with Emily Barker
Mary Chapin Carpenter
with Emily Barker
|Price:||$60 Day Of Show GA / $150 Reserved|
5X Grammy Award winner, with top albums on Billboard's Top Country Albums Chart. Mix of "pop country tempo and timing with coffeehouse folk introspection." (AllMusic)Buy Tickets
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Flatland is little aid to contemplation, and so Mary Chapin Carpenter has her own hill. It’s deep in the Virginia countryside, on a farm that she got
for a song. Or rather, for a bunch of songs, and a way of singing and playing them that has taken her around the world and back home, over and again.
Carpenter and those songs have traveled for thirty years, though the songs are the most frequent fliers. They spring from her head and hands, vibrate through tone woods and six steel strings, then find their way into microphones. Then they go forth into the world - they’ve been doing that for
thirty years now—even at times when their creator sits at the top of her hill and observes natural wonders both human-made and mysterious.
Sometimes church bells, trees, and seasons marking times gone by.
Sometimes starling swells and tidal moons and filled-up eyes.
Sometimes everything at once, and sometimes just the sky.
That’s what thirty years brings: Sometimes everything at once, and sometimes just the sky.
She knows that now, though knowing takes a long, long time. It’s still hard to know whether everything at once is preferable to just the sky. In halcyon, everything at once times — like when she won country music prizes as vocalist of the year and Grammy awards for all sorts of things — she was reminded to enjoy the moment. But up on the hill, the sky is its own reminder.
Anyway, it’s hard as hell to keep a job for thirty years. It’s cause for commemoration of some sort, and that sort might normally involve nostalgia and trophy-polishing. But nostalgia and trophypolishing are flatland ideas, and Carpenter has her own hill. Sometimes Just the Sky is not a
greatest hits endeavor or a remastered compilation. It’s not a celebration or a souvenir. It is a reimagining of a most unusual nature.
It is a collection of songs written across the decades, recorded in bucolic western England at Real World Studios with the great producer Ethan Johns. Carpenter sat with new and old friends who circled together in a wooden room and made music, in real time. What we hear is precisely what was
played and sung, all at once.
There’s a song originally recorded for each of Carpenter’s original studio albums, and then there’s the new song, which was aided and abetted by hillside contemplation and a punk poet’s advice.
“Patti Smith was saying that you don’t have to look far or wide, and it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive or madness in order to find things to soothe you in life, or to be happy about,” she says, sitting at the kitchen table where she writes her songs. “Sometimes just the sky makes everything fall
Up on the hill, at that magic time of day when there is little day remaining, the sky can take on colors that escape linguistic description. A person can feel a strangely comforting smallness amidst the AND expanse. And thirty years of sublimity, shit storms, and all points in between can boil down to a
bemused cosmic shrug.
Yearning makes you who you end up as, more or less, whatever choice I made that worked out was just a lucky guess, Just a lucky guess.
Sometimes Just the Sky is about travels of varying sorts, all connected by a writer’s voice that was well-formed by the time it was popularly heard. The album begins with “Heroes and Heroines,” a song written when Carpenter was playing small clubs in the Washington, DC area, and living in spaces bereft of land, much less of hills. The next song, “What Does It Mean To Travel,” was written a million miles later, yet it is clearly of an artistic piece with its generational predecessor. The whole album is that way, unfolding in ways at once unexpected and undeniable.
If any other serious Mary Chapin Carpenter listener had been asked to choose songs for this album, we might not have chosen these songs, and we surely wouldn’t have imagined these presentations. Most of us would have gone with Grammy winners and chart-toppers, singles and sing-alongs. And we would have been wrong for our choosings, not because these aren’t worthy things but because they don’t tell the story, and the story is what surprises, delights, and inspires.
Now, the story isn’t the biography, though the biography is a pretty good story: Folk-inspired, Ivy League-educated club singer, songwriter and guitarist (let’s not ever forget her remarkable guitar playing, with compelling chordal voicings and finger-picking that produces unique sounds from aubiquitous, traveled-and-trampled instrument) somehow becomes a major label country star not by faking a drawl or a stance but by exploring depths of language and emotion (She’s the only country star to write and sing the word “verdant,” or to use “peripatetic” in an interview).
That’s part of the biography, at least. Then there’s the part about shifting into other musical modes, and touring with childhood heroes like Joan Baez, and enduring other life battles, and emerging from those battles with gratitude and grace. The biography isn’t the humanity, though, and the humanity is the story, because it’s our story, too.
What we have here is a riveting travelogue, from departure to arrival, of a human heart and soul. It involves abundance and the lack thereof. It involves certainty and searching. It is sung to us softly, because stridence is as helpful to communication as flatland is to contemplation.
It is beautifully and thoughtfully played, and gracefully presented.
It is full of night songs, and inspired by the time of day when there’s little day remaining. It is an arrival that promises departures anew.
Anyway, as we know, it’s hard as hell to keep a job for thirty years. These are battle scars and lucky guesses from the journey. These are postcards, written from the ledges, recorded in the English countryside, and sent with love and intention from Carpenter’s Hill.
Emily Barker’s new album Sweet Kind of Blue is love story, between Barker and Memphis.
To understand how this love affair began, you have to go right back to the start… Barker grew up in remote, rural Western Australia; a childhood that was blessed with an almost idyllic, roaming freedom instilled not only an itinerant spirit, but also a mighty work ethic that has seen her playing over two hundred shows a year and on the cusp of releasing what will be her tenth studio album (including her albums with The Red Clay Halo, Vena Portae and last year’s acclaimed debut as part of country trio Applewood Road).
It is largely thanks to John Peel that Emily Barker first settled in the UK. After leaving home to see the world, she ended up on the Cambridge folk scene, and formed the band, the-low-country. Just as she was considering resuming her studies back home, Peel started playing them on Radio 1, so she stayed. Her music has since been described as “heartfelt songwriting… bridging the gap between folk, country and Fleetwood Mac” (The Times), “ambitious and beautifully wrought” (Q), while the Guardian applauds her “gift for great melodies.”
This gift has not gone unnoticed by film makers, resulting in Barker penning and performing theme songs for award-winning television dramas Wallander and The Shadow Line as well as an entire musical score for Jake Gavin’s poignant and well-received 2015 road movie, Hector, starring Peter Mullan.
Since taking a hiatus from multi-instrumental all-female group The Red Clay Halo, with whom she made four albums, Barker has been edging closer to the sources of her musical inspiration. At a tender age, her mother taught her to sing harmonies while her father introduced her to his record collection (they didn’t own a television). And then as she entered her teens, she discovered the blues and soul of Aretha Franklin, Koko Taylor and Bettye LaVette, and that’s where this story really begins.
In recent years Barker has made herself at home in Nashville and Memphis, performing, collaborating and basking in musical history. In Nashville in 2014 she formed the trio Applewood Road with Tennessee-based songwriters Amber Rubarth and Amy Speace. Their eponymous LP was recorded at Welcome to 1979 studio in Nashville. Applewood Road was a regular on best-of-2016 album lists, they toured extensively, played Glastonbury and Cambridge Folk Festivals and made numerous television appearances.
On a visit to Muscle Shoals, Barker was shown around Fame Studios, where she fell in love with the old equipment used to record Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Etta James. Soon after arriving back in the UK, she cropped her hair, got a slick black suit and a beautiful 1937 Gibson, and recorded a stripped-down solo album at analogue Toe Rag studios in East London (where The White Stripes recorded Elephant). The seeds of Sweet Kind of Blue were well and truly sown.
Meanwhile, plans for her new record started taking shape soon after. She was introduced to Grammy-winning producer Matt Ross-Spang, and the two hit it off straight away. Ross-Spang was the catalyst that brought Barker and Memphis together – born and bred in “Bluff City”, he honed in on where Barker’s roots lay as soon as she played him the songs she had been writing for the album.
Sweet Kind of Blue was recorded in June 2016, at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, where the tapes have been rolling since 1960. Phillips opened his dream studio (he called it “the Cape Canaveral of studios”) after he and his artists Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and B B King outgrew Sun Studio, a few blocks away.
The stars were perfectly aligned for the Memphis sessions. Barker brought her songs, her guitar, that cathedral of a voice and her irrepressible freewheeling spirit. Ross-Spang was riding high following his Grammy for Jason Isbell’s Something More than Free, and the runaway success of Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Sam Phillips’ son Jerry, and granddaughter Halley, welcomed Barker into the fold and couldn’t tear themselves away from the studio throughout recording. And as each track was laid down, Barker, her band (you will have heard these musicians on Cat Power’s The Greatest as well as records by Neil Young, Booker T and the MGs, Al Green and many more) and everyone in the control room fell a little bit more in love with each other. Spines tingled and eyes did not remain dry.
The result is an intoxicating blend of Barker penned songs about loves lost, heartrending humanity, the rush of the road trip and the sheer glory of a new love. The first single, ‘Sister Goodbye’, is a soulful tribute to one of Barker’s guitar-slinging heroes, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, while the title track, ‘Sweet Kind of Blue’ captures the beautiful urgency of missing a new lover. Its name, says Barker, “also nods to the record’s blues elements, with blue-eyed soul being the ’60s term for white artists performing rhythm and blues”. But the making of Sweet Kind of Blue is a love story in itself, between Barker and Memphis.