5/9/2013 - Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin met and became fast friends in the mid-1980s during their early days on the East Coast folk scene. The pair’s current acoustic tour, which stops in Concord on May 11, is equal parts kaffeeklatsch and concert; each night contains a surprise or two.
“It changes based on mood,” Carpenter said in a recent phone interview.
“John Doe #24,” a doleful gem from her Stones In the Road album, made the set list when the duo played the South.
“It has a lot of New Orleans references,” she said. “It’s almost like the region we’re in triggers songs and ideas.”
Often, a random event draws forth more than music. Backstage after one of her shows last year, a fan asked Carpenter to sign a yearbook. It contained a picture of her at a high school dance, wearing the garment that inspired her 1989 song “This Shirt.” She snapped herself a copy with her cell phone. Before a recent show in Idaho, she showed it to Colvin. Later, they played the song, and Colvin told the audience about the photo.
“I don’t know how it got to this point, but I agreed to post it on the Facebook page,” Carpenter said with a chuckle. “It got around the world a little bit … so the guy who I’m dancing with [in the photo] piped up on the post. I had not seen hide or hair of him since high school. It’s just wild.”
During their performances, between-song patter illuminates the pair’s history.
“We tell a lot of stories,” said Carpenter. “We try to give some little reference points and background … and celebrate the friendship and the music that we love.”
That includes a few tasty covers — Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” appear frequently — as the pair trade songs for two hours or more. Carpenter draws heavily from last year’s Ashes and Roses, a record that laid bare her experience with a difficult divorce, personal health issues and the death of her father.
To the question of whether there is danger in exposing herself so unflinchingly, Carpenter is unequivocal.
“To not be honest just doesn’t make any sense to me,” she said. “What else are you going to write about? I don’t think it’s dangerous or perilous in any way — it’s about you being yourself. To try to write about it as if it were someone else, like you’re creating a character who is going through it. … I know people do that, and that’s what novels are made of, but we ultimately draw from our own feelings.”
As a song cycle, Ashes and Roses ends more hopefully than it begins, and contains one of her all-time best — “Soul Companion,” a duet with James Taylor. She mused aloud about recruiting the singer shortly after writing it. “I said it like the wish list of the century,” recalled Carpenter. A few months later, a surprise phone call came. “Unbeknownst to me, he had been sent the song and he loved it and wanted to do it … that’s how it came about. I can’t listen to it without just grinning from ear to ear. It feels beautiful, lovely and soulful.”
Carpenter mentions Gabriel Kahane (Craigslistlieder) as another dream collaboration — “I cannot stop listening to his record or marveling at its beauty” — and Morten Lauridsen. “He’s the greatest unknown composer of our time,” she said of the latter. “His compositions ‘Sure On This Shining Night’ and ‘Lux Aeterna’ are the two most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.”
Carpenter hasn’t reached out to either Kahane or Lauridsen — yet. But after a few more dates with Colvin and an upcoming summer tour with Marc Cohn, she’s available.