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Songs From the Movie: A Conversation With Mary Chapin Carpenter, Chatting With Doug Paisley, Plus an Art Decade Exclusive

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An Interview with Mary Chapin Carpenter

Mike Ragogna: Mary Chapin, you've got a new album, Songs From The Movie, the follow up to the excellent Ashes And Roses. Can we just dive in?

Mary Chapin Carpenter: Absolutely!

MR: It almost seems like this album is, in some respects a part two--at least emotionally--to Ashes And Roses, even though it revisits your older material.

MCC: Well, I have to say that's an interesting thought to me. I don't think I've really thought about it in that way. The differences are obvious and when you're working with pre-existing songs, they're not new, they weren't all written as a piece. I've always approached recording as an opportunity to create something that is all, for lack of a better word, a concept album. My albums exist as collections of songs that really belong together. Given that, these were all sort of culled from so many different records; that was a different way of experiencing them right off the bat. It was an incredibly emotional experience to do this record. In that regard, I agree with you, if it's about gauging how that affects you and how you walk into the studio every day pulling yourself up saying, "All right, here we go, hold it together now," I would agree with you.

MR: Thank you. If we were going to use the name of the album, Songs From The Movie, as a metaphor, it seems like it's the journey leading up to Ashes And Roses. In this context, it's almost like commentary using aspects of your life and aspects of your catalog as another reflection of where you're at right now.

MCC: There's a part of me that doesn't want to go too far in trying to make it all very tidily fit some sort of notion, although I truly appreciate your desire and efforts to put it in perspective and understand it that way. I agree that it is a continuum, and it does have a sort of way of looking at the past twenty-some years of my life in song.

MR: How about they're exclamation points relative to what went on during Ashes And Roses?

MCC: I feel like that was a very specific period of time in my life and the songs came out of very specific experiences. Obviously, a lot of these songs were written years before that. I feel like maybe a better way to think about it is that we all have one life but our life is made up of many different episodes--"different lives," if we think of ourselves as cats or something. These songs all sort of speak to different times in my life. The title is very impressionistic. To give it some sort of context for you, do you remember the days, years ago, when you'd go see a movie and then there'd be a soundtrack for that movie released and one record label or another would have all of those songs on the soundtrack? You'd buy the soundtrack and it would include other songs that weren't in the actual film, but as they say, "Songs inspired by the movie." It was always an interesting notion. From a retail perspective, it was like record labels were making the most of being associated with the film and putting their artists on this soundtrack. But you know, there was something to this idea that there were certain songs that could be written and "inspired by the movie." The concept for this record has been kicking around in my brain for so long, that concept being that I felt that I always had certain songs that ask a lot of the listener lyrically and that in the right hands could have a cinematic kind of treatment. I said, "How do you put all of these together and have a sort of artistic sense?" In that regard, I started thinking it's a soundtrack. There's not a movie that goes with it, but it's speaking to those sweeping, beautiful things that just take you someplace when you hear them.

MR: And of course with Vince Mendoza on board, that's an easy mission.

MCC: Right! It was many, many, many years ago, but do you remember when Don Henley was putting together small concerts around the country to benefit Walden woods?

MR: Absolutely, yeah.

MCC: Okay, so he would gather a lot of female singers and pop stars and he'd put a concert on in different cities and they'd all select a song from The Great American Songbook. Larry Klein was the musical director and Vince was the arranger of all of theses songs, and I was able to take part in the one in San Francisco and I got to sing "But Beautiful." I remember that was the first time I'd ever heard all of these songs in the context of Vince's arrangements. They were so beautiful. I remember standing on the side of the stage watching all of these people and just listening and being mesmerized by the beauty of these arrangements. Some songs you were familiar with, some were more obscure, and that was the moment I thought if I ever had the chance do this truly--it's an overused term, but "bucket list" project--that Vince would be the person that I would want to go to. Interestingly enough, it was about two or three years later I was driving in the car listening to my local college radio station when Joni Mitchell's record came out that Vince did all the arranging for. I heard her sing "Both Sides Now" and I stopped the car and listened and I knew before I could even look it up that Vince had done the arrangement. His work is that distinctive. So distinctive. Besides just being enchanted with Joni's work, I just thought, "This man is so gifted."

MR: With Travelogue as well as the songs "Both Sides Now" and "A Case Of You," Joni's reinterpretation shows a new perspective coming from her being a more mature artist, her "read" shining a different kind of light on songs. Like Joni, you're singing this older material from a later point in life.

MCC: They do have different destinations and shades and colors and they evoke different things than the original recordings, otherwise you're just doing the same things over and over again. So I think that's always the hope and the goal and that has been fulfilled.

MR: When you were putting the tracklist together, were you seeing the pieces of the puzzle as they were fitting together? And were there any surprises regarding the material?

MCC: It was an interesting process and the way that we did it was that there was one song I always knew was going to be on the record, "Where Time Stands Still." I don't know how to explain it, but I always felt that song belonged on this kind of record. That said, Matt [Rollings] my co-producer, Vince and myself, we all sort of went into our separate corners. I think I might have sent out an initial list of maybe forty songs or something like that. Everybody went into their separate corners and came up with their ten or twelve songs they thought belonged on the record and then we cross-referenced it to see which song got the most votes. There were a few that we talked through and Vince would explain for me, "Oh, I don't think that's a good candidate because if you listen to it, the chorus doesn't really go anywhere or give me a lot of places I can take it." I felt that we learned a lot from Vince in terms of what lent itself to a new arrangement in an existing song. So that was a really interesting process, but it wasn't excruciating in any way. We all felt good and very happy with what we came up with. There were no fistfights or anything.

MR: [laughs] Were there any revelations that you had listening to this "movie" from top to bottom when it was completed?

MCC: I don't know if there are any revelations other than that it was deeply emotional. It was emotional making the thing. I'm just one of those people who gets swept away in music. I don't mean to speak that way about my own stuff, but this was just such a new thing and to hear these songs in such a different way, not only did I feel "known" in a very deep way by this, in the sense that I felt like he had a direct line to my heart in terms of how he wrote these arrangements. There's a reason why music makes you cry, there's a reason why it moves you and why it inspires you and takes you places. It affects you on a cellular level, and Vince's beautiful notes and arrangements just did that to me. So for hearing it in its final setting, it was astonishingly beautiful to me. Just very moving. I don't know how to explain it, really. Maybe it's because I have yet to have enough distance from it or something, I can't really listen to it without being utterly invested in it.

MR: And I imagine recording at Air made it a wonderful experience for you.

MCC: A tremendous experience. I was fortunate enough to be there once before in 2000 recording Time* Sex* Love*. Being able to return there was tremendously exciting. It's such an incredible place, to be there with the orchestra was hard to describe, it was so powerful.

MR: Mary Chapin, the subtlety and matter-of-fact delivery of your performances brings out so much more than any kind of overkill that a lot of artists have to do to bring lyrics home sometimes. I feel you should be even more appreciated for your strength as a lyricist than you currently are. I think if listeners took a second look at what you're doing, especially these days, many would say, "This is one of our best American songwriters." I certainly think so.

MCC: Well, thank you so much, that's just utterly lovely for you to say. The songs presented in this way, if it does give someone a second chance to listen and maybe connect to something that they may not have connected to before, the way songs do for us, to me that's just a lovely idea. If it doesn't, we all know that as artists we do what we do and we know that we can't claim everyone's ear. But if it does find its way to someone who either previously didn't connect to it or had never encountered it before in some way, that's thrilling and exciting and wonderful when that happens. So that's one thing to consider once you release something like that, but the other thing, again, is that I can't say enough about how fortunate I feel that somehow, some way, something in my career brought me to a place where I got to do this. I think that's something else to consider. Those of us who started in our artistic careers twenty-five, almost thirty years ago, we all know how the music business has changed. I just feel like, given all the changes and how hard it is to do what we do nowadays, much less starting out, I'm just grateful I got to a place where I can do this. So that's a whole other place that I think about this project. It's somewhat astonishing to me that I had the support for this, because I know how hard that is to come by.

MR: Not that I would know anything about such things, but my feeling is the new bar you've established on your latest projects might be the result of all the personal challenges, etc., that led up to Ashes And Roses.

MCC: At the risk of sounding like I'm trying to make it all tidy and everything, I do think there's something to be said for feeling like the right things happen at the right time. I also think you would agree with me that this is a look back and certainly a look at the present as well. I couldn't have made this record twenty years ago. It's about having lived a life. My life is not over by any stretch, but there's this wisdom and experience and the things that you've gained that are, I think, very much a part of this record.

MR: Beautiful. Mary Chapin, where do you go from here?

MCC: Literally? Next week? I go to Scotland and launch the record, which is really exciting. I'm doing my first concert at the beautiful Celtic Connections center in Glasgow in a few weeks. That'll be my first time singing this with the orchestra. I'm so excited. That's the short answer. The longer answer is that I've been writing for a new record and I hope to start on that as a project sometime this year in terms of getting in the studio. So what's next after this is another record.

MR: Will you take the adventures you had at Air with you creatively into the next record?

MCC: Without having a crystal ball, I'll say I think every time you go into the studio you learn things if you're paying close enough attention. I think what happens in sort of some result of all the things you've absorbed and they make their way into what you do. I always presume that what's been going on previously finds its way into my way of thinking or executing music or writing. That's always the way it's been, honestly. I've been writing songs the exact same way I've done all of my life, that's never changed. The settings change and the studios change and the people you work with change, but it all sort of starts at the place that it has always started, which is with a guitar and a voice and a yellow legal pad and a pencil with an eraser. The only thing that's different over all of these years is that the device that I record my ideas on just keeps getting smaller and smaller. I use my phone now.

MR: What is your advice for new artists?

MCC: Oy-oy-oy!

MR: You know, to someone just starting out.

MCC: I think back to that point, the landscape of business realities and the technological advances that have occurred in the past years have changed everything. The fact that you can be fifteen years old and write songs after school and you can put them up on SoundCloud... You can make your own way. I think the possibilities that lie in being able to do it yourself, it's a totally DIY world, that just opens it up to everybody and that's the most exciting thing in the world. It used to be you had to get in the door of the label. Nowadays, you can just do it yourself and people can find you and you can do it yourself. So what I would say to someone with aspirations in that regard is just that the world is your oyster, be as adventurous as you can possibly be and know that it's in your hands.

MR: And maybe be prepared to use that eraser once in a while?

MCC: Oh my God, yes.

Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne

ART DECADE'S "NUMBERLESS DREAMS"

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photo by Hadley Brooks

According to Art Decade...

"I am always looking for ways to bring motion to otherwise still artwork. With 'Numberless Dreams,' we took the idea of spray painted stencils into the realm of fully moving animation. Cutting out thousands of laser cut stencils and then spray painting each frame by hand, thus an otherwise motionless art form finds fluid movement.

"The music video, like all of our work, reflects the nature of the bands do it yourself approach to the creative process. Filmed mainly in our living room, and edited at our bassists house, everything has been done by us. The song and album are no exception, as we recorded, engineered, produced, and wrote everything ourselves. We wanted to make a statement defining us through our work."

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A Conversation with Doug Paisley

Mike Ragogna: Hi Doug! Before we get into the new album Strong Feelings, let's get caught up on all things Doug Paisley. What have you been up to since your last project?

Doug Paisley: Since my last album I've been traveling and performing more than ever before. So much so that I felt the need to stay at home for a while which leads to songwriting which leads to recording which leads to more travelling.

MR: Did any of this inspire your material on Strong Feelings

DP: I'm really into the challenges of songwriting. Spending so much time playing the songs from the last album made me want to go farther afield with my music and my songwriting.

MR: "Radio Girl," to me, seems like a tribute to relationships and the good old days. Even its lead vocal seems to evoke another time. Is that also the secret behind the new album, it being about events and people that evoked strong feelings within you?

DP: I think music gets into some people more than others and it permeates their lives and their personal history with a concurrent musical history. When I think about "Radio Girl," I imagine that profound, personal soundtrack.

MR: Are there any songs on this project which evoke particularly strong feelings and what are stories behind them?

DP: I've gained so much personal meaning from songs by my favourite musicians without knowing about those people or their own reasons for writing. I try and allow for the same possibility with songs that I put out.

MR: How did you approach this album differently from your 2010 project, Constant Companion?

DP: I worked with an excellent guitar player, Emmett Kelly, something I hadn't considered before because as a guitarist it had always seemed redundant to have another one there but it really opened up the sound for me. I also tried to engender some musical chaos in the recording process with tricky projects like recording Garth Hudson on Glenn Gould's piano in a remote northern city in the middle of winter in the middle of the night.

MR: The semi-duet "What's Up Is Down" combines horns with a noodling piano, guitars, bass and light percussion. It's not that it's a-typical of the album, but it seems to be the most personal track on the project. How did you come up with this particular approach?

DP: Garth Hudson, Mary Margaret O'Hara and Colin Stetson brought a lot of the character to the song because they have such interesting musical personalities. It was one of those songs where I don't really remember writing it so it's remained a bit mysterious for me.

MR: You're a Canadian artist who has a US following. How do view the differences and similarities between our two countries' artists? 

DP: Margaret Atwood described the line between Canada and the US as a one way mirror. Culturally speaking Canadians are about as aware of the US as Americans are unaware of Canada. I think that vantage point has benefitted some major American cultural figures who come from Canada. In the wilds of the current musical landscape fledgeling musicians like me are more of a nation unto ourselves than nationally defined. 

MR: What else do you have strong feelings about, maybe on the non-musical side?

DP: As a father I feel strongly that the human stock isn't degraded, as some people say, but it is suppressed and we will feel a whole lot better the more we participate in our enormous responsibility to young people.  

MR: What's your advice for new artists?

DP: Don't be discouraged when the scale of your success seems out of whack with that of others. Perseverance is what will ultimately distinguish you. 

MR: Other than Strong Feelings dropping on January 21st, what does the future bring?

DP: Sadly, I think the future will bring more bad lighting.

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