Mary Chapin Carpenter leads her new album, Ashes & Roses, by vividly describing the comings and goings of an international flight — taking off, landing, baggage claim and so on. The song, “Transcendental Reunion,” is catchy and conversational. But as in so many of her compositions, there is a deeper, more spiritual undertone.
“The reason it’s the first song on the record is because I feel like it sets up all the other songs that follow it,” Carpenter says in an interview on the afternoon before she boarded a flight to London. “I think some people have thought it was just talking about a trip overseas, but there are a few layers to it — the whole idea of being suspended in the air, in life, not sure where you’re going to touch down, not sure what’s going to be there when you get there.”
The message of the song — and perhaps the album — may be that we’re all in this together. And longtime listeners who have been comforted by Carpenter’s music will continue to connect to her warm voice, discerning eye and soft delivery throughout Ashes & Roses.
After an extended time healing from a pulmonary embolism, a divorce and the death of her father, Carpenter has resumed her intensive travel calendar, with a few interviews along the way. In a conversation with CMT.com, she explains her hopes for the record, the inspiration behind some of her new songs and the camaraderie with her fellow musicians — even though one of them made her cry.
CMT: What was a typical day in the studio while making this record?
Carpenter: Well … I suppose a typical day starts out with coffee. (laughs) Being with those guys in the studio, they really are amazing people. Not only gifted musicians but extraordinarily kind and interesting people. A typical day was probably one spent with enormous creativity and support and a sense that we were all invested in creating this work. To me, it’s really about that kind of generosity from the people you’re working with. It’s not about myself or my co-producer sending orders down the line. It’s far more creative than that. It has to be for me. What you hear is all of their beautiful ideas.
I was drawn to the line in “Chasing What’s Already Gone” where you see your father in a dream. Do you feel his presence a lot on this record?
Oh, absolutely. There are certain lyrics, of course, that directly reference him. And others where he’s more suggested, I guess you could say. Losing my dad was just dreadful. It was a few days after that when my dear friend and bass player Don Dixon said, “Has your father visited you yet?” And I said, “How do you mean?” He said, “They visit us in our dreams and other ways.” You know, I did feel the sense of his presence hovering at certain times. The idea of the loss of someone like that in your life is something that runs through this record.
What were you hoping to capture in “What to Keep and What to Throw Away”?
That was when I was cleaning up my ex-husband’s stuff in my house. It wasn’t so much about making lists but trying to get through a harrowing experience and the emotional fallout of that.
I like the line that says “start with something hollow,” just because of the double meaning. I was thinking of a box that’s empty and a heart that feels empty. Or am I reading too much into that?
I was referencing his last words to me, which were hollow. “Like the last words that he offered/No kind of explanation/They only take up space here/You do not need to save them.” So I was starting off, as it were, with the memory of his hollow last words. But I like the idea you just suggested of starting out with a box that’s empty — to be filled up and taken out. That works, too.
I especially enjoy “Soul Companion” because there’s a sense of optimism.
Actually, that’s where the record starts to shift in terms of a narrative arc. That was important to me that this record reflected not only the darkest days but the belief and the reality that there is an “other side” to it — and you come out on that other side eventually. … I believe those soul companions are on this earth to be found. We just don’t know when, where or how. Having James Taylor sing on that song was the greatest experience and gift. It was wonderful.
What was going through your mind when you first heard his voice come in?
I was crying like a baby. (laughs) I just wept. It was so meaningful to me that this iconic musician that I’ve listened to most of my whole life — and his voice is like no other — that he was singing my song with me. It was very emotional. When I first heard it, I was just on the floor.
I could tell he was playing guitar on the track, too. Did he influence you as a guitar player, as well?
Oh, yes, absolutely. His fingerpicking is so distinctive. I have a lot of songs that I fingerpick, but I don’t even pretend I can get near what he does. It’s a melodic, flowing thing that he does, and I think he’s influenced untold numbers of aspiring players like myself.
What do you hope the listener will take away from this record?
Oh, gosh, I hope they like it. (laughs) I hope it resonates. You don’t have to experience the exact same experiences that I had that inspired the songs in order to feel a connection to what I’m saying. The sense that all experience and emotion, the things we go through as people in our lives, we’re really not alone in that. We all share so many of the same experiences. We have so many of the same losses. We have so many of the same moments for ourselves. My hope for anyone is that they would feel they are part of something, that they are not alone.