Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Mary Chapin Carpenter discusses the magic of music, hitting the road again

Mary Chapin Carpenter will perform at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Sunday. (Photo by Aaron Farrington)

Part way into the pandemic in 2020, Mary Chapin Carpenter wanted to find ways to stay creative, connect with fans and get some music into the world at a time when concerts weren’t happening and albums were put on hold.

One way she accomplished this goal was with “Songs from Home” series. Carpenter filmed solo performances from her kitchen, sometimes with guest appearances by her golden retriever and “producer” Angus and her cat, White Kitty.

It was all quite casual, fun and genuine, and gave fans a bit of a window into Carpenter’s world at home.

Yet, another project meant to provide some solace and entertainment during the pandemic was not so spontaneous or modestly produced.

In November 2020, Carpenter and a crew, while carefully following protocols to avoid getting infected with COVID, filmed an entire concert at one of Carpenter’s favorite venues, the Wolf Trap’s Filene Center in Vienna, VA. That show has now been released on DVD and CD and titled “One Night Lonely.”

“I just had this idea of wanting to not only keep putting music out there in the form of a concert, but also have it be, understandably, a document of the times that we were in,” Carpenter explained.

She said it was important they made it crystal clear that there was not an audience. She also tamped down the “patter” between songs. “It would have been actually kind of ridiculous, I think, to be speaking to no one,” Carpenter explained.

Yet, the crew made sure it was a “world class production,” not something DIY that the pandemic had made widely popular. It was showcased with “beautiful lighting and the beautiful stage that Wolf Trap has at the Filene Center,” Carpenter said.

At 26 songs, it’s a generous set that encompasses nearly the entirety of the country singers’ three-decade-plus career. It also presents her music in a format she had yet to represent on her albums: solo acoustic.

Carpenter has played solo concerts over the years and often has included solo acoustic segments in shows she performs with a band. But the Filene Center performance was a unique experience, she said.

“It felt very weird on the one hand, but also there was a comfort in doing it because that’s what I’ve been doing for so many years,” she said.

Despite not having an audience, Carpenter filmed it live, without retakes — or splicing segments together after filming.

“It was from the first song to the last song,” she said. “And I remember, as I was playing the last song, the weight of it felt, ‘My God, I’ve been up here for two hours plus or whatever.’ It was exhausting in the moment, but at the same time, it was getting very, very cold on stage. I could see my breath on the last couple of songs and my hands were getting cold and fingers were freezing. It was an unusual experience all the way through. But at the same time, it felt just very magical.”

The solo acoustic performances on “One Night Lonely” allow the melodicism of Carpenter’s songs to shine and put an even brighter spotlight on her thoughtful lyrics and under appreciated skills as a guitarist. The set leans decidedly toward her more serious and meditative material.

Playful hits like “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” “Down at the Twist and Shout” and “Passionate Kisses” aren’t performed. The lightest song is, arguably, “I Take My Chances,” a breezy song with some serious thoughts about Carpenter’s approach to life.

A five-time Grammy winner who has sold a combined 12 million albums, Carpenter, 64, debuted on the national scene with her 1987 album “Hometown Girl.”

Early on, her label, Columbia Records, marketed Carpenter as a country artist, even though her music also elements of folk, rock and pop. That said, the plan worked.

Her third album, 1990’s “Shooting Straight in the Dark,” gave her a breakthrough country hit with “Down at the Twist and Shout,” and then the follow-up album, “Come On Come On,” made Carpenter a major star. The album spawned four top 10 country hits — “Passionate Kisses” (a Lucinda Williams song), “I Feel Lucky,” “He Think He’ll Keep Her” and “I Take My Chances” — on the way to going quadruple platinum. 

Carpenter’s next album, “Stones in the Road,” featured her first chart-topping country single, “Shut Up and Kiss Me.” 

Since then, Carpenter has maintained the quality of her songwriting, while crafting a more ballad-oriented sound on her eight subsequent studio albums. The hit singles have dried up, but Carpenter remains a popular concert draw. 

“The Dirt and the Stars,” the artist’s most recent studio album, is well represented on “One Night Lonely.” She performs “All Broken Hearts Break Differently,” “Traveler’s Prayer,” the title cut and “Farther Along and Further In” (the latter being the song that opens “The Dirt and the Stars” and sets the tone for the album).

“That song in particular, it was important to me to have it open the record because I do think it sort of states a theme that runs throughout the record, which is just the wisdom that comes with growing older and everything that goes into that,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter traveled to Bath, England, to Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios to record “The Dirt and the Stars.” She also recorded her 2018 album, “Sometimes The Sky,” there.

“Everything about it is magical and world class, and just a unique place to be creative,” she said of the facility.

Per usual, Carpenter didn’t share her songs with the musicians until it was time to go to work at the studio. She said it fosters a collaborative environment.

“I have a way of doing it, which is I play the song for everyone just by myself,” Carpenter said. “An arrangement sort of evolves and reveals itself … Everybody brings their own ideas to it, and in the end, it just kind of comes together.”

This summer’s extensive tour will give Carpenter her first opportunity to showcase songs from “The Dirt and the Stars” in a full-band setting. She was set to tour last year with Shawn Colvin before a shoulder injury forced her to drop out of the tour.

Carpenter thinks she’s recovered.

“It’s kind of hard to know until you’re right in the middle of it, you know, playing every night and sort of testing it that way,” Carpenter said. “I spent the past year doing physical therapy and trying to build my strength up in my arms, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Exactly what songs fans will hear on a given night will vary, as Carpenter plans to change up her set list from show to show, including at Greenfield Lake, where she is set to perform on Sunday, Aug. 21, 6:30 p.m.

“We’ll move the pieces around like a chess board and fiddle with it,” she said. “There’s just not enough time to play all of the songs I want to play. I guess that at this point in my life, it’s something to be happy about instead of feeling like it’s a detriment.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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