After a four-year break from new material, 2016 finds Mary Chapin Carpenter back with her 14th studio album, “The Things That We Are Made Of.”
Since the release of 2012’s “Ashes and Roses,” the five-time Grammy winner has toured with fellow singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin; released and toured with her 2014 symphonic album, “Songs From the Movie”; and toured an acoustic show last year.
Carpenter will be wrapping up the end of a busy touring year performing two sold-out shows at the Birchmere Dec. 6-7. A few last-minute tickets may be available when the box office opens each evening at 5 p.m.
Carpenter recalls her early days performing at the Birchmere, looking back and being labeled a country artist during a phone chat from her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
WASHINGTON BLADE: What are your memories of singing at the Birchmere?
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER: I don’t know when the exact first time I ever had a show there. I started playing there in the early ’80s as an opener and as part of other groups. It’s much bigger than it used to be. The new Birchmere has been there a long time now. The old Birchmere used to be about a quarter of the size. It really was an intimate space and one of the premier listening rooms in the country. Now they can bring bigger shows and there’s more seats, but it’s still such a revered listening room.
BLADE: Does it feel the same playing there now?
CARPENTER: You mean the same feeling of being nervous and scared? Yes! (laughs)
BLADE: You’ve played the Birchmere and Wolf Trap many times. Do you have a preference?
CARPENTER: They’re so different. I don’t prefer one over the other. Certainly, the Birchmere being more intimate, it’s an opportunity to be more free wheeling and chatting with the audience where with Wolf Trap, it’s so vast, but it’s still possible to feel the collective energy of 7,000 people. I feel so lucky to be a resident of this area in the sense that I have two hometown stages that mean the world to me and they’re both very different, but they’re both deeply meaningful to me in terms of my career and what it feels like to play music. I have gone to both as a listener for so long before I had the good fortune to play those stages, they’re just treasures.
BLADE: Tell us about your current tour.
CARPENTER: It’s actually been a few years since I toured with a band, so reconvening the band incarnation with brand new music just lifts you up and makes you feel energized with new players and new music.
BLADE: And your new album?
CARPENTER: What this record is about in my mind, it’s about asking questions. When I laid down all the lyrics to proofread, it’s an odd thing, it wasn’t until I did that, looked at each song physically next to one another that I realized that so many of the lyrics in the songs are posed in the form of the question. What it made me feel was that given the subject matter that it’s far more important when you reach a certain time in your life to just feel that you’re still asking questions and you’re still curious and you’re more comfortable with the idea of not knowing because you can’t have all the answers and that’s OK. It’s just remaining open, inquisitive, open-hearted, alert to everything around you and accepting.
BLADE: When you listen to “The Things That We Are Made Of,” it’s distinctly different than your last album, “Ashes and Roses.” Do your albums reflect where you currently are in the different stages of your life?
CARPENTER: Yeah, I hope so. I heard this wonderful interview with Anne Patchett, she was on Diane Rehm and I was listening to it. She’s one of my favorite authors and she said something that I don’t remember the exact words, but I’ll paraphrase, it was every book she’s written has led to the next one. It made a lot of sense to me as someone who tries to create these sort of worlds where every couple years another world exists, a world of song. This record, I understand where people say it’s very different or whatever, but from my position it doesn’t feel so much different as a natural next place to go.
BLADE: Looking back is a recurring theme in your work. Is that a conscious decision?
CARPENTER: I just can’t help it (laughs). I think songwriting, as a creative form of expression, I mean, on one hand it’s a deeply personal exercise and you’re trying to express your feelings, trying to express yourself within the world and it’s about connection as well. That’s the gift of live music of course. When we’re in our 20s and 30s and even in our 40s, I think we have a sense that life is going to last forever. It’s only when the challenges, the losses, the changes in our lives, the loss of parents or a health issue that tend to come upon us as we reach the mid point. Those are the things that kind of stop you in your tracks and not so much teach you, but alert you to the fact that no, you’re not going to live forever. There’s a reason people have crises at times of their lives because mortality is a difficult thing to grasp.
BLADE: We all have moments in our lives where things are constantly changing whether we want them to or not. How do you deal with the unexpected?
CARPENTER: You have to be comfortable not being in control. I think of myself, my personality is I like order out of chaos. I like things to be organized, I like to know what I’m doing. It’s just this disillusion idea that I’m in control, but I’m not. The greatest test for me is when things blow up and you sort of have to regroup. You have to feel that all’s not lost. The idea is when you’re a younger person, is that when things blow up, “Oh my God, it’s the worst thing that ever happened,” but later in life, there’s a freedom that comes around where you’re not so invested or — it sounds so Oprah like — but you’re not so attached to the outcome. You’re able to handle a blow up and realize it’s not the end of the world.
BLADE: When did you first notice you had a gay following?
CARPENTER: It’s funny to me because I never think about it. It’s never been something I ever sort of thought about it. So in that regard, I guess I have no idea. I’ve always been so happy just to look out into the audience and see people.
BLADE: How does it feel testing out new songs on the road?
CARPENTER: It helps me to sort of hone the song. I go into the studio with 25, 30 songs and I don’t record all of them, but I have a sense of what I think are the strongest and playing them out and getting a sense of how they feel that way, as opposed to just playing them in my house. It does sort of weed things out.
BLADE: Will you be doing anything special next year for your 30th anniversary in music?
CARPENTER: Next year marks the 30th anniversary of my first record (“Hometown Girl”) so we’re talking about a project, something special to kind of mark it and a live record is certainly on the list.
BLADE: Does it ever bother you being labeled a country artist?
CARPENTER: It’s not something I reject. I spent 20 years on the Nashville Columbia label. It was an incredible opportunity and I got to reach so many people. It’s given me everything I use today and it’s allowed me to go where I’ve wanted to go. I think of starting out and having this label, “country” as nothing I could reject in anyway and I’m proud of the music and the times and everything we did during those years. That said, I don’t think it really applies to me anymore. Furthermore, I grew up listening to all sorts of music. Labels were for soup cans as the saying goes. It’s just not something I paid a whole lot of attention to and made to feel to be a big deal. I just sort of feel like we all play music and we just want to connect with who we connect with.