Mary Chapin Carpenter knows how to tell a story. The five-time Grammy winner and hit songwriter—including her own hits “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her and “I Feel Lucky”—has sold more than 14 million albums over the course of her 25-plus-year career. And she has no plans to slow down. With her 14th studio album, The Things That We Are Made Of, Mary Chapin continues to prove that she’s in a league of her own.
Her new project, produced by red-hot Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell), features 11 songs, all written by Mary Chapin, that take the listener through a very intimate and personal journey of “growing older, living with loss, personal change and all the good stuff, too.” From “Livingston” and “Oh Rosetta” to “The Middle Ages” and “What Does It Mean to Travel,” Mary Chapin’s songwriting process may remain the same, but the themes have changed to reveal where she is in her life at the age of 58.
NCD had the chance to sit down with Mary Chapin to talk about her new album and being the voice of a generation that speaks volumes while aging gracefully.
Over the course of your career, you’ve never stopped making music.
Of course not. I was over at WSM this morning with Bill Cody and part of our discussion was that he said, “How often does it happen that you run into people and they say, ‘Oh, are you still a musician?'” That happens so often. And he said, “Even with internet and social media, does that still happen?” It does happen. In my mind the reason it happens is because people have their screens, whatever their device is, whether it’s a TV screen, a phone, iPad, if you’re not on their screen or coming through their radio, they think you just stopped doing what you do, when in fact, no, I’ve never been busier and I’ve never been more productive as I have in the last few years. It’s just when you’re not on someone’s TV every week or not in their radio they think you literally have disappeared, when in fact it’s just that there is a different delivery system for what you do or your not chasing the charts or whatever it is. Most of the time their sense of it—it’s quite innocent on their part—they just don’t think about it. But every once in a while you go ‘Gosh, who are you talking to’ or ‘where are you getting your information’ kind of thing.
You’ve actually released an album about every two years?
I think, if I were to average it out, I’m lucky if it’s every three years. That’s the average that seems to me a reasonable amount of time to write something. For this record [The Things That We Are Made Of] it’s been four or five years since the last collection of original material. The reason it’s been that long is because there was the orchestral record [Songs From the Movie]between it. The schedule has been grueling and I say that without complaint but gratitude, but you’re right, people think that because you’re not on the screen or coming through the radio that you’ve gone underground or disappeared or that you’ve stopped doing it.
You alluded to the fact that it takes a couple of years to create such a project. And your projects are so distinctly different from anything, especially with what’s on radio these days. Can you talk about that process a little bit?
You know, I love to write songs and the fact that I can wake up every morning and go to work to sit down and write a song. That floors me. I know how fortunate I am to be able to do that, so I’m very lucky in that way.
I think you have to be open to everything and everything can be inspirational and it can be anything from a story in the newspaper about Tiananmen Square to a song I wrote about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, to a song about, well, the record Ashes and Roses, which is sort of a document about the end of my marriage and having a serious illness. It’s just the changes your life goes through, so it can be very personal and it can be not personal at all, but sort of looking outside. I realized after all of these years I’m somewhat ritualistic about writing. I never thought of myself that way until someone sort of pointed it out to me. In order to feel comfortable, I like to have a yellow legal pad, I like to write with a pencil and an eraser. Those things are in place for me and I’ve done it all these years that same way, so there is a ritual component to it I suppose. And I like to be at home to write. When I was first starting to travel and my first record had come out, I felt a lot of pressure to be able to write wherever I was and I would observe other artists doing that in hotel rooms, on the back of napkins, on airplanes and your office was anywhere you were. I just didn’t have a lot of success doing that and I decided to try and take that pressure away. The minute I did that, things just lightened up for me. It was important, once all the traveling was over, to be able to be at home. Many people have said this and it’s true, you need to have a life to write about it or just be open to what was going on around you. That’s how I know to describe what I’ve done all these years and it has changed very little. It just really hasn’t changed at all.
You worked with producer Dave Cobb on this project. How did the two of you connect?
I was in the middle of writing these songs and my beloved publicists, Asha Goodman and Carla Saks, said you might want to talk to Dave Cobb. I was only familiar with Dave, this was about two or three years ago, through his first album that he made with Jason Isbell [Southeastern] and that’s all I knew. In contrast to literally where we are today, he was obviously well known and deeply respected by this community at that point, but that white-hot light that is on him right now, I don’t think was on him at that moment. That’s only to say that he has not lost an ounce of his character and his humility. I had a day off on tour and I flew to Nashville and he just invited me over to his house. It was a cold, gray winters day. We sat around in his studio and talked about all the bands we grew up listening to and how much we loved the Beatles. That was it and we sort of compared notes that way. What I sensed from him was that he was a shy, quiet person. I think of myself that way. I felt like we got along that way and it felt comfortable and easy. He didn’t ask to hear any songs. It just felt good and that was it. I didn’t play him a song until the first day of recording. It was that easy.
He has a knack for letting artists be who they are.
Dave is interested in getting an authentic performance and letting that voice of that artist—the voice, meaning many things and many layers—come through.
Let’s talk about the theme of the record, because it feels like a journey.
It’s about growing older, it’s about the importance of place, the power of memory, resilience, personal change, living with loss, living with all the good stuff too. These are big themes that inform all of our lives—so certainly I think those things are there in the songs. For example, its like the song “Livingston,” it’s a lonely song, it’s about loneliness and being on the road. The idea of sort of looking out that window and all the feelings that come along with it and the loneliness. If I were to peel back some more layers, it would be about a fellow named Ben Bullington, who was a songwriter and a country doctor in Livingston, Montana. He died of cancer two years ago. Before he died, I was taking a road trip to say goodbye to him. But I don’t think you have to know that in order to receive the song and have a sense of the more general themes about it. There are personal things that are inside the songs but hopefully as personal as they may be, there are also things we may all feel. I think the more personal something is the more universal it can be. We all deal with loss, we all have days of despair, we all deal with this stuff. None of us I don’t think are immune. It’s just how we figure out how to cope with it, how to live with it, how to let it not stop us.
Do you feel any kind of cathartic release now that the project is finished?
Yeah, absolutely, because there’s a point at which I’ve spent four or five years kind of on this one project. It’s very emotional in a way when it’s all done and there is this sense of a huge void that all of a sudden exists because you’ve been sort of working towards this thing for that long and then it’s done. And I’m sort of suspended in air. I don’t know about you, but I’m happiest when I’m working towards something and to not be immediately absorbed into the next thing. I’m a little anxious. I’m just waiting to immerse myself in the next project because I don’t do well with too much time on my hands. I don’t, it’s like I fear the void.
Is it exciting to be putting out a project now?
Yes, it’s very exciting to be putting out a project now. It’s very exciting to be putting out a project period. If I sit back and look at when I started, if someone had said to me in 1986 or ’87, that we’d be sitting here now and I’d be talking about my latest [record] about to come out, I would have said “What are you smoking? Give me some.” Seriously, that’s just how unlikely I think it would’ve been. I’m happy in a global sense that it’s happening. I’m deeply happy on a personal level because what that says to me is that I’ve been able to keep making music and I’m really happy about that.
US Tour Dates:
June 4 / St. Louis
June 8 / Greensboro, N.C.
June 10 / Westbury, N.Y.
June 11 / Northhampton, Mass.
June 13 / Lancaster, Pa.
June 15 / New Brunswick, N.J.
June 16 / Ridgefield, Conn.
June 17 / Lowell, Mass.
June 18-19 / Brownfield, Maine
June 28 / Englewood, N.J.
June 29 / State College, Pa.
July 1 / Highland Park, Ill.
July 2 / Vienna, Va.
Aug. 27 / Chautauqua, N.Y.
What are your plans going forward?
I’ll be touring here [United States] and the UK and other places for the next couple of years on this new record. So we have just barely scratched the surface on the new tour.