Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Carrie Newcomer: Kindred Spirits

The unexpected beauty at the heart of the dusty rocks known as geodes. The persistence of friendship and connection across time and place. Lessons learned from holding burning anger. Frying eggs that sound like psalms. The person next to you in the diner, who might be angel. A mystical midnight encounter. A God who celebrates the juice of summer peaches eaten by the road side. Finding the time to notice and enjoy and be present to all these things, with all these people, in each of these circumstances are just a few of the things that Carrie Newcomer is thinking about in the songs in her album Kindred Spirits. Thinking about and exploring with an artist’s eye, a poet’s heart, the perspective of a writer born and raised in the American heartland, and the wisdom of a musician.

Newcomer opens the collection with a song called The Speed of Soul. “I was reading an essay by Philip Gulley,” she says, “and in it he talks about a Native American saying that we should not travel farther in one day than our souls can keep up. That phrase, that adage, really, really caught my imagination -- really haunted me.” The song which came of this proves a mosaic of ideas, interlocking thoughts about, among other things, an encounter with a stranger at a truck stop, a thought or two about war and violence and how they interest with our daily actions, and consideration of a morning spent sweeping floors. An intersection of poetically rendered questions within questions about time’s passing and how we live in it, really. “We lead such busy lives,” Newcomer says. “Just because we can juggle twelve balls in the air, is it good that we do?” At the speed of day to day life now, time to reflect, to take things in, to integrate and consider and see what is to be learned beyond immediate practicalities is often pushed aside. “Because we don’t have time to reflect, sometimes questions like is it good to juggle so may things -- even when you’re busy doing good things -- is it good to be so busy? Those questions go unasked -- questions of just because we can, should we?”

The Speed of Soul and the questions Newcomer raises through it make a thoughtful frame for the music she has chosen for Kindred Spirits. The album is a retrospective of sorts, with two new songs -- Speed of Soul is one of those -- and several live cuts which are new to record, along with selections from her twelve albums with Rounder Records and two songs from a benefit album for the Interfaith Hunger Project featuring the work of Indian classical sarod masters Ayaan Ali Khan and Amjad Ali Khan.

In choosing songs for the album, Newcomer chose to look at her work through a spiritual lens. Newcomer is known for seeing the sacred in the everyday. It’s not an uncommon perspective for her, but this is the first time she’s gathered songs for an album with that idea as the focus. “It was interesting to look back over my work with the idea of spiritual lens,” she says, “and to talk with other musicians and people who know my work about what makes sense with that idea in mind -- spiritual focus, not necessarily religious.”

Newcomer’s is a strong faith, one that in her writing is lived out as much along the highways and in countryside, in the late night diner, the talks across the kitchen table, the walking through hard realities of loss and grief and change, the celebration of good friendship and good conversation, as it it is in religious gatherings.

I believe
there is healing on the sound of your voice
and that summer tomatoes are a cause to rejoice
following the song was never really a choice
never really

Newcomer sings in I Believe, a song which came out of time spent sharing her work in India. It features the playing of Indian classical sarod master Ayaad Ali Khan. Another song from that project, Breathe In Breathe Out, considers, among other things, what to do with anger, with a percussive back beat of sound drawn from India and Indiana to frame the ideas.

Indiana is very present in Geodes, too. Those dusty rocks with crystals in their hearts are ways to think about the people we meet day to day in the song, and in Newcomer’s world, the day to day of Betty’s Diner finds a collection of travelers on life’s highway stopping at Betty’s for conversation, reflection, and “eggs and toast like bread and wine.” You’ll never quite think about that stranger the next table over in the diner in the same way after you hear what Newcomer has to say in Angels Unaware, either, and she could just change your mind -- and give you a bit of a laugh -- about doing laundry, too, in Holy As a Day is Spent. Encounters between God and daily life come in for consideration in the very different songs Where You Been and There is a Tree, the first a rock jazz blues journey to the rough hewn sides of life and the latter a mystical midnight dance with spirit. There are love songs, songs of faith, grief, hope, and friendship. all told through a perspective of what connects, what surprises, and where the holy and the day to day intersect. All sung too in Newcomer’s rich alto, with a storyteller’s voice and phrasing which invites you in and makes room for your stories and reflections along the way.

As she was planning the album “It was an initial theme, along with the spiritual idea, to go back through and see what’s always been there, and how it has changed and grown and how it has expanded and how it has circled back through. It was interesting to do that,” Newcomer reflects. She made a conscious decision not to sequence the songs chronologically. “The sequencing had more to do with how one song moved into another -- almost like a set list, what leads into one song and out of another in terms of subject matter, in terms of melody lines, the range of the songs -- a lot of the sequencing of the songs had to do with how the songs would relate to one another and create an arc.” she says.

Newcomer’s musical journey has taken her from her home base in Indiana many times across the United States. She’s toured Europe with Alison Krauss (who appears as a guest on Kindred Spirits , adding backing vocals to the song The Gathering of Spirits) and in recent years, she has also shared her music across India at the invitation of the US Department of State and in Africa with the work of the Interfaith Hunger Project. She has also had opportunities to teach workshops on songwriting, creative writing, and vocation, and to speak on these subjects at colleges, retreat centers, and arts programs. Through all these experiences “what keeps coming back to me is the idea of the common thread.” Carrie Newcomer says. “Cultures are so rich and different, and I love that -- but at the same time, as much s we are different, I have come to be so moved and touched by the thread that pulls between us. You know, when you sing a song about love or struggle or grief or family or hope -- the song If Not Now, which is on this album, I’ve sung it in India, I sang it it Kenya, I’ve sung it here in the States -- in all these places, the spiritual current reaches across. It becomes part of the thread that pulls between us.”

You may also wish to see

India to Indiana in song and image

music, silence, and spiritual journey

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


Blogger Vera Marie said...

You write so poetically about this album of poetic music. Sounds almost as though I could enjoy a book of the lyrics even without the music.
On a personal note, thanks for all your music suggestions. You have Ken so thoroughly hooked on Celtic music that I have to sneak in a few traditional Christmas recordings now and again! Have a wonderful Christmas and an exciting new year.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Living Large said...

I love that name, "The Speed of Soul." Love your suggestions.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Alisa Bowman said...

Really liking the lyrics you posted and the poetic nature of your post in general.

1:10 PM  
Blogger Ruth said...

This post is simply beautiful, Kerry. You're such a gifted writer who clearly cares so much about music and musicians. Just love reading your work.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Ruth said...

Beautifully written, Kerry. I love your work -- and the music you cover.

12:05 PM  
Blogger MyKidsEatSquid said...

Even the names of the songs resonate--like Living Large, I like "The Speed of Soul"

10:46 PM  

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