Mutual Admiration Sisterhood: Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin
More than 20 years ago, when Mary Chapin Carpenter still lived in the Washington, D.C., area and didn’t have much money, sometimes the people at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia, took pity on her and let her stand behind the sound board to watch concerts for free. One night, she saw Shawn Colvin play. Afterward, she went backstage and introduced herself. “We became friends immediately,” Carpenter said.
Since then, the two Grammy Award-winning musicians have played on each other’s albums, appeared in each other’s music videos, recorded “You Ain't Goin' Nowhere” with Rosanne Cash on Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert, and opened and closed for each other at numerous shows. But until now, Carpenter said, “We’ve never done a just-us tour.” Santa Fe is one of only eight cities in which Carpenter and Colvin play together before doing solo concerts to promote their forthcoming new albums. They bring their emotionally complex lyrics and sonorous harmonies to the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Friday, May 4.
It wasn’t long after they met that both women began winning Grammys and charting radio hits. Carpenter is probably best-known for her cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses,” from Come On Come On (1993). Colvin’s breakthrough hit was “Sunny Came Home,” from A Few Small Repairs (1996); “Nothing on Me,” from the same album, was used as the theme song to the 1990s Brooke Shields sitcom “Suddenly Susan.” (Colvin's song “I'm Gone,” from These Four Walls, was used in the HBO dramatic series Treme.)
Carpenter began performing in small clubs in the D.C. area during college; she shifted her focus from performing cover songs to performing her own songs after graduating from Brown University in 1981. She released her first album, Hometown Girl, in 1987. She was named Female Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1992 and 1993; though she began her career as a folk musician, she wasn’t widely embraced until she was promoted as a country singer in the Nashville music scene. Colvin began her career as a country musician, playing first in Austin in a Western swing band and then in New York with the Buddy Miller Band. She credits John Leventhal, a producer and musician who became her co-writer, for inspiring her to become a songwriter. Colvin released her first album, Steady On, in 1989, and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording. Colvin’s 11th album, All Fall Down, comes out on June 5 from Nonesuch Records, the same day her memoir, Diamond in the Rough, published by William Morrow/HarperCollins, is released. Carpenter’s 13th album, Ashes and Roses, is released by Zo/Rounder Records on June 12.
Carpenter was born in New Jersey and spent much of her childhood in Japan, where her father, Chapin Carpenter Jr., was an executive with Life magazine. She began writing songs when she was in the second grade, first on her mother’s ukulele and then on guitar. A trio of crises paved the way for the songs on Ashes and Roses, an album that deals with grief, loss, healing, and redemption. In 2007, Carpenter was hospitalized for a pulmonary embolism, a life-threatening condition that plunged her into a depression. A few years later, she got a divorce. And then in October 2011, her father died. Though she didn’t approach songwriting any differently for Ashes and Roses than she had in the past, Carpenter admitted it’s been a rough few years and she may have cried more than she usually does when making an album. “Writing new songs is kind of harrowing, to have to think that deeply,” she said. “But on the other hand, it occurred to me, what else was I going to write about? That's what I do. It seemed logical, even though sometimes it felt like the hardest thing in the world.” In general, Carpenter said she feels “breathlessly grateful” whenever she finishes a song. “I try to be disciplined and work at songwriting, but it still feels like a somewhat mysterious process. When I finish, I can’t believe I managed to do it. It’s always a surprise when it happens because it can be so elusive.” “Ghosts and angels are but memories and visions/And revenants are out there taking up positions/But back when I believed in you/You’d raise the sun and set the moon/How could I help but love you holy as religion/Away you are going, away you are gone,” she sings in “The Swords We Carried,” the third track on Ashes and Roses, singing of the kind of loss that brings up every past loss, all the way back to the disappointments of childhood.
Colvin’s sunny voice often disguises the darkness of her lyrics. “I'm gonna die in these four walls. I had enough and I tried it all,” she announces almost jauntily in the title song on These Four Walls, her critically acclaimed 2006 album. All Fall Down is a slight departure from past work, sonically larger and somewhat more mournful in its instrumentation. The second track, “American Jerusalem,” is politically oriented, taking on capitalism, commerce, blood diamonds, economic privilege, exploitation, and loneliness: “Shadows lick the sun/And the streets are paved with footsteps on the run./Somebody must have got double ‘cause I got none/I forgot to collect my share again./ So go west to breathe the cleansing air again.”
Colvin is known for the stories she tells onstage between songs, many of which she adapted for her memoir. She was born in Vermillion, South Dakota, where she lived until her family moved to Carbondale, Illinois, when she was 8. She began playing guitar when she was 10 and performed lived for the first time at age 15. “I'm deeply moved by her music,” Carpenter said of Colvin. “I've always been in awe of her gifts as a singer and a writer. Besides being a friend, I'm first and foremost a fan.” Speaking of their performance in Santa Fe, Carpenter said they will play some new songs and take every chance to harmonize with each other. “Shawn is hilarious, and I get to be the beneficiary of that. We'll trade songs back and forth, tell some stories, and just have a good old time.”
This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 05/04/2012