By Brian Wise.
The first time Mary Chapin Carpenter visited Australia was nearly 25 years ago and she accompanied Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash. A spectacular trio even in those days! That was way back in 1991, not long after the release of her breakthrough third album Shooting Straight In The Dark, which produced four Top 20 Country hits in the USA and her award from the Academy of Country Music for Top New Female Vocalist.
A lot has happened since that memorable first visit – another ten studio albums, five Grammy Awards and numerous of her songs recorded by other artists. Carpenter’s latest album, Songs From The Movie is an orchestral revisiting of some of her songs backed by a 63-piece orchestra and 15-voice choir. But there has been only one other tour here, way back in 2000. Now, Carpenter returns for the first time in 15 years for an eight-date tour with Tift Merritt as support.
We’re looking forward to seeing you in Australia.
It’s been a very long time. To be able to come back is really exciting actually.
Now Tift Merritt will be with you in Australia. Have you worked with her before, toured with her before?
Yes I have. She is one of my dearest friends and I love her so much as a person and I revere her as an artist. I think she’s one of the most gifted musicians and songwriters I’ve ever met. I find her work to be deeply moving and affecting. Even if I didn’t know her as a person, I would admire her from afar. It’s really quite wonderful to be coming to Australia together.
It’s going to be a terrific double bill. What material will you be drawing on for your set?
This is an acoustic show. By that, for me it’s a bit more stripped down. I just have my long time keyboard player and a guitarist and then I play, of course. It’s a sense of just being able to excavate songs in a way, a little deeper, not just play the version that is on a record and change some tempos around a bit and just see what else is there. I think that that’s always a really interesting thing to do. That said, this little trio has quite a pulse. I think we have a good time being able to do all sorts of things.
Will Tift be singing with you at all? Will you be doing some songs together?
I’m sure we will. We have in the past, so I don’t see how that would be any different. Yeah we love to collaborate.
Your latest album was Songs From the Movie. I guess it would be a little bit difficult to bring a symphony orchestra around touring with you.
They’re your songs in different settings, aren’t they? Maybe you can tell us about that project.
Exactly. The songs already exist, as you said. There’s some songs on that record I may dig up. I like to write a set list in as spontaneous way as possible, so I haven’t got it planned out quite yet. I like to be able to see how things feel. All of the songs on Songs From the Movie were, as you say, existing songs.
I would imagine that you’re due for another album. Have you been writing and recording at all?
I have. I’ve been writing for the last three years or so. I went into the studio this past May and made a record and I am just about four days from finishing it. I’m going to go back into the studio in September for that four days. I’ll be finished with it in September. I just got a few more days of work on it. Then it comes out early next year.
Where did you record it?
I recorded it in a couple of different places, in a couple of studios in Nashville with Dave Cobb. I worked with Dave for the first time and was really awesome.
Who have you got on it? The usual band you use or have you got Nashville musicians?
These were musicians that were hand picked by Dave. Just people that he’s worked with in the past, they do a lot of different sessions, a lot of work with a lot of touring bands. I walked into a situation where I didn’t know anybody. It was all completely new, time to turn a new page. I have to admit I was pretty terrified because you know, I just hadn’t been in that situation for quite a while, where I was just the new kid on the block. It just ended up being a really wonderful experience. Of course, that’s a testament to Dave and all those great, great players.
Sometimes it’s really good and rejuvenating to do something like that and take you out of your comfort zone, isn’t it?
Absolutely. That’s why I did it because I had made these records the last ten years or so that I absolutely loved and was deeply proud of, but I’d made them with the same team. I think you reach a point in your life where it is important to shake things up and take yourself to new places with, sort of, exploring the unknown. Again, it is terrifying I think in the moment, but in the end you end up feeling like you were able to find things inside of yourself that you probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. It was a really tremendous experience and I’m so glad I did it.
We’re looking forward to hearing it. Maybe we’ll hear some songs from it on your Australian tour.
You just might. I’ve been playing a few of the new songs here and there. It’s time to let them go out into the world and find their way, although it’s always, again, somewhat terrifying to do that. I think it’s important and I’ve enjoyed doing that. I know that I’ll play some new songs out there for you.
You know it’s almost exactly twenty-eight years since the release of your debut album. Actually I think it was on July 30, 1987. Twenty-eight years is a long time in the business, isn’t it?
Oh my God, how did you find that out? I don’t even know how to find that stuff out. I guess, obviously I could do the math if I thought about it. It didn’t occur to me. Wow! Brian, that’s pretty awesome.
That is awesome, isn’t it? How have you managed to stay in the business so long? Should I call it a business?
I think it is. Let’s face it, it is a music business. I think there’s aspects of it that if you work hard enough to maintain a sense of, not compartmentalization so much or separation, but a sense of there is a business aspect to it and, hopefully, you’re lucky enough to have a team of people who can oversee that for you so that you don’t get all tangled up in it and that you can devote yourself to obviously the more artistic aspects of it.
I’ve been very lucky throughout my tenure as a recording artist to have worked with wonderful people who do keep that off to the side and out of my way. It’s not something that I’ve ever had to immerse myself in in such a way as to get in the way of the more important things.
My forte is not crunching numbers or figuring out how to deal with this, that or the other business issue. The only thing I really try to excel at is writing songs and hopefully being a good communicator and treasuring the privileges of being an artist. I say that with great humility as well.
Twenty-eight years – it’s changed so much since I started out. I know that you’ve been a part of this world for a long time as well. We could have endless conversation about how things have changed. The fact that we’re still here doing it makes us very fortunate.
I remember when my second record came out on Sony and I had to fight really hard for them to put it on a CD. They still didn’t believe in the technology, so there you go. That’s how long it’s been.
I thought you were going to say, I remember when my second record came out on a 78.
I might as well have said that, huh?
When you started off making music, do you recall who you were listening to and who inspired you? No doubt you are inspiring younger musicians these days. Who was inspiring you and who made you want to become a singer and songwriter?
Oh golly. First of all, that’s very kind of you to suggest that anybody would be looking to me at this point. I grew up listening to The Beatles and to singer songwriters like Randy Newman and Guy Clark.
Honestly, I didn’t listen to a radio station that made me separate out all the different genres of music. It was like, in our house, we listened to everything. That, to me, was a normal way of loving music. Didn’t matter if it was rock ‘n’ roll or soul music or country music or folk music. It didn’t matter. It just wasn’t every distinguished as such. I grew up in that kind of environment and to this day I resist, or feel somewhat allergic to the idea that these genres are very strict and that you can’t love one thing and not love another.
That said, the people, like I said, I grew up listening to The Beatles and Randy Newman and Motown music and I loved Woody Guthrie. I loved my father’s Johnny Cash records, but I couldn’t tell you that I was academically very fluent in the knowledge of traditional country music or folk music or anything. I just loved music – that was just what I was about. That’s just the way I’ve always felt about it and it’s the way I’ve always been.
Thanks so much for your time and we’re really looking forward to your shows in Australia, Mary Chapin.
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER & TIFT MERRITT TOUR DATES
August 27 – Newtown, Enmore Theatre
August 28 – Queensland, Gympie Music Muster
August 29 – Revesby, Revesby Workers’ Club
August 30 – New Lambton, Wests New Lambton
September 1 – Thirroul, Anita’s Theatre
September 3 – Bendigo, Ulumbarra Theatre
September 4 – St. Kilda, The National Theatre
September 5 – Oakleigh, Caravan Music Club