Ten Minutes With Mary Chapin Carpenter

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s tour in support of her new CD “The Calling” will make several New England stops, beginning tomorrow night in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Mary Chapin graciously took time out from tour preparations – “the bus is waiting outside,” she said – to speak with me yesterday (Thursday, March 22, 2007).

The songs on the new album date back to 2004, when you were opening shows with “Why Shouldn’t We?” How did “The Calling” evolve?

When I finished “Why Shouldn’t We?”, I had a very strong suspiscion that I wanted it to be on a record, whatever that was. A year or two passed, and I really started working in earnest. In terms of how it all came about, I don’t really have a pat answer for that, but just the same way all records come about – you just start writing. Things kind of come to you. For the first time, actually, I had a lot more songs going into the studio than I’ve ever had before. Usually I have barely two extra songs. This time I had 23 songs going in, assuming I’d use 13. Matt, my co-producer and I narrowed it down. These were the songs that made the cut.

You mention the author Anne Lamott (“Bird by Bird,” “Traveling Mercies”) in the new CD’s liner notes, and I detect her philosophical essence on a lot of the songs – is this the case?

Annie and I have been friends for the last couple of years, we’ve done shows together. It’s great fun, it’s called “Words and Music,” and she’ll read and I’ll play a song or two. I’ve also done that with Billy Collins, our poet laureate. Annie is someone I absolutely adore, I love her work, and it was just a wonderful thing to finally get together and do these shows together. I feel that we’re kindred spirits (laughs). I don’t know if we could do what we do together if we didn’t feel that way.

You’ve described your music as “personal yet universal,” yet “On With the Song” is very direct – how did it come about?

Well, I was I guess the best way to describe it was that I was kind of at the end of my rope. I just felt a lot of despair at what was going on in these last few years with our country and the world, the war in Iraq and this very secretive administration, and I just felt great frustration. One day, that’s the song that came out. It was just a moment where I felt I had to put everything I felt on paper.

You dedicate the record to your father, Chapin Carpenter – how did he influence you?

My father’s a guy who’s always … I have three sisters, and we all do different things. I think that I tried to figure out how our parents didn’t lose their wits bringing us up, because we were a handful. Our folks were just very supportive of us, whatever endeavor we were undertaking. My father, for example, never said to me when I was stopping by his house four nights out of five to get dinner because I couldn’t afford to buy groceries on my own, he never said to me, go get a real job. He was very supportive of me just trying to find my way playing in clubs around Washington and doing open mikes and temping during the day, and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with myself. He never lost patience with that. I know a lot friends and artists, you hear stories about people who said, “my parents never gave me any support, they just didn’t believe in the same things that I believed in, about myself or for myself.” I just feel it’s very important, I wanted my father … he knows how I feel, and I’ve alwayas appreciated everything he’s done for me, but I wanted it in print. Because he’s always been such a great support.

After almost 20 years with Columbia Records, you’ve moved to Rounder, a small label with a lot of history. Why?

Around the time that I made the decision to leave Sony, the most wonderful man, John Grady, who was the last label head there – I made “Between Here and Gone” under his regime as it were. He’s an extraordinary guy, and when they merged with BMG John decided to move on. It just felt like everything was kind of aligned and I was ready to make the same kind of decision for myself. I felt like the time had come, you just know those kinds of things organically. It made sense, it was the right time, and I have nothing but really good memories and gratitude for everything that took place while I was at Columbia, and I’m very proud of my time there.

Are you familiar with Lucy Chapin, your opening act in Lebanon? Her father John remembers booking you at Lloyd’s in Hartford during the late 80’s, and told me Lucy watched you perform there as a young girl.

I’m not familiar with her. Oh, right he [John Chapin] was wonderful! He’d bring John Jennings and I up to Hartford and we’d play his club, he’d rent out a restaurant or venue each time. He was really supportive, great guy.

To this day, he’s a patron of the arts, he books 363 nights of music a year.

Good Lord, he deserves a medal! That’s wonderful. He sure gave us a lot of help, and I sure appreciate that.

As an artist, you’ve sustained your career without really relying on hit records, though you have had a few. What advice do you have for performers who are just starting out?

Well, I’m pretty bad at doling out advice. I think it would be a lot easier if there were some kind of road map to finding contentment in a business such as this. But there is no road map, as you well know. While it may be an enormous cliché to say, write about what you know, do what makes you happy, I don’t think those are empty words. But I also think that you have to find your own way, I don’t really have concrete steps to tell someone to take, but rather just make sure you’re happy doing what you’re doing, because if you’re not, you’re just feeling like it’s tortuous, then you definitely should be doing something else.

You kind of put that forth in “We’re All Right”

That song is definitely about finding the answers within yourself as opposed to looking outside of yourself every which way to find the answers. They do reside inside of us.

When the Dixie Chicks received a Grammy for Best Country Record, Natalie Maines joked that they were “without a genre” and I thought of you. Did winning CMA and Grammy trophies make a difference for you?

Oh yes, they did. What that does is helps get your music out to far more people than might get a chance to hear it. Those shows get attention in that kind of way. I’ll always be very proud of the five Grammies that I have. They mark different times in my life. I think the thing about them that makes it so wild is that it’s not something that I ever thought in a million years would come my way. I look at them with pride and happiness.

Who’s playing in your band on this tour?

We call this tour “Acoustic Incarnation,” – but that’s sort of a misnomer, because we have an electric guitar and bass. The band is a quartet – There’s myself, with John Jennings on bass, Kevin Barry on guitar and John Carroll.on keyboards.

How did you get so many guitars?

Over the years, being in the right place at the right time; they kind of come along. I’m a great guitar fan, and I’ve been really lucky to play some special instruments. I love my guitars.

It shows.

Thank you.

Here’s a rundown of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s New England dates:

  • Calvin Theater, Northampton, Massachusetts – Saturday, March 24
  • Music Hall, Portsmouth, New Hampshire – Sunday, March 25
  • Opera House, Lebanon, New Hampshire – Friday, March 30
  • Flynn Center, Burlington, Vermont – Saturday, March 31
  • Stone Mt. Arts Ctr., Brownfield, Maine – Monday, April 2
  • Warner Theater, Torrington, Connecticut – Friday, April 13


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