Mary Chapin Carpenter has been planning her latest album for more than 15 years. In September 1998, she took part in a fundraiser in San Francisco for the Walden Woods Foundation, singing “But Beautiful” with a 60-piece orchestra conducted by Vince Mendoza (Bjork, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell).
The experience left an impression on her.
“I remember standing at the side of the stage, and I couldn’t move,” she recalls. “The arrangements were so beautiful and so distinctive, and I thought that if I ever had a chance to do something like that — to have my songs rearranged and brought into this very different musical world — then it would be Vince’s door that I would knock on.”
It took a while, but Carpenter finally got that chance. The result is Songs From the Movie, which rearranges 10 lesser-known songs from various stages of her career, all arranged and conducted by Mendoza himself. The pair found inspiration in old soundtracks — hence the album title — and render these songs in cinematic settings.
“You can have a desire and an ambition and tuck it away and then actually see it come to fruition many years later,” Carpenter says. “That’s very special to me.”
CMT Edge: Obviously, film pays a big role on this album. Do you find a lot of inspiration in old movies?
Carpenter: I wouldn’t call myself a film buff, but I’m definitely one of those people who remember movies for the music. I remember the first time I heard the work of Elmer Bernstein, specifically his soundtrack for To Kill a Mockingbird. And I love the beautiful soundtracks by Thomas Newman, which are more recent. That music places such a huge role in those movies.
There’s a direct connection on a cellular level between what you hear and your heart. There’s a reason there are certain things you put on when you want to cry, and there are other things you put on when you want to dance. Or when you want to be still. Music can serve so many purposes.
How closely did you work with Vince Mendoza and co-producer Matt Rollings on these arrangements?
Vince worked on things, and he would send them to Matt and me. They were roughs that he had done in his studio. I can’t remember a whole lot of notes going back and forth. He had these things pretty well done. I do remember when he first suggested the idea of a women’s choir that appear on two of the songs, I wasn’t too sure about it. I couldn’t imagine that my songs would lend themselves to something like that. I couldn’t hear it or envision it. But now it’s one of my favorite elements of the record.
When we were in London and the women started singing, I fell on the floor. I couldn’t believe it was so beautiful. There was no guarantee that Vince and I would mesh in a good way. It was just an instinct. It was like a hunch. I felt very known by him artistically and spiritually, in the sense that these arrangements speak to me when I listen to this music. He takes me on these trips with these arrangements. I’m not even connecting to the songs in terms of having written them. I’m listening to it very apart from all that.
Can you tell me about the criteria for selecting these songs? Were you basing your choices on lyrical content or melodic potential?
It was both. I wanted to include some lyrically dense songs that ask a lot of the listener. These are not necessarily songs that are going to be on your radio hit parade. They’re not two-minute pop songs. They’re kind of demanding. Maybe that’s what I was thinking when I was coming up with the list of songs. This was an opportunity to take something and really expand on it. Let the orchestra be a spaceship that takes you to a new destination. That’s a terrible analogy!
Were there any songs you chose that just didn’t work?
I can’t remember what song it was, but I wanted x song and thought it would work. Vince didn’t think it was a good candidate and explained to me that musically it didn’t lend itself to him being able to expand on it. It would be like a repetitive guitar pattern or something. It didn’t really lend itself to cinematic treatment. So it was very educational in that way. Originally we had 12 songs, but we ended up finalizing it at 10. It can be very expensive to do these things.
What was it like to resurrect these old songs and hear them in these new settings?
When I first heard the arrangement for “I Am a Town,” which is an older song, I was just weeping. It was hard to keep it together. I don’t know why it was so emotional for me, but it was. These songs were all culled from so many different records and many different lives, if you will. The challenge was to figure out how to make them coexist with each other in this new setting. The way I thought about it was, the thing they all have in common is me. They all came from me, and in that regard they speak to so many familiar subjects.
How did you adjust your vocals for this orchestral setting?
I’ve sung with the Boston Pops and the National Symphony on a few live dates, but I’ve never sung with a studio orchestra like this. You have to sing powerfully enough to keep up, but you don’t want to break out into histrionics. These are very gentle songs, and you have to find a balance. The orchestra can be a powerful force.
When I first stood in front of the speakers in the control room, I felt like that old Maxell ad where the fellow is sitting in front of the speakers and his hair is being blown back. So it was a real puzzle to figure out how to sing. They can always turn you up or down in the mix, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. It’s more like an approach. And it was very satisfying to find that place right in the middle.