Rolling Stone Country reports: “Unwrapping a new Mary Chapin Carpenter album is not unlike the experience of cracking the spine on a highly anticipated memoir. While the Grammy winner’s 14 albums have been less linear autobiography and more a resolute collection of sharply observed sketches, each has offered glimpses into the artist’s life, brimming with literary detail and ringing with universal truth. With the recently released The Things That We’re Made Of, the five-time Grammy winner broaches the subject of middle age, embracing change in its myriad forms. “Over the last few years, I moved to a new town and I ended a relationship. I started over,” Carpenter tells Rolling Stone Country. “It’s an enormous amount of change in my life and I think this is what these songs reflect. It’s just sort of a declaration: This is what it looks like from here.””
“One of the changes reflected on the new LP is the commission of producer Dave Cobb, whose career-making production on the records of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton was just beginning to garner attention when Carpenter’s publicist suggested she enlist him for her project. But before they convened in the studio, the material for the album had to be written, a process aided in no small part by Carpenter’s habit of “song-walking,” composing melody and lyrics while ambling around the land on her remote Virginia farm. The new material follows the singer-songwriter’s first orchestral album, 2014’s Songs from the Movie, which revisited 10 of her tunes in a symphonic, classical setting. The newness of that experience, in part, led to this latest album emboldening Carpenter with a deeper desire to stay outside her comfort zone.
Carpenter, whose mainstream country success included such Nineties hits — and continued concert favorites — as “I Feel Lucky,” “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses,” was something of an unlikely country star. An Ivy League graduate (of Brown University) who counts Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell among her chief musical influences, Carpenter played coffeehouses in the Washington, D.C., area, and has always emphasized lyrical substance over image. Times were certainly different, especially at country radio, when she, along with Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea and Wynonna (to name but a few), enjoyed a healthy string of hits alongside their male counterparts. Now, as she no longer needs to rely on country-radio airplay, Carpenter is only peripherally cognizant of the publicity generated by 2015’s Tomatogate, which started when a male radio consultant relegated country’s female artists to the similar role tomatoes play in garnishing a salad, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have something to say about it.
In this candid and wide-ranging conversation with Rolling Stone Country, Carpenter reflects on the often poignant and personal inspirations for the tracks on The Things That We’re Made Of. She also shares her sense of despair at the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and dismisses the “offensive” theory that musicians should, as the saying goes, “shut up and sing.””