October 25, 2018 at 11:42 am EDT | by Brian Walmer
Mary Chapin Carpenter looks back on three decades of music
Mary Chapin Carpenter, gay news, Washington Blade

Mary Chapin Carpenter says she loves performing at both The Birchmere and Wolf Trap. (Photo by Jonathan Stewart)

Mary Chapin Carpenter
‘Sometimes Just the Sky Tour’
With Laura Cortese and The Dance Cards
Oct. 29-30
The Birchmere
3701 Mt. Vernon Ave.
Alexandria, VA

Celebrating 30 years in the music business, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter released a new album entitled “Sometimes Just The Sky” in March and has been busy touring overseas and the U.S.

Carpenter has been a staple of the D.C. area performing annually at Wolf Trap and returning every few years to one of her old stomping grounds, The Birchmere.

The singer/songwriter spoke to the Blade by phone the day before she heads out on the road to begin the fall leg of her “Sometimes Just The Sky Tour.” She’s been running errands and doing some last minute things around her home when when we talk about her upcoming shows at The Birchmere, her new new album and highlights from her 30 year career.

BLADE: You’ve said you get nervous performing at The Birchmere. Why?

CARPENTER: It’s not just The Birchmere, I get nervous pretty much anywhere (laughs). It keeps you on your toes. I’m sure you heard other people say that, but it’s true. It keeps you alert and on your toes and in touch with everything around you. That said it’s not something I wish on anyone, but it’s just after all these years I’m kind of used to it I suppose and I’m not surprised when I feel those butterflies.

BLADE: You were at Wolf Trap a few months ago which is a place you’ve regularly played throughout your career. What’s it like going from a show there performing for 7,000 people to being in room performing for 500 at The Birchmere?

CARPENTER: Both of those places are so special. Anytime you’re walking on either stage you feel thrilled. What’s great about Wolf Trap is that even though it’s so many people, it has this ability because of its beauty, the way it’s set up, the open hearts that people bring with them in addition to their picnics, it can feel very intimate. That being said, The Birchmere can feel, even though it’s comparatively less people, like the biggest rock stage you’ve ever been on. You feel like you’re taking the roof off. The audiences are so amazing and you can just really dig into the whole thing. So each place doesn’t necessarily correspond to what you think it may be about. There’s an intimacy in a huge space and an amazing sense of being able to lift off in a small space.

BLADE: You re-recorded both hits and deeper cuts for “Sometimes Just the Sky.” How did that project come about?

CARPENTER: Well first of all, I wanted to do something to mark the milestone. I wanted to celebrate it with joy and with an artistic project. I didn’t feel the need to just re-release existing tracks or anything like that. It was an experiment of sorts to see how the passage of time affected songs that I knew backwards and forwards over the last 30 years. The oldest song against the newest song for example. I thought it would be interesting to see if they feel connected in some way. Magically to me they absolutely feel connected to one another. It was just a really special project for me. Again, it was initially to celebrate this milestone but as it went on it felt as a new album standing alone on itself. It was just so wild to have that experience. To record it with Ethan Johns in Western England, it’s one of my favorite places in the world and Ethan is amazing and I just — it felt like such a privilege to do it.

BLADE: How do you come up with set lists with such a vast catalogue?

CARPENTER: You know it’s not the easiest thing but it’s the challenge of every tour and every set list I’m creating. I feel like I have some boxes to tick off. One would be if there’s a new album around that tour I want to represent a certain amount that’s on that record and then … dive deeper in the existing catalog and try to come up with some things that might not have been heard recently and then it’s important to include songs people know or I’m going to make the presumption they know. I want people to feel there’s things they recognize and they can latch on that way. You know, so mixing it up in a bowl of those three things is the challenge and it’s just something that feels right, that particular mix up.

BLADE: Looking back over all your albums, is there any that you feel didn’t get the recognition it deserved from either critics or fans?

CARPENTER: Oh golly, well first of all I’m probably not the best person to ask. I tried for many, many years not to read reviews. I’m sure you heard other performers, artists, novelists, authors or whoever say that. Some people are totally fine doing that and over the years I discovered within myself that I just did better if I didn’t try and follow those things, so I wouldn’t have a line on what’s been well received versus what hasn’t been well received. It’s not like I don’t care, but it’s just sort of recognizing I do better without having someone’s criticism in my head.

BLADE: In 2007, you released an album entitled “The Calling.” It featured a few songs with political themes as well as songs that provided hope during a crazy time. Many of the themes in that album still ring true now in 2018. Will you be featuring any of those songs on this tour?

CARPENTER: There’s a song on there called “Why Shouldn’t We” and I’m polishing that up for this tour. I feel like that song speaks to the themes of our time. I very much want to put that forth in terms of how it illustrates how I feel about so many things. We need to figure out ways to talk to one another. That’s the most important thing to me is building the bridge to be able to talk to one another because it’s pretty lonely when you’ve got no one to talk to.

BLADE: When you’re writing, do you think of the impact you hope to have on the listener?

CARPENTER: Well, I don’t think I have that in my head when I’m working on a song because I’m really trying to answer my own questions first and listen to my own voice in a way. It’s really about feeling, for me, I can’t speak for any other songwriter, but for myself I’m trying to just speak to something as honestly and personally as I know how. You know, that’s sort of the gauge I guess. I heard a quote the other day and God it was beautiful. I forget who said it in reference to a book or something but it was how do you know when the book is finished and the response is when you’ve abandoned it (laughs). You know, when do you know a song is finished? I guess when you abandon it. But with that said, I think it makes a lot of sense. I feel it’s finished and I let it sit on my kitchen table and I give it what I call the overnight test. I try and walk away from it, let it sit there overnight and then come back to it the next day. When I play it again the next day, the response I have then tells me whether it’s a keeper, needs more work or goes right into the garbage bin.

BLADE: In 1993, you appeared on Dolly’s song “Romeo” with Billy Ray Cyrus, Tanya Tucker, Kathy Mattea and Pam Tillis. How did that come about? Any special memories about the recording of the song or the music video?

CARPENTER: Well I don’t remember how it came about, but I remember Dolly invited me to sing harmony on the song. For the video, it was just one of those days, my God. To be hanging out with those fabulous women and Billy Ray (laughs). It was hilarious. I was just glad it wasn’t my video because I hated making videos, hated them. I’d rather eat a cockroach than make a video. On that particular set I just had to sit around and get up every once in a while and sing and hang out with Dolly and all those ladies and Billy Ray — it was fun. I also remember I got to buy that black leather motorcycle jacket that I was wearing and to this day I think I lent it somebody and I don’t know where it is, I’m so mad. I want that jacket back.

BLADE: Also in 1993, you wrote a song with Cyndi Lauper that was on her “Hat Full of Stars” album called “Sally’s Pigeons.” How did you meet and what brought you together to write?

CARPENTER: I have a memory that I was part of a show at the Beacon Theater in New York and Cyndi was at that show, she was brought up to my dressing room and we were introduced as possibly getting together to maybe do some writing together. I was thrilled as you could imagine and she was into it and sometime soon after that I flew up to New York and she and her driving instructor picked me up at LaGuardia, so she’s like the driver in training, driving down the Cross Bronx Expressway turning her head to me in the backseat having a conversation and her driving institutor is in the front seat having a panic attack. (laughs) No, she was a good driver. We spent the next day or two working on the song that became “Sally’s Pigeons” and I think we finished it over the phone. This was back in the day when we used landlines still. Anyway, it was thrilling and I’ll never forget it.

BLADE: At the CMAs in 1994, you performed “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and at the end of the song, Little Richard came out and kissed you. How did you get Little Richard to appear with you?

CARPENTER: (laughs) I don’t know! The producer had great persuasive powers somehow. How cool was that? I loved every minute of it. I was having a blast.

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