Mary Chapin Carpenter Is Living In An Age Of Miracles
Five-time GRAMMY Award-winning singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter spent most of the 90s as country radio’s renaissance woman. With clever social commentary such as “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and “I Take My Chances,” the Ivy League graduate (Brown University, 1981) was a leading inspiration for women in the midst of midlife domestic dramas. Twice named the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, Carpenter’s sound was far removed from the country music of yesteryear, but her incisive songwriting and expressive voice firmly placed her among Nashville’s finest artists.
Since her commercial heyday, Carpenter has continued to explore her craft, weaving her own deeply-personal stories into songs that cut right to the heart. Her new album, The Age of Miracles is another worthy addition to one of America’s strongest musical catalogs. In a discussion with The 9513, Carpenter speaks about her creative ambitions, past and present, and takes stock of her impeccable career.
BLAKE BOLDT: With The Age of Miracles, you break any artistic or musical boundaries, unconcerned with fitting into a specific genre or style. What was the genesis for this album?
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER:The starting point, or at least the way it’s always been for me, is just writing a lot of songs. I have to write a lot of pretty awful stuff, just dreadful stuff, before I find my way. But you have to just keep at it. It’s like a muscle and you just have to exercise it. Then one strikes you and it begins something special and leads you into a new direction. So for this record, I finished the title song, “The Age of Miracles,” and I could tell that it felt like a song that could be on a record. Then you just expand on that idea and go a little further.
BB: My favorite cut on Miracles is the rousing “I Put My Ring Back On.” So many songs focus on the hooking up or the breaking up, but this feels like a more real, more raw analysis of the give-and-take in a long-term relationship.
MCC: Well, it’s real life. It speaks to people. I’m not alone–I presume, I hope–I’m not the first woman who’s taken off her wedding ring and hurled it across the room. We all have those moments. The universal is personal and the personal is universal.
BB: Your harmony vocalist on the song is quite special.
MCC:Vince Gill. Yes. I opened for him, I think, three years in a row back in the early ’90s. I just adore him. We were able to play to so many people and we were treated like kings. I owe him such a debt. He’s just great. But I’m so loathe to bother people and have them perform on my record. I talked with my producer Matt Rollings about it. Vince and I share a business manager, and that afternoon she happened to come in and we were recording “Ring” and after that, she said “Vince would sound great on this.” So I told her that I’d mentioned him to Matt and she said “Call him!,” basically demanding that I get him in the studio. So he got there in between his golf tournaments. (Laughing) The day that I was doing vocals for “Ring,” I heard Vince come on and there was just this moment for me. I just knew it was special. I just got the new Jimmy Webb album as an advance copy from my management and Vince is on there and it’s just beautiful to hear.
BB: Miracles is a reflective collection, but you close with the uplifting “The Way I Feel.”
MCC: Yeah. It was a deliberate decision to end on that note. It really represented the record and it’s how I wanted to leave the listener, that hopeful feeling.
BB: Co-writing has become an unmistakable part of the Nashville culture, but you made a conscious effort in the mid-90s to shed your collaborators and write alone. What are the limits or the benefits of that endeavor?
MCC: In the early part of my career I wrote by myself. On most of the work from my early albums I was the sole writer. I was urged strongly by friends and colleagues to co-write. It felt like a blind date; it was very frightening. I had a few less-than-fruitful opportunities. The one that really worked for me was Don Schlitz. At the time we had the same management and we’d meet out in the parking lot, back when we both smoked cigarettes, and I’d bum a smoke off him and he’d grill me and talk to me. He’s such an interesting, smart guy; he’s so much fun. He meant a great deal to me.
When I go into a co-writing session, I always want to feel like I learned something. With Don, I always did, whether it be a philosophical conversation or just about the art of songwriting. I wouldn’t say I used all of his co-writing style, but I learned his process and what worked for him and that helped how I approached my own writing. Here’s a great example: Don loves to have perfect rhymes. I’m the type who will rhyme “again” with “him.” It doesn’t matter to me. He’d say, “No, you can’t do that!” So we’d have these little faux-arguments, but I loved writing with him. He was a great mentor and friend and he certainly brought out the feistiness in me.
In terms of writing, I just prefer to do it myself. Co-writing hasn’t happened as much as I’d like, but there are really brilliant writers like Gary Nicholson that I just love and would love to work with.
BB: Do you think songwriting is less appreciated, at least by the general public, as an artform nowadays?
MCC: Well, I’m just not sure that the average person listening to the radio stops to think about it much. But there are many people that are completely appreciative of the craft, especially on Broadway. You see all of these Sondheim revivals now. He so singlehandedly took songwriting to a new level with his songs for the theater. There are still people who care deeply about songwriting.
People have all different ways of experiencing music and songs. We all have our sentimentality towards them. We all celebrate them in some form, whether that be in the background of a party or driving in our cars. It’s a big part of our lives. Music moves us; it provokes us.
For me, I couldn’t exist without songwriting or great songs. It’s very inspiring to me. I feel that it’s very cathartic. It helps me learn things about myself. I’m not sure that your general consumer of popular radio is going to feel that way about music.
BB: I’m interested about your recent musical discoveries. What music have you been drawn to these days?
MCC:I love the new Josh Ritter record, for one. It’s just a terrific record. The one that I can’t get out of my CD player right now is Darrell Scott’s (upcoming) album, A Crooked Road. It’s a 2-CD album of just wonderful songs. When I first heard the song “A Crooked Road,” I had to pull the car over I was crying so loud. He’s just a fabulous, beautiful songwriter.
BB: Twenty years ago, your performance of “Opening Act” on the CMA Awards was one of the most memorable in the show’s history. If you could share one anecdote from that evening, what would it be? And how was it being a left-of-center artist in Nashville at the time?
MCCThat was twenty years ago? (Laughing) It was such a nice offer. When they first asked me, I immediately said “no.” I had to be persuaded to give that performance. There were many reasons I didn’t want to do it. It was a novelty number; I was afraid that it would lose a little bit of bite because there was actually a dirtier version of the song that we did live. And then I would be singing along with a pre-recorded track. But it was a special opportunity and I did it. I’ll always remember that night. Michael Campbell, Ricky Van Shelton’s manager at the time, was there during soundcheck and he was the last person I saw before I went on stage. Right before I went out, I heard him say, “That was a nice career you had going there, Carpenter!” When the audience stood and applauded, I was just flabbergasted.
Through my management there were all sorts of handwritten notes after that. I’ve got the telegrams saved in my little book of memories. I got one from the Oak Ridge Boys that said “You go, girl!” I’ll always remember [four-time Academy Award-winning songwriter] Sammy Cahn sending a note that said “I’ve been writing novelty songs my entire life. It’s an art form. It’s not easy to do it. Congratulations.” Then at the ASCAP Awards, I got my picture taken with him and it was just wonderful.
Of course, the record company wanted to put it out as the next single and I didn’t want to do that. And I’ve never recorded the song and I didn’t want the live version released either. I just felt like it was moment in time and I didn’t want to change that. My fun in doing it was the dirty version. Which you’ll never hear! (Laughing) But people were so warm and kind during that time. I think of their kindness and sweetness and how they acknowledged the song. It was just lovely. When I talk about the song, and I haven’t in a while honestly, people say that it was my big break. But back then I was thinking it might ruin my career.
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