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Mary Chapin Carpenter’s music has topped charts, won her five Grammys, and earned her legions of devoted fans. Her latest album, her fourteenth, draws from what she calls “the artistic insight of middle age.” But she doesn’t claim to have all the answers—or even to want them. Her new songs celebrate questions, and making peace with uncertainty. Mary Chapin has joined Diane on the program many times over the years, so this last interview from earlier this year was special for them both. Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter shares some of her new music with us live, and together she and Diane reflect on aging, loss and resilience.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter Singer-songwriter; winner of five Grammy Awards and two Country Music awards; has sold more than 14 million records
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Three decades into her career, Mary Chapin Carpenter is taking stock of it all and looking ahead to the unknown. In her 14th album just out, the Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter reflects on her past, which includes loss, grief and hope over the last decade and explores the simultaneous pull of wanderlust and longing for home. The album is not only a reflection of her own life, but includes reaction to events in the world today that have moved her.
MS. DIANE REHMThe new album is titled, "The Things That We Are Made Of." And here to talk about her music and the things she is made of, Mary Chapin Carpenter. I'm sure many of you will want to join the conversation. Give us call, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Mary Chapin, it's wonderful to see you again.
MS. MARY CHAPIN CARPENTERIt's so wonderful to be here.
REHMAnd I want to hear more of this piece.
REHMGolly day. Love listening. Just love it.
CARPENTERI'm so happy to see you.
REHMWell, and, you know, I think you and I are both in very reflective moods these days.
CARPENTERI think so.
REHMTell me about looking inward and what that's meaning to you right now.
CARPENTERWell, you know, I started writing the songs for this record about four years ago and, you know, whenever I've started a record, I haven't really had, like, a topic or an agenda or anything to sort of stitch the songs together. They just kind of come out. And when I finished the writing for this record, I was able to sort of see it as one thing and it really was this sort of document of where I am in my life, what this age that I'm at is bringing to me, what I have lost along the way, but what the -- the talked about the artistic insight of middle age.
CARPENTERAnd I think we live in a culture that sort of says these sort of easy things that middle age is a time of loss and, you know, with -- maybe it's health or professional issues or, you know, taking stock and feeling regret for what didn't come true or something. But what I've discovered is that the great inspiration of life comes to you at this time. It's the idea that to quote one of my favorite poets, GK Chesterton, the soul survives its adventures. And that's what you discover at this time in your life.
REHMYou have to have courage, however, to make it through those adventures because some are positive and some are not.
CARPENTEROf course. But I think it's true that you don't really know what you have until you're faced with having to draw upon it.
REHMYou've had lots of things happen to you since I last saw you.
CARPENTERYeah. Yes, I did. I've lost both parents and I had a serious illness and became divorced and I've just had to -- but those are things that happen to everyone, you know. And you keep going. And I have tried as much as possible to find my way through with the comfort of song writing and...
CARPENTER...work and purpose. And that's the other thing that I think you discover at a certain time in your life that you have -- you get to a point you don't care what people think. You have autonomy. These are the benefits of personal growth and control and purpose. These are things that belong to you and you may not have realized it, but you probably can't feel those things to the degree that you feel them when you're younger, you know, now.
REHMWhat does the reality of reaching middle age, however you define it, what does that reality mean to your heart?
CARPENTERTo me? To my heart? You mean in a love sense, in a romantic sense, any sense?
CARPENTERAny sense. Strength. It means strength to me, but it's also, more than anything, just being as honest as possible with myself about myself. And accepting what I'm not good at, accepting what I need to work on as a person, as a human being, as a friend, as a member of my family, every relationship I have because I feel like in the end, that's all that matters are how we're connected to one another.
REHMBy the way, I do want to say we are video streaming this hour because people want to see you, Mary Chapin. They truly want to see you. They love your voice. They love your words. They love your music, but they also like to see you so we are video streaming. But so many people feel their greatest strength in their youth.
CARPENTERIsn't that true?
REHMAnd you, and I must say I join you in this, you feel it now in middle age.
CARPENTERWell, I was reading somewhere that, you know, when you're in your 20s and 30s, when things don't go right or something goes terribly wrong for that matter -- and I can -- I agree with this because I experienced it. It feels like the end of the world. It does. And it's just, oh, my gosh, how am I going to recover from this and I don't feel that way anymore when things don't go my way.
REHMWell, it's almost because the end of the world, your world, does begin to happen and you realize you get through it.
CARPENTERThe soul survives it's adventures.
REHMThe soul survives. There are so many beautiful songs on this album.
REHMWhere did you begin writing?
CARPENTERWell, literally, I began writing out at my farm. I live about -- a little west of here in the Blue Ridge Mountains and it's an extraordinarily lovely place. An enormous amount of solitude, quiet, peace, serenity. It is a muse unto itself in a way. And I started writing these songs there and it continues to be this place that just feeds me. Feeds me.
REHMMary Chapin Carpenter, her new album is called "The Things That We Are Made Of." And when we come back, she's going to play some of her songs for us. Don't forget, we are live video streaming as well as broadcasting. Stay with us.
REHMBeautiful, Mary Chapin.
REHMMary Chapin Carpenter, that was "The Blue Distance," one of the brand new songs in her new album, titled "The Things That We Are Made Of." And you say that that really describes the atmosphere in which you dwell.
CARPENTERIt does. Certainly the aspects of nature and serenity and quiet and the sense of being able to hear yourself think but also looking out into the world. I have this hill behind my farm, where I can look west and see, I think into the next state on clear days. It's so amazing. And I was reading an essay by an Icelandic writer named Roni Horn (sp?) who spoke about blue being the color of distance, the color of loss, the color of where you cannot be, all the -- attaching all these sort of emotional aspects to the color, which I think artists have used and, you know, drawn from forever.
CARPENTERAnd when I sit up on that hill, it feels that way, absolutely. It's both happiness and a sense of just feeling so small, which some days can be hard but other days can be okay.
REHMHow much time do you spend alone?
CARPENTERI'd say a lot, I'd say a lot, but I guess it also depends on if you feel alone when you're with your dogs or your cats. I'm sure that there's a constituency out there that understands what I'm talking about.
REHMAnd how many dogs, cats do you have now?
CARPENTERWell, the truth is when I moved to the farm, I had six dogs and four cats, and now I'm down to two and three cats, but we're definitely a posse. We all, we keep each other company.
REHMThere's a lot about maps and travel in this album.
REHMTalk about that because you are moving around the country. You are singing. You are meeting people, and yet that solace when you return home.
CARPENTERWell I do -- I sort of make jokes, my middle name is boarding pass. You know, it's just I travel a lot, that's true. It's the -- it's what our job, this job requires. But, you know, when I was writing about it and thinking of different ways to describe that, that gypsy life of a sort, there's one song on the record called "What Does It Mean To Travel," and it uses the idea of travel is really -- it's a metaphor for living, really, from departure to arrival, what does it mean to travel with your suitcase by the handle holding everything you need.
CARPENTERAre you going, or are you coming? The -- the thoughts that come into my mind when I'm, you know, on a flight, especially, especially at night over the ocean. I don't know why, but it seems like the existential things get going in my brain, and I tend not to be able to sleep on flights, so I'm always awake, and I'm walking the aisles and, you know, just looking, looking around. And, you know, there's a sense of comfort being alone, being unknown, being utterly sort of anonymous in the world and then again, there's that -- the duality. There's other days where you feel like such an orphan, and it physically hurts, and it's hard.
CARPENTERSo this song and this record really is about those two opposing feelings and how they intersect and how to sort of exist with them.
REHMI have often felt, especially on flights overseas, that sense of being between here and nowhere.
REHMSort of just caught.
REHMAnd it's a good place to be because it's without bonds somehow.
CARPENTERAnd there must be something to the idea that when you're -- at least when you're flying over land, too, and you can look down and see how vast the world is, that puts things in perspective faster than just about anything else and helps you get out of your head and get out of your own way.
REHMHow do you manage the farm? Do you have lots of help?
CARPENTERNo, I don't have any.
REHMYou don't have any help?
CARPENTERNo, I have the help of my neighbors. I have wonderful, wonderful neighbors who are always there when I need them and look after the dogs and the cats, and I have my dear neighbor, Jimmy, down the road. He lets me drive his tractor, and help bush hog and cut hay with him.
REHMI'd love to hear the title track.
REHMIf we could, "The Things That We Are Made Of." Let's hear it.
REHMSo much about your mother.
CARPENTERIt's about a lot of people, and my mother's in there, too, for sure.
REHMHow long ago did she die?
CARPENTERTwo weeks ago.
REHMTwo weeks ago? I'm so sorry, Mary Chapin. The grief is very much still there. She was a woman I knew. I knew your dad. I knew them both.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What do you think completion of this album has meant to you?
CARPENTERYou know, every time I've made a record, I -- well first of all I need to get some time, you know, I need to get some perspective on it, and while I, you know, literally finished it late last year, it's just come out, so -- thanks for the Kleenex. It's just -- it's just been released last week, and...
REHMAnd I'm so fortunate to have you here.
CARPENTERThat goes for both of us, thank you. But so it takes me some time to get a notion of it. And I'm still, you know, thinking of it, and I'm still thinking of what it means in the larger sense to me. One of the things, playing the last song, the title song, reminded me of was that I -- I'm very old-school when it comes to making records, and I believe in sequencing songs, that there's a real reason why one song follows another, and one song opens a record, one song closes, that sort of thing.
CARPENTERThe thing that this record is about more than anything is the idea that you reach a time in your life, and what's far more important to you than answers are the questions you're asking yourself. And from the very first song to the very last song, I'm asking questions in all of the lyrics. At the very end of -- in the musical bridge, or actually in the second verse of "The Things That We Are Made Of," and that's the last song on the record, I say, you know, I'm at the border with my papers.
CARPENTERAnd they're asking me where is your heart, where is your home, where's love. And my answer, I had no answers, but they let me pass. You know, it's like they let me through. And that's the thing. It's as if you reach a point, it's not knowing everything, but it's just being open to the world, and it's being open to everything, and that's what I want to be.
REHMOpen in new ways do you believe?
CARPENTERIn every way, absolutely, leaving -- leaving behind old habits that don't make sense, not even remembering why you have them. You know, why do you -- it's just -- it's just being open, being freer.
REHMMary Chapin Carpenter, her new album is titled "The Things That We Are Made Of." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd for those of you just tuning in, the wonderful Grammy-Award-winning songwriter and musician, Mary Chapin Carpenter, is with me. She has a brand new album out titled, "The Things That We Are Made Of." And I must remind you, we are video streaming this hour because I know how many of you enjoy seeing Mary Chapin play and sing, as well as listening to her voice. Mary Chapin, there's a lovely song you're going to sing for us. Tell us about it.
CARPENTERThis is a song that, you know, we were talking earlier about difficulties in life and how they change you, how they can be isolating, how they can be so hard to get through. And this is a song about the idea that we tend to recognize our tribe out in the world. Sometimes it's just a gesture, sometimes it's a word, sometimes it's just a look. But when we do recognize that member of our tribe, it can make us feel so much less isolated. It makes us feel truly known, truly seen. And this is a song about that feeling, called, "Hand On My Back."
REHMHere's an email from Debra, who says, "Mary is one of my best friends though she doesn't know it. She speaks to me in a way only a best friend can. Her music makes me cry just for the beauty of it. She is one of our greatest poets. Thank you for having her on so I can listen to her and be carried away while I sit here in my cube carried away and carried back to my memories."
CARPENTEROh, my goodness.
REHMAnd you've made me cry, as well.
CARPENTERYes, Debra, we are friends.
REHMWe are friends.
CARPENTERWe are all friends.
REHMAnd then there's an email from Bill in Cincinnati, who says, "As a middle-aged male who's been listening and admiring and inspired by Ms. Chapin Carpenter's music since the 1990s, I would like to suggest that her music from early on has always been wise beyond her years. It's just that her physical self is starting to catch up to her wise soul."
CARPENTERThank you, Bill. My goodness.
REHMNow, we can both cry.
CARPENTERI know. People are so lovely.
REHMThey are just lovely.
REHMAdoring of your music.
REHMLet's go to Hillsborough, N.C.
CARPENTERI know it well.
REHMHi, Mark. You're on the air.
MARKHello. A pleasure to talk to you. I've been listening to this show long enough that I still miss Arch Campbell. And I don't think I actually made it to the first Mary Chapin Carpenter concert. I'm a fairly latecomer, until 1990 at the Birchmere. And I seen you and Shawn Colvin was such a great experience.
CARPENTEROh, that's wonderful. Thank you.
MARKAnd we, you know, go back and see -- unfortunately I missed your last concert in Chapel Hill 'cause it was my first day of chemotherapy.
MARKBut, like everything else in my life, it was, you know, I've got ADD so I moved on. It was just kind of an affair, a fling, you know, didn't mean much.
MARKBut going back in history, if you'll -- don't mind me dragging you back. A few questions about your repertoire. Is there -- "Young, Dumb and Innocent" ever going to be released?
CARPENTERBoy, Mark, you're -- you go way back. Holy, holy cow.
MARKThat was a great song, especially since…
CARPENTEROh, my gosh.
MARK…at that concert my wife walked in the stone -- the ladies room by a young nurse who was dating an older doctor. And then you did that song and it was just hysterical.
CARPENTERWell, I haven't thought of that song probably since that night.
CARPENTERAnd we're talking many, many years. So I'll go through my papers. I've kept a lot of stuff and hopefully there's still a piece of a paper with the lyrics written on it. And maybe someday.
CARPENTERMaybe someday. Outtakes, for sure.
MARKIt was wonderful. And the other one was -- I hear there's a tape of you, Cheryl Wheeler and Shawn Colvin at the Birchmere. I didn't know if that would ever be released.
CARPENTERI don't know about the tape. I've never heard it, but I remember those nights. So maybe there is.
MARKThat would have been truly astounding.
CARPENTERThat -- I think I laughed the whole time.
REHMWas it just…
CARPENTERYeah, Cheryl Wheeler, Shawn, two of the funniest -- two of the greatest most poignant and wonderful songwriters and singer/songwriters out there, but also two of the funniest people you'll ever meet in your life. So I probably laughed the whole time.
REHMAll right. And here's Lori, in Charlottesville, Va. You're on the air.
LORIGood morning, ladies.
LORIIt's such a privilege to speak with both of you. Mary, I have never met you, but I've been a fan for years.
LORIAnd coincidentally, our moms were neighbors.
LORIAnd I lost my mom 14 years ago. I just want you to know I've wondered about you and how you were doing and your mom. But my mom used to say with such admiration that your mom never bragged. She was so respectful of your privacy. And I just -- I thought I would share that. But I also wanted to say that seeing also in middle-age, I so agree with your description. And when said feeling orphaned, 'cause I too have lost parents, but also I've been a parent of children and they're both adults now. And realizing how to redefine myself, not just as a parent. And being comfortable in the quietness of my new life…
LORI…with a much emptier calendar.
CARPENTERLori, I think that, you've said it, you've said it, yeah, absolutely.
REHMWe all come from different beginnings.
REHMBut somehow we manage to get…
CARPENTERWe have so much in common.
REHMAbsolutely. Thanks for your call, Lori. Here's a very powerful email from Beverly, in North Carolina. She says, "I'm a mother who lost both of her teenage sons in a car accident in 2002.
CARPENTEROh, my goodness.
REHM"We have to make a choice to grow from what life throws at us or die to our spirits. My husband and I chose to grow and live as fully as possible. Fully dependent on God for our healing. Almost four and a half years after our sons' death, we brought home a nine-month-old baby girl from China. Her name is Hope. And she will never replace our sons, but I have a different perspective raising a child past middle age. Life," she says, "is such a gift."
CARPENTEROh, Beverly. All the best to you.
REHMI should say.
CARPENTERAll the best to you and Hope and your husband. That's so wonderful. I've got goose bumps. That's so wonderful.
REHMWe have some other music I'd like to hear. And it is, "Oh, Rosetta." Tell us about "Oh, Rosetta."
CARPENTER"Oh, Rosetta" is an imaginary conversation with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the great, great American singer, gospel singer, guitar player. One of the most under-rated guitar players in the world. I was looking for comfort, I was looking for peace. Johnny Cash considered her his favorite singer. He loved to listen to her when he was a little girl (sic).
REHMMary Chapin this has been a wild political year. How do politics affect you?
CARPENTERYou know, I don't know if I'm alone in this. I have a feeling I'm not. But I've been a lot -- I've been experiencing like a lot of fear and distress as this political season has unfolded. Perhaps that's because the rhetoric of the campaigns have just become harsher and more polarizing. It seems as if truth is a casualty of the 24/7 news cycle. Just things get obscured. I'm not sure. But I have a lot of fear about what the outcome might be. I don't feel a sense of -- well, I feel a lot of fear. I don't know how to explain it.
REHMI wonder whether that is going to find its way into your music.
CARPENTERWell, it has in the past. I've not shied away from speaking my mind in a song. And I don't use the stage as a pulpit, but I certainly feel free to advocate on behalf of things that I believe in and causes that mean something to me. So it's entirely, you know, possible.
REHMMary Chapin Carpenter, how wonderful to see you again.
REHMAnd to know that you and I have about a 30-year history together.
CARPENTERYes, we do. Yes, we do.
REHMAnd this album is just beautiful.
CARPENTERThank you so much.
REHMThank you for it.
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