MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER tells Shelley Marsden about spreading her wings after thirty years in country music…
“Most people will never have had an opportunity to literally stand beside an orchestra as they’re playing. Have you?” asks the Grammy-award winning Mary Chapin Carpenter. Nope, can’t say I have. “It’s like a physical force”, she adds. “Of course you have a mic, but you have to use it carefully, not over or under-singing. You have to find the perfect place on top of that wave, and ride it”.
Synonymous with country, folk and Americana for the past three decades, the New Jersey-born singer is explaining the dream, realised three years ago of recording an album of her tracks with the lush, orchestral arrangements of Vince Mendoza – and first stepping up on stage to perform them.
“You want to be a part of the orchestral sound – you don’t want to stick out of it – but at the same time you do have to be you as an individual”, she continues. “The best analogy I’ve been able to come up with is it’s as if you’re riding an enormous wave of sound, and volume and force.”
She brings the fruits of that project, which yielded the album Songs From the Movie (Decca), to four UK concert venues this September having tested it out first at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival back in January. It’s the culmination of a period which has seen the singer release less and less commercial fare.
The concerts will see her performing some of her greatest hits with full orchestra backing, including Stones In The Road, The Hard Way and 10,000 Miles, plus several of the songs she personally selected for the album including Come On, Come On and Mrs Hemingway. In her unselfconsciously emotive way, she admits she is ecstatic to take it further afield.
It’s an album Mary Chapin wanted to make for a long time. After thirty years as a recording artist, you believe her when she says she’s had time to daydream about what she’d like to do outside of her normal skill set. She’s always been an intriguing artist, one to follow her muse and not be boxed into the ‘commercial country’ genre yet continuing to have huge success within it.
The idea came to her years ago, upon first hearing the work of Vince Mendoza, who has collaborated with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Diana Krall, Elvis Costello and Bjork, saying she was struck by how distinctive and evocative his arrangements were.
“I remember it like it was a few minutes ago, and thinking, if I ever were to be lucky enough to be able to take some of my songs that would lend themselves to that kind of treatment, then I would want to work with him.”
She filed the thought away, went off to do a bunch of other things, and when it did finally happen, says it was one of those experiences “that make you realise it’s worth holding on to little dreams”.
The catalyst was, some five years ago, taking on new manager in Chris Petzelli, who sat her down in their very first conversation and asked her, ‘What’s your fantasy project? She said she wanted to do an orchestral record with Mendoza, and he made it happen. “Sometimes, the right people aren’t present in your life to make things happen, then all of a sudden they are, and they work their magic”, she says.
Working with Mendoza (who Mary Chapin describes as funny, wry and extremely low-key), there was a “good vibe” from the start. “It’s inspiring in particular to stand there on stage and see him do his work. The learning curve with this whole thing has been huge for me. I feel like, after all these years in music, a door has been opened that I never imagined could be opened.”
Songs From the Movie is spellbinding. A love letter to symphonic music, and an homage to classic film, it reflects the love of classical music instilled in Mary by her mother, and a long-harboured fondness for epic, cinematic scores. That Mendoza made something you could imagine on a film soundtrack, that also acknowledged her original, relatively simple voice and guitar arrangements, continues to blow her away.
“I feel like these songs are beautifully transformative. I’ve talked to a lot of journalists who get albums on their desk from singers who felt like ‘doing something new’, and then it’s like they’ve just taken the existing recording and dumped it somewhere else, without any imaginative steps. If you’re not going to try and transform a song somehow, what’s the point?
I ask her what the process was like – she recorded at AIR Studios in London. It was “powerful”, she says, not least upon hearing how powerful the orchestrations were, mentioning a composer friend she’s just heard being interviewed on the radio, saying ‘I really believe music should give you chills. It should move you’.
It was also a walk down memory lane, reminding the singer, she tells me, of the distance she’s travelled since recording some of those numbers. Her father was also dying at that time, making everything that was going on in her life even more deeply felt.
She hasn’t had it easy. There have been well-documented battles with depression, which the singer has suffered bouts of since childhood, and while on tour in 2007 she was rushed to hospital mid-tour with what was discovered to be a pulmonary embolism. Cancelling her summer tour to recover, Carpenter, worried she had let her fans down, fell into a deep depression
But the last couple of years have been good to Mary Chapin. Her 2012 album Ashes and Roses was released to great reviews, and she won an Emmy for her work on Nashville Public Television’s No Going Back: Women and the War. How does she see it?
“I feel incredibly lucky”, she affirms. “Ashes and Roses came out of a very difficult time, and that things have worked out as they have, makes me feel blessed. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve been surrounded by people with a lot of integrity. That’s your support system.
“It’s something my dad always felt, and passed down to his kids – it’s an honour to think of yourself an artist and that life can be measured in many ways, not just making money. It’s not about being on a reality show and being famous for letting us watch them but look, that’s a whole other conversation. I’m trying to live up to my father in that sense.”
When I prompt her about those ‘difficult times’, she lets out a good-humoured laugh that suggests she’s been asked this before and, quite rightly, points out that it’s important to being any answer by saying there are few people you’ll meet in life that haven’t had low points.
She says: “It just depends on what sort of world you come out of whether or not you think it’s something important to talk about. Everybody I know gets the blues. What’s important to say for me when I get asked about these things is ‘Yes, and that matters why?!’ It’s like saying that everybody breathes, or something. That’s how we tick as humans.”
Time to move to safer ground. In 2012, the 56 year old was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. That must have been nice? “Nice is NOT the word. That was crazy, totally insane! It was shocking and amazing. It was out of leftfield for me, and a tremendous honour.”
It might have been out of the blue for her, but it makes sense. Her music has always been an unclassifiable hybrid of pop, folk and country, but Mary Chapin has long been considered one the most enduring artists in the country genre, and she’s thankful that she was given so much airplay during the first fifteen years of her career on Columbia Records, out of Nashville, which first marketed her as a ‘country artist’.
But as Songs from the Movie is proof of, she’s at the point where she feels she’s been making music long enough to have her own ‘notions’ about it, and it’s time to experiment and have a little fun.
Music genres evolve all the time, and it’s safe to say that commercial country music as we know it is very different from when Mary Chapin started out. She agrees – it was something that was very inclusive, that allowed ‘someone like her’ in.
She says: “Nowadays for example, if Bruce Springsteen had just emerged, he might have been considered a country artist with his populist anthemic music. Then you look at Taylor Swift; she came out of a place of country music, she loved it – but if you were to dissect the production of her records you’d say, you know, what relationship does this have to Hank Williams, haha?!
“I guess what I’m riffing off is that there are so many different things that go into why someone emerges from one genre into another. It’s hard to say there’s a formula, this reason or that. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing, luck and opportunity.”
The kind of country that still proves a touchstone for her is symbolised by the gnarled old master storytellers like Guy Clarke and, in more recent times, artists that might be considered his creative descendants such as Lyle Lovett and Rosanne Cash – who started out in the country mould but to a certain extent, have broken out of it since.
More surprisingly, she admits to being a huge fan of young country gunslinger Miranda Lambert. “I love her spirit and her tenacity and her sense of self. I don’t necessarily connect to songs about wearing my gun… but it’s part of her person. I admire her, because I think she’s authentic.”
She sounds incredibly philosophical. About her own ups and downs, her career and how country as the mainstream charts know it is moving increasingly further from its origins. Does she look back at anything with regret, or is she one of those artists that repeat the frustratingly sanguine line that ‘everything happens for a reason’?
“I’m not such a magical thinker that I would say that!” she replies. “There are certain business decisions I’d have done differently, and I’m a perfectionist -I make no bones about it – I could sit and tinker with a record from here to the end of time. I’m a born tinkerer.
“I have a number of things I’d do over but sure, there’s liberation to saying yeah it all happened for a reason. I guess to wrap up my philosophy it would be to acknowledge your own humanity. We make mistakes. We learn from them. We go on.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter is one of the most intriguing success stories in country music. Despite a decided non-adherence to the rules of the commercial country format, the singer-songwriter has cultivated an enormous career that has seen her place hit singles, sell millions of albums, and win multiple CMA, ACM and Grammy awards.
‘An Evening With Mary Chapin Carpenter’ comes on Mon Sept 29 to London’s Royal Albert Hall (with London Concert Orchestra), Tues Sept 30 to The Sage Gateshead (with Royal Northern Sinfonia), Wed Oct 1 to the Bridgewater Hall with Manchester Camerata and on Thurs Oct 2 Edinburgh’s Usher Hall with Scottish Festival Orchestra. See www.maruychapincarpenter.com.