Interview: Mary Chapin Carpenter Encourages the Truth on ‘The Dirt and the Stars’
In the early 1990s, Mary Chapin Carpenter was winning at the ACM Awards, racking up Grammys victories and charting Top 20 hits and platinum-selling albums. State of the Heart (1989), Come On Come On (1992) and the chart-topping Stones in the Road (1994) are among a string of now-classic records from the artist, whose hits include "I Feel Lucky," "Passionate Kisses" and "He Thinks He'll Keep Her."
More than two decades later, Carpenter remains a well-regarded singer-songwriter, particularly within the folk and Americana communities, but her days in the mainstream scene are well behind her. She long ago stopped courting that sort of success; as a 62-year-old woman who writes insightful, occasionally political fare, she'd face an uphill battle if she tried, anyhow.
"I haven't thought of myself as sort of existing in the country realm for quite a few years," she tells The Boot, calling the long history of marginalization of women at mainstream country radio "absolutely absurd."
"I just think, you know, you're a singer-songwriter: You write your songs and send them out into the world and hope they resonate with someone," she adds.
Carpenter's looking for that connection with The Dirt and the Stars. Out Friday (Aug. 7), the album offers 11 songs and is her first completely new studio album since 2016. She wrote them at home in rural Virginia, then flew to Bath, England, to record at Real World Studios, owned by rock legend Peter Gabriel, with acclaimed producer Ethan Johns.
"I had had such a fantastic experience there making [2018's] Sometimes Just the Sky ... that it was really just a no-brainer to want to try to repeat that," says Carpenter, who adores England, the studio itself and working with Johns. "It all added up to just, you know, 'Gosh, if we can pull this off, let's by all means do it.'"
The whole crew from 2018 returned as well, save for her bassist and pianist. "It really was just like falling back into a very comfortable, easy language," Carpenter remembers.
That familiarity and seamless collaboration helped Carpenter craft musical creations that are largely melodically soothing, but lyrically evocative. "It's Ok to Be Sad" and "Everybody's Got Something," in particular, are powerful in their encouragement to be real about difficult emotions and empathetic regarding tough situations.
"I was really trying to comfort myself. I was saying to myself, 'It's okay to feel. It's okay; this will eventually — you know, you'll eventually be able to feel better," Carpenter explains of the former track. "But when you feel like s--t ... it's okay to express it, and you shouldn't be afraid of it, and you need to share it in order to not feel alone ...
"Our ability to be vulnerable, our ability to express ourselves and say, 'I don't feel well. I'm sad. It's screwing me up,' whatever ... It's never been more important than it is now to not hide those things," she adds. "Because feeling alone in those feelings is the hardest part of them."
"Secret Keepers," too, conveys empathy and compassion, but it took Carpenter "a very long time" to get there; earlier versions of the song just came out angry. The artist cites the #MeToo movement and "the incredible courage and bravery and generosity of so many people who have sort of stood up during the beginning of that movement" as the turning point.
"It gave me some courage and some bravery that I just didn't quite know that I had inside of myself until just recently, but it's something that has festered for a very long time," Carpenter reflects. "On one hand, I've been trying to write it for a very long time, and on the other hand, I sort of realized now I couldn't have written it until just recently."
As she was creating and preparing to release The Dirt and the Stars, Carpenter found a particularly apt quote from Nashville-based writer and essayist Margaret Renkl: "We are all in the process of becoming.” Those words hit Carpenter deeply.
"I would want to say that that's always been [one of my] rules for living life. If you think about it, it's like, why would you want the opposite of that to be true?" she explains. "But sometimes, you know, just the way someone writes ... it's just the way they presented it and it's as if you sort of thought about that for the very first time, when in fact, though, that's been sort of your North Star."
After all, a good songwriter always needs to keep their eyes open.
"Nobody does [know everything]; if you think you do, you're deluding yourself," Carpenter says. "I mean, I don't mean to be such a boss about it ... but I would argue that point with anyone. It's ridiculous to think you do, because you can't."
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