Question: How do you juggle lyric writing and music writing in your creative process?
Mary Chapin Carpenter: It's always been kind of unpredictable for me if a song, in other words, there isn't a method for me that I know that I start with the music or I know that I start with the lyrics. Sometimes it's just you're playing and you're in a tuning, for example, a different tuning and you just find a different kind of melody or something that evokes a feeling and that kicks off a lyric. And then sometimes I've, I remember a song that I wrote years ago that started out as a poem. It's called I am a Town. And I had the complete lyric for that for months and months and months and I never could find the right music to go with it and then one day, just kind of stumbled on this very circular kind of moody thing and I knew that I had it. But it was constructed, you know, very separately. Music and lyrics very different times but then they found their way together. Obviously, it's always great when they decide to show up at the same time, that's always helpful. And you know I sit at my desk and I play and I write at the same time. That always feels pretty good.
Question: How do you steer clear of songwriting clichés?
Mary Chapin Carpenter: Well, I don't know, I mean I'd be grateful to imagine that I have always steered clear, but you know, no one's perfect. So, we have our moments don't we? But I had a friend a long time ago who had a songwriting rule. He said, "Never use the word 'free.'" And I always thought that was great. And then I have another friend and this is just more of a technical thing, but he is a true believer in perfect rhymes and whereas I will definitely be an advocate of saying, "been" and "again" and you know using those two words. He would say, absolutely not. You know, "been" and "tin." You know that has to be the perfect rhyme. But as far as steering clear of clichés and things like that, boy I think that's an everyday struggle. I think any song writer who says they're not tempted at times; they're a better man than me.
Question: How do you “get over the hump” to finish a song that’s been giving you trouble?
Mary Chapin Carpenter: Yeah I have stacks of legal pads of unfinished songs and I don't know what you know sort of ego thing in me won't throw them away. There's something obviously that I think is valuable about them in some way because otherwise I would throw them away. And it's not really just to have a document of unfinished songs, but you know you keep thinking, "Down the road maybe, maybe I'll go back to that page and I'll find something that I can use when I'm stumped." And I've done that a few times, not very often, but a few times you go back and you find the solution to a problem you might be having lyrically. Or, when you're completely blank and you have the desire to write something and you just kind of go back and it's almost like, it just kind of reminds you of thoughts or moments that you had written down and tucked away and thought about maybe turning in to something and you didn't. So here's the opportunity again to do that.
Recorded April 30, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen