Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ethereal new album, Between Here and Gone, has been bandied about in the press as an optimistic example of pop music for adults. USA Today, brimming with enthusiasm, placed it alongside the records of Norah Jones and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and rated it “G” — for grown-up.
The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter hardly thinks in such categorical terms. In making her exquisite new CD, she simply set out to chronicle her own personal journey in the post 9/11 era. Still, she recognizes that there really is such a thing as a generation gap.
“These are songs I could not have written as a 20-year-old,” Carpenter, 46, says over the telephone line from her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I wrote them very much as a 45-year old woman who has lived a life. I don’t think the album is melancholy. You have to have the dark and the light. But it’s definitely introspective. It’s about taking stock of the times we live in, about authenticity.”
It’s also about far more. Certainly the obvious theme is traveling and transitions, or, as Carpenter puts it, “journeys and moving and lots of demons there.” However, it wasn’t until she was in the recording studio in Nashville, where her new co-producer Matt Rollings polished her trademark sound with flourishes of fiddle, steel guitar and Dobro, that the more subtle contextual threads began to appear.
“I certainly knew that I was writing a number of songs about journeys, but until I got into the studio and really heard the songs fleshed out with beautiful instruments, I didn’t realize that this record is so much about loss, grieving, strength, mortality, transcendence, transformations, just spiritual things.
“That’s the stuff of life, the things you think about in the quiet of your car or when you are first waking up. Those are also the sorts of things you mark at the halfway point in life, especially when you’ve just gotten married for the first time.”
Yes, married. In the three years since her last studio album, Time*Sex*Love*, Carpenter toured, saw the release of the second collection of her work (The Essential Mary Chapin Carpenter), and took off a year to wed (in June 2002) and move from the Washington, D.C., area to settle into a new life in south central Virginia. Her husband, Tim Smith, is a contractor she met through mutual friends. She jokes that her name now would literally be that of the Everywoman — Mary Smith — if she hadn’t always been called by her first two names and if she hadn’t retained her own identity. “I never thought about taking his name,” she says.
Several of the new songs examine those changes. While “Elysium,” a song of transcendence and hope, details a drive she and Smith took on the first day they met and fell in love, Carpenter says “River” is “just me trying to find my way in this new relationship.
“I didn’t think I would ever meet anybody who could put up with me or that I would like enough. I love my husband so much, and that’s the difference between the relationships I have had and this commitment to marriage. Learning how to fight is hard work,” she adds laughing. “When things get tough, I’m like, ‘I don’t need this! I’m gone!’ In fact, I’ve written about this in my songs. So the hardest part is just learning how to stay. We live out in the country in a house with four dogs, a million cats and a bunch of horses, and it’s just great. It’s very hard to leave home now. I cry every time I have to go away.”
Happiness, of course, is fleeting, but as the album reminds us, so is life itself. Carpenter wrote the title track, “Between Here and Gone,” upon hearing of the 2002 death of songwriter Dave Carter of the folk duo Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer. Carter was 49 and died of a massive heart attack in a Massachusetts hotel room.
“His songs were visionary to me,” praises the respected troubadour. “There is no one who wrote like he did. And when I heard that he had suddenly passed away, I was just devastated. I couldn’t take it, even. That song is about the notion that one moment of beauty, of love, of genuine contentment, is still so perfect that it’s enough. And the latter part of that song is about facing that darkness, of realizing it’s not something to fear.”
That belief is a key component of “Grand Central Station,” a cornerstone of the album. Carpenter, who was in New York when the World Trade Center fell on 9/11, “had such terrible anxiety afterwards … I couldn’t get on a plane for months.” Yet she also found herself unable to tune out the first-anniversary news coverage. Driving into town, she heard an NPR interview with a New York City ironworker who had been one of the first rescuers on the scene. Standing on the bucket brigade, he became overwhelmed with the sense that the souls of the dead were whispering to him.
“He described himself as a completely non-spiritual person but spoke about how he knew he was in a holy place. He said, ‘I felt I was being communicated with and that I was helping souls to leave. I found myself going to Grand Central Station after my shifts and standing on the platform to help them get their trains home.’
“When he said that,” she continues, “I had to pull the car over. I just sat there and cried. A few days later, I wrote the song.”
Following that theme, Carpenter also conjured “My Heaven,” which she says was inspired by the book, The Lovely Bones. She describes the song — at once humorous and deeply pensive — as “my laundry list of what I would like up there if that’s where we, indeed, end up.”
Carpenter has been fortunate that the current regime at Columbia, her record label, has left her alone in crafting her music. She’s had no pressure to deliver a radio record, unlike the old days when she turned in an album and a label exec asked in frustration, “Don’t you have another ‘Down at the Twist and Shout’? ”
“My heart went straight down to my feet,” she remembers. “I just said, ‘No, I don’t. I don’t.’ I don’t have the same song over and over again. And I feel that I will never have another ‘… Twist and Shout.’ I did that already. I just don’t jump up every day and chase the charts.”
Which is why in a sense, with all of its universal themes and personal reflection, “Between Here and Gone” is an album of pop music for grown-ups. “It’s the record I wanted to make,” sums up Carpenter, who will tour throughout the summer. “It was like one, big wonderful exhale when it was done.”