“I don’t mind working without a net” — that’s what Mary Chapin Carpenter says in the lyrics to “I Take My Chances” from her 1992 album Come On Come On. She put that thought into play in a big way when it came to recording her latest album, Songs from the Movie, which was released in January of last year.
The album finds Carpenter revisiting 10 of her favorite tracks from her back catalog — surrounded by a full symphony orchestra, which as you might expect, was a bit of a daunting experience. “To learn how to sing with an orchestra on stage and to be part of this enormous organism, it was terrifying, because it was a new skill set,” Carpenter says via phone. “But once I felt like I had learned how to do it, I felt euphoric in terms of what I’d learned to do.”
Carpenter’s songs have always been highly visual experiences, filled with a variety of characters and emotions, so it’s a little bit surprising that it took this long for her to do an album like this. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t something that was on her mind.
“It would have happened a lot sooner if I had been able... you know, this is not an easy project to persuade people to spend money on,” she says. “It’s hard to persuade labels to spend money on anything nowadays. So this was an idea that I had had, that while it didn’t come to fruition [until] when it was released a year ago, I had had this idea for more than a decade and had wanted to do it.”
In some ways, it seems like a good thing that it took a while for the album to come to life. One can imagine that had Carpenter attempted something like this in her major label years, there would have been certain record label demands — and certain songs (read: hits) that a label would have wanted to be part of the track listing. Instead, Songs From The Movie plays like a trip down the lesser traveled back roads of Carpenter’s catalog. It’s an intriguing opportunity to revisit a diverse selection of material that reaches as far back as the Come On, Come On period, moving all of the way through her 2010 album The Age of Miracles. As Carpenter reveals, her label couldn’t have been more supportive.
“The way we came up with the list of songs, first of all, is a testament to my record label, Rounder, for saying, we love this idea, go forth,” she recalls. “They didn’t say it has to have this song or that song on it. So we came up with a master list of about 40 songs that I thought were candidates. Between Vince [Mendoza] and Matt Rollings, my other co-producer, and myself, we all retreated to our corners as it were, and then we all came up with 10 or 12 finalists and then we cross-referenced those.”
Recording the album in London at AIR Studios was an emotional experience for Carpenter on a number of levels. “During the recording of this record, there was a couple of things going on. It’s hard to explain, but my father was in the last few weeks of his life and I knew that,” she says. “I think they’re all connected somehow, but I was also suffering from these excruciating migraine headaches — and I was jet-lagged.”
“So all of these things, plus the enormity of the project and feeling [like I needed to be] totally on the ball, then I would hear in my headphones, these beautiful arrangements and I would be on the camera in the isolation booth, but I’d need to start sobbing,” Carpenter says. “Because it was just summoning up so much emotion — I would duck down and weep while we were recording, because I didn’t want people in the control room to see me sobbing. I would just sob for two seconds, wipe my eyes and then stand up and start singing and then wait for the next passage where I could duck down and boo hoo again.”
“It was a highly charged couple of weeks to do this,” she says. “I don’t know, sometimes I listen to it and I hear a bit of a tear in my voice. I don’t know how to explain it and maybe I’m just projecting, but that’s what I felt. It was deeply meaningful, deeply emotional, but what has resulted has been nothing short of extraordinary to me and I’m so grateful for the project.”
Carpenter returns to Cleveland as part of the Cathedral Concerts series, where she'll appear with her acoustic trio for a performance at Trinity Cathedral that will be recorded for an upcoming broadcast. Working in a stripped down format is something that she enjoys quite a bit.
“I love how much room there is,” she says. “You know, there’s a lot of air in that [format]. Certainly, simplifying the songs with three instruments, you can excavate a little bit and sort of see what else is there and change arrangements a little bit. There’s a lot of air and I like that. I also feel like we’re all percussive enough players that you don’t feel like it’s too [stripped back], it definitely has a muscular quality to it at times when needed. So I feel like it can serve a lot of masters. It’s good that way.”
On the heels of the Trinity gig, fans can look forward to a new studio album in the next year. As we spoke about songwriting during the conversation, Carpenter revealed that the wheels have been in motion for a while now and she’s been working towards a new album that she’s recording this spring. “ I’ve been writing for the last three years or so and now’s the time. I have a bunch of things and I’ve got to make sure I’ve got enough. You know, I’ll work on it until the very last second.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lunasa, 7 p.m., Thursday, April 30, Trinity Cathedral, 2230 Euclid Ave., 216-771-3630. Tickets: $62.50, trinitycathedral.org.