Music and Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer
“Writers have themes they return to -- I mean we write about all kinds of stuff, but there are things we return to, because they continue to fascinate.” Singer and songwriter Carrie Newcomer is talking about her recording A Permeable Life. “There are a couple of threads running through this album. The idea of finding something extraordinary in the ordinary, finding something sacred in the everyday and quotidian -- that’s a theme that has continued to call my attention personally and artistically, and that’s definitely present on this album.
“There’s the idea of presence, that we’re not encouraged in our culture to be present in our own lives, that we have to think about that and it’s a decision we have to make -- it’s very easy to be caught up in the current of our busy culture. We don’t want to get to the end of our day and say dang, I missed it. Those two threads will be familiar to those who know my work,” Newcomer says. “I think I have new ponderings on them and ways of looking at them, but those themes do continue to fascinate me.”
On A Permeable Life, you will meet a man who collects statues and a woman haunted by day to day aftermath tragedy, you’ll encounter the idea of loss as a threshold of change framed in a story hung on poetic images from the history of Newcomer’s native Indiana, you’ll consider the losses and gains of traveling and the ways we mark spiritual revelations and events, you’ll share share in an invitation to be very present in time and likely get singing along to an invitation to include people you hadn’t thought of in that circle of presence, you enter a kitchen where the work of putting up beans is going on, and you’ll join Newcomer as she takes a quiet drive along a snowy winter road with a revelation along the way.
Those are just hints of what happens as Newcomer, a storyteller and musician with a poet’s gift of insight and a gorgeous alto voice, invites you on the journey through these stories. Old friends and new musical collaborators join her voice and guitar with their contributions on keyboards, percussion, cello, and other acoustic sounds.
Working together, they all make space for the ideas, and for the listener. “There is less production on this album than on some of my others,” she says. “I wanted it to feel as though we were sitting across the kitchen table from each other, rather than me being up on a stage.”
That sort of across the kitchen table intimacy makes space for another idea that Newcomer sees running through the songs she’s written for A Permeable Life. “There’s the thread -- it may be a little more particular to this album -- of the idea of going through thresholds, that through out our lives we’re going to encounter thresholds where what is old is passed away, not that it was bad, it’s just done -- and that what’s new has not come into focus yet, so we stand at the threshold. It’s scary and it exciting but it’s pretty human.” It follows on with another idea that has run through many of Newcomer’s earlier songs, that of life not being so much about finding answers as it is about asking good questions.
The song Ten O’Clock Line is based on a bit of Indiana and Native American history, a treaty where territory was marked by a shadow which fell at ten o’clock on a certain day in September. From that idea Newcomer spins out poetic images of love and loss and of making space and of loss perhaps being meant to be something else
There’s a hole in the world
Maybe it’s only a space
For something that’s been waiting
Until I turned my face
she sings as part of the chorus of Ten O’Clock Line.
“The way I look at it, “ Newcomer says, “there’s always something mystical happening, even in the most practical situations. Ah, here’s a hole in my life-- or maybe it’s a space. What has been waiting to get my attention, to step into that space with me? Maybe there’s something that has been longing for my attention, tapping me on the shoulder -- at these thresholds, there is that question. There’s a lot of image to the song, shadow and light -- because at those moments there is goodness and light, there’s fear -- you’re dealing with a shift, sometimes a seismic shift -- and what do you do with it and how do you frame it?”
A journey of asking good questions indeed. Here at Music Road, there will be more of this conversation with Carrie Newcomer about the songs and stories and ideas of A Permeable Life.
In the meanwhile, you may wish to think about that idea of presence as you listen to the video above and you may also wish to see
Newcomer has published a book A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays More on that to come here in future as well.
Carrie Newcomer: Kindred Spirits
Carrie Newcomer: India to Indiana in song and image
At the turning of the year: music and change