music will find something to love here. Carpenter recently took a few minutes to talk about the album, in stores June 12, while touring with longtime friend Shawn Colvin.
MSN Music: I think this record is really going to speak to your fans. Many of them have lived enough life that what has happened in your life has happened in theirs as well.
Mary Chapin Carpenter: I'm speaking about what's in my heart. That may not be everyone's cup of tea, but that's the only way I know how to write songs. I don't mean that in a pompous way; it's just how I approach it: what feels right and what feels authentic. ... I'm just writing and writing and writing, and then one day I finish a song and there's a little internal ping goes off. All of a sudden I know "OK, I think I've started the record now." This song has put me in a different place.
Listening Booth: Hear the album
Paul Westerberg says that at some point you write a song and it tells you what the next one is going to be.
That's right. I don't know how that happens or what to call it. I don't know what it is. But that's how it feels and that is what has initiated every record. The first song I wrote on this record was "Don't Need Much to Be Happy." It was a terrible, terrible time. I was having a hard time trying to figure out why I should get up every morning. Sometimes all you can do is write a list of what is important and what makes sense at any given point in the day. I started making a list, and that's what the song was.
Did you consciously decide that you were going to make a record this personal?
I don't know if I really had a discussion with myself beforehand. I just started writing. On this side of it, at this point I don't know what else I would have written about. This is what happened to me. It's about loss and rejection and infidelity and betrayal and death -- so many things. Those are the big things of life, of existence, but it's a personal story. It's a very small story about the big things. ... It's not like I had a wager with myself as to how personal I get or if there's a line that you cross. These are the songs that I wrote. There are a few more that didn't make the record that, at a certain point, were a little too brutal ... they were just venting.
Your songwriting style is evolving, as the past couple of records have been more personal and, in some cases, political.
There's definitely a difference in my approach to things when you no longer feel pressure to chase the charts. That said, I've never been happier as an artist. Whatever parameters that mindset puts up are dismantled. There's a freedom there. I sort of feel like I'm just finding my voice. I don't look at the records I made 15 years ago as being disingenuous. I'm proud of all that I did. I think, like anyone -- a writer or a painter -- as you get older, you know yourself better and better. That's the benefit of age and wisdom and experience and self-knowledge. I think it would be odd to not feel that way.
This could be a very depressing record and a hard listen if it weren't for the very elegant sound the band gave you.
I appreciate what you say. The benefit of having worked on the last few records with this core group has permitted an intimacy in the studio where we're very close, with very open discussions about the songs, about what happened, about what each song is about. ... All of the players invested emotionally in this record. It wasn't just a session to show up to.
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I wouldn't call it a concept album, but it does have a definite theme and beginning, middle and end.
I believe it has a narrative arc. Every time I've made a record I go in armed with x number of songs that all feel like they belong together in some fashion. But it's mysterious, the wonder and magic of being in a studio in a concentrated period of time. Themes reveal themselves over time ... after a few weeks of being in the studio the narrative arc did become very apparent. How that happens, I don't know. But that's what happens.
Many of the songs are painful, but the record starts and ends with optimism.
In a way. It begs the question: What choice does one have? You have to keep going. There was a beautiful article in The Wall Street Journal by Augusten Burroughs, and it spoke to what we are talking about. It's about happiness and what people think that means & what it means to experience loss and catastrophe and come out the other side. The very end of it really spoke to what we're talking about. I was glued to it today. Things like that resonate. Anybody who's talking about getting past something, finding yourself transformed by an experience, whether it's the loss of a person, a relationship, a marriage, an illness, death of a parent, whatever -- for me, that stuff all happened together. You get a little farther out and your friends say, "Oh, you're doing much better." But they just saw you that day -- they didn't see you earlier in the morning or later that night and you're not doing much better. It's these incremental progressions.
Mark Brown is a veteran music journalist who was pop critic for the Rocky Mountain News until its demise. He is also a contributor to MSN Music blogs Reverb and Scene & Heard.