Few performers have altered the face of modern music quite like Mary Chapin Carpenter. To sum up even a fraction of her accolades is a dizzying exercise. Five Grammys — and still the only person in history to win four in a row in her category — more than 12 million albums sold worldwide, a spot in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the list goes on. No surprise, Carpenter’s new album is all about looking back.
Released this past March, Sometimes Just the Sky features stripped-down versions of songs from each of Carpenter’s previous 12 albums. For the singer-songwriter, the record was largely about gratitude. “The inspiration for this particular project was discovering that it had been 30 years since I started making records. That kind of anniversary doesn’t come around all that often,” says Carpenter. “I wanted to express my joy and my wonder.” The result is an album filled with carefully collected, lesser-known gems from past works. “I didn’t want it to be perceived in any way as sort of a proverbial ‘hits’ record,” she explains.
Photo by Aaron Farrington
Those who attend Carpenter’s July 25 show at The Ridgefield Playhouse will hear a set just as deliberately curated as the songs on her recent record. “Creating a set list is both a joy and a torture session because there are a lot of songs,” says Carpenter of her oeuvre. “I am very respectful of people who spend their hard-earned money to come to a show. I want them to go home happy and feeling like they heard what they want to hear, but it is also my chance my to present new music. It’s like walking a tightrope.”
Such performances for Carpenter, who was born in New Jersey and attended Brown University, are all about exploration. “Every concert is an opportunity to feel like we’re taking a trip,” she says. “We’re all on a little adventure together, and I want people to feel like we’ve all sort of been somewhere.”
Carpenter herself has been on quite a journey. From her earliest days, music was an outsize element in her life. “I had a very musical childhood,” she shares. “Music was blasting in our house 24/7, of all different kinds. I was in musicals, I stole my mother’s guitar, pounded on the piano, and everybody in my family was addicted to music of some kind.”
“I believe in art being something that creates community, dialogue — it allows people to talk, and to talk from different perspectives.”
After her quadruple-Platinum 1992 album, Come On Come On, became a cultural phenomenon, Carpenter threw herself into everything from collaborations with some of the music industry’s biggest stars to activism and charitable work. According to Carpenter, both her creative and philanthropic efforts are focused on fomenting unity.
“There is so much dissension and so much polarization right now; I really feel like I have to look for the best in people, in myself, and I have to look for the light,” she says. “I believe in art being something that creates community, dialogue — it allows people to talk, and to talk from different perspectives.”
For Carpenter, the #MeToo movement is similarly vital because it, like art, has the potential to improve society. “I think this is an incredible time in our culture, when we have the ability to change the way things are and to call out things that should be called out,” says Carpenter of #MeToo. “It’s something I’m deeply moved by.… I bow down to the brave souls [coming forward]. Not to sound like a Hallmark card, but what else is there, except to love and care about one another to make it a better world?”
Carpenter’s latest album, released in March
And when she isn’t improving the planet or writing songs, Carpenter is releasing some stress via a hot-yoga class. “I take a lot of sustenance from my practice,” notes Carpenter. “Afterward, you feel like you’ve been through the ringer, but it’s a really amazing, wonderful feeling. I’m such a perfectionist, and it just helps me calm myself and helps me know that I can’t make everyone happy and that there is no such thing as perfection.”
As for Carpenter’s creative output, it shows absolutely no sign of slowing down anytime soon. “I have been working incredibly hard, touring all these years,” she says wistfully. “And it always makes me kind of giggle when people say, ‘Are you still doing that?’ I’ve got new songs in the pipeline, new projects, and all sorts of things going on. I’ve never been happier. I’ve never been busier either, and it’s a wonderful feeling.”