Music News & Reviews

Songwriting helps Mary Chapin Carpenter ‘make sense of things’

Mary Chapin Carpenter always has balked at being pigeon-holed as “country” or “folk” or “soft rock” because it’s too limiting.

The five-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter also resists going with a “slash” description like “folk/country/rock.”

“I grew up with all sorts of musical influences from my parents’ albums, like Woody Guthrie or Judy Collins, the Mamas and Papas, the Beatles. I am the product of all of them,” said Carpenter, who performs Sunday in Wichita’s downtown Orpheum Theatre to celebrate the release of her newest album — her 12th — “Ashes and Roses.”

“When I got my first contract in Nashville, I discovered that I could do a lot of wonderful things under the umbrella of ‘country.’ I like to think of what I do as just ‘Americana,’ ” Carpenter said during a phone conversation from Pittsburgh, where she was kicking off her tour Wednesday. Wichita comes early in the 46-city tour that will cover the U.S. and Canada and then spend about a week in England, Ireland and Scotland before wrapping up in New York City at the end of October.

On stage here, Carpenter will be backed by her band: longtime collaborator Matt Rollings on piano and organ, Russ Kunkel on drums, Duke Levine on electric and acoustic guitar, and Glenn Worf on bass. Opening for her will be Tift Merritt, a North Carolina singer/songwriter known for her unique “sonic short stories.”

Carpenter, whose warm and comfortable alto can tease and seduce as well as break your heart, said that “Ashes and Roses” is probably her most personal album — one that was born out of recent tragedies in her life. She suffered debilitating breathlessness while performing in 2007 and was diagnosed with life-threatening pulmonary embolism (blocked artery to the lungs). Her 2002 marriage to Virginia contractor Tim Smith ended in divorce. And last October, she lost her beloved father, Chapin Carpenter, a Life magazine executive who had inspired her wide-ranging love of music.

“The health crisis was the most terrifying experience I’ve had. It’s still hard to talk about. And the depression that followed was so difficult,” she said. “My divorce was like a death. And then real death came. My father made me feel as if it was a noble thing to want to be an artist in the world. I wanted him to know how grateful I was for that.”

Carpenter said that writing these very personal, heartfelt songs was a form of therapy.

“Songwriting is how I make sense of things,” she said. “It’s how I make my way through the world.”

Consider some of the evocative song titles on the new album: “Chasing What’s Already Gone,” “What to Keep and What to Throw Away” and “Soul Companion.”

Carpenter is quick to note that “Ashes and Roses” is a progression from dark into light. By the time you get toward the end with “New Year’s Day” and “Jericho,” there is optimism and renewal shining through, she said.

With such poetic thoughts running throughout her music, it’s easy to see why Carpenter was nominated June 30 for induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Carpenter said there is something particularly satisfying about being recognized as a songwriter.

“Oh, gosh, I am excited to be nominated,” she said. “By the rules, you have to have more than 20 years under your belt. I’m pleased and humbled to be recognized. You never take it for granted. It’s so fulfilling.”