Arts & Culture

Mary Chapin Carpenter reconfigures her career with ‘Movies’

Mary Chapin Carpenter is a five-time Grammy Award winner.. Credit: Photo by Russ Harrington
Mary Chapin Carpenter is a five-time Grammy Award winner.. Credit: Photo by Russ Harrington

Writing a song is like building a house.

The same key elements — a firm foundation, easily accessible entry points and a bright, inviting exterior — are as essential for a sturdy, well-built song as they are a family’s home.

When the years have passed and the home needs some sprucing up or, maybe, the residents just want to see something different, it’s as simple as applying a fresh coat of paint, adding new fixtures and maybe buying different furniture.

But how do you revisit — or remodel — songs from your past?

If you’re singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, you invite arranger Vince Mendoza to help re-conceive 10 songs from your back catalog.

The quietly audacious and frequently exquisite result, 2014’s Songs From the Movie, features Carpenter’s indelible contralto backed by a 63-piece orchestra and a 15-voice choir, which allows compositions like I Am a Town or Mrs. Hemingway to blossom in such a way that illuminates the singer as well as the song, highlighting just how well-built these particular little houses are.

She won’t have an orchestra in tow during her Saturday concert at Bass Hall — it will be just Carpenter and a pair of musicians, creating an acoustic trio — but it’s evident in speaking with her the impact Movie had.

Says Carpenter from a recent Virginia tour stop: “It was something that I had wanted to do for years and years and years.”

Orchestral maneuvers

Her urge to revisit her catalog in such a way was first felt back in the late ’90s, when, as part of a Walden Woods benefit organized by Don Henley, Carpenter crossed paths with arranger Mendoza, whose work with the evening’s program of material from the Great American Songbook impressed her.

“They were just these sumptuous, beautiful, evocative arrangements and it was one of those moments where you have this light bulb go off,” she says. “It was this idea of if I ever had the opportunity to take some existing songs and have them re-arranged for orchestra, Vince would be someone I would just love to work with.

“I envisioned it as something quite different from what happens when artists venture to do a similar thing. Often times, I think the arrangements can be fairly pedestrian, or it’s as if the existing tracks, they just put a string arrangement on it.”

Carpenter was after something more transformative than just slapping strings on existing songs, and learned over the course of what she describes as “a multiyear task” that Mendoza wasn’t going to be satisfied either, unless the songs could be taken down to the studs.

“We took a great amount of time figuring out which songs would most lend themselves to these transformations,” Carpenter says. “It was a real learning curve for me. There was one song I had envisioned for this project [John Doe No. 24, from her 1994 album Stones in the Road], and it has a very circular, repetitive melody and guitar part, and [Vince] explained that the way it was, it wouldn’t necessarily permit him to open it up and take it to a different place.

“Just things like that that would’ve never occurred to me. It was fascinating to be part of that process.”

Eventually, the pair, along with producer Matt Rollings, reconvened with the master list of what Carpenter estimates were 30-40 songs, pared down to the most promising candidates, and began work at London’s AIR studios.

Carpenter premiered the recast songs in January 2014 at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, Scotland, describing it as “really the culmination of so many years and desire to put this out.”

“It’s been extraordinary to present this music around the world,” she says.

Constant change

In so many words, the remodeling of those particular houses the 57-year-old New Jersey native built was an unqualified success.

But to hear the five-time Grammy winner tell it, on stage, her music is more or less in a near-perpetual state of renovation.

“I think it’s something I’ve always done,” Carpenter says. “This acoustic trio incarnation I like to work in, from time to time. It’s an opportunity to deconstruct things.

“Certainly, you’re stripping things down for a smaller group, and yet you’re kind of excavating in a way and seeing how [the songs] can come back together, with different colors and structures imparting different meaning.”

It might seem like that willingness to endlessly turn her songs around, inside out and upside down — like a person situating a painting at different heights on different walls, just to see its positions change the room — would indicate Carpenter is trying to stave off boredom and keep herself engaged after nearly three decades in the music business, but she begs to differ.

As she was when she was releasing her debut, Hometown Girl, in 1987, Carpenter remains committed to and deeply enamored of the act of constructing her melodic and lyrical houses.

“I could never say I was ever bored with what I do,” Carpenter says. “Believe me, I love to play music.

“It’s just a sense of seeing what else is there. There was a period of time last summer when I was doing an orchestral show, a trio show, [and] a band show, all in a short span of time. And I love the idea of feeling nimble enough to do that,” she says.

“At this point in my life, in my career, that feels utterly energizing.”

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713

Twitter: @prestonjones

Mary Chapin Carpenter

▪ 7:30 p.m. Saturday

▪ Bass Hall, Fort Worth

▪ $27.50-$66

▪ 817-212-4200; basshall.com

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