From country to pop to orchestras to a stripped-down concert of songs from her career, 5-time Grammy winner Mary Chapin Carpenter re-imagines her music
Mary Chapin Carpenter has always been known for her eclectic oeuvre, when she released last year Songs From the Movie — a 10-cut album of some of her previously-released singles revisited with orchestral arrangements — the singer-songwriter delved into unique territory even for her, incorporating genres from folk to Beach Boys-esque pop to country, with which she’s probably most closely associated.
But listen to the original version of “I Am a Town,” one of Carpenter’s most popular hits, from her 1992 country-tinged breakout album Come On Come On, and then listen to this latest version: It’s easy to hear how the song’s original slow cello lines and subtly swelling ebb-and-flow lend themselves to a more grandiose treatment. The newly-added strings, woodwinds and French horn evoke a cinematic feel and an appreciation of the richness of such sounds — a sensibility that comes with maturity.
The idea, Carpenter said during a phone interview this week, came to her 17 years ago, when she participated in Don Henley’s Songs for Walden Woods concert series, in which female artists sang orchestral arrangements of songs from the Great American Songbook.
“I remember standing by on the side of the stage for nearly the entire evening watching people like Joni Mitchell and Gwen Stefani and all these amazing artists singing these very well known songs but whose arrangements were so very evocative and different and meaningful to me,” Carpenter says. “I remember thinking, ‘Golly if I ever have a chance to handpick songs of mine that would lend themselves to these re-imaginings, these reinventions … I would be happy forever.’”
It was an idea, she says, that she kept “in her back pocket,” always present even as she navigated her career, a divorce, the death of her father and her own serious illness (Carpenter suffered a pulmonary embolism in 2007), which forced her to take a break from writing and performing.
“I was in the wilderness,” she says of the period, “not only because it was a tough time personally, but for me my identity and my sense of purpose was very tied up in the identity I had as a songwriter and the enormous amount of sustenance I got from an audience, playing live music and writing songs.”
From that dark place came Ashes and Roses, a gorgeous album veined with grief that evolves into redemption. That dark place bore other fruit as well, as she came out the other side.
“When I was able to resume traveling and touring and recording it certainly gave me an arc of gratitude and realization that it really is a short life, and you have to make the most of it,” she says.
Part of making the most of it meant pulling that old project out of her back pocket and making it real. “It took a number of years to get the specifics going,” she says of the challenges she faced in gathering a 63-member orchestra, a 15-voice choir, collaborator Vince Mendoza and all the other logistics that turn an idea into a reality. And then there was the real effort: more than 30 years into her career, learning how to sing not with a guitar in hand and a backing band but with such a huge, dominating ensemble.
“I love singing with an orchestra,” Carpenter says. “It was really terrifying at first, because you have to learn how to do it and get your bearings and that terror was very pronounced. But finally over a period of time I realized it was diminishing, and that what was taking its place was this joy, this euphoria, that has been nothing short of transformative.” The subsequent tour, she says, “was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
These transformations, these re-imaginings, seem to be a theme for Carpenter. Her illness, she says, played a great role in her constant evolution. “I just feel like this is the only life I have, this is the only career I have and I want to learn new things,” she says.
But the re-imagining continues. For her appearance at Bass Hall this weekend, the gay-popular performer will be stripping the music all the way back down to just her, Jon Carroll on piano and John Doyle on guitars and bouzouki. It makes sense in a way: From a folk-inspired project that started 17 years ago, to a full-fledge departure from her usual, back to a feel that’s as intimate as her first albums, yet different. Carpenter’s foray into both the wilderness and the studio seem to have transformed her indeed.
“Just this one part project has enriched my life to such a degree,” she says, “that it has made me feel like I never want to do the same thing over and over again.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 27, 2015.