In one of her newest songs, “Christmas Carol,” Mary Chapin Carpenter says she wishes for just two things every Christmas — peace on earth and a snowstorm now and then.
“If you do have a snowstorm, it forces you to stay home, build a fire, hunker down,” she says. “It’s out of your control. You have to just slow down. There’s something just remarkable that in our world, with all of the technology and everything that goes with it, that a moment of nature can be powerful to shut everything down for a day.”
The soft-spoken song is the perhaps the most revealing work on Carpenter’s latest album, Come Darkness, Come Light: 12 Songs of Christmas. Although she sprinkles real-life reminiscing in her lyrics (like finding the Beatles’ White Album under the family tree), she still draws on her tried-and-true themes of letting love in, keeping the faith and relishing the quiet moments in life. And while she does sing about angels, Bethlehem and mangers, the album reaches beyond the familiar story of Jesus’ birth.
“I don’t think of this as a starkly religious record, although there are some carols and choral music on it that are church-based,” she says. “In other words, I think it’s possible to revel in this music, and to love it and to be able to sing it, without feeling like you are a messenger of any kind of faith.”
In addition to a handful of originals, Carpenter covers little-known Christmas songs by folk duo Robin and Linda Williams, the Red Clay Ramblers’ Tommy Thompson and English composer and choral conductor John Rutter. She leads with “Once in Royal David’s City,” traditionally the first carol sung during the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols radio program in Cambridge, England. (She listens to it every year while she wraps her presents.) The final tune is the traditional African-American spiritual, “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Meanwhile, a 1997 holiday performance in Bosnia, on behalf of the USO and the Department of Defense, inspired one of the album’s most resounding songs, “Bells Are Ringing.”
“It was a very deeply meaningful trip that certainly gave me a reason to think about the whole concept of what matters,” she explains. “Certainly it’s not material things. It’s about fellowship and kinship and the belief in making each others’ lives better through love and kindness. There are so many different faiths around the world that have different rituals and different cultural aspects. For me, those things that we just spoke about — about making your life better through making someone else’s life better, the notion that light in your life can shine on more than just yourself — that is something that everyone around the world, in some fashion, has inside of themselves.”
For Come Darkness, Come Light, Carpenter and co-producer John Jennings sought a more solemn approach to a Christmas album. No symphony orchestras here.
“We wanted to keep this pretty spare,” she says. “That was the whole point from the beginning — to make a real acoustic record. Whatever instruments we thought might add a texture or color, John was able to provide himself. We brought in Jon Carroll, my longtime keyboard player. He is so gifted, and he really did the heavy lifting on the piano, but John was able to fill in where it was needed. At most, there were three people in the room, but mostly it was me and John. It’s really fun to do that. You feel like you’re wacky scientists, late at night in the lab, experimenting to your heart’s content.
“I didn’t feel that there was a need for yet another Christmas record of me singing ‘The First Noel,’” she adds. “I mean, I love that music just like the next person, and I sing at the top of my lungs when somebody sits down at the piano at Christmastime and starts playing it. But as far as taking the time to make a record, I wanted to do something a little bit different. So this was a great opportunity. I’ve been wanting to do this for 20 years.”
After paying her dues on the singer-songwriter circuit around Washington, D.C., Carpenter found national success in 1989 with her first Top 10 country single, “Never Had It So Good,” which she co-wrote with Jennings. A few years later, she won a Grammy for the feisty “Down at the Twist and Shout,” a breakthrough hit that paved the way for “I Feel Lucky,” “Passionate Kisses,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Take My Chances” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me.” Along the way, she won five Grammys, two CMA Awards as female vocalist and sold more than 13 million albums.
Today she lives on a farm near Charlottesville, Va., with her husband, Tim Smith, surrounded by animals and plenty of trees. (Carpenter took the photos of the snowy Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding her home for the CD booklet.) Last year, she suffered a pulmonary embolism and was forced to cancel her summer tour. Asked how she’s feeling these days, she perks up and says, “I am feeling so much healthier, absolutely. I am getting my health back and happy to be here.” In addition to writing a biweekly cultural column for The Washington Times, she’s also currently working on new songs for her next album and aims to return to the road next summer.
But first, Christmas. And hopefully, a snowstorm or two.
“It seems to me that my childhood is really dense with those memories of Christmas and snow and low lights and quiet and the sense of being bundled up and hunkered down,” she says. “There’s something exceedingly nurturing about that feeling and that memory. I think it drives a lot of people crazy, but I’m happy.”