Over the last few years, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter's life has been drastically transformed. In 2007, she suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, her marriage ended soon after and, in the fall of 2011, her father died.
After those experiences, she tells NPR's Neal Conan, grief became a companion — but also a guide, a presence that dictated her outlook on life. The Grammy-winning artist channeled those emotions into her latest album, Ashes and Roses.
Here, Conan talks with Carpenter about songs that were born out of illness, divorce and loss.
On how her father's death shaped the record
"After so many years of using songwriting as a way to make sense of my world and connect to the world, it just was something I had to do. And he sort of threads his way as a subject and the loss of him as a subject through this record. But I think what's important to state is that this record has a narrative arc. And about halfway through, things start to shift, and I think that is an accurate reflection of how we address these things in our lives."
On the value of going through hard times
"It's hard-won wisdom that is a positive thing, you know? What would we be if we didn't learn from where we've been? And I think the more effort you spend pushing things away so that you don't have to feel them, see them, experience them, the more exhausted you become. And it's just inevitable that your arms go down and you have to go through them. And so that's what I think of as what's happened here with this record."
On the touring life
"We are a certain kind of gypsy. ... It's very much like a family. When you've been touring together for six months or more and you're all living on a bus, you become very close and very supportive and close in good ways and bad ways. But we feel very privileged to be able to do what we do. And the places we get to go, the people we get to meet, the stages we get to perform on, it's a privilege. It really is. It's something we don't ever want to take for granted."
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER: Celebrities see their lives exposed in tabloid headlines. Singer-songwriters sometimes describe their lives in lyrics and music. For decades, Mary Chapin Carpenter has been one of our most eloquent songwriters, but silent until recently after a series of wrenching changes: in 2007, a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, divorce soon after that, then her father died last fall. Grief, she said, had become a companion. The Grammy-winning artist channeled those emotions into her latest album, "Ashes and Roses."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Musicians, how much of your life do you put into your songs? We want to hear from you. Because time is limited, though, we want to keep it to emails today. The address is email@example.com. Mary Chapin Carpenter joins us here in St. Louis. She's a newly inducted member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Congratulations on that. And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
CARPENTER: Thank you.
CONAN: Why don't we start with a song?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHASING WHAT'S ALREADY GONE")
CARPENTER: (Singing) There's a big white house on a leafy street on a summer's day in 1963. Station wagons parked in the drive with dents in the fender and wood on the side. There's kids and dogs and Instamatic cubes squinting hard in the sun. Not just yet, but one day, too, they'll be chasing what's already gone.
(Singing) You grow up tall and you grow up tough, trying to never admit not feeling good enough, until you find your passion and you find your way. Just trying to make it unscathed through every day. And it seems to happen nearly overnight. Life shows you who you've become. When there's no more mystery in the fading light, you're just chasing what's already gone. Like the line that spells the far horizon, moving with you as fast as you can run. Half your life, you pay it no attention. The rest you can't stop wondering what you should have done instead of chasing what's already gone.
(Singing) Saw my father in a dream last night. He was smiling and saying you're going to be all right. And this morning I stared back at myself, feeling as empty as I've ever felt. But I keep on rolling, and I hope I've learned more of what's right than what's wrong. It's ashes and roses and time that burns when you're chasing what's already gone. Ashes and roses and hearts that break. I tried so hard to be strong. But maybe my worst but not my first mistake. Chasing what's already gone. Mm-hmm. Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. Chasing what's already gone.
CONAN: Mary Chasing - Mary Chapin Carpenter, "Chasing What's Already Gone." She is good on guitar but she is not that good. She had some help from John Jennings, who's also with us here in the studio.
CONAN: And I have to - that line, saw my father in a dream last night, smiling and saying, you're going to be all right. It seems like that must have been one of those events, his death, that you think you have to write about and you sit there and think, oh, God, what am I going to say?
CARPENTER: Well, I think it's like you have to write about it, and you're right. You're not sure how it's going to come out in a song. But it just - after so many years of using songwriting as a way to make sense of my world and connect to the world, it just was something I had to do. And he sort of threads his way as a subject and the loss of him as a subject through this record. But I think what's important to state is that this record has a narrative arc. And about halfway through, things start to shift, and I think that is an accurate reflection of how we address these things in our lives.
CONAN: So it doesn't come packaged with razor blades and...
CARPENTER: No, Neal. It doesn't.
CARPENTER: Thank you.
CONAN: The - there's an intimacy, I think, that your audience has with you there. I think they would expect you to write about this.
CARPENTER: Yeah. I think - again, after all these years, that's how I've expressed myself. And I always sort of would feel odd when people would describe, you know, singer-song - or what I do, really as confessional. I think that tends to often be said in the same sentence when you talk about singer-songwriters. And I never thought of it as something to confess but rather it's about how you express yourself.
CONAN: There is those other events in your life. The pulmonary embolism must have scared you to death.
CARPENTER: Mm-hmm. Terrifying.
CONAN: And divorce almost as scary.
CARPENTER: It's like a death as well. Yes.
CONAN: So it's been a bad few years?
CARPENTER: Yeah. But you keep going and you keep going with the help of your friends and your family and something like songwriting, your art. It gives you purpose and meaning in life.
CONAN: There must be moments there you say, well, let's hang it up?
CARPENTER: You know, as we talked - as you mentioned grief as a companion, without putting it in a tidy box, grief also is a guide. And I think it helps you relearn how you are in the world. And, you know, that's just how you use the things that you have, at least that's how I have.
CONAN: An organizing principle, in a way.
CARPENTER: In a way. Yes.
CONAN: Let me switch subjects. We are walking on the way to the studio here this morning and two big tour buses came down the street. You're - one of the reason this all worked is you're performing right next door.
CARPENTER: Right across the parking lot.
CONAN: And I wonder, I was talking to Priska Neely, our producer, and said, I wonder if that's Mary Chapin Carpenter. Two big buses touring, pulling equipment trailers behind. Where were you coming in from at 8 o'clock in the morning?
CARPENTER: We spent the last two days driving from Arizona.
CONAN: That's a long drive.
CARPENTER: It is. Yeah. Two days.
CONAN: So was there poker - what happens in those buses on that long trip?
CARPENTER: You know, I'm afraid to tell you.
CARPENTER: I am - my lips are sealed. But let's just say we are a certain kind of gypsy and we - it's very much like a family. When you've been touring together for six months or more and you're all living on a bus, you become very close and very supportive and close in good ways and bad ways.
CARPENTER: But we feel very privileged to be able to do what we do. And the places we get to go, the people we get to meet, the stages we get to perform on, it's a privilege. It really is. It's something we don't ever want to take for granted.
CONAN: I was, again, thinking back to that song, in that leafy neighborhood you described around Washington, D.C.
CARPENTER: Well, actually, I was thinking about where I grew up - the first 10 years of my life - in Princeton, New Jersey, when I was describing that. But you're right, very much, lot of leafy neighborhoods in Washington where I have spent most of my life.
CONAN: And what kind of station wagon was it? We had a Rambler.
CARPENTER: It's an old Ford.
CONAN: And old Ford, yeah.
CARPENTER: Old Ford, you know, with the wood paneling.
CONAN: This is an email. We've asked other songwriters to email us and say how much of themselves and their lives do they put in into their lyrics. This is from Luli(ph). I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. I have always put my own experiences in my music combined with experiences and emotions I interpret from those around me. One challenge has always been with significant others looking too deeply into my music if, for example, the song is sad or about love. A risk that somebody is going to misinterpret something.
CARPENTER: Well, as Eudora Welty so beautifully put it, all serious steering comes from within. So, you know, I think that you can't have your art and not take risks.
CONAN: And this one is from Mary: My husband passed two years ago at the age of 50. I lost all desire to play, as well as creativity. Only recently have I rediscovered how to put my emotion into my music. My life is definitely reflected in my music. Thank you to all singer-songwriters for giving us a channel through your lives.
How long after these events - obviously, your father passed last year, so not that long before you went into production for this album.
CARPENTER: No. I have been writing these songs that became this record for the last few years. And then after dad died, I had a few more songs to write, as you can imagine. And then I went into a studio this past January and recorded the album.
CONAN: And as you - you say there's a narrative arc and...
CONAN: ...it moves from grey skies to sunnier ones, if not - I don't think all the clouds completely blow away.
CARPENTER: No. And it's hard one wisdom that is a positive thing, you know? What would we be if we didn't learn from where we've been? And I think the more effort you spend pushing things away so that you don't have to feel them, see them, experience them, the more exhausted you become. And it's just inevitable that your arms go down and you have to go through them. And so that's what I think of as what's happened here with this record.
CONAN: Mary Chapin Carpenter, who's on tour here in St. Louis in support of her new album, "Ashes and Roses." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We have time for another song.
CARPENTER: We do?
CONAN: And magically, you've changed guitars silently.
CARPENTER: I have.
CONAN: Silently. Go ahead.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T NEED MUCH TO BE HAPPY")
CARPENTER: (Singing) I don't need much to be happy. Four walls and a roof overhead. Books and food in my belly, cool sheets upon the bed. A fire that warms up December. The sound of a thaw in the eaves. Sometimes it's hard to remember how tough we are to please. All in good time, somehow I find days that still shine with a light. All in good stead, I'm safe and I'm fed. With dreams in my head, goodnight. The feel of my hand being taken, driving at night all alone. The breeze on a warm summer evening and coming home.
(Singing) All in good time, somehow you find days that still shine with light. All in good stead, you're safe and you're fed. The dreams in your head, goodnight. Don't need much to be happy. A friend to soften a fall. Something to show for my labors. After all, I had to learn to be grateful, I had to learn how to see. Mistakes that might have proved fatal are gifts I now receive.
CARPENTER: Thank you.
CONAN: They don't make them this way anymore, but that would've been on the second side of the album?
CARPENTER: That's from the second half.
CARPENTER: Yes, sir.
CONAN: I have to ask, as you're putting out a recording, a CD, you controlled the - well, I'm hearing music in my ears, which tells me that I've not been keeping track of the time and we have to say goodbye. Thank you so much. Where do you go from here?
CARPENTER: We're going to Michigan from here tonight, and then Nashville.
CONAN: Mary Chapin Carpenter, and our thanks also to John Jennings, who's here with us on guitar as well. We've been at the home of St. Louis Public Radio today at the University of Missouri, St. Louis Grand Center. Lynn Neary is here tomorrow. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.