“We are accompanied in our lives,” writes Henry Markman, “by an evolving, ever present emotional soundtrack.” The music of singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer has been through the years to many of us such an accompaniment. One turns to songs for so many things, but perhaps the feeling that we are deeply understood by a piece of music is its deepest, most primal draw. Carrie writes in what Ferenczi calls “the language of tenderness,” and what Markman aptly calls “the home key.” This idea of home is very familiar to Carrie. It’s, she says, the musical place that calls her back time and again. When we do what we love we find that we also must meet what we love’s many challenges, and when we work from that place the work we do is imbued with real spirit. On her latest record, A Great Wild Mercy, Carrie highlights the vast differences between what she calls “the news of the world" and "the news of the heart.” The latter are those things that in our unguarded, unprideful, and more tender moments we all know to be most true of our shared humanity: that we’ve more in common than not, even if the news of the world would have us believe otherwise. In this work and in this life we each have our own special gifts and talents to bring to bear on the world, and as Carrie reminds us, there isn’t a person in this world who doesn’t have an amazing story to tell. In a potluck you just have to trust what people bring. It’s a metaphor for meeting people where they’re at, Carrie says. Is there anything in our current moment more needed than this? We are very grateful to Carrie for taking the time to talk with us about her latest album and about the many ways of keeping our sense of wonderment and our curiosity about others and the world alive. In a time when hope is so uncertain we must be certain that our hope is realized everyday in the choices we make in the world that we’re in, held in deep tension with what we hope the world will one day become. In this work no one else will do, but you.
James Diaz: This new album, A Great Wild Mercy, is such a beautiful record. I have to tell you I had such a visceral response as I listened to it, it is an incredibly moving piece of work.
Carrie Newcomer: Thank you. This one feels like a special one. They all feel special, and they all have their place in the book of my life, but this one felt like it came together in just the right way. I’m glad to hear that it moved you in that way too.
JD: I love that description, that “it has a special place in the book of your life.” You’ve also described it as an “alternative way to hold these troubled times,” and boy are they troubled. I’m wondering how these songs revealed themselves to you, and what message or feeling you hope people might take away with them after listening to this new record?
CN: As I’m writing an album, I always say that I never write because I have an answer, I write because I have a good question, and because I’m writing myself into my next becoming. It’s always an interesting process after an album is finished to look back and get a little more perspective on what happened and what the particular collection is about. This collection really has emerged out of my own wrestling with how to hold these challenging times. We’re living in a moment where the message that we’re getting from every direction is to be afraid, be enraged, and then be more afraid. And I’m finding that for myself, and from the conversations I’m having with people from around the country, the weight of that is really being felt.
In the title track, A Great Wild Mercy, I write about how there’s news of the world and news of the heart. The news of the world is telling us from every angle to be afraid, but the news of the heart is much different. If you ask most people, “do you know anyone personally who is generous of spirit, who tries their best to live into their best self everyday, who has reached across some dividing line, for family, for love, for the food bank, for some reason,” most people will tell you, “yes, I know a lot of people like that. I’m like that.” That’s the news of the heart.
Much of this album I think is balancing the news of the world and the news of the heart. The idea of a great wild mercy being present in the world still. The experience of that, and where do we experience that, on a daily basis. Balancing and learning to hold the news of the world and the news of the heart in a way that’s still life giving for ourselves and those around us is really the thread that runs through the entire album.
JD: That’s so beautifully put. As you were sharing that it reminded me of a story I once heard, especially as you talked about asking someone a very intimate question that opens up their heart and engages them in a truer conversation than we do when we get into our defenses, rather than what happens when we go deeper. The story was about an African American civil rights activist who went deep into Appalachia, where so many people had told her not to go fearing she would encounter only racism. But she did go there. And the question that she asked people there was “Tell me where it hurts?” I love that. To be able to reach across a divide with a question like that and open up conversations across our disagreements, that’s so hard to find and it’s so beautiful that you are putting some of that out there in the world on this record.
CN: I also think that there’s a longing for it. I sense it in myself and in the conversations I’m having with people I know personally, and the people I meet all over the country. There’s a real longing for finding that balance. I think that art, music, poetry, the creative arts, are one of the places where we still meet and share the news of the heart. In the context of a good song, we still recognize one another. We recognize the things that happen to us as humans. That we laugh, and we weep, and we grieve, and we’re bewildered. There’s all the things that happen to human beings, and in the context of a good song, story, or poem, we still recognize one another. And in that recognition, in that moment of empathy, because what is a song but a chorus or bridge of empathy, in those moments a little space is made, and in that space there’s the possibility for something new and creative to happen.
When we meet head to head, and we’re already putting up walls and assumptions about one another, there’s not a lot of space for something creative to happen. But within the context of a song or poem, a place where a little bit of space is created, in a moment of wonder, surprising things can happen. My friend Parker Palmer, a wonderful author that I’ve worked with for years, has a saying, “when the going gets tough, turn to wonder.” I love that concept, of stopping just for a moment to say, “I wonder.” I wonder what the deeper story is here. I wonder if there is an open space here. If I step back and listen with a more open heart, what will I hear? And that doesn’t mean that we don’t have strong convictions, feelings, and ideals. I’m not saying that we set those aside and not be passionate about what we’re passionate about. What I am saying is that, while we’re living into that integrity, to as often as possible create a little bit of space for wonder and empathy, looking to see if there’s some possible shared story to be found.
Much of this new album is about paring things down to the moment. Somewhere I read “We don’t live days, we live moments.” As an artist that’s a familiar thought. We live in moments. And though we live in a world of distraction, when I open space for what is happening right now that is where I see the things that are really amazing and life-giving. I write a lot about the natural world because that is one of the places I go. I live out in the middle of the woods, and I’ve gotten to know a piece of beautiful deciduous forest as an old friend now. When you have that kind of relationship with the natural world, whether it’s acres of deciduous forest or whether it’s the tree in your backyard, when you have that kind of relationship with the natural world I think it’s another place where we can encounter that news of the heart.
JD: Yes, that’s a beautiful description of interconnectedness. A metaphor that I’ve heard and that I love is thinking of ourselves and of nature and of animals as being all one organism. And when one part of the organism is sick, the other parts of the organism should ideally move medicine down to the parts that are sick. When one part is hungry to move food down to the parts that need it, responding to where it hurts, in life, in nature, and in our lives. What you were describing earlier about being open to other people and giving people the benefit of the doubt, one of the main reasons to do so is because we do that for ourselves and our own lives. We don’t tend to think of ourselves as one thing. When we mess up we of course feel bad in the moment, but we don’t usually stay in that place, we find ways to forgive ourselves and to acknowledge that we are more than a single moment, that we have more to us than a single thing, and it is often much harder for us to extend that to other people. And we have to find ways to do that, to survive. What are your thoughts on that?
CN: There is this idea of extending a certain kind of grace and compassion to ourselves, and for many of us that’s something we develop over time, and also extending that grace and compassion to others whenever possible. There’s a song on this album called “Potluck”, and in a potluck you have to trust what people bring. You trust what they bring to the table. And that’s such a good metaphor for welcoming people for where they’re at, for what they bring. Everyone comes to the table bringing their joys and their sorrows, their worst days and their best days. We bring our whole selves to every encounter, with that sense of grace and compassion for ourselves in that process, but also, as much as we can, for others. So there’s a bit of generosity and good heartedness that came through the song “Potluck.”
It’s also maybe in a little more poignant way in the song “A Book of Questions” which was written with the idea that every line would be a series of questions, that could be almost a writing prompt to explore the experiences of your life with a bit of compassion and grace. With acknowledgement for what was hard as stone and for what was joyous also. The whole song was another way of addressing that thread of the full, deeper story. I’ve never met a person yet that didn’t have an amazing story to tell, never once.
I teach writing workshops sometimes, and I remember once a woman said to me in response to a prompt “there’s nothing really that interesting about me, I’m just from Ohio.” And I told her, “well, just give it a go”. And then she read her work, and there was all this amazing experience. She was an older woman, and she talked about love, and she talked about loss, and she talked about the image of the hollyhocks that grew alongside her Grandmother’s house, and the garden and the details of this little town where she lived. There was so much richness and story all there in Ohio.
I’ve never met a person yet without an amazing story to tell. We all, each one of us, have a story to tell that’s valuable and beautiful and worthy. I think that is another thread running through this album, the idea of each of us carrying a story, carrying the complexity of these times, the complexity of our own lives, and the complexity of the people we meet, and finding ways to do that with as much kindness as we know how. Some days I do better than others, but my hope is that each day I can do that with as much decency and kindness as I can.
JD: I’ve seen this myself also. I saw this especially in my time in Occupy Wall Street. In some ways I don’t know if this could even happen in the same way today as it did then. But there was that cross communication between people from very different walks of life. Many tourists would visit and engage with the movement, people from the south who didn’t know what to think or make of it at first but who were curious and open. We had this space called a “Think Tank” that was sort of like a story circle there in the park where people could come and share their stories or their own ideas of what they think is wrong in the world and what they think might help fix it. So you had people from Kentucky sharing their ideas with college students, and obviously they were all so different and worlds apart, but nobody really shamed anybody, and everyone kind of heard everyone out, and it was challenging at times but in a productive way. It was so beautiful to see that, because like you say people hunger for that beneath the everyday defenses we put up, and it just seems harder and harder to cultivate that these days. But I think that where we can, and maybe this is the point of your new record, is in our own lives, in our own neighborhoods. To start small, little by little, engaging each other in real conversation, heart to heart, asking people about who they are first, before we start larger conversations.
CN: It goes back to the question you raised earlier, “where does it hurt.” You know I’m not very good at chit chat at parties, I think I’m too much of a poet for that, so at a certain point I decided when the people around me say, “well, what do you do” to ask a different kind of question when I meet a person. “Well, what gives you life?” And usually people will stop for a second, and then they’ll launch - into something amazing and wonderful. Tell me a story. That idea of starting small. There’s a song on the album called “Start with a Stone,” the humblest of things. Start right where you are. Because we are so digitally connected it can often feel so wide and overwhelming sometimes. Bringing it right back to relationship, right here, right now, in my daily life. That’s actually where my life happens. It happens now. It doesn’t happen tomorrow, it doesn’t happen yesterday. It happens right here, right now, right where I am. A lot of that song is really about reminding myself: “bring it home Carrie.”
I can’t change the whole world. Oscar Romero said “I can’t do everything, but I can do something.” What is the something I will do right here, right now? There’s great power there. What can often happen when we feel so overwhelmed by the news of the world is we get overtaken by this feeling of “what can one person do.” But again there is such great power in the news of the heart. That in every encounter I can live into the change I want to see in the world.
The whole Occupy Wall Street moment, I think you’re right, I’m not sure if it would happen the same way now. But it happened in that moment because there was a chance, an opportunity and a possibility for it to happen in that way. And so what are our opportunities right now? Because there are more. There’s more possibilities, and they happen on a personal level and they happen in how we’re connected in that space and in that thread where we encounter one another.
JD: I’m thinking of that Margaret Mead quote, how can one person change the world, it’s the only way the world has ever changed. One person’s initiative and then another and another. I read somewhere this idea that I love, which is that no one else can do what you can do. No one else can bring to the world what you can bring, and to abandon that work would be such a shame because what other people have to offer is not going to be the same thing, and we all have a different solution that comes through the problems we have faced in our own personal lives, and in the special way that we are.
CN: And I think that there’s great power for us to claim there. I’m reading a book right now on hope in climate change and climate grief. And in one of the chapters the author writes: “do what you love.” What you can contribute, do it through what you love most. There’s a clue there. I’m not going to be the person who engineers a way to desalinate water and help with the drought in the western US, that’s not my gift. That’s someone else’s gift. But I can create beauty. I can create a song. I can contribute from what I deeply love. If you’re a baker, bake. Teacher, teach. If you love to garden, then love your garden.
There’s great power in knowing that the closer we get to what we love, and the more faithful we are to who we are and what we love, the more potent our daily contribution becomes. There’s both a gift and a clue there: what can I do? What can one person do? Lean into what you love with all your heart and that will make a difference.
There’s a song on this record called “A Path Through the Evening Woods,” and the last verse says: “I was born to be a restless soul, may I lean where love leads me to go.” Like Margaret Mead said, it’s the only thing that has ever really changed anything.
There’s a lot of hopefulness and reflection on hope on this album. But where do we find sustainable hope? I’ve never thought of hope as being just positive thinking, or that it’s all going to be alright. Parker Palmer has the best definition for hope I’ve ever heard, and it’s that “hope is holding in creative tension everything that is, with everything that could and should be, and each day taking some action to narrow the distance between the two.” I’m not pretending that what is isn’t. But what is the action that I live into each day to narrow the distance between what is and what I aspire for things to be? What is the space I aspire to step into, in empathy, in graciousness, in love and potency everyday? That, that is a hope that I can live and move forward with.
JD: I know you said that you were in part done with rage, but it sounds to me like you have a hopeful rage. When rage is hopeful, when it’s filled with love, when it’s impassioned, and not an empty and hateful rage, then it becomes a great motivator, a creative fire.
CN: Oh, I’m not done with rage, I’m way too human for that. In “A Great Wild Mercy” I say I’m tired of the rage, I’m tired of the worry. A lot of us are weary. We’re weary of the news of the world that would claim our power, that would leave us feeling that there are only divisions with no bridges. I think that anger and rage is really human. There’s righteous rage, when you see injustice, when you see what goes against your sense of goodness. Anger can narrow your focus. I think the ideal with rage and righteous rage is to experience it for what it is and then allow that to open. To not be stuck in a narrow version or view.
Being really angry can narrow your focus right down to a pinpoint. But to be effective, in terms of justice and in working for that better kind of world, I need to use the energy of righteousness, of justice, without it becoming something that consumes me or pinpoints my focus so much that I miss creative moments or ways to open the space up. That place where possibility resides, where something new can happen.
So I’m way too human to say I’m done with rage. I’m righteously angry about things that are happening in our world right now. That’s part of the creative holding that this whole album talks about. How do you hold that anger without allowing it to constrict your view to the point that you can’t see anything beyond it?
JD: I find it so important to acknowledge also that there’s a lot of inner work that we do before we can take on the outer work. When I try to do it the other way around it just doesn’t work and I’m not able to make the kind of difference that I really want to make.
CN: That’s so true. Howard Thurman, a theologian who was very influential on Dr. Martin Luther King talks about just that aspect in his work. Of doing the inner work so that the outer work comes from a more grounded, more clear and loving source. In my experience our outer work is usually more effective when it happens in balance with our own inner work. That too is a part of this album: exploring how my inner work relates to my outer walk.
JD: And being embodied too I think is such a huge part of it. Once the inner work is done we can begin to be more embodied, though it’s never perfect I find. To be present we have to be in our bodies, and there can be such a great disconnect before we do the work. Once we find ways to bridge that gap and work through that then we can begin to really be able to show up and really feel like we’re present for our experiences, and whatever it is that we’re trying to tackle and undertake. And that really is a life’s work, our unending work, I’m finding.
CN: Yes, it is the ongoing work. The songs on this album are the current chapter in the book of my life, but hopefully a well written song isn’t just about my life. A well written song creates that open space where we can recognize one another. That’s the hallmark of a powerful song, that within the context of a song we recognize one another. I might use my own experience and details but the goal is never to write my own diary. It’s always to create a sense of where we connect as human beings. How is this an expression of my current, most poignant questions?
My friend, John McCutcheon, who I co-wrote “Start with a Stone'' with, says that a good song is three chords and the truth. And I like that, that there’s something that we recognize at the center of a song. And music is very embodied. I do a lot of different kinds of writing, but music is so embodied. You have language, which is so powerful, but you also have music, and music rhythm, it’s the beating of a heart, you actually have to move your vocal chords to sing.
I read a study that said that when we sing together, our hearts sync up. It makes sense that our breath would sync up, because we’re singing the same words and our breath would need to happen, but our literal hearts begin to beat together when we sing together. Music is very embodied. So maybe that’s why I keep coming back to songwriting as an art form. I write poetry, essays, and short stories. I do a lot of different kinds of writing, but I always come back to song. There’s something about it that just makes me happy.
JD: Song is home to you.
CN: Song is home. Song is home.
Carrie Newcomer's new album, A Great Wild Mercy will be released on October 13th. Visit www.carrienewcomer.com to purchase copies of the new album and to learn more about Carrie's many wonderful projects, past, present and future.
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