Mary Chapin Carpenter on Music, Songwriting, and British Magazines

Tell Mary Chapin Carpenter that she isn’t your stereotypical country singer, and she’ll quickly set you straight.

“That’s a cliché,” she says with a laugh. “I’m amazed people still think that in order to be a country musician you have to grow up down a dirt road. Kris Kristofferson broke that stereotype years ago, and others continue to do it today.”

One thing’s for certain: Carpenter, who grew up in New Jersey, Japan, and Washington, D.C., has had no trouble finding acceptance among country music fans. The Brown University graduate has been honored with numerous Grammy and Country Music Association awards, and several of her recordings have gone gold or platinum. A singer-songwriter in the old-school tradition, Carpenter started her career in the D.C. area folk scene, and her genre-crossing music still reflects that influence.

Carpenter splits her time between her homes in D.C. and rural Virginia, where she lives with her golden retrievers, Cal and Reilly. When she spoke with associate editor Andy Steiner, she was gearing up for this summer’s tour promoting the release of her new greatest-hits album, Party Doll and Other Favorites.

You’re most often described as a country artist, yet your music doesn’t sound like stereotypical country. How would you describe it?
I’m most often categorized as a country artist, though I believe most people–maybe not music-industry executives, but people–understand that music transcends categories. The reality is that I’ve gotten most of my air play on country stations, and my following is strong among country fans. I’m happy about that.

Who are some of your favorite musicians?
It’s pretty eclectic: Neil Finn–both solo and with Crowded House–Andy Partridge from XTC, Patty Griffin, Peter Gabriel, John Gorka, Greg Brown, John Jennings, Shawn Colvin, the Band, Aaron Copland, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams, Marshall Crenshaw, the Beatles, Paul Brady, Tony Rice, and anything bluegrass.

What do you think of the new, aerobicized women of country music? Do the crop tops favored by some of today’s hottest stars distract from their songs?
I look at someone like Shania Twain and say, “Why is Shania getting shit for what she wears and Janet Jackson isn’t?” Shania is a beautiful woman and she’s expressing herself through her music. I don’t find her threatening. If anything, I find her inspirational. It seems like a puritanical double standard to judge country musicians that way.

Do you watch television? What sort of shows do you watch?
Besides being a news junkie, I like to watch nature programs, and so do my dogs. When I’m traveling with my golden retriever Reilly and have to leave him in the room alone, I’ll leave a nature program on for him. He goes up to the screen and cocks his head.

What magazines do you read?
When I’m getting on a plane I load up on shelter magazines, especially the British ones, because they’re beautiful, and so much better than their U.S. counterparts. I also pick up The New Yorker, which has gotten much better under David Remnick’s leadership. For junk food, I love the British magazines like Tatler and Harpers & Queen.

What about newspapers?
I read The Washington Post and The New York Times. My favorite section in the Times is the Circuits section on Thursdays. It’s all about gadgetry, and I love computers and gadgets.

What are you reading now?
The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. It’s about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. Before that, I was reading Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. I love her writing.

If you could require that everyone you met read one book, what would it be?
That’s a hard question. The answer would change on any given day. Right now I’d say The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It’s an extraordinary book written by a Frenchman, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had a stroke at a relatively young age. It completely paralyzed him, and he wrote this book, with the help of an assistant, by fluttering his eyelashes. I found a lot of life lessons in the book. I think others would, too.

Are your songs ever inspired by things you have read?
A song I wrote for my Stones in the Road album called “John Doe No. 24” was inspired by an obituary in The New York Times. The headline was “John Doe No. 24 Takes His Secret to His Grave.” I’m not in the habit of reading obituaries, but I saw this headline and I read on. A deaf-mute boy was found wandering the streets of Jacksonville, Illinois, and nobody knew where he came from. He was institutionalized, and he died, and still nobody knew his story. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and eventually I wrote a song.

What is your most creative space?
My head.

OK, but where do you write your songs?
I like to write at home at my desk. I’m very ritualized about it. I have a yellow legal pad and a pencil with a good eraser and my guitar. I write and play, and I have a little tape recorder to record things that I might want to hear back later. Someone once asked me if I write on the computer. I use the computer as a business tool and not a creative tool. I couldn’t imagine sitting at the computer to write a song. It wouldn’t seem right.

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