A Conversation with Mary Chapin Carpenter

The Princeton native opens up about her new album, at-home performances amid the pandemic, and more.

Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter Photo by Aaron Farrington

[Editor’s note, Oct. 18: Per the New Jersey Hall of Fame, Carpenter will not appear in this year’s New Jersey Hall of Fame ceremony due to scheduling conflicts.]

You were recently voted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. What was your reaction upon finding out?
I was speechless! And, I’m embarrassed to say, I didn’t realize that a hall of fame for New Jersey even existed. I was so honored, my goodness. I called my sisters up, and we were just hooting and hollering.

mary chapin carpenterYou’ve said that your childhood home in Princeton was where you became you, and that you’ve explored a homesickness for that time and place since. Is that longing present on your new album, The Dirt and the Stars?
It’s more than just the theme to songs that you string together; it’s a feeling that you live with. Your first memories of a place and your first sense of belonging to somewhere—those are very powerful feelings, and I don’t think you ever grow out of them. I can’t imagine how one would lose those things or discard them deliberately. They’re a part of you.

What do your new songs say about you at this point in your career?
The opening song, “Farther Along and Further In,” is about this sense of going deeper—responding to your life and to the world around you from a much deeper place inside of you than you sense having experienced before. It’s sort of posing the question: Is that the gift of aging; is that the wisdom of age and experience? And that’s for everyone to answer solely for themselves. But for myself, it’s very much a yes.

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In celebration of your album release, you recorded a three-part podcast conversation, One Story, with spoken-word poet Sarah Kay, in which you both discuss several nuances of the artistic process. Many poets revere the role of the subconscious in that process, and often talk about being surprised at the various turns a poem can take or where it ultimately ends up. Do you ever feel that way about songwriting?
Amen to that in songwriting. You start out in a certain place and then end up at a completely unforeseen place—and the twists and turns that got you there are nothing that you could have imagined. In the podcast, we were talking about “Nocturne,” one of the songs on the new record that I worked on over many years. It was a different song in many different places and in many different ways. How it arrived where it didI can’t even recreate what that journey was like; the subconscious, and the way things lead you from one thing to the next. That’s the magic, I think, of songwriting that keeps me wanting to do it, because it’s discovery every which way. I think of the words discovering and excavating at the same time—it’s like you’re digging and moving at once. It’s wild.

This year, you launched a virtual series called “Songs From Home.” How was that received?
I’ve been so astounded and blown away by the kindness of people’s comments—but also, it’s very illuminating, what a lot of people say. They feel able to share that they’re lonely and in pain and having a hard time. And if there is a place where people feel they can share that openly, that’s got to be something of a relief. If that is the case, I hope I can feel like I’m just doing my job—playing music, which is what I would normally be doing. It also allows me to feel a deeper sense of somehow being useful. If this is providing a few minutes where someone can kind of let it all go, either by listening to a song or just laughing at my dog, I’m happy to provide that. 

In the series, you channel a deep empathy and sense of steadiness. Is that your intention?
That means the world to me, if that’s what’s coming across. If there is a message that I would say rises above whatever other messages might be tucked into the new record, it is that call for empathy. If somehow that’s floating about in the air behind me in my kitchen, that’s great, because, my gosh, that’s what should be happening among all of us. We should be sending that out to one another.

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