Before Mary Chapin Carpenter signed a record deal, won five Grammys and a myriad of other awards, gathered a worldwide reputation for superb songwriting, or penned major hits including “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” she made the rounds playing Washington, D.C. Clubs.
Her gigs at those now-defunct clubs—Gallagher’s Pub on Connecticut Avenue and other similar venues—were somewhat like listening rooms where patrons went to hear soulful, honest lyrics, very different from the ‘80s-era music by Michael Jackson, Madonna and a host of punk/glam rockers and hip-hop artists who were on heavy rotation on MTV and elsewhere. Not only did her superb songwriting and vocals break through the clutter, but they made her one of the most highly regarded songwriters of her generation.
What’s fascinating about Carpenter is that while the artistry of some of her contemporaries has seemingly evaporated, she has continually remained relevant. Perhaps that’s because she hasn’t been afraid to embrace the challenges in her world—including near death and divorce—and the passage of time.
Each of her albums does just that, including her latest release, The Things That We Are Made Of. Yes, there are songs come with some nostalgia, but the majority take a look at all the events of her life, through now 58-year-old eyes. The songs on the album are something like vignettes moving from “Something Tamed Something Wild”—something akin to her big picture thoughts about her life as she ruminates on it—before taking on listeners on an exploration of various parts of her life before finding peace with what she has experienced. The result is breathtakingly poetic, classic Carpenter.
“I think I spent about four years working on these songs from top to bottom,” Carpenter says. “I am loathe to say there is one big theme…but a lot of these songs are about life in the middle ages.”
In a way, the ideas for the songs has brewed for years perhaps enhanced by a quote from an author Carpenter admires, English author G.K. Chesterton: “But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged.”
“I wrote that quote down and looked at it a thousand times, a million times,” she says. “Great inspiration does come to the middle aged. When you are young, everything is a disaster or a triumph. The soul survives the adventures and you begin to understand yourself. That sort of insight, into the nuts-and-bolts of daily living…gives you an acute sense of purpose.”
Little wonder that Carpenter remains in high demand as a performer throughout the United States and the world. She is the rare artist who turns her personal insights, sorrows and observations into universal truths. The one-time voice of women in their 30s has not stopped speaking for them as they mature.
“We all just have one story and you write it many different ways,” she says. “That, to me, is where all the songs comes from, what they’re about. It makes a lot of sense to someone who has looked at her palm and tried to make sense of how they feel inside.”