Mary Chapin Carpenter reflects on the balance between independence and interdependence in her co-headlining tour< < Back to
MARIETTA, Ohio (WOUB) — Singer, guitarist, producer, performer. Veteran singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter has done it all.
In her 1991 zydeco-infused hit Down at the Twist and Shout that earned her a Best Female Country Vocal Grammy in 1992, she served as both writer and producer.
In March 2020, shortly after mass COVID-19 shutdowns, Carpenter proved she can still be entirely self-sufficient with her Songs From Home series, fulfilling the roles of performer, stylist — even animal wrangler when tending to her dog, Angus.
Carpenter was one of the first artists to experiment with lockdown-era virtual shows for her fans, often racking up millions of views per episode.
Carpenter concluded the series in late 2020 with the release of her One Night Lonely album, which was nominated for Best Folk Album at the 64th Grammy Awards. The series has also been immortalized by the publication of a book with the same name, 58 entries that detail Carpenter’s pandemic year.
Today, Carpenter is content to share spaces with a co-headlining tour with Shawn Colvin. Colvin is perhaps best known for 1998 Grammy Song of the Year Sunny Came Home. Carpenter and Colvin play the Peoples Bank Theatre (222 Putnam Street) in Marietta on Tuesday and the Midland Theatre (36 North Park Place) in Newark on Wednesday.
Ahead of their tour, WOUB’s Ian Saint spoke with Carpenter from her farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Find a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, below.
Ian Saint: I understand you’re headed to Ohio by way of Mexico?
Mary Chapin Carpenter: That is right, and it’s so nice to be talking to you. We are leaving in just a day or two to go to Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend in Cancun. That’s going to be amazing. And sunshine, very different from the weather we’re experiencing right now across the country. It’s a thrill to be invited. Then we’re coming to see you all, so we’re really excited about that.
Your first Songs From Home episode was posted on March 18, 2020. You were at the forefront of the musicians playing on Zoom, when Zoom was sort of a novelty at the time. I didn’t realize how early on you’d launched it. You might’ve been the first?
Carpenter: Well, I wish I could be accurate [in claiming to be the first], but I know I wasn’t. It was seeing other people do it that gave me the courage to try. I was observing other artists that I knew, from the top of production values — certain people had literally rented out large venues, empty venues to play a set in — and then down to just your backyard. But there we were in the month of March, so I wasn’t exactly going to be in the backyard.
My thought process was that I just wanted to be useful in some way. I say that with humility. I just wanted to be a positive force in some small way. If singing a song could bring comfort, could bring a little bit of light to a dark day, I wanted to be able to participate in that. I had no idea that it would go for an entire year, 62 episodes.
And the thing that really humbled me was the beautiful community that kind of sprang up after each of these episodes. In the posts that people would write, and the things that they would share, and the connection that it seemed to foster, and the support that everyone was giving to each other — strangers and acquaintances, alike. That was the thing that I felt, that I was given this extraordinary gift, from all the beautiful souls who joined and watched it.
I’m going to humble your humility by pointing out that the first episode alone had millions of views — obviously, it was needed.
Carpenter: That’s just unbelievable. But technology can be helpful sometimes, right? It doesn’t have to be a force for evil all the time; it can be a force for good.
“My thought process was that I just wanted to be useful in some way. I say that with humility. I just wanted to be a positive force in some small way. If singing a song could bring comfort, could bring a little bit of light to a dark day, I wanted to be able to participate in that. I had no idea that it would go for an entire year, 62 episodes.” – Mary Chapin Carpenter on her Songs From Home series
Some people get a kick out of looking at their old interviews and some hate it. I don’t know where you are on that spectrum…
Carpenter: No, I’m not one of those. Yeah, I don’t want to go back.
Well, this, I thought it was a wonderful interview. It’s an interview you did with Good Morning America in 1992, and you had just performed at the Grammys at Radio City Music Hall. It’s interesting to juxtapose that performance at the Grammys with the Songs From Home series. In both instances you had millions of people watching you in very vulnerable moments, but at very different times in your life, and in history and technology — do you have any thoughts, looking back on that Grammys performance, and juxtaposing that with surrendering so much formal production in the Songs From Home series?
Carpenter: First of all, Ian, I have to give it to you for going down the rabbit hole so far — that’s pretty amazing, that you have done your homework, and I appreciate it. Thank you. You know, I just have to think about it for a second… I think the first thing that comes to mind — I don’t particularly remember that interview you’re referencing on Good Morning America, but that was in 1992 — and then Songs From Home was 2020. So, 28 years. All those years in between.
The thing that makes me happiest, or the first thing that I sort of reflect on, is the gratitude that I feel that I still get to go to work with this job, all these years later. That I can still go out on tour, I still make records, I still love to write songs more than just about anything in the world. Given the business that we’re in, it’s one of those businesses that careers can last three seconds — and if you’re lucky, they last a little longer, but there’s no guarantee. So I feel tremendous gratitude that I’ve been able to do this for all of these years. That you can even pose that question to me, that just makes me really happy.
Have you noticed a change in your audiences, as far as their behaviors or the way certain songs resonate today versus before COVID?
Carpenter: The first thing I think about, in the essence of your question, is — I remember this really well — after maybe 6-8 months into the pandemic, I remember writing in my journal and saying, “I will never lose my mind at a crowded airport again.” At that moment, it was like, “I would give anything to be traveling somewhere, to be amidst a lot of people.” What we would give to have it all back again. All the things that we used to moan about, and the things that would make life “hard” in our minds. But at any rate, I don’t know if I notice anything different about the audience; but I just know, inside of myself, that I have so much.
When we finally returned to touring two summers ago, it was both terrifying and [also felt like] it was Christmas every day. Just the fact that we were out there again, resuming what we had been doing for all these years, and the audiences were welcoming us with open arms — it just felt incredible. But at the same time, it was terrifying, because we were still taking a chance to be out there and you might get sick, and who knew what was going to happen. And that did indeed happen to us a couple times, the first summer, where we had COVID outbreaks in our ranks and we had to shut down because that was the right thing to do.
So I don’t really think that I have a different relationship with, or a different sense of, the audience. As far as songs go, I don’t think I have a different sense of what something means to me post-pandemic versus before. But the fact that we’re able to resume — and to do it safely, and to do it lovingly, and to do it kindly, and with generosity, all of us… and that’s what’s important.
Can you share insights on how you stayed motivated during the years preceding your Columbia Records deal, navigating the folk circuits in DC? Considering your commercial success in your 30s, do you have advice for young artists feeling pressured by societal expectations, likely tied to social media, that tell them success should happen in their coming-of-age years?
Carpenter: Right. I totally agree with you in the sense that I think social media has, among other things in our culture and society, exacerbated the [notion] that has always sort of bubbled under the surface in our culture. But it’s even more so now. The younger you are, the more accomplished you have to be, or the more accomplished you have to be, the younger you have to be, too. So, figure that out.
If anything, I am probably a bit of a broken record about this. I talk about it a lot, but I am much older than that. I’m 65 years old, and contrary to what the culture would have us think, I feel like I’ve never been more able in my job. It’s taken me all these years of practice and work to hone the skills that I have, such that I carry them with me now, and they’re as sharp as they’ve ever been.
It’s so unfortunate that we have such an ageist society and culture that diminishes people once they’re over the age of, oh my gosh, 35 or 40. And it’s such a loss to everyone, because there are so many elders in our society — in the arts, in letters, in every industry, in every walk of life — who have so much to offer, and wisdom to impart, and the benefit of wisdom and experience. So I would say to any young person, “you have years to achieve, and you have years to figure it out, and years to hone your skills — use every single one of those days and weeks and years, because that’s the gift of life.”
You’ve always been known for your versatility. You were somebody who could do it all; and with [2016’s] The Things That We Are Made Of, you decided to relinquish the role of producer to Dave Cobb. And then for the next studio albums, [2018’s] Sometimes Just the Sky and [2020’s] The Dirt and the Stars, you decided to have Ethan Johns produce. What was it like to entrust someone else to produce your albums?
Carpenter: I just felt like I wanted a different experience. And working with Dave was the first; it really did sort of make it different — not only because we were new to each other, but because I allowed myself to let go of things. Partly my desire to be a co-producer for all of my albums had always just been, it was just something that felt important to me in terms of…it wasn’t so much control, as it was just a sense of, ‘I have contributions, and I want them to be acknowledged.’ I’m not just sort of being told what to do. And I’ve just always thought you have to kind of put yourself forward that way, especially in our business. So that was just something that I had always done; and by the time I was ready to make that record, I had made a lot of records, and I wanted a different experience. I wanted to see what it would be like to just let go.
And I had a really positive experience with Dave. I love that record, and loved making it with him. And then when I met Ethan, it was sort of the same thing. “Okay, what would this be like?” Traveling over to England to make Sometimes Just the Sky and Dirt and the Stars with him, both of those albums, that was, again, a really enriching, different, positive, magical kind of experience. So it just felt fine to do it that way, which isn’t to say that down the road I won’t go back to wanting to put my hands on the steering wheel. But for those last few records, it was just really marvelous.
In the past, it seems like artists were applauded for a kind of hyper-independence. Recently, and likely because of COVID, there seems to be a shift acknowledging the value of some dependence in general. How do you reflect on your own trajectory, having released albums with a massive label, Columbia, then releasing albums with indie label Zoë Records, and then going onto do your own imprint with Lambent Light Records?
Carpenter: I would describe the journey from being signed to Columbia as a baby act in 1986, to the place I am now — where it is under my own imprint, but distributed by Thirty Tigers — as similar to the sense that I’m also of a generation that remembers what it was like before we had cell phones; you’d be on the road, and you’d have to go find a payphone to call somebody, and now it’s entirely different. To have experienced all those different passages of life, culture, and technology, it’s a similar thing with my record label journey.
Back when I was signed, there were many more major labels; and now there’s just [Universal, Sony, Warner]. Now it’s a DIY world the major labels kind of used to act as gatekeepers, and maybe they still do to some extent, but we can do it ourselves. We can make records in our bedrooms and put ’em on YouTube, one does not need a major label deal to follow their musical dream. The difference between what life was like when I got signed [to Columbia] in 1986, to the way it is now, I have so much more freedom and I have so much more control, and I own my things — and it’s the way to be, in my opinion.
Being able to pick and choose what you want to control, and what you would like to surrender.
Carpenter: Right, and you don’t have someone breathing down your neck from the label. It sounds like a bit of a cliché, but I did have this experience from time to time where they were saying, “We need this kind of thing from you,” or “We want that,” or “We don’t like this,” or whatever. The relationship I had with all the different labels, that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with at different times, is like a marriage of some kind. You have to figure out how to get along, and how to make compromises, and how to understand each other. But the place that I’m in now, and where I’ve been for the last few years, is just utterly, “It’s up to me.” It’s an extraordinary sense of freedom and liberty, and an opportunity to just let your creative mind run wild. It’s great.
What can audiences expect from your upcoming shows?
Carpenter: Let me give huge props to my touring partner, Shawn Colvin, because the audience will [love her]. She is beyond one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Just so gifted as a songwriter, as a singer, as a performer. She inspires me just endlessly. I have loved her dearly as a friend, and as an artist, for years and years. And so I look forward to us reuniting on the stage in Ohio. Every song on every record of [Shawn’s] could be a deep cut for me. I mean, yes, she has Sunny Came Home, and that’s a huge hit song. But half the time on these shows, I’m just covering my face in tears because she’s making me feel it all. And she’s another person who needs to be recognized for her playing skills. She’s an incredible guitarist; and people who know how to play guitar know that about her, she’s incredible.
You have so many hit songs. What are a few of your favorite deep cuts to recommend for our listeners?
Carpenter: I’d say one song from One Night Lonely, the acoustic version of Traveler’s Prayer. It’s the last song on the record. And then two songs from the most recent studio album, The Dirt and the Stars. The first song, Farther Along and Further In, and the last song, Between the Dirt and the Stars.
I don’t know why those two songs came to me just in this moment, but one speaks to an internal journey. Farther Along and Further In is about a sort of spiritual moment in life — and Between the Dirt and Stars is about looking back at an experience I had when I was 17, riding in a car, and everything that’s come since then. The joys and the sorrows. Not to be predictable, but that’s the truth.
Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin play the Peoples Bank Theatre in Marietta on Tuesday and the Midland Theatre in Newark on Wednesday. For tickets, and full lists of their tour dates, visit their official websites: marychapincarpenter.com and shawncolvinmusic.com.