'To Ponder Is a Positive Thing': A Chat With Singer-Songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 14th album, The Things That We Are Made Of, is filled with gentle reflections of a life that’s reached yet another turning point—one with both plenty of living left, as well as plenty of living to learn from. Produced by Dave Cobb, its simple, sturdy arrangements allow the wisdom of Carpenter’s lyrics to maintain our focus throughout all 11 of its gorgeous tracks.

Jezebel met up Ms. Carpenter earlier this week while she was in New York City and talked about how to talk about her new album, the pleasures of being alone, and how her perception of life has changed over her nearly three-decade career as an artist.


Jezebel: In the press notes for the album, I’m not sure when you conducted that interview—

Mary Chapin Carpenter: Two months ago, maybe?

You mentioned that you were still coming up with a reliable way of talking about what the album is about. Have you figured one out yet?


No! I had to talk a lot about it a lot these past few days. I’ve done a few phoners, and I feel like almost every time I’ve talked about it, as I’m speaking, I’m just thinking it through. It’s been really enjoyable to just talk? You know, just have conversations about different songs. I’ve thought about different things that I hadn’t thought of before and made different connections about this or that. So, no, I haven’t gotten a reliable way of talking about it yet. But that feels OK.

The new album is explicitly, and thematically, about traveling. You know, it’s in the song titles and the lyrics, but—


Let me just jump in, it may be incredibly obvious, but travel is a metaphor for living. For life.


So, on the surface, yes, it’s about travel. But if you pull back a layer or two and look at the phrase, you can tell that it’s about life.


I don’t drive anymore, but I’m from Texas, and used to drive a lot. I had the luxury of being able to just take a drive if I wanted to take a drive. And there’s something about driving alone that makes you very reflective about your life.

Yes. Yes.

So there’s this place where traveling and thoughtfulness kind of intersect. As an artist who probably travels a lot, do you still get that sense on the bus or on a plane? Or are you numbed to it at this point?


I feel like when I’m on a plane—in particular the long trans-Atlantic flight—I take a second and think, “I’m over the ocean? In this little box?” Once you get past the extraordinary notion of that, and you watch the sun come up from, you know, Australia or wherever, I feel like it really gets the existential thoughts going. It makes you think about everything. And sometimes it’s really emotional and hard. You can’t make sense of it. Sometimes, when I’m traveling by myself, I feel utterly anonymous—like I could just disappear and nobody would know. And you just feel very alone. But when I’m on a bus with 12 other people, less so. There’s less space, literally and figuratively. You’re with people 24/7 and the only way to get away from them is to climb into your bunk and pull the curtain, and go into the fetal position. I’m also lucky enough to say that I love the people I travel with. They’re my second family. That’s comforting to me.


I live out on this farm in Virginia, this beautiful place. It’s very remote, and it’s very quiet, and it’s very serene. And I get so much from that. I’m on the road and it’s 24/7 and it’s all these people and there’s this routine that’s good—I like order out of chaos—but then I get home and it’s utterly different. And sometimes it’s really hard, because you go from one extreme to the other. And trying to find that balance—I think that’s in the record, I know it is.

In your last release, [2014's] Songs From the Movie

It was my last release, but it wasn’t new material.

I love that album so much, I think, because I love movie scores. I love how cinematic and orchestral it is. And especially compared to that one, your new album is so quiet? Quieter than your last album of new material, [2012's] Ashes and Roses, too. So there again are two extremes, Songs From the Movie and this new one.


You know, when I started working with [producer] Dave Cobb, when they were sort of stripped down the way they were, I thought, Well. That’s the way these songs should be. It wasn’t what I instinctively thought I would do.

How did you decide to work with Dave?

I got together with him a couple of years ago. He’s made beautiful records, and there is an enormous amount of attention on him right now—as there should be. He’s done incredible work, so in my mind this white-hot light is on him. But when I met him, it wasn’t quite there yet. So all I knew of his work was the beautiful album he made with Jason Isbell, Southeastern. It’s really moving to me, and that was the only work of his that I knew. So he was just one of the people I was getting ready to talk to, and I was terrified.


First of all, it’s just intimidating. It is. I had worked with the same really beloved crew for the last few records, and I felt like it was time to turn a page. And doing the orchestral record did more to nudge me that way, because that was another terrifying project. I didn’t have a skill set for that, you know? Recording in the studio with an orchestra was one thing, but singing it live in Lincoln Center? It was terrifying, but once i started doing it I loved doing it. It was that euphoric feeling of doing something new, and it made me hungry. As time goes on, don’t hesitate to do things that terrify you. That’s where the greatest rewards are. And I know it sounds like a Hallmark card, but I really feel that way. So even though I was terrified to meet with a new producer, I thought i really needed to do this.


So. I was on tour at the time, and it was this really cold and rainy day in Nashville, and I just went over to his house. He’s sort of a shy person, and he’s quiet, and I am too, but it was so nice. We sat around and talked about bands we loved and songs that we loved. I never played him any music, and now after making a record about it, that’s what Dave is so good at. He’s all about creating an atmosphere in the studio that’s so relaxed. He’s so nice and easygoing.


It feels like something that came before.

There’s a continuum.

Sorry for going back to this, but I kept wanting to put it on in a car. You know, just drive alone and listen to it.


I like that. I like that.

When describing something that urge to a person who doesn’t enjoy it, saying, “I just want to put on this album and drive alone.” It can sound like such a sad thing, but it’s not.


It’s not. Or, rather, there are the types of people in this world who would derive great pleasure from that and not sadness. We’re comfortable with being with ourselves. And then there are those who think it sounds alarming. It doesn’t make it bad. They’re different. I love doing that. It feels like a treat I’m giving myself almost.

The same thing can be said to getting existential and thinking about life. It doesn’t have to be depressing, to think about life and time.


No! And it shouldn’t be. To ponder is a positive thing. I have to do it a lot. I’m sensitive to noise and crowds and cacophonous spaces. I need quiet and solitude. I have a song called “I Have a Need For Solitude”! [Laughs.] That’s how I’m made.


In “Livingston” there’s a lyric, “On the way back home I will stop a while,” and—

You know that’s a road trip song?

It is?

You know the cover of Songs From the Movie?

The drive-in screen?

Yes. The old-fashioned drive-in movie theatre. It’s called the Spud Drive-In in Driggs, Idaho. I had seen pictures of this place, and I knew what the title of the record was, and I wanted to take a picture at sunset of that and make it the cover. At the same time, a friend of mine who was a wonderful songwriter by the name of Ben Bullington, was at the end of his life. He lived in Livingston, Montana. And his dear friends who were taking care of him said, “If you want to say goodbye to him, now’s the time.” So. There was a lot of emotion in this journey. Two of my friends and I and we drove from Denver, up to Idaho, and it was raining. One of my friends—the fellow who took the photograph—said, “Let’s just wait, and go eat something. I think the sun is going to come out.” And he was right. It was just one of those glorious sunsets.


There’s no filter on that photo. So we took it, then we drove hours more to Livingston, where I was able to spend some time with Ben. And it was so hard, as you can imagine. So I said goodbye, and we drove from Livingston all the way straight down to Denver.


So, you know, it depends on what you’re feeling at the time of a road trip. Sometimes that expanse—the vastness of all that—can be the most inspiring, miraculous kind of thing. And other times it can be the most lonely place you’ve ever been. You’re lost. You might as well be at 40,000 feet looking out into the void. [In “Livingston”] I was just trying to describe how it feels to drive down that long, straight line. The song is about that road trip. And saying goodbye.

I want to talk about the final song on the album, “The Things That We Are Made Of,” which feels so wise. That’s the thing about this album. It’s not advice, per se, it’s just thoughtful, ponderous music that makes you comfortable with life? Living? There’s a part when you talk about getting “stopped at the border” and they ask you questions and you say, “I have no answers but they let me cross.” It feels very, this might be the wrong choice of words, but it feels very grown up?


There’s a couple things I want to say about this. One, it was only when I had to type up all the lyrics in a package and send them to the office for the artwork that I had them for the first time right next to each other...that I realized, there are so many lyrics that are in the form of a question throughout this whole record. And it made me feel like...that there are far fewer answers than there are questions. And that’s OK. To ask the questions as a way of learning things—even without answers—is a way of going through life.

I think that might be the succinct way of describing the album.

Yeah! I had been writing songs for this record for roughly four years, and I had written a lot of songs. And it was only when i finished “The Things That We Are Made Of” that I had this very clear feeling of I think I’m done. I feel like I’ve got all the songs now. Even though I didn’t have them organized, it just felt like, I think I’m done!


And were you done?

I was. And that lyric, “I had no answers, but they let me cross,” I’m so glad you brought that up. Because, again, now you’ve given me this thought that I know I’m gonna use. That sort of explains why there are so many questions on the record.


So, my favorite song of yours is “Where Time Stands Still,” including the orchestral version—

You know that’s the song that gave me the idea of recording an orchestral album. That’s the truth. Twenty years ago!

There’s such a difference between the person who wrote “Where Time Stands Still” and the person who wrote this album. Can you see yourself writing that song today?


First of all, I think it’s clear that there are songs on this record that couldn’t have been written 20 years ago. That said, I feel like the best way I know how to answer that is, the first song on this album is “Something Tamed, Something Wild.” And what that song is about is me wanting to believe that—back when I wrote “Where Time Stands Still” and right now—that I’m a person who’s spontaneous. But at the same time, I’m honest with myself. That I crave security. Protection. I have days when I’m fearful about the future. And that song is like, how do I coexist with these two sides of me? Do I have to be one or the other, or can I be both? The yearning in “Where Time Stands Still”—wanting to believe there is still possibility for connection, love, romantic love, belief in romantic love—I feel like I have to believe that in order to go through life. If I didn’t believe that, I would feel despair every day. Do you know what I mean? I think it’s important to accept what’s dark about life, but believe in the beauty in the world. That’s in “The Blue Distance.” That is a song about sadness and darkness, but I also believe the world holds a lot of beauty and that fractures can be healed.


I heard this poem on the radio, and I don’t know who wrote it and don’t have it exactly right, but I’m going to paraphrase it. It made me feel like I heard a gift. It was something like, “You’ve got it wrong about scars. You think that’s where you were injured, but it’s where you were healed.” I just thought, that’s it.


Images via Aaron Farrington, courtesy of Mary Chapin Carpenter.

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