Beyond the front windows of the cottage, the evening sky slowly shifted hues, fading from soft blue to a purple shawl of silk wrapped around the gracefully spiraling arms of the Grandmother Monterey cypress. On the table nearby, a pair of golden beeswax tapers flickered and danced with flame as I sat silently, listening to the music.
Every couple of years, something wonderful happens for me when my favorite musician releases a new album. With dinner complete and the dishes washed, my partner gone off to a movie with his mum, and a sense of eager anticipation like a soft buzz under my skin, I settled into the French wingback chair to embark on an auditory journey with Mary Chapin Carpenter.
An Ivy League graduate who cites Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell as primary musical influences, she is a five-time Grammy winner, and I’ve been trekking to her concerts for twenty-odd years. I have had the privilege of hearing her in London as well as multiple places in America, and she’s arguably the one major artist I’ll still faithfully venture out for a chance to hear live.
Sometimes I think I could chart the passages of my adult life, including the different locales on the globe I have lived, simply through Carpenter’s albums. Each is like an old friend, welcome and familiar, that I have listened to over and over, evoking memories, places, and earlier incarnations of who I was… as well as who I am becoming.
Somehow, the arrival of her newest record slipped under my radar, and I didn’t discover The Things That We Are Made Of until nearly a month after its availability. And so the other evening I sat, absorbing as many of her lyrics as possible on that first listen, missing the days of CD’s with liner notes and lyrics printed inside, but appreciating every moment of her melodic guitar work and familiar voice, feeling a warm glow and expansion in my heart like a sunflower opening.
In my world, there is little better than the arrival of a new MCC album. Without fail, each of her records delivers at least one or two haunting tracks that lodge in my heart forever, strumming my soul with gentle thunder and harmony — a song that so perfectly encapsulates some aspect of me or my deep longing that it can no longer be separated from my own marrow. When my life is over, as the songs in my bones rise up from my body like wisps of prayers and smoke, when those present at my passing gather close to listen, they will hear more MCC songs than any other.
Bless you, Mary Chapin Carpenter.
A few instant favorites on this latest album include “Deep Deep Down Heart” “Note On A Windshield” “Something Tamed Something Wild” (it could be the theme song for the Soul Artist Journal) and “The Things That We Are Made Of (which somehow strikes me as a much more mature version of “Come On, Come On” from twenty-odd years ago). And I love that she has written a song inspired by Charleston Farmhouse in England, a very special place that profoundly touched my own journey whilst living in the Sussex Downs.
This woman has an earthy, grounded approach to songwriting — a practice she calls “song walking,” composing melodies and lyrics while meandering her farm in Virginia. She is a soulful poet, and her lyrics resemble a memoir, heartbreaking and comforting both. True to form, the latest offering is insightful and vulnerable, an exploration of love, loss, and middle age, that feels timely and timeless. To me it has always seemed that Carpenter regards crafting an album as an encompassing vision, with careful attention to the arrangement and sequencing of tracks, thus taking her listener on a very deliberate passage.
In the high back chair, eyes closed at times, I simply drifted and listened.
How rarely we sit like this, our minds hushed and letting ourselves be filled with emotion, as if we were in the presence of a fine storyteller, or a gifted poet, or attending a private concert. Arguably Mary Chapin Carpenter is all those things in one. Similarly, how often do we spend time simply appreciating the beauty of the world, perhaps resting in an open field or meadow, spine pressed against the furrowed bark of a venerable tree while lounging in its welcome shade, listening to the timeless sounds of the natural world unhurried, inhaling the scents of dried earth and failing grass, letting our cares and burdens somehow fall away…? Too seldom.
If I ever had the opportunity to meet Chapin in person, I would simply thank her for writing my soul and setting it to music all these years. Truly, it has been the most exquisite, comforting gift imaginable. In the darkest passages as well as the the glorious sunlit roads, I’ve found Mary Chapin Carpenter with her guitar at my side, singing me back home.
Honestly, how could I not sing the praises (and sing along with) someone who writes:
So the things that matter to me now are different from the past
I care less about arriving than just being in the path
of some light carved out of nothing, the way it feels when the Universe has smiled
What else is there but the beating of your heart?
Something tamed, something wild?
Here’s the shoebox full of letters, here’s the map I won’t forget
The voices and the lessons and the signals that connect us
Manifested to the spirit, way deep down where it goes unseen by the eye
What else is there but the love inside your heart?
To a life like a firework’s to a spark
Over and above you in its arc
Something tamed, something wild?
I am struck even by the title of her latest album, The Things That We Are Made Of, for is that not what this journal seeks to explore each week? Plumbing the depths of the heart and the soul, cultivating a life for the senses and welcoming the ordinary sacred… the wealth of everyday offerings and blessings that deeply nourish.
There is no doubt in my mind that Mary Chapin Carpenter is a Soul Artist in her own right; her music and lyrics reveal the truth of it at every melodic turn of phrase, exploring and sharing her deep authenticity. She lives with senses wide open to the sensuous moment, navigating the world using her heart for a compass (“and a soul for a pair of wings”). A while back I wrote a post called “Inhabiting Our Vulnerability“, and that is exactly what this amazing singer-songwriter does repeatedly: exposing the heart with its songs and fears. All with a remarkable gift of musicianship.
Nothing’s perfect it’s been said, this is pretty close I reckon
Yes, indeed, Mary Chapin Carpenter. Thank you.
The last song faded out, our little cottage lapsed into quietude, and I sat gazing out the window at the indigo sky and the looming dark Grandmother. I felt wrapped in an afterglow, enveloped by silence and a great tenderness in my heart, simply savoring the musical journey of the past hour.
Over and over I write, say, and teach that every individual has a gift to bring; that the task of life is to find that talent, and then to offer it forward with abandon, without apology or regret, toward the larger good. This true for all of us, not simply “artists”. And it is also true that it is often a difficult, uphill, lonely trek — sometimes off the path in the tangled thickets rather than on any sort of trail. Yet whenever I need a bit of inspiration for my own climb, I don’t have to look far, for despite being a very old fashioned soul, I have the MCC muse on a mobile device in my ‘man bag’; I simply need to stop, tune in, and listen with my heart open wide like a summer evening.
How the sky holds the night…
Here, now, I’m feeling most grateful for a remarkable Soul Artist, and that she has once again offered a couple more songs to carry in my bones for the rest of this journey. Another song or two held up as a guiding star to follow or simply to wish upon, while I continue to reflect upon the things that we are made of… something tamed and something wild.