Veteran singer songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter has just released Sometimes just the Sky (reviewed here), a reimagined set of songs that span a thirty-plus year long career. We met to chat about the inspiration behind the project.
It must be quite a complex, interesting process, readdressing and reworking songs that, in some cases, have been written three decades before, when life was very different. After such a time, American musician Mary Chapin Carpenter has decided to release an album of songs that span her significant career. “Well, some of the songs on the record were written before the first album, which itself is thirty years old,” she begins. “I’ve lived a life since then and my life is nothing like I ever imagined, so this album was really just about the idea of reimagining those existing songs and seeing what would happen to them, in as organic a way as possible. And what seems magical about it, at least to my sensibilities, is that even though they come from so many different chapters of life, it feels like they connect together seamlessly and it feels like a new record. It’s a relief,” she smiles, “because you never know if it’s just going to be sort of a gimmick, you know? But the whole experience has been wonderful.”
It’s common for artists to visit parts of their back catalogue when performing, but it’s rarer for them to take old songs back into the studio and rework them. Like Richard Thompson’s recent acoustic albums of older tunes, Mary Chapin’s is a confident sounding result. “Well, when I’m playing live, I always feel free to change a song up a bit,” she muses. “I might slow something down or strip it back, but I’m happy to change the emotions or textures of songs in a live setting, so this was kind of like me wondering why I couldn’t do that in a recording studio. It’s a rare thing to be able to go back to a song and start it again from zero, but I’m not too protective and I don’t really feel like they are so precious that you can’t touch them and see what other colours you can find there.” It’s also refreshing to hear an experienced musician still fond of and interested in their past material, as many consider it something that is rigid and exists in a certain time. “Well, I guess I feel like there’s not just one way to receive a song,” she considers, after a moment. “I often have had a certain emotion or experience in mind when I wrote a song, but that may be unknown to the listener and they may connect to it in a completely different way through some experience of their own. I don’t feel that I have the right to correct them or question their reaction to it; I want someone to receive the song however they are going to. It’s a privilege for me when somebody connects with a song.”
One of the strengths of Sometimes just the Sky is that it creates cohesion in a set of songs that were created over a very long period of time, a tricky task that Mary Chapin, with her producer Ethan Johns and their band, has managed very well. “Well firstly, I made sure I didn’t ask anyone in the band to listen to the existing song ahead of time,” she explains. “So each time we would sit down to record a new one, I would just play my acoustic version solo for everybody, and then we would all just start exploring it until eventually, the new one would emerge. So in that way, Ethan was very much steering the ship, but it was really a very generous reading from everyone. It was a very organic way of doing it because the only guidance the band had was hearing that acoustic version first.” Also significant about the approach is that the whole band was in the same room at all times to record. “Yeah, that’s certainly one of great Ethan’s things,” she smiles. “He’s able to mic a drum kit, for example, so we could have the drums in the same room as us. And I was in there too; I was playing at the same time, not separately singing in an iso-booth. There’s a certain amount of bleed that happens, but it was a testament to our wonderful engineer Dom and Ethan’s techniques that allowed us to record live like that.”
It seems a fittingly intimate way to make an album that, ultimately, seems very much about life, travel and experiences, something that Mary Chapin has always brought into her art. “I do feel like over the years I’ve written about or been the muse of things like the power of place and the passage of time and memory and the concept of travel,” she considers. “We know what travel as a verb looks like, be it from a car or train window, and sometimes in life doing a lot of it can make us lose track of where we feel we belong, but the upside is it inspires us and helps us understand that our lives and the places we go are part of a much larger thing than we can process. And for me, home has always been this concept that it’s not so much these four walls and this roof, but the sense of belonging somewhere, be it with a person or in a place, but just belonging with your own tribe. And those are powerful subjects that I think a lot of songs can come from.”
Sometimes Just the Sky is out now on Thirty Tigers
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Photo Credit: Aaron Farrington