Mary Chapin Carpenter: Lyrics Are the Key
Three years ago, five-time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter had a pulmonary embolism that threatened her life. She recounts her time in the ER as an incredibly frightening experience, and as she recovered, she says didn’t know if she would ever be able to resume her career. Continuing to write songs during that time, as she always had, “was something of an act of faith because I didn’t know when I would send them out in to the world or if or how or whatever.” In April, the results of that time were released in the form of her tenth studio album, entitled “The Age of Miracles.”
In her Big Think interview, Carpenter, who has had 18 Billboard Top 20 hits and has sold over 12 million records, talks at length about her process of writing and producing songs. She talks about her process of writing her songs out on yellow legal pads, and says that ultimately it’s the lyrics that are the key to a song’s success. “It’s going to say what you want to say—or hopefully, it’s going to say that,” she says of a song’s words.
Carpenter says that it’s important not to give up on songs that are giving you trouble—sometimes it’s good to keep kicking them around until something productive evolves out of it. “You go back and you find the solution to a problem you might be having lyrically,” she says. “Or, when you’re completely blank and you have the desire to write something and you just kind of go back and it’s almost like, it just kind of reminds you of thoughts or moments that you had written down and tucked away and thought about maybe turning in to something and you didn’t. So here’s the opportunity again to do that.”
Although her music is often put in the same category with other country artists, Carpenter hesitates to define her music as being within the genre—and notes that modern country music bleeds into lots of other genres as well. “There’s someone like an artist like Taylor Swift who’s just as popular sort of in pop music as she is in country music and some people will say, or will argue, ‘Well, it’s not country music she’s doing,’ and other people will argue from the pop side, ‘Well that’s not pop music, she’s a country artist.’ And again, we can have this conversation over and over again, but it’s really just in the ears of the listener and what they connect to and what they don’t.”
Of course, Carpenter says, she also had a few lucky breaks along the way, as well, and talks about how she got started in music by “stealing” her mother’s guitar and her sister’s bass ukulele to teach herself how to play. She also talks about the importance of keeping one’s voice in shape, and weighs in on whether smoking actually enriches a singer’s sound.