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Carpenter strings her crowd along

By Henry Carrigan, February 2014

Mary Chapin Carpenter's songs have always transcended the mundane, whether through the introspective songs about life and death on albums like "The Age of Miracles" or "The Calling" or in the humorous ways she laughs at fate in songs such as I Feel Lucky or The Bug in order to show the chinks in our mortal facades. Her music has often helped us get beyond ourselves to see the places where real meaning lies, whether we decide to embrace such meaning or not.

Her new album, "Songs From the Movie," is a feat of musical transcendence as she and composer Vince Mendoza recast 10 of her songs in soaring orchestral arrangements. As Carpenter says, Mendoza's "arrangements gave these existing songs new meanings, new colors, new feelings, new destinations."

Carpenter talked in early February from her home in Virginia, just before she headed out to Los Angeles to perform the album at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Why did you decide to do this album now?
Carpenter: Well, I've had the idea for this album roughly 15 years ago. I got the idea when I first heard Vince Mendoza's work when I was performing at a benefit Don Henley had put together; it is so emotional and evocative. So, when Chris Tetzeli became my manager a few years ago, he asked me, "What's your fantasy project?" I laughed and told him: "I want to do a record with Vince Mendoza." He picked up the phone and called Vince, and now we have the record. It's a testament to having a manager who listens and hears you and makes things happen.

How did you select the songs for the album?
Carpenter: Well, these songs come from many different records, of course, and represent many different times and periods in my life. The danger was that they could have all sounded disparate. The challenge was the sequence, but I think the way that Vince arranged them illustrate a kind of narrative arc. We started out with a master short list of songs, and we wanted to pick 10 or 12 songs that we could collectively agree upon. Magically enough, the process was really easy. Vince was so incredibly insightful about what songs might work in orchestral arrangements; he would listen and point out, for example, that one song worked because it had such a pretty repetition.

Singing these songs with an orchestra must have been a challenge. There's so much space. Tell me a little about that experience.
Carpenter: Oh my gosh, yes, singing into such space was challenging spiritually, emotionally and literally. Singing to this music has been transformative; I've had to learn to sing with enough strength to stay with the orchestra. It was a physical challenge to sing so precisely with just the right phrasing and control. I couldn't sing too strong, like I'm singing with my band, but I couldn't sing too quietly either. I had to be really attentive and listen to the passage and to be sure, I was keeping up with the musicians. Emotionally, I was so touched by these arrangements and the music that I was often in tears. I was in a puddle a lot of the time. I'd close my eyes and find myself getting carried away with the music and then stir myself to be sure I hadn't missed my cues. You know, it's one thing to feel such emotion in the studio when we were recording it, but when we premiered it in Glasgow, it was very hard to stand on stage; literally, singing at the concert took some real concentration.

Why this title for the album?
Carpenter: You always hear this phrase "songs from the movie," and for years when I would think about this project this title was in my mind. These songs and their arrangements lend themselves to a cinematic treatment. Whenever I thought about this album, I wanted it to render the songs so beautifully that you would be able to close your eyes and feel like you were watching the movie.

Your songs, especially the ones on this album, reflect a spiritual dimension.
Carpenter: There may be such a spiritual dimension, but it does not reflect any particular religious tradition, nor do I want it to do so. I worship in the church of nature, and I love what the poet Carl Sandburg said about the woods around his house in East Flat Rock, N.C. Whenever he walked in the woods, he experienced this creative hush. That's what happens when I'm out walking the woods around my house in rural Virginia, and I often go song walking with my dogs when I get stuck on a lyric; that creative hush can help me get unstuck. Music is the vehicle that takes me places; it provokes feelings. It's the vehicle that I use either successfully or unsuccessfully to express myself. I'm seeking to be heard, be known by, be seen by someone; music is a way to connect with the world.

Tell me about your songwriting process.
Carpenter: Well, in so many ways it's never really changed. I feel like I'm ritualistic; I still use a yellow legal pad, pencil and eraser. I joke, though, that the devices on which I record my demos keep getting smaller and smaller. I used to use this huge tape machine, and now I can use my iPhone; you can actually make a surprisingly good demo with an iPad. There's no definite answer about whether or not a melody or lyric comes first; sometimes in blissful moments, they come at the same time.

Who are some of your musical influences?
Carpenter: I think you're influenced constantly by various musical and songwriting forces, so I don't think I could ever choose among them. I love Darrell Scott; he's one of those genius songwriters and creators; he can write anything, and he's a great musician. Growing up in the D.C. are, I listened to folks like Paul Brady, Buck White and the Down Home Folks, Tony Rice and Norman Blake. Woody Guthrie and the Beatles; I think that for any musician, The Beatles' influence permeates every component of why you do what you do. I love what Shawn Colvin says about The Beatles: "The fact that The Beatles met is proof that there is a God." I was also drawn to country music in the first place because that music is all about telling stories and the craft of storytelling.

How have you grown as an artist over the years?
Carpenter: Well, I hope I have grown. I hope I've become a better songwriter. This new project is taking my songs to a totally different plane. I've always tried to follow my muse and be the best at what I do. I hope I know myself better now. I write songs because I passionately love to write songs.