Throughout a recording career that has spanned nearly three decades, Mary Chapin Carpenter has consistently topped Billboard’s US Country charts while identifying as much with singer-songwriters like Steve Earle, Tom Waits, and Lucinda Williams (whose “Passionate Kisses” Carpenter covered, helping introduce Williams to a broader audience) as she has with mainstream Nashville acts. Atypically outspoken for a politically liberal contemporary country singer, Carpenter has succeeded critically and commercially while honoring her own artistic inclinations.
Inspired by three life-changing experiences—a pulmonary embolism Carpenter suffered in 2007 and a subsequent depression, her divorce, and the loss of her father—Ashes and Roses, Carpenter’s third album since defecting from CBS/Columbia Records for Rounder imprint Zoe, explores darker themes than Carpenter’s previous work; nevertheless, the album ultimately affirms the possibility of survival and redemption. An artistic accomplishment in its own right, Ashes and Roses also affirms the possibility for musicians to survive a changing industry by making music on their own terms.
The Rumpus: What initially drew you to folk and country music, and how did you find your voice as a songwriter?
Mary Chapin Carpenter: My mother and father had a huge record collection, everything from Fats Waller, Billie Holiday in my dad’s collection, to my mother having Woody Guthrie. I grew up listening to everything, and when I got signed to a record deal out of Nashville, that was my introduction to what was happening in country music. The people I started discovering were songwriters like Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and Steve Earle—I’d loved Emmylou Harris for years—and when I realized those were the people that were considered great country artists, I felt really drawn to them. Maybe it was the storytelling imbued in their songs or something unique to them, but I was really enchanted. To this day, those are the people that I think of as magnets for anyone discovering great country music.
Rumpus: How old were you when you first started writing songs?
Carpenter: I was really young, but I can’t say that I wrote much of anything. I liked to scribble; I thought of it as that. But I was playing guitar and ukulele when I was in second grade.
Rumpus: Did you think of yourself as a musician or a songwriter first?
Carpenter: They went together. I suppose when I was a teenager, it was something I was doing a great deal of, but I don’t know if I committed myself to it. I just saw it as something I loved to do.
Rumpus: How did your first record contract come about?
Carpenter: A tape that I was working on to turn into a record fell out of my back pocket and found its way to an A&R person at what was then CBS Records in Nashville; that was around the time in the late eighties when artists like Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle were being signed to record deals, and somehow the right person at the right time heard me.
Rumpus: How old were you then?
Carpenter: That was 1986. I’m 54 now, so you can do the math.
Rumpus: Were you gigging regularly at that point?
Carpenter: I was playing little bars and clubs in Washington DC, and during the day I worked at a small philanthropic foundation answering phones and doing paperwork and that sort of thing, so I had a day job to support my low paying night job.
Rumpus: Do all your songs reflect intensely personal experiences, or do you feel this album is an exception?
Carpenter: It’s very personal, obviously. When I got sick, I was just about to go on tour for a new record, and I had to torpedo everything. I was home for a couple years trying to get past that illness, just feeling so lost and confused, and then the end of my marriage, which was just dreadful, and then losing my father last October. Honestly, I don’t know what else I would have written about. It seemed inevitable to try to address my feelings about everything that had happened. To a certain degree, it felt cathartic, but it’s less cathartic to me than it is illuminating and helping me navigate my own feelings. What people will hopefully take from this record is that there’s a narrative arc to it; there is an other side that exists that you find yourself eventually rowing towards, and the arc of the record hopefully mirrors that.
Rumpus: Did you attempt to create an arc as you created the record?
Carpenter: Yes, definitely. The first song, “Transcendental Reunion,” on the surface, it’s a song about traveling, flying to England, but really, it was important to me that I start with that song because I feel like it sets up every song that comes after it. The first verse is about being suspended in the air, and you’re not really sure where you’re going to land. And then the idea that your suitcase is really—I don’t mean to get all Freudian—but your suitcase holds everything that’s important to you and informs you, and you want it to come out all right. And then the idea that people you’re elbow to elbow to with, these are the people that start out as strangers, but at a certain point in time, you realize you’re fellow travelers, and you have so much in common. Once you get there, you come out into this garish, neon-lit hall, and you’re rubbing your eyes; you’re not even sure where you’ve arrived. But this idea that there are people there to meet you, there are people there to be connected to, and you have come from night to day. Although everything that comes after that is the unknown, you can have hope and faith that you’re in one piece, and you’ll be all right. It’s important to know that and to recognize it.
Rumpus: Do you start with the melody or a chord progression, or do the words hit you first?
Carpenter: I sit at my desk, and I have a guitar on my lap. I like to have a yellow legal pad and a pencil with an eraser. 20-some years ago, I’d have a big old radio with a tape deck, and I’d hit record and try to get something down on the tape, but nowadays, I can use my handy little smart-phone; I sing into the app for voice memo. The thing about it is, you can either put an idea down, or I’ll sit here, and I’ll finish the song. I’ll record it into the voice memo, and then I can email it to myself; then I can dump it into iTunes. That’s how I did all the demos for this last record. I sent them to my co-producer, and he was laughing because I usually send these shit sounding Garage Band demos.
Rumpus: Do you wake up and write every day?
Carpenter: I like to feel that every day or most days, I do a little bit of writing. I am a creature of habit in terms of the way I live. I get up in the morning, and I work out, or I take a hike. I come back, and around lunchtime, I start work. I work in my office through the afternoon. Having said that, I spent a lot of time at night writing these songs, and that was different.
Rumpus: To what extent do you collaborate when you go in the studio? How much changes from those initial demos to the product we hear?
Carpenter: In the case of this record, because my guitar and vocal are so front and center, the songs didn’t change all that much from the demos. The wonderful musicians that I work with, they certainly contributed to everything that you hear, but the foundation of those songs pretty much stayed the same. That said, I think in previous records, there’s been enormous reliance on my part on the generosity and the creativity of the players I’m working with. The joy of being in the studio is having people being utterly free to throw out their ideas. I know some artists who come out of country music and the three sessions a day work ethic where you walk in, and you’re told you play this note, this note, and this note, and you don’t vary it. I know that works great for some people. It wouldn’t work for me.
Rumpus: How many takes do you typically play through?
Carpenter: There’s been any number of times where we’ve felt like the first or the second take has been a keeper. But I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I want to try it again and again, and a lot of times my fellow musicians have to hold me back and say, “Nah, I think we got it.”
Rumpus: Do you find you understand the songs differently as you play them in the studio and on tour?
Carpenter: Oh, yes, absolutely. You excavate different things in them as you play them live and realize what is possible to reproduce well and what is not. I feel like they’re different creatures, live and in the studio, but that’s what makes it so interesting to me. If they didn’t have any different shadings or colors, you might as well be a hologram or something.
Rumpus: Do you tour mostly with the same musicians you use in the studio?
Carpenter: I have a different group of musicians I play with on the road, and I’ve been very lucky that they’ve been with me for a long time. Even after I had to take a number of years off when I got sick, they still played with me. I’m grateful for that.
Rumpus: Your albums have generally charted on Billboard US Country charts, and you’ve thrived both critically and commercially in the mainstream of American country music. You also identify politically as being left. I was wondering how you see yourself in relation to mainstream country as a genre and also the rest of the Nashville mainstream, which I’m guessing politically doesn’t lean too far to the left.
Carpenter: When I was finding a spot on what we think of as country radio a number of years ago with Lucinda Williams’ song [“Passionate Kisses”], for example, that was tremendously exciting and unexpected to me, but I feel like the reason that was able to happen—certainly because of a lot of hard work and support and belief by a lot of people—but the bedrock thing of country music is, it’s about storytelling. I feel like I was able to find a niche because I connected to that in some way. But everything changes in every genre, whether it’s pop, rock or country, and maybe had I come along at a different time, like right now, that might not have happened. As far as politically how country music goes, it’s true that it’s regarded from a distance as a genre of music that at different times, the more right elements of the political spectrum have claimed for their own; at the same time, I can name any number of known country artists who support more liberal or Democratic candidates, so it just depends what the spotlight is on at that time.
Rumpus: Do you think about politics when you write, or is that something you consider separate from your musical identity?
Carpenter: I feel like politics have always informed what I do. If you know anything about my music, you know I’ve never been shy about stating how I vote—everything from doing Voters for Choice concerts with Joan Baez and the Indigo Girls to doing a rally for Joe Biden last weekend. There was a time when I was starting out in country music when it was sort of implied, do you have to be so in there with that stuff? I felt like, okay, maybe the powers that be don’t take it that well, but that was who I was. But let’s face it, the Dixie Chicks, people lobbed amazing professional grenades on them, and I never experienced that. I have certain songs that have been unequivocal about what I believe, like “Stones in the Road” or “On With the Song,” but I think topical songwriting is a real gift, and it’s hard not to be pedantic and show up with the sledgehammer message. Songs that do that, I’m kind of allergic to.
Rumpus: Do you feel like you naturally had a persona you’ve filled from the stage?
Carpenter: I gave the new record to a friend, and he said, “It’s very you.” I was pleased by that. It made me feel like, “Oh, wow, I never really thought there was a me in there.” I don’t know if I set out almost 30 years ago thinking I’m going to try to craft a persona. I love to write songs and sing them, and I didn’t really know much more than that. Somehow it’s gotten to the point where a friend can say, “It’s very you,” and that made me feel good.
Rumpus: Do you feel more comfortable on the stage or in the studio?
Carpenter: I think on a stage in front of thousands of people is a wildly invigorating and amazing experience, and it requires a certain skill set; then being in the studio, and being curled up in the fetal position under the piano, that requires another skill set. I’m being silly, but they are different, and it’s their difference that draws me toward both of them. I love working in the studio and the sense that we have all night and all day to be as experimental and creative as we want to be. I also feel that it’s nothing if not an incredible privilege to be able to get up on stage and play for people, and I don’t ever take it for granted.
Rumpus: You recorded for Columba throughout most your career, and you’re now on Zoe, which is an independent label. Why did you make that change? What is your experience making records for those two entities?
Carpenter: At the time at which I elected to go to Zoe, which is an imprint of Rounder Records, I had been with Columbia for 20 years. About eight or nine years ago, things were changing in the delivery system of music, and it was important to acknowledge and embrace all the different things that were happening. As amazing as it was to be on Colombia, if I wasn’t on the radio toward the end there, I felt like I was letting them down in my part of the marriage. The decision came down to what kind of pressures and artistic sense of yourself do you have? It made sense to start out somewhere new, and I was delighted to find myself at Zoe Rounder. I haven’t had that sense that I’m letting them down if I submit a record that doesn’t have songs that they feel they could take to radio. It’s almost like I could stop reading the charts.
Rumpus: Did you feel more pressure by the end of your tenure with Columbia than you did at the beginning?
Carpenter: In the late 80s, artists could be signed to labels and be nurtured. It wasn’t, “We’re going to give you one shot, and if you don’t measure up, you’re gone,” which is the way it is now, even with only two major labels left. The pressure is enormous. If you fail, you’re gone. When I started out, it was this sense of, ”Let’s put out a record and see what happens and see where you go and see how you feel and where we can take it.” That was a very different world back then. I certainly felt the desire to reach as many people as I could; I wanted to make the most of this opportunity, sure. But I wouldn’t call it pressure the way we’re thinking of it now.
Rumpus: Are there any other ways you feel the record industry has changed since you’ve been recording?
Carpenter: Just the most obvious thing, all the delivery systems for music, and the fact that if you’re 16 years old, and you’re passionate about music, you can do it yourself. It used to be, in the Dark Ages, the only sort of on-ramp to that would be getting signed to a record deal. That phrase alone is antiquated. Nowadays, anybody can do it, and that makes it tremendously exciting. As a result, you can’t keep up with everything. There’s just no way. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want it to go back to the old way.
Rumpus: Do you still live in Nashville?
Carpenter: I was born and spent the first 10 years of my life in Princeton, New Jersey. My father worked for Life magazine, and we moved to Japan for a couple of years for his job there. When we came back, we moved to Washington DC. I lived in DC for 27 years until I got married, and then I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia. I’ve lived here for nine years, and now I’m moving again, back towards DC, essentially. I owned a house in Nashville for about four months during an ill-fated relationship; I thought I needed to move there to be with him, but the relationship didn’t last, and neither did my ownership of the house. So I’ve never lived there, but I’ve toyed with the idea because I have a lot of friends there, and I think someday I might end up there.
Rumpus: Are most of the musicians you work with Nashville-based?
Carpenter: It seems like everybody’s spread out. My engineer, Chuck Ainlay, and Glenn Worf, my bass player, live in Nashville, but everybody else came from different areas. It just seems like you really can come from anywhere and do what you want to do.