Songwriting carries Mary Chapin Carpenter through hard knocks

Songwriting carries Mary Chapin Carpenter through hard knocks

Story by Linda East Brady , Standard-Examiner staff - Jul 20 2012 - 8:52am
Mary Chapin Carpenter performs Thursday at Kenley Centennial Amphitheater in Layton.

Mary Chapin Carpenter

with Tift Merritt.
8 p.m. July 26.
Kenley Centennial Amphitheater
403 N. Wasatch Drive

Mary Chapin Carpenter has traveled her share of hard roads in the last few years.

For one thing, she went through some serious health issues, when in 2007 she suffered a pulmonary embolism -- a life-threatening condition in which blood clots move to the arteries in the lungs. Fifteen percent of all sudden deaths are blamed on pulmonary embolisms.

Carpenter did recover after a time. However, she had to cancel a tour supporting a new album. Her worries that she let down her work crew, support staff and fans, combined with her grave illness, caused her to slip into depression, which she has battled lifelong off and on.

She also suffered a divorce and the loss of her father in the past few years. But, as has been her wont since childhood, Carpenter wrote through it, finding solace in her music.

Her latest album, "Ashes and Roses," released in June, was the end result of writing through her trials. The tour in support of the new album arrives at the Kenley Centennial Amphitheater in Layton on Thursday, July 26.

"I've always used songwriting to express what oftentimes feels hard to express," said Carpenter, calling from Virginia. "In that regard, writing this album was certainly an outlet to me. It's the thing I have always looked to, to make sense of, or at least, explore, my feelings. And so in this way, this one was no different."

Delving deep

To make the record, Carpenter gathered musicians who were not only musically skilled, but also that she knew and trusted. To help her produce, she brought in Matt Rollings, a longtime collaborator who has also worked with Lyle Lovett and Keith Urban, and who also plays piano on the album.

"I gathered some musicians together that I felt nothing but love and just great respect for. I am lucky enough to work with them on the last record (2010's 'Age of Miracles') as well. As you can imagine, with the really deeply personal nature of these songs, it makes sense to want to surround yourself with people that you felt you could depend on when you are sort of in the deepest part of this."

Some days, just dealing with such intensely emotional material, Carpenter admits, it was hard to muster the courage to face the songs.

"I fully admit to you I am not past all this yet. It's not like I recorded these songs and everything is now wrapped up in a neat little package and sent out to the world, saying, 'Here you go. I am over this now!' No. Sometimes I think, gosh, I cannot believe I haven't gotten further down the road. You really question yourself. But I guess that is only human."

The challenges continue as Carpenter and crew take "Ashes and Roses" on the road. She will have to take this personal material out every night and play it in front of thousands.

"A friend of mine has a really healthy sense of humor, and she said, 'Oh, every night, you are going out there and doing a therapy session!' " Carpenter laughed. "She said 'Your audience is a collective group of counselors, only you don't have to keep the session to 50 minutes.' "


Carpenter notes that the album is not all darkness. It's about the journey that takes you through, and beyond, that valley of darkness, back into joy and light.

Even the name of the album, "Ashes and Roses," reflects that: "Ashes, which represent something that's gone, roses are a symbol of renewal and beauty and life," she said.

She took the title from a song off the record, "Chasing What Is Already Gone" -- "But I keep on going and I hope I've learned/ More of what's right than what's wrong/ It's ashes and roses and time that burns/ When you're chasing what's already gone ..."

She notes that there is a narrative arc to the record that is important to understand -- for her as well as the listener.

"It is important for me as an artist, and as a human being. These songs speak to these certain experiences -- but there is another side to it. It is important to acknowledge getting to that other side."

She also notes how, as she thought of the title of the album, she remembered how many gardeners recommend spreading ashes beneath roses to help them grow.

"This is my spiritual puzzle -- things that make sense and things that don't, in life. You can't have one without the other. You can't have joy without sorrow. You can't have happiness without a sense of what sorrow is. Not to get too tidy, but certain elements of this record are important for me spiritually -- it is not all just about terrible stuff happening. Other stuff happens as well. It is possible to shed isolation and grief. At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, you really have to go through it. You can't get around it. Who wants to invite this stuff in? But eventually, I was exhausted trying to put it away. I could not outrun it, so I used it."

Night writer?

Though Carpenter does not see herself as a prolific writer -- "I take forever between records" -- she is certainly a lifelong one.

"I have always used it for cathartic reasons," Carpenter said. "As a kid, songwriting was a creative outlet and a way to express myself. I was a shy kid and a shy adult, for that matter. I live a private life and sometimes I have a hard time connecting to the world. Singing and writing and playing guitar, that was one of the ways I felt able to have a voice and express myself. It was something that allowed me to connect to people, to feel present. And it also was a way to comfort myself when I felt very alone."

Carpenter notes she is no road writer. There is just too much going on, and not enough solitude, during a tour.

"But when I am home, I do like to engage that muscle as much as possible," she said. "And I made a big change with 'Ashes and Roses.' Before this record, actually, I was pretty set in my ways. I liked to wake up and go into town, do my errands, go to the gym, do my thing, whatever I needed to do. And then I would come home, have some lunch and work until the end of the day. I really sort of kept it to that.

"But with this record, for various reasons, I found myself writing at night. Maybe it was the quiet of the house, when I finally had it to myself. I just found myself really filling those nights up. That was really different for me -- a complete reversal."

Will her night-owl writing habits continue for her next album?

"I don't know yet what I am doing with the next one, so far as when I write, day or night. We'll just have to wait and see how it happens."

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