Mary Chapin Carpenter Takes On Themes Of Time, Sex, Love

With a title like "Time*Sex*Love," it's not hard to figure out that Mary Chapin Carpenter's first new studio album in almost five years is packed with the kind of lyrically deep, personal songs for wh

With a title like "Time*Sex*Love," it's not hard to figure out that Mary Chapin Carpenter's first new studio album in almost five years is packed with the kind of lyrically deep, personal songs for which she has come to be known.

Still, Carpenter says, "I always feel like you should put warning stickers on these records saying, 'Don't just presume [these songs are about me].' There are always the autobiographical things [for which] you draw on your soul, draw on yourself, but there is the world out there too, and your imagination. It's not up to me to say, 'This one is about me and this one is not,' but I always assume that people realize that it's not always about me."

The full title of the album, due May 29 on Columbia, is "Time is the great gift; sex is the great equalizer; love is the great mystery." It was a line spontaneously uttered by Carpenter's longtime collaborator John Jennings, after Carpenter mentioned to him that her new songs center around the themes of time, sex, and love.

The album title became the subject of much debate during the recording sessions last fall at London's Air Studios. "We all would sit around for hours and philosophize about this," Carpenter says. "If you came out on one position -- [such as] time is the great mystery, or love is the great equalizer -- you had to defend it. My position is what I ended up with as the title."

Carpenter wrote or co-wrote all 14 of the album's tracks -- nine solo, three with hit songwriter Gary Burr, one with Kim Richey, and one with Jennings, who co-produced the album along with Carpenter and Sony A&R executive Blake Chancey. As the presidential election controversy raged in the U.S., Carpenter was having a ball making the album in London.

"It ended up being the most positive experience," she says. "My one mandate [in making this album] was that I wanted to laugh my ass off. I just wanted to have fun. When I made the last studio record [1996's "A Place in the World"], I just felt like there was so much pressure from so many different places, including myself. I [thought], 'I just can't make a record like this anymore. It's just crazy. It just doesn't feel good.' I didn't want to repeat that."

While it has been a long time since her last studio album, Carpenter has kept busy. Besides assembling her 1999 set "Party Doll and Other Favorites," a best-of collection featuring live and alternative versions of her hits, she's been writing songs constantly and touring. She has also been involved in numerous other projects, most recently the Campaign for a Landmine Free World. She recently contributed to a Vanguard album in support of the cause, which she calls "exceedingly important."

Carpenter traveled to Cambodia on behalf of the organization earlier this year, a trip she refers to as "a life-altering experience": "I feel like I'm not eloquent enough to describe it, but it made me feel more resolved than ever to be an advocate for this issue."

While the sound of country radio has changed in the past five years, both Carpenter and her label are hoping her music still fits the format. Mike Kraski, Sony's senior VP of sales and marketing, says the album "gives country radio an opportunity to add depth and substance -- in terms of lyrical content -- to their mix, and I think the format is in dire need of that." He adds, "This is a woman who speaks to that [female] audience better than any other songwriter or singer in the format today."

While Carpenter claims she "hasn't a clue" how her music fits into contemporary country radio, she says, "I hope that this record will find a place there. But who knows? I have enough things on my shoulders to worry about." She continues, "I just keep my fingers crossed and hope it happens, but I do feel like -- and it's not like a disclaimer or anything -- but I am so proud of this record that there is not a lot that could happen that would dampen that."

For this album, Carpenter decided she wasn't going to concentrate on commercial concerns, such as radio and retail viability, choosing instead to focus only on the music. That decision, she says, "is a direct reference to my experience with the last record." This time," she adds, "I just worked really hard to put those songs on the record that I just felt in love with. I hope that the best comes from that. And if, by some stroke, the commercial and the spiritual meet, hallelujah."

While previously she had always followed her heart, admits she had also "let a lot of pressure get to me," she says. "It really hurt my sense of fun and experimentation, my sense of adventure in the studio. I understand that people are doing their jobs, but [on this album] I felt like my job is to make the best music I can make and throw all the other stuff out the window, and Blake and John were absolutely with me on that. It just felt wonderful to feel so supported."

Carpenter will support "Time*Sex*Love" with a U.K. tour that begins May 22, and a U.S. tour that follows, beginning June 21. She will also be performing dates with Steve Earle in August.