Mary Chapin Carpenter has made a career of thumbing her nose at Nashville, despite her success in the country-music charts. Instead of taking the typical Tennessean route to the top, she graduated from college, headed off to the folkie scene of Washington, D.C., played in small joints for a few years, and was finally signed by Columbia. Then she became the next big thing in country-folk.
Carpenter has stuck to the anti-Nashville approach throughout her success. On her new album, Time* Sex*Love, she sticks with her usual formula while trying to prove she still has relevance after a five-year recording hiatus. "I was writing songs after the last album," says the singer-songwriter, referring to 1996's A Place in the World, "but what I was writing just didn't make me want to run into the studio. I think you should be absolutely in love with the songs you bring to the project. And I just felt like nothing was doing it for me. I knew, if I was patient enough, something would happen where I was saying what I wanted to say, and the songs would feel like keepers."
The keepers Carpenter has selected for Time*Sex*Love are fairly similar to those of A Place in the World. They are a combination of the country sound that made her famous in the early 1990s and the folk tunes on which she cut her teeth. It seems to be a combo Carpenter approves of, though she is reticent to define her music as country-folk or anything else. "Stylistically I think [Time*Sex* Love] feels like a very natural sort of rendering of the songs based on everything I've done in the past," she says. "But I can't put a label on it like it's a country record or a pop record or a folk record."
The record and current tour promise more of the same sound that propelled her to platinum in 1992, which should delight Carpenter fans. This album may not sell millions, but anyone who expects Carpenter to write songs for the masses is missing the point. "I think there's a part of you in every song you write," she comments. "As far as I'm concerned, I look at the world around me, observe as much as I can, and sort of throw it back in."
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Carpenter writes songs for herself almost as a sort of therapy. Whether they're catchy or even good in the conventional sense seems to her to be someone else's problem. Carpenter remains pleased with both her past and present. "I can't look back and say I wish I had known that or hadn't done that. Maybe I'm a fatalist in that way," she says. "I think the things I've learned as an artist have been really necessary."