Mary Chapin Carpenter admits that there have been times in the midst of political season, that America feels like it is in the middle of a Saturday Night Live skit.
“That’s actually happening right now, and that’s unfathomable to me,” the two-time CMA Female Vocalist of the Year tells Billboard. “I don’t even know how to respond to it.” At the same time, the singer-songwriter admits that she’s never tried to shy away from her belief system about the issues, and thinks that it’s well within her right to do so. “I think I’ve often written about how I feel, and what things are important to me. I’ve never understood those people who are of the phrase ‘Shut up and sing.’ I’ve never understood why people would deprive anyone of voicing their feelings or advocating for a cause you believe in – regardless of whatever side you’re on. The idea that as a performer or songwriter that I shouldn’t espouse my views, I’ve never understood that.”
The singer releases her latest studio album, The Things That We Are Made Of, next Friday (May 6). As you might imagine, there are plenty of thought-provoking lyrics included on the disc. Perhaps the most interesting piece of social commentary might be “Oh Rosetta,” which was written partly due to today’s climate.
“I think that’s definitely how it feels right now,” she allowed. “I think there are pockets of unity, light, and love. But, if you were to travel far away and look down and see it all, there’s reasons to feel despair. I’ve definitely had my days. That song was written on a day where I felt that. It’s an imaginary conversation with Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I was thinking about her song ‘Up Above My Head,’ and I heard music. I heard singing – her beautiful spirit. Why she came into my head that day, I have no idea. But, that’s where it came from. I was seeking guidance, I was trying to be comforted. I felt loss and despair. There are days that if I pay too much attention to the news, I still will feel that way. It’s as if my armor isn’t strong enough that day.”
Another strong lyric on the album belongs to “The Middle Ages,” about the changes one goes through in life – and adapting to life along the way. “That song definitely speaks to the idea of being in search. You don’t stay the same. You’re always undergoing change. But, sometimes you haven’t caught up with the idea that it has happened, and you’re trying to recognize yourself in different places and different situations. The song is a look back of a sort to understand how you got to where you are now. Sometimes, those answers don’t come quickly – they come over the long term. Then, sometimes they don’t come at all. That’s what this record does have – what I didn’t notice until it was time for me to type up all the lyrics and send them to the office for the liner notes – that I saw that so many of the songs pose questions of how this happens or that happens from deep in the heart. What is important is that the questions are asked – it’s not necessarily that you have the answers. It’s the idea that these questions serve as markers for where you are in life.”
Carpenter admitted that she feels that as an artist – and a woman — she has been in search of something since her 1987 debut album Hometown Girl. She says that while the new album is obviously different, it definitely fits in with her past works. “It feels to me as a songwriter to be an authentic continuation of what I’ve been doing for a very long time. Of course, every record is different based on the songs, first and foremost, and then who you have helping you. Working with Dave Cobb was a wonderful adventure for me. It was a totally new situation. I threw myself into the unknown with a producer and musicians that I had never worked with before. It was a desire of mine to leave my comfort zone, and I was able to do that.”
Carpenter had nothing but praise for Cobb and his artistic integrity – and willingness to let his artists be themselves. “I think that’s what makes him a wonderful producer. I could probably obsess over a couple of different takes based on wondering if I sang or played guitar as well as I could have – that kind of thing. His whole thing is ‘What does it feel like?’ Does it feel like the best performance of something versus being simply a technical performance? He always goes for that,” she said, though she confessed “I had to really give over to that.”
Working with Cobb – and an entirely new group of musicians was intimidating for the singer. But, it was exactly what she felt she needed. “It was a little terrifying. But, I wanted to do that. That came, in large part, after I had put out an orchestral record a few years ago called Songs From the Movie. That experience is what I feel like fueled the desire to leave my comfort zone. I learned so much doing that record, and I felt euphoric with the skills I was able to master in singing with the orchestra. It was a wonderful, life-transforming experience. When it came time to do this next record, the idea of not using that same criteria as I had done before was exciting to me. That’s where the reward was for me on this album.”