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Mary Chapin Carpenter: How sad songs make us brave

Published July 18, 2014 10:56 am

Music •
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Singing with an orchestra — a great feeling — is like riding an enormous wave of sound, says singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter.

"You don't want to oversing," she says. "You don't want to get ahead of it. You have to find the right amount of power and yet maintain subtlety and dynamics. You don't want to be swallowed up."

Working with composer Vince Mendoza changed the way the singer heard her own songs, which started their life with only her voice and an acoustic guitar. Mendoza has released six Grammy Award-winning albums, arranged music for musicians ranging from Elvis Costello to Joni Mitchell, and until 2013 served as conductor of the Dutch Metropole Orchestra. His lush, sweeping arrangements of Carpenter's songs seemed so cinematic in scope they suggested the title for the album, "Songs From the Movie."

"The interesting thing about it was they were all from different eras and albums — over the last 1,000 years or so of my life," she jokes, "but when Vince had done his arrangements and they were all collected, they sounded so cohesive to me. It felt like they could be a soundtrack."

Carpenter, with Mendoza as guest conductor, will perform songs from the album with the Utah Symphony at a Deer Valley Music Festival concert on Saturday, only the second time these arrangements have been performed in an outdoor setting.

"The greatest feeling is standing on a stage with an orchestra and singing and being part of that organism," she says. "The physical force is extraordinary."

It's also scary, says the singer who has long talked in interviews about her fear of performing. But "a good scary, the kind that makes you hungry to put yourself in new experiences, to feel the ecstasy of it."

She loves performing in the beauty of the Deer Valley amphitheater to generous Utah audiences. And while Carpenter doesn't want to tempt the musical gods, she remembers saying from the stage: "The weather couldn't be better," and on a return visit several years later: "The night couldn't be more beautiful."

"Songs From the Movie" was recorded at London's AIR Studios, a remodeled church, with a 63-piece orchestra and a 15-voice choir. "When I was in the studio it was really intimidating," says the five-time Grammy-winning musician who was recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. "You don't want to take any extra time because people are on the clock," she continues, before offering praise for the generous, "insanely wonderful" musicians she worked with.

The album collects songs from Carpenter's catalog with more of a metaphorical storytelling bent, bookended by 1992's "I Am a Town" and 2004's "Goodnight America." "Metaphors are vehicles for explaining a feeling, describing an emotion or an experience, being the vessel that takes you to another place in your life," Carpenter says. "I've always felt this way about songwriting. Hopefully, the more personal an experience, the more universal the song."

The distinctive album cover features a gorgeous sunset photograph of the Spud Drive In in Driggs, Idaho; in album notes, Carpenter thanks the owners for "keeping the movies playing since 1953."

Over the years, Carpenter's distinctive contralto voice — "Of how many other songwriters can it be said, this is a voice you can trust?" wrote a New York Times reviewer in 2012 — has delivered a soundtrack for her fans, who have loved and lost along with the singer's personal, intimate songs. Perhaps her saddest compilation was 2012's "Ashes and Roses," about the everyday grief of a life-threatening illness, the aftermath of divorce and the death of a parent.

Her albums are traditionally labeled as country pop or folk, but the tracks on her orchestral album seem something of a new genre, a kind of alt-Americana that hits both contemporary and nostalgic notes. As for Carpenter's voice, that rich instrument has been praised in the music world for its ability to hold loneliness. Yet the singer says she chafes a bit when her songs are termed "confessional."

"I'm not trying to confess anything as much as I'm trying to connect and using songs as a way to express my feelings," she says.

When songs make that connection, you don't feel so alone in the world. That kind of emotional connection is what Carpenter says she's looking for when she's seeking out new music.

"I want it to take me somewhere and bring me to my knees and make me cry or make me feel great," she says. "Whether one expresses themselves with a guitar or in writing, it feels good to share feelings. I know that sounds Oprah-esque, but it's true."

When she started her career in the late 1980s, she remembers the humbling feeling of receiving letters from fans sent to her manager's office. "Multiply that times a zillion," she says of the responses in a social-media era. The singer often posts photographs from her concerts, and she's gratified by comments from people who were in attendance. "It's an extraordinary time we live in," she adds.

At Carpenter's concerts, her longtime fans laugh when she introduces yet another sad song. But Carpenter says she's inspired by something she heard many years ago about a musician who had been asked why she sang so many sad songs. The singer replied: "Sad songs make me feel brave."


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Come on come on

Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter performs from her orchestral record, "Songs From the Movie," with conductor/arranger Vince Mendoza and the Utah Symphony.

When • Saturday, July 19, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Snow Park Outdoor Amphitheater, 1375 Deer Valley Drive, Park City

And for the big orchestral boom

The Utah Symphony, conducted by Vladimir Kulenovic, offers its annual performance of the "1812 Overture," featuring sound effects by the Cannoneers of the Wasatch, plus guest pianist Ilya Yakushev performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

When • Friday, July 18, 7:30 p.m.

Where • Snow Park Outdoor Amphitheater, 2250 Deer Valley Drive South, Park City

Tickets • 801-355-2787, arttix.org or deervalleymusicfestival.org.

Venue info • Allowed chair height is 9 inches. Gates open two hours before the concert. Valid picture ID required at Will Call. No ticket reprinting available for general-admission seating. Outside food and drinks are allowed at the venue, in addition to Deer Valley Resort concessions.

Info • deervalleymusicfestival.org.