STORY WRITTEN BY SEAN HICKEY
For Digital First Media
About 18 months ago, Mary Chapin Carpenter released her 13 album, Songs from the Movie. That album found Carpenter revisiting 10 of her favorite tracks from her back catalog — surrounded by a full symphony orchestra. That was quite a departure from her past recording experiences and, as you might expect, was a bit of a daunting experience. “To learn how to sing with an orchestra on stage and to be part of this enormous organism, it was terrifying, because it was a new skill set,” Carpenter said in a recent interview, “but once I felt like I had learned how to do it, I felt euphoric in terms of what I’d learned to do.”
Carpenter’s songs have always been highly visual experiences, filled with a variety of characters and emotions, so it’s a little bit surprising that it took that long for her to do an album of the sort.
“It would have happened a lot sooner if I had been able… This was not an easy project to persuade people to spend money on,” she said. “It’s hard to persuade labels to spend money on anything nowadays. So this was an idea that I had for more than a decade and had wanted to do it.”
But had Carpenter attempted something of that nature during the major label years of her career, there would have been certain record label demands — and certain songs (read: hits) that they would have wanted to be part of the track listing. Instead, Songs from the Movie plays like a trip down the lesser traveled back roads of Carpenter’s catalog. It’s an intriguing opportunity to revisit a diverse selection of material that reaches as far back as the Come On, Come On period, moving all of the way through her 2010 album The Age of Miracles. As Carpenter reveals, her label couldn’t have been more supportive.
“The way we came up with the list of songs, first of all, is a testament to my record label, Rounder, for saying, we love this idea, go forth,” she recalled. “They didn’t say it has to have this song or that song on it. So we came up with a master list of about 40 songs that I thought were candidates. Between Vince (Mendoza) and Matt Rollings, my other co-producer, and myself, we all retreated to our corners as it were, and then we all came up with 10 or 12 finalists and then we cross-referenced those.”
Recording the album in London at AIR Studios was an emotional experience for Carpenter on a number of levels. “During the recording of this record, there were a couple of things going on. It’s hard to explain, but my father was in the last few weeks of his life and I knew that,” she said. “I think they’re all connected somehow, but I was also suffering from these excruciating migraine headaches — and I was jet-lagged.”
“So all of these things, plus the enormity of the project and feeling (like I needed to be) totally on the ball, then I would hear in my headphones, these beautiful arrangements and I would be on the camera in the isolation booth, but I’d need to start sobbing,” Carpenter said. “Because it was just summoning up so much emotion — I would duck down and weep while we were recording, because I didn’t want people in the control room to see me sobbing. I would just sob for two seconds, wipe my eyes and then stand up and start singing and then wait for the next passage where I could duck down and boo hoo again.
“It was a highly charged couple of weeks to do this,” she said. “I don’t know, sometimes I listen to it and I hear a bit of a tear in my voice. I don’t know how to explain it and maybe I’m just projecting, but that’s what I felt. It was deeply meaningful, deeply emotional, but what has resulted has been nothing short of extraordinary to me and I’m so grateful for the project.”
On Tuesday, June 23, Carpenter will continue to mine these jewels of her musical past when she performs at Longwood Gardens in East Marlborough as part of its Summer Series. This time around, she’ll be appearing with her acoustic trio mates, Jon Carroll on piano and John Doyle on bass, singing both timeless hits and deep cuts from her expansive catalog. Working in a stripped down format is something that she enjoys quite a bit.
“I love how much room there is,” she says. “You know, there’s a lot of air in that (format). Certainly, simplifying the songs with three instruments, you can excavate a little bit and sort of see what else is there and change arrangements a little bit. There’s a lot of air and I like that. I also feel like we’re all percussive enough players that you don’t feel like it’s too (stripped back), it definitely has a muscular quality to it at times when needed. So I feel like it can serve a lot of masters. It’s good that way.”
Fans of Carpenter can also look forward to a new studio album due out in January of next year. Carpenter revealed that the wheels have been in motion for a while now and she’s been working towards this new album that she’s just finished recording. “I’ve been writing for the last three years or so and now’s the time. I have a bunch of things and I’ve got to make sure I’ve got enough.”
Here’s hoping that one or two of those new gems find their way into the setlist at Longwood Gardens!