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Musical Constant Companion

on any Norman Warwick playlist

I think it was in nineteen ninety that I first met Mary Chapin Carpenter (left) when she was a new star in the annual country and western firmament that shone from Wembley arena in the biggest UK country festival of the year. This particular year included Townes Van Zandt and Willie Nelson and Asleep At The Wheel, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, making her UK debut might have been one of the least familiar names on the long list of musicians taking part.

David Deverson had just taken over my Sidetracks magazine with a view to incorporating it into what would be the first edition of his Detours magazine. Quite how he had secured access all areas press passes I shall never know. We certainly were not of the status of NME, Melody Maker or Country Music People but we managed to snaffle interviews with Townes and Willie and Ray Benson.

All the above mentioned were heroes of mine but when Dave Deverson told me we had a joint interview with Mary to speak about the release of her first album I was delighted. I had only recently been talking to John Stewart (right) in an interview in which we spoke of up and coming writers.

I took the fact he had the recording of Ms. Carpenter´s on one side of his own tape of a forthcoming album of his own, that this was a sign of approval. It was a couple of days before I was able to listen for the first time to Mary Chapin Carpenter´s voice, dynamic guitar, and excellent lyrics that carried a gently self-deprecating sense of humour. The stories were of her time on the road, the parents and family at home and the musical legends who had inspired her.

You can imagine, perhaps, how excited I was to be waiting in the corridor outside her dressing  room as Dave and I waited for a Wembley press advisor to call us in. We stepped inside to find our interviewee waiting patiently and greeting us cordially.

´Hi, Chapin´, said Dave, in what I thought was a somewhat over-familiar fashion.

However Dave was right and to have called her Mary would have been wrong. She apparently much preferred to be called Chapin, and she was smiling and open and chatty for the half hour of her interview.

These days, nearly a quarter of a century later, Chapin is five-time Grammy-winner, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 15th studio album, The Dirt And The Stars, finds the singer-songwriter pondering life’s intimate, personal moments and exploring its most universally challenging questions at an unprecedented time. Written at her rural Virginia farmhouse before stay-at-home orders became the “new normal,” the songs celebrate invaluable experiences and irreplaceable wisdom, while also advocating exploration of the best in all of us. As one of just 15 women voted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, with over 16 million albums sold, 5 Grammy awards (from 18 nominations) and the recipient of two CMA and ACM awards, her now-classic hits include “I Feel Lucky,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and “The Hard Way.” Produced by Ethan Johns (Ray LaMontagne, Paul McCartney, Kings of Leon) and recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath, in southwest England, The Dirt And The Stars marks Carpenter’s first collection of all-new material since 2016’s The Things That We Are Made Of. Below she reveals some of the inspiration behind The Dirt And The Stars. (left)

Speaking at press meetings called to promote the album, she sounded just like the Chapin I remember from Wembley in the last century. And writing on her web site she reveals a great deal about her methodology and manifesto for songwriting, Chapin talks of how –

The writer Margaret Renkl (right) contributes regular columns about lots of different things to The New York Times. She wrote a deeply insightful one in which she said, “We are all in the process of becoming.”

It was an article that made the songsmith sit up and engage with the writer.

That doesn’t stop at a certain age. To be always a student of art and music and life, as she says, that, to me, is what makes life worth living. It’s certainly what makes me want to still write songs. No sugar coating, the songs are very personal and they’re difficult in some ways, and definitely come from places of pain and self-illumination, but also places of joy, discovery and the rewards of self-knowledge. They arrived from looking outward as much as inward, speaking to life changes, growing older, politics, compassion, #metoo, heartbreak, power of memory, time and place. So, I suppose I could empathise by saying there are many themes, but they all come back to that initial idea that the we are all constantly “becoming” through art and expression.

My song-writing methods are remarkably the same as they have always been. The only thing that’s really changed over the years is that the device I use to record my ideas just keeps getting smaller and smaller. I still sit down with a yellow legal pad and a pencil and eraser, whatever the device is, and guitar sitting in my lap. I work at my kitchen table. It’s where I am most comfortable writing. The writing process remains as fascinating to me today as it did when I first began writing as a teenager; the excavation, the digging through things that become an exploration of life, it’s the most satisfying thing I know.

Living here where I can walk for miles and never see another soul, it’s a big part of the creative process for me, being outside, riffing aloud as I walk and editing in my head.

All of the songs on this latest añbum took their various turns and chalked up miles along the way but “Farther Along And Further In,” and “Nocturne” – there is no way those two songs in particular could have been written without walking. They just took so many different paths to arrive at their finished selves. It brings me happiness and solace to be in nature, losing myself, but it’s also very much about working things out. My brain can go anywhere it wants that just feels very different have some sort of thing they do, to help them plug in to a different than being tethered to the kitchen table. I think many creative people place. “Farther Along And Further In” is about recognizing that something has changed, gradually but distinctly. In the last few years, I feel as if my life has altered its compass readings. For so long I had been following one path but the changes that come with growing older has opened up a new way of seeing and experiencing the world, from a deeper place. Perhaps it’s a recognition of choosing, or of respecting the spiritual over the practical.

Like my 2018 album, Sometimes Just the Sky, I made this record at Peter Gabriel’s studio in England. It’s an amazing place. You can be completely immersed in your work 24/7. They feed you, they put you up, they take brilliant care of you, so that all you need to think about is the work you’re there to do. That is a genuine privilege nowadays when technology permits us to email our parts and budgets limit our gatherings. At Real World, in the beautiful “Wood Room,” being able to be in the space all together playing live, recording head-on, singing live, no overdubs, it’s just sublime. That said, it’s incredibly hard, focused work, but it’s the best kind of hard work because it brings songs into being from every chair. And that just couldn’t have happened without all of us being in the room together.  

Ethan Johns, (left) who produced the last record, did this one as well. There is something about his process and approach that appeals to me,

Ethan has this extraordinary kindness about him that brings out the best in people. He has a stellar resume, having been tapped by the most incredible artists and musicians of every era, age group, genre, style…and our gifted engineer Dom Monks brought a quiet knowledge and technical excellence to the proceedings that informed every moment. What I love and value most about Ethan as a producer is my belief that his natural kindness opens the door to everyone feeling like they can contribute without hesitation, without doubt, without shyness. Experiment! Be fearless! It was a lovely fit, with much of the record being about empathy and compassion for one another, because we’re so imperfect and we’re so flawed. Use your head, use your heart, use your kindness. Rules for life as well as recording sessions

Those concepts seem to have been lost on the main character in “American Stooge.” I suppose I was reading too much about Lindsey Graham. When he was running for president, he was scathing in his disdain and criticism of the man who is now the current president. Then he simply pivoted and became one of his most prominent defenders, his main yes-man, his lackey, his stooge. He is unapologetic in his desire to remain relevant and the way to do so is to hitch his wagon to the biggest star in the universe. I found that to be breathtaking in its honesty, but so calculating and damaging to the greater good. Where is your soul, man? How do you face yourself in the mirror? There are many just like him along the political spectrum, but perhaps just not as honest and transparent about their choices.

The title track spotlighting my long-time guitarist Duke Levine. The moment the song captures was certainly a pivotal time for me. I was 17 years old; it was the summer that I had graduated from high school. It was one of those moments you remember, being with your friends, with a gauzy nostalgia, because you’re young, without responsibility, without any sense of limits. The sense that everything unknown is ahead of you brings feelings of being both liberated and lost…It was 1 in the morning and The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” was on the car radio. I remember leaning my head back, closing my eyes. It may have lasted only 30 seconds, but the lyrics had a through line to my heart and I felt suspended in time. I was imagining it was the happiest I had ever felt and the saddest at the same time. Isn’t that duality at the heart of every mystery we experience as human beings?  It was just one of those moments I wish I could put it in amber, hold it forever. That [guitar solo] is just like the part of the movie with the car going down the road on this luminous, humid night. Fast-forward to where I am now. I’m still in one piece, and I still believe that most people are good. I still believe in the innocence of first love, perfect songs and a sweet buzz from a can of cheap beer. Everything I’ve ever felt, every place I’ll ever dream of finding as well as every place I’ve ever been, can be found in a trance-like memory of riding in a car on a hot summer night listening to the radio. To quote another song, that’s where the beauty is…

Much of this album, its writing and recording etc., was undertaken when (due to covid) we were all  in our own minds, homes, rooms, captive in our own vessels. I thought then that when we get to the other side, when we arrive on the opposite shore of all of this, hopefully we will remember where the good, the important things come from, where the empathy lives, for ourselves as well as others. As has been pointed out, by far more eloquent voices than mine, is that while we were trying to stay apart from each other, we knew we had never needed one another more. We knew we were  going to need one another even more when as we gradually emerged back into the sunlight, blinking, wondering, questioning, worrying, fearing, dreaming, exhaling…it didn´t last forever, but we’re forever changed by it.

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