“He’s mentally unbalanced, a sexual predator, racist, misogynist, a narcissist, a demagogue, he’s a frightening person,” asserts Mary Chapin Carpenter about America’s new “freak show” President, Donald Trump. And the musician is firmly of the belief that the fight back, particularly among the artistic community, starts here: “What I believe in my heart of hearts is that Trump has underestimated people’s ability to overcome this ugliness and behaviour. People will overcome that.”
“His brown shirt is Steve Bannon [Trump’s chief strategist] and he’s the most frightening,” an impassioned Carpenter continues. “And Paul Ryan is Trump’s bitch… and how in the world am I having an interview and speaking in such ugly terms, but that’s how people are talking now.”
The eloquent 58-year-old country singer from Princeton, New Jersey, has released 14 studio albums, including 1992’s Grammy-award winning Come on Come On (featuring stirring feminist anthem “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”) and 1994’s US number one Stones in the Road (featuring the bluesy, raucous “Shut up and Kiss Me”). Her latest, The Things That We Are Made Of, was released to critical acclaim last year and is a meditative, introspective record nimbly produced by Dave Cobb (who also produced Jason Isbell’s sublime Something More Than Free, from 2015). It touches on regret, alienation and loss, and is a departure from her poppier, roadhouse rock beginnings, back in the late Eighties.
“I’m loath to dictate what the themes of the album are,” maintains the diminutive, softly spoken Carpenter, sat across from me sipping tea in her London hotel, “but I do see a couple; the wish to be seen and the need to be known, and it’s about loss and loneliness, about growing older and the fear of growing older alone. But it’s also about resilience and belief in yourself.”
On one of the standout tracks, the melancholy “The Middle Ages”, Carpenter sings about “the discarded dreams and the dreams distilled” and how it’s very “strange waking up alone”. The cerebral songwriter, who suffered from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism in 2007, is refreshingly open about her life and lyrics.
“Sometimes you don’t know until much later on that you’ve let some dreams go,” Carpenter admits. “You wake up and realise, ‘oh well, I’m in a different place now’. I would not have predicted that I am where I am. For example, I don’t have children and it’s almost like I woke up long past the point where [you can] and it’s too late then anyway… It’s about letting things go,” she drifts off.
Carpenter, after 26 years of living in cities, resides in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains which she claims is the ideal place for creativity; she goes “song-walking” (composing melody and lyrics) with her dog in the surrounding woods around her farmhouse.
“It’s such a place of natural beauty, serenity and inspiration,” Carpenter maintains, “but also I’m alone a lot of the time and it’s very remote.”
Carpenter is a regular user of social media, particularly Facebook, but she also likes to turn off and go for “long periods where I don’t listen to the radio or stream music or watch television”.
“When you have a sensitive skin or heart there are certain things you need to stay away from, if you know it impacts on you,” explains Carpenter, who has suffered from bouts of depression since childhood. “You know some days I feel I don’t have my armour on and I need to stay away from certain things and topics, but on the other hand I consider it my duty to be informed and I don’t want to put my head in the sand; it’s about striking a balance.”
In fact the politically liberal Carpenter has a history of getting involved, from discussing topical issues in a column for The Washington Times to organising concerts for causes such as the elimination of landmines. She recently attended the Women’s March on Washington, which enraged the obligatory cavalcade of online trolls (“They were writing some really foul, obscene things that any reasonable person would find offensive”). However, age and experience have made her more robust and she’s in a good “space”, particularly creatively, and attracting the likes of “gifted and articulate” star producer Cobb.
“I went to his house and I’m shy and I think he is too and we were two shy people together, but he broke the ice by talking about bands he grew up listening to,” she smiles. “It felt comfortable and we talked about Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, Crowded House.
“I’ve co-produced all my records and I’m connected to every decision, but one of the reasons I worked with Dave is that I wanted to turn a new page. I felt the way to do that was to let go and let someone else be in charge, I’ve never done that before.”
Carpenter admits she did have issues relinquishing control and Cobb often had to reassure the “very self-critical” artist that she didn’t have to repeatedly sing and perform songs in order to reach perfection; that a little “imperfection” was okay.
“Dave was like a savant where he’d rattle off all these famous moments of recorded music – like Keith was out of tune, somebody’s tempo was ahead of the beat – on all these famous songs and moments in music where if you were to dissect them you’d see the imperfections of the performance but that’s what makes it great,” she maintains. “I had to let it go, and I had to remind myself that that was why I was there, and in the end I was delighted… I love this new album but it wasn’t easy to be a different person.”
The Things That We Are Made Of is indeed a delightful, sometimes haunting album, with highlights including opener “Something Tamed, Something Wild” (on which she sings “The power of regret still gets me/ Right between the eyes”), the Paul Simon-esque “What Does It Mean to Travel” (“Sometimes I just want to be somewhere else/ Untethered and unknown”) and the perkier “Map of my Heart”.
After our chat, Carpenter delivers a typically adroit performance of “Something Tamed, Something Wild” at the UK Americana Awards before she completes her short UK tour and heads home.
“When I return to my home country next week I feel like I’m returning to a country I don’t recognise,” Carpenter laments. “Saying you’re afraid doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel. Look at me, I don’t have a ban on my head, what I have got to be afraid of? I make jokes to my guys [in the band] that ‘we’ll get home unless we’re detained’, but I realise that’s not a joke for a lot of people and it’s sickening.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’ is out now. Her US tour starts on 2 May.