On the surface, the connection seems obvious: Singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter has revisited her extensive catalog of achingly intimate folk-country songs twice over the past four years — once in sweeping, epic arrangements featuring a 63-piece orchestra (2014’s Songs from the Movie) and once with a small, stripped-down band recorded live in the studio (this year’s Sometimes Just the Sky). The albums come off as natural bookends to a 30-year, 13-album career that has seen Carpenter win five Grammy Awards, land five gold and three platinum albums, and score hits on country radio with songs like “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” “Passionate Kisses,” “I Feel Lucky,” and “Down at the Twist and Shout.”
But as apparent as that connection might seem between the two albums, Carpenter says that hadn’t occurred to her.
“I’ve never really thought of it like that, but that’s a lovely way, I think, to regard those two albums,” she says. “It was an adventure to put Songs from the Movie together, to select one song from every existing album and see how I could reimagine a song in an orchestral context. I was working with [arranger] Vince Mendoza who was writing these gorgeous scores that I didn’t have the ability to do, so that was a wonderful reimagination of those songs.”
And Songs from the Movie is a breathtaking re-imagination indeed, taking formerly acoustic-guitar based songs like “Come On, Come On,” (the title track from her quadruple platinum 1992 album) and the brilliant mix of travelogue and memory “The Dreaming Road” from 2001’s Time*Sex*Love* and casting them as wide-screen orchestral epics.
But in a way, Sometimes Just the Sky is a more moving dive into Carpenter’s catalog. Working with producer Ethan Johns, guitarist Duke Levine, and bassist Dave Bronze, she created grittier, more immediate versions of songs that were much more produced-sounding the first time around.
Perhaps the most striking example of how effective this approach was is the new version of “The Moon and St. Christopher,” originally recorded for 1990’s Shooting Straight in the Dark. The 1990 version is elegant and heartfelt, with acoustic guitar and piano forming the backbone of the song. The remake feels more hushed and haunting, with a blurred electric guitar, subtle percussion, and an understated violin murmuring in the background as Carpenter’s vocal goes to a deeper, less formal place than it did all those years ago. “Being such a stubborn woman in such stubborn times,” she sings in a hushed near-whisper, “Now I have run from the arms of lovers, I’ve run from the eyes of friends.”
“‘The Moon and St. Christopher,’ is an older song with a lot of emotion in it for me,” she says, “because it was written after an ex of mine who I was still very fond of told me he was going to be getting married. That song was about how you navigate those feelings in your life in different ways when that person has become someone else. And I found myself just getting really choked up in the middle of recording it, because it all came flying back at me; who I was in that moment when I wrote that song. It was like time travel, going back to my life in that time. The immediacy of that moment was startling to me. It was really emotional.”
“Immediacy” is an interesting word for Carpenter to use when talking about Sometimes Just the Sky, because that sums up Johns’ approach to recording the album quite well.
“The way Ethan works is that everyone’s in the same room, there are no isolation booths, there are no overdubs, and we’re all recording live,” she says. “So there I am, and my brain is divided into many different compartments in that moment; I’m playing at the same time that I’m singing. I’m also listening to what my guitar player is doing, what Ethan is doing, what Jeremy (Stacey) the drummer is doing. We’re finding our way through the songs, but there would be these powerful moments in the studio putting this project together that I didn’t anticipate at all, and it was pretty intense. It was an artistic adventure but an emotional experience as well.”
It might be tempting to say that these are better versions of songs that were, in many cases, tailored for country radio in the 1990s or 2000s, but Carpenter disagrees with that notion, arguing that the early versions of these songs couldn’t have turned out any other way.
“The songs are what they are,” she says. “When songs are new, and you’re recording them for the first time, you don’t have the benefit of hindsight. To have time pass and to have a different regard for them with the benefit of the life you’ve been living and the wisdom you’ve accrued, the years you’ve endured, all of the things that make you who you are, you couldn’t have the benefit of that when you’re first recording.”
Sometimes Just the Sky feels like a clearing of the creative decks in a certain way, a visit to reminisce with old friends before moving on, and indeed, after the tour for this release is through, a studio album of new songs, which would be Carpenter’s first since 2016’s The Things that We Are Made Of, is on the agenda.
“When I’m on the road I tend not to write at all, but when I’m at home, I’m always working in the afternoons at my kitchen table,” she says. “It’s a bit mysterious to me how it all happens, but it seems to always be the same thing. I work for a couple of years on something and then one day I have a sense of, ‘OK, I think I have the songs now.’ I work and work and magically there comes a day where it feels like I’m done writing, and it’s time to go into the studio.”