Mary Chapin Carpenter: Not Your Typical Country Star
’’When I’ve been lucky enough for people to tell me that they’ve experienced many of the same things,’’ says Mary Chapin Carpenter, ’’you just invariably feel a little less alone. You feel less of a freak, you know?’’
Carpenter, you could say, has been lucky a lot - at least in terms of responses to her songwriting. What was once simply a hobby for a shy, lonely teenager blossomed four decades ago, after the hometown girl graduated from Brown University and moved back to D.C. She has since sold more than 8 million records and won five Grammy Awards for work that effectively straddles the country-folk divide, including hit ’90s-era singles ’’Down at the Twist and Shout,’’ ’’He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’’ and her cover of Lucinda Williams’s ’’Passionate Kisses.’’ She’s also written or co-written songs for everyone from Joan Baez to Wynonna Judd to Cyndi Lauper
Named after her mother Mary Bowie Robertson and her father Chapin Carpenter, Carpenter says the time she lived in D.C. in the early ’80s was instrumental in helping her break out of her shell, gaining confidence in her craft and getting comfortable with an audience.
These days, the singer-songwriter lives with ’’her peeps’’ - five dogs and four cats - in Charlottesville, Va. She’s also a near-annual draw at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap, which she cites as ’’one of my most treasured and favorite places.’’ In a few weeks, on Aug. 18, she’ll be joined at the large, outdoor Virginia venue by folk legend Loudon Wainwright III (Rufus and Martha’s father).
More than anything, people connect to Carpenter because of the emotionally honest and frank way she reflects on her life in lyrics. And her new album -- her 10th -- just may be the most personal, most powerful, yet. (It also features a rare collaboration, and Carpenter’s first with a hero of hers, James Taylor.) Ashes & Roses touches in particular on the dissolution of Carpenter’s marriage and the death of her father - both of which occurred in recent years. Carpenter doesn’t really flinch at sharing her thoughts and feelings. ’’To not write about these things would have been odd in a way,’’ she says. ’’I think I had to excavate these feelings.’’
Two years ago, the proudly liberal Carpenter, who has long supported LGBT causes, publicly congratulated, via Twitter, Chely Wright on coming out as country’s first openly gay star. Wright has since noted Carpenter was the only country star to go public with her support, beyond private messages or conversations.
’’It just never in a million years would occur to me to do anything else,’’ Carpenter says. ’’[It’s] what was right.’’ During a 40-minute conversation the day after her new tour launched in Pittsburgh, Carpenter expressed dismay at the lackluster support for Wright, and the slow - but steady - pace of progress for LGBT rights.
’’Everybody deserves love and everybody deserves acceptance," she says. "It’s that simple.’’
METRO WEEKLY: I understand Wolf Trap is a special venue to you. Can you explain why?
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER: Having spent so much of my life as a Washington-area resident, it’s just one of the most special places. It’s one of the most undeniably beautiful places, the Filene Center. We have this sort of tradition where we finish sound check and it’s towards the latter part of the afternoon, and then they open the gates for people who are sitting on the lawn. And if you stand in the back of the stage, in the wings - ’cause it’s a dark stage at that point - you see people racing down the hill with their coolers and their blankets and the sort of wonderful yells and screams of people staking out their plots for the night. You just feel this joy and happiness.
MW: I understand you got your start in the music industry by performing in clubs in D.C.
CARPENTER: I did, I absolutely did.
MW: Do you remember some of the venues?
CARPENTER: Kramerbooks and Afterwards Café. A place that used to be known as Gallagher’s Pub on Connecticut Avenue, which I believe is now called Nanny O’Briens. A wonderful, fabulous, storied, no-longer-there-but-famous place called Food for Thought on Connecticut Avenue, a vegetarian restaurant. I passed the hat there on Friday nights.
You know, just little joints around D.C. I had some wonderful times and incredibly dear friends and other musicians and we would hang out together. Sunday nights at Gallagher’s was an open-mike night, and there was a real crowd of wonderful musicians that used to hang out there. That sense of fellowship and community was really important to me. I felt I belonged with these other musicians [at a time] in my early 20s when I didn’t know what I was doing.
MW: You didn’t study music in college, I understand.
CARPENTER: I really don’t think I allowed myself to imagine that I’d ever be fortunate enough to do this. My folks sent me to college; I was so lucky that they could do that. I was just a liberal arts junkie in college: history and literature and a few sociology courses thrown in, art history, lots of English courses. And I really didn’t know what I was going to do with that. [After college] I sort of patched together some sort of living, living in group houses [in D.C.] and doing temp work and playing in bars and clubs and just kind of - it was a complete improvisation for a period of time. I didn’t have a plan.
MW: But obviously the liberal arts side of you, that helps inform your lyric writing.
CARPENTER: Well, I guess it does, yeah. I love to read and I love to write. I sort of feel like everything in your life is helpful to you. You’re a sponge and you absorb things, and whether or not you’re conscious of it, they come out in what you do.
MW: I realize your touring season just started so it’s still early, but how is the reception to the new material?
CARPENTER: I don’t ever like to say, ’’Oh, we killed it!’’ [Laughs.] All I know is that the audience [in Pittsburgh] was lovely, and I loved it, and I had a wonderful time. You know, it’s always a little nerve-wracking to present brand new material. And I definitely got the jitters. I’m just such a perfectionist, always trying to get a sense of how it’s going [even] while I’m playing. But I felt really happy with how it went. I might make a few adjustments but it’s a good start.
MW: You must also get the jitters because you’re pretty forthright in your material about expressing what you’ve gone through, and reflecting on your life and your issues.
CARPENTER: There’s no question that Ashes and Roses is a very personal record, and it addresses some issues that are sort of the big topics in our lives. As a songwriter I’ve always sort of written about my internal world. That’s what people do; it’s not unique to me. A singer-songwriter is sort of a genre unto itself, I’ve always felt. And invariably you speak to your emotions and your feelings - as well as of course, you know, write songs about the world beyond you and so forth.
MW: I imagine it takes a while for you to figure out how to write about some of your feelings though, or what you want to say.
CARPENTER: I think the oldest song on the record -- ’’Don’t Need Much to Be Happy" -- dates to the summer when my marriage was coming apart two years ago. There are some days where you sometimes have to write down what gives your life meaning and what makes you feel whole in order to remember it when you feel so bad. And that’s what that song really was. It was like I was trying to comfort myself. And I was in the midst of my marriage coming apart, and I didn’t have a lot of perspective at that point. However, it took another year or so to finish all the rest of the songs. So there was obviously a certain amount of time that had elapsed to give me some sort of observation point, I guess, if that’s the right term.
Having said that, it’s not like the point at which I’m at now is that I’m over it, and everything’s fine. This stuff takes a long time to sort of figure out and process and transition through. I’m still going through it. I have terrible days of feeling lost. And then I have other days when I can definitely tell that I’ve come some distance from certain things, and the pain or the sorrow feels less acute. So it takes a while.
MW: I gather that songwriting for you is a little bit therapeutic to some extent.
CARPENTER: Therapeutic? I don’t know if that’s the right word as much as it just kind of helps. I think by writing about things and thinking about them and trying to work to excavate feelings and explore them -- there is a therapeutic value to that. But it’s not like therapy, you know what I mean? Songwriting, as I think with any creative effort, is a way of making sense of your world, or connecting to the world in some way. And all of those things are very positive things. So straight therapy, I don’t know, but it does have a value in terms of just helping you sort through things.
MW: And then by extension, you help listeners and fans sort through their own issues and problems, by seeing you do the same.
CARPENTER: When people tell me that they connect or something I wrote resonates with them, that always feels like a gift. Divorce and grief and loss, those things are very isolating experiences, or they can be. It’s comforting to know you’re not the only one. And that’s very therapeutic I think.
MW: How long were you married?
CARPENTER: I was married for eight years. Two years since I was divorced.
MW: An eight-year marriage will take a while to process and heal from.
CARPENTER: Yeah, I don’t know. Oh boy. [Laughs.] It’s a hard one. It continues to haunt me.
MW: Your father passed away recently too.
CARPENTER: He did, he died last October. He had been ill for a period of time, and we knew that, [but] no matter how much you think you’re prepared for something, it doesn’t make it any easier. I’m at the age, along with a lot of my friends, where the loss of a parent -- it’s starting to happen to us -- and I know that we all go through it. That’s part of living this long. That’s what happens. But it’s not easy.
My father was a wonderful man. He did more than anybody else in my life to encourage my desire to be an artist in the world. He never made me feel like I was chasing some ridiculous dream. He supported my desire - and for a parent to do that.... If anything I think [parents] just want to protect you from all the rejection, and the potential for failure - or not failure so much as just lack of traction. And that’s what loving parents do, they don’t want their kids to feel those things [even though] they are important to feel. I don’t know. He just really made me feel like what I was doing was worth doing, when there was very little evidence to show that it was worth doing.
MW: He obviously encouraged you at a young age, as I understand you’ve been writing songs for a long time. How old were you when you wrote your first song?
CARPENTER: Well, honestly, I was a kid. It was just made-up little verses about walking on the sidewalk or something. I always loved to write poems, and sing songs, and write songs, and make them up, and play the guitar, play the ukulele, play the bass uke, all that. We had music in our house of all kinds growing up, so it just was a natural thing. I loved my music teachers growing up, and I loved to sing madrigals, and it was just always a really big part of my life. When the Beatles came on the radio, I was singing along. [Laughs.] So, you know, when I was a teenager, I guess that’s when I got serious - well, in my mind I got serious - about wanting to write songs. It just became this outlet for me as an angst-ridden teenager. I was shy and I was lonely, and it was my outlet: to play the guitar, to hole up in my room and write songs. So that was something I just always did.
MW: Had your father written songs? How did you get the idea to start writing songs?
CARPENTER: No, my folks didn’t do it. I don’t know. Maybe I just listened to my Joni Mitchell records and James Taylor, God bless them. And these people were writing songs, so it just seemed normal to want to try to emulate them, because they were real heroes of mine. No one said, ’’Oh, you can’t do it.’’ It was just, ’’Oh, that’s what I guess you do, you write your own songs.’’ As well as learn all of their songs.
MW: Had you worked with James Taylor before the new album?
CARPENTER: We’d met any number of times, and there was a tribute show to Joni Mitchell in New York that we were all part of, but in terms of formally working with him, no. But we have many mutual friends and we’ve met informally.
MW: It must have been a trip to work with him on the new record.
CARPENTER: Oh, are you kidding? It was like, ’’Oh, my God!’’ When I finished that song, when I finished ’’Soul Companion,’’ I remember sort of leaning back at my desk, thinking to myself, ’’God, I hear James Taylor singing this song.’’ But it was a passing thought. I am tortured at the idea of asking people to take time out and work with me, because I know how busy people are, and I’m just shy, and it’s just hard for me to put myself out there.
I said to my manager, ’’Gosh, I could hear James Taylor singing this song.’’ And he went, ’’Uh, huh.’’ And then that was it. And then a couple weeks later I was in the studio making the record and I got a text from my manager saying, ’’There’s a certain singer/songwriter from Massachusetts who’s going to be calling you in about an hour to talk to you about your song.’’ And I just screamed! He had sent James the song. So he called me. And I sort of screamed and yelled. We chatted, and he was so lovely. He said, ’’I love the song, and I love you, and I’d love to do it.’’ And I just couldn’t believe it! And then he goes, ’’Mary Chapin, would you mind if I played a little guitar on the song?’’ [Laughs.] And I said, ’’No, James, I wouldn’t mind at all.’’ He is the most generous, lovely - he gave me this gift by singing that song. I hear it, and I just can’t stop crying every time. I can’t believe it.
MW: You have been pretty passionate in support of gay rights throughout your career. And when Chely Wright came out, you were apparently the only country star to publicly support her.
CARPENTER: Well, you know, I still find that hard to believe. I mean I know it’s a fact, but it just kind of makes me shake my head, ’’Oh, my God.’’ I just don’t know, I don’t get it. I find it just bewildering.
MW: I understand that Wright has expressed concern about her career now. Sales of her last album, 2010’s Lifted Off The Ground, were much lower than previous sets, and she speculates that her coming out is a culprit.
CARPENTER: Well, I can’t speak to that, in the sense that I’m not privy to the nuts and bolts of someone else’s daily career. But obviously, if that’s the sense that she’s getting, that to me is tragic. It’s ridiculous. But I don’t know. I guess I shouldn’t - Oh, don’t get me started. [Laughs.]
MW: Have you encountered any sort of controversy or blowback for anything you’ve expressed or done?
CARPENTER: Not that I’m acutely aware of, or right in my face. I know that there are people out there who don’t care for what I do, for whatever reason, whether they don’t like my politics or whether they don’t like my music. It’s hard to know precisely why someone decides they reject you or they don’t want you or they don’t like you or they want to badmouth you or whatever. I don’t know. The Internet is a place where people can say anything they want and hide behind anonymous names. There was one time I remember doing a Today show broadcast. I played ’’Why Shouldn’t We?’’ which is a topical song about coming together, that people should love and accept each other, whatever their politics. The next day there were these really nasty [comments] about me and my Democratic or liberal leanings or something. [But] what am I going to do about it? I have to just be who I am. That’s all Chely is doing. She’s being who she is. And that’s what we should all seek to be.
MW: Do you consider yourself a political person?
CARPENTER: I consider myself a committed citizen. Political, there’s a lot of layers to that. Have I spoken up for or advocated on behalf of certain causes over the course of my career? Yes, I have. Have I campaigned for certain candidates? Yes, I have. I just did an event for the vice president a few weeks ago in California. I’ve never made any secret of the fact that my parents raised me to be a liberal Democrat. I think liberal is a word of honor. It makes me ill when people use it as an epithet. I have nothing to be ashamed of. That’s who I am.
MW: I would imagine you stand out as a liberal where you live - not Charlottesville, a classic college town, but south central Virginia, certainly.
CARPENTER: I suppose. But you know four years ago, Obama won the state. I don’t know if he will this year. I hope he will, obviously. I don’t know.
I’m still pondering your question [about Wright]. I realize that I didn’t have to make the kind of decision that Chely had to, to be the authentic person she is. I didn’t have to confront the choices that she did, so I don’t mean to come across in any way as diminishing the importance [of it], and how difficult it was for her. I think what she did was courageous and brave and important, and if it has come at a cost of her career, to me it’s nothing but tragic. It’s just not right. But I also believe that she made the right choice, whatever the repercussions are for her.
MW: And in the grand scheme of things, Wright is blazing a trail. Future country singers will be able to follow her course without losing their fans or risking their popularity.
CARPENTER: I think it’s true. I think it’s inevitable that, you know, marriage for everyone is a part of all of our lives, all the rights that go along with that. It may be gradual, but I think it’s inevitable. I wish it wasn’t gradual, but I do believe that it’s inevitable, and that’s a very important thing.
MW: Do you have a lot of gay fans - is that something you’re conscious of?
CARPENTER: Well, people sit in the audience and I sort of see people and they look just like me -- they look a little older, a little younger, right in between. I look out in the audience and I see people that, again, I feel like we’re all in this together, and we all have experienced the same things in our lives. I’ve always wanted to believe that in my audience there are gay and straight, and black and white, and short and tall. I welcome all comers.
Mary Chapin Carpenter performs Saturday, Aug. 18, at 8 p.m., at ’The Filene Center at Wolf Trap, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna. Tickets are $25 to $42. Call 877-WOLFTRAP or visit wolftrap.org.
For national tour dates, please visit the official website of Mary Chapin Carpenter.