Carrie Newcomer: Meet a Singer of Anthems, Lullabies and Clarion Calls for New Community

hank God there are writers with voices like Carrie Newcomer!”

   That’s how we started our recommendation of Carrie Newcomer (and her new “Before and After” album) in our 10 Spiritual Sages to Watch in 2010 list in January. At that time, I’d been listening to a preview copy of “Before and After,” for a couple of weeks—and I can’t recall encountering an album I enjoyed this much in years.
NOW, this week, you can finally order a copy of “Before & After” by clicking this link and jumping to Amazon right now.

On Monday, we published Part 1 of this recommendation of Carrie’s music. (In Part 1 you’ll find excerpts of some of her lyrics. You’ll also find a cool idea for a small-group series of discussions, focusing on Carrie’s new album.)
Today, you’ll meet Carrie in our interview, below. Because we expect that many of you will buy the album, enjoy the music—and may even discuss it with friends—we focused these two stories on a sampling of the songs in this new collection.
ALSO, we’ve got a treat at the end of today’s interview—a 5-minute video of Carrie talking about her life, her work and the new music. So, don’t miss that before you go.
To introduce today’s interview, here’s what we published in our “10 to Watch in ’10” list about the importance and influence of her work:

    Let me put it simply: I want to go to a church where Carrie Newcomer music is part of the repertoire! I want to be sitting in a pew when a choir performs, “If Not Now—Tell Me When!” If this album doesn’t electrify you, then check your spiritual circuit breakers.
Who is she? Well, as a 50-something Baby Boomer, her voice reminds me of Carly Simon in her prime. But, it’s actually her gifts as a writer that are truly startling. She writes with greater clarity about our spiritual journey than most pastors can preach about it. For instance: How can we possibly describe the “elusive and subtle” joy of God’s grace, she asks. “I Don’t Know Its Name,” she confesses, then evokes a summertime trip on a back road and tells us: “I believe it must taste like peaches eaten by the roadside.”

WITH CARRIE NEWCOMER on “Before and After”

    DAVID: I keep running into people who already know and love your work. They’re thrilled to hear that we’re helping to spread the word about you through ReadTheSpirit.

But I’ve also discovered that a lot of people haven’t discovered your music yet. They’ve got a big treat waiting for them, so it’s a lot of fun to work on this interview with you today.

For all those folks who don’t know you yet: You were born in Michigan, then raised in Elkhart, Indiana. You attended Goshen College in the mid 1970s, but you finally earned your art-and-education degree from Purdue in 1980.

For the past 30 years, you’ve been a singer songwriter.

That’s all easily available information online either on Wikipedia or on your own Carrie Newcomer Web site. So, let me ask you first about something that’s a little less clear about you: How about all of these associations with Quakers in your work? Among your good friends are Parker Palmer and Philip Gulley—pretty amazing figures in their own right.

What does it mean that you’re a Quaker?

CARRIE: I was not raised Quaker. I encountered the Quakers in my 20s. I was going to Goshen College, which is a Mennonite college, and I’ve always been very attracted to the traditional peace churches and the idea of social justice being a part of our faith. I ended up doing a service semester in Costa Rica teaching there in a small school and I had heard of a Quaker community there.

I went to my first Quaker meeting and it felt like home. It very much resonated with me. When I came back to the United States, I sought out a Quaker meeting.

People will ask me: You’re a woman who makes your life in sound—yet you go to a silent meeting? In many ways, it makes complete sense to me. Life is all about balance and sometimes the best language comes out of the silence.

DAVID: I’ve always admired Mennonites and Quakers, because of their strong courage and conscience. They also have a tradition of putting their arms and legs where their hearts are. I can remember, as a journalist, covering news of widespread disasters in the U.S.—and, somewhere, I’d usually find Mennonite trailers where carpenters and their families were living and helping people rebuild their lives.

CARRIE: That’s a very strong current of faith—that it’s very important to be of service in this world. If you have a love for God, it’s only natural that it manifests as a love of people and trying to be of service in any way you can. I do love that about those communities, although many denominations also have this strong current.

DAVID: This is important stuff to share with readers, I think, because most people wouldn’t immediately place a “Christian” label on your music. Nevertheless, your spiritual journey is profoundly religious, I would say.

CARRIE: Yes, I have a very deep spiritual current in my work, because there is a very deep spiritual current in my life. But, I do write in a way that’s very inclusive and not exclusive theologically. I doubt that a regular “Christian” label would fit perfectly on my work.

I’m definitely on the progressive end of the spectrum. I think there’s a real need among so many people out there for this approach to our daily spiritual journey. I think I’m among a growing number of people who don’t want to lock the sacred away in a tiny container with a neat little label on top.
DAVID: What you’re describing here runs parallel with the current writings of Barbara Brown Taylor, who we also honored in our “10 to Watch in ‘10” list this year.

CARRIE: I love Barbara Brown Taylor’s work. She’s a wonderful writer and I really do resonate with her approach—how she writes about life and light and the spirit.

We’re really talking about a daily experience with the sacred. How do you walk through your day?

We have moments of transcendence all the time if we’re paying attention. A lot of this new album revisits themes that fascinate me—especially finding the sacred in the ordinary. We live such busy lives and our world is so filled with distraction that it’s very easy not to be present in our own life.

When we pay attention, there are miracles and wonders all around us in our daily walk. We don’t remember days—we remember moments and the saddest days of all are the days we get to the end and we say: Dang. I missed it!

A lot of these new songs are about paying attention. And, when you show up—you’re here!
DAVID: You’re how old?

CARRIE: I’m 51. I’m married and I have one daughter named Amelia. She’s a lovely young woman—cooler than I can ever hope to be. We live in Bloomington, Indiana.

DAVID: You’re often far from home, though. You were just in India.

CARRIE: I was there for a month. The first five days, I was in the American embassy school in Delhi as a visiting artist. They were having a week’s celebration of peace and justice. This was an interfaith effort to create music and poetry, to talk about art and stories. But the rest of the time, the cultural outreach division of the American embassy asked me to go all over the country and perform concerts for Indian audiences and during the day there were community service projects, especially some that were working with children. It was an amazing, life-changing experience.

I have to say that when the embassy first contacted me, I said: “Have you gone to my web site? Do you know what I do? I’m a Quaker, progressive, spiritual folk singer.”

But their response to me was beautiful. They said, “We’re looking for music that builds bridges.” I thought that was an incredibly hopeful statement. I went to build bridges. And, I love what was different about our cultures. I love India. It’s such an old culture. It’s fascinating and beautiful and perplexing and amazing, but at the same time I was powerfully moved by what we share with people there.

DAVID: Let me ask you about a few specific songs on the new album and let me start with one of the most playful and wonderful: “A Crash of Rhinoceros.” This is one long, funny, awe-inspiring poem about Adam and Eve naming animals—and the groups have such strange names. They’re actually real names for each kind of animal grouping, right?

CARRIE: Yes, they’re all real names for animal groupings. This is such fun word play! This is definitely a song writer having fun.

I decided to add Adam and Eve to the scene, then I added the twist that Eve gets to come up with the names of these groupings.

Animals are some of the greatest treasures in this world. They’re certainly treasures in my own life. I don’t know anyone who’s ever had a close relationship with an animal— a dog or a cat they’ve loved—who didn’t sense that.

I have two dogs and I can tell you: Dog love is wonderful. It’s so simple.

I adore you. You adore me. Love is simple with a dog.

People are complex.

My dogs are both big fuzzy dogs. They’re both rescue dogs. But I also live out in the middle of the woods and have about a million bird feeders. There is so much wildlife around my home that I see daily!

If I want to have a sense of wonder and awe and miracles in this world, I just have to go for a walk. It’s right there.

When I’m not in touch with nature enough, there’s something in side of me that gets very sad. It feels like a loss of great magnitude.

DAVID: Your songs often are sophisticated, too. They show us that you’ve seen a whole lot of life, yourself. These are mature songs—songs for people who understand that life is complicated. We feel a whole lot of impulses pulling at us all the time.

A great example is “Coy Dogs,” which you explain refers to a cross breed between coyote and dog. The song is about those dual impulses in our own lives, right?

CARRIE: Yes, a coy dog is half domestic dog and half coyote, and that actually happens sometimes, but a coy dog has one foot in either world. It’s never quite domesticated. It still has a sense of wildness, but it’s not quite fully a wild animal either. It has one foot in either world.

I was actually talking with someone who described a coy dog that kept showing up in the back yard. That was an image that really stuck with me.

I think of myself very much as a coy dog. I’m a very restless artist by nature. I have a part of me that is a very Midwestern woman. I’m the woman who shows up with a casserole when you get sick. I’m very comfortable with that. I’m very comfortable with my home, my garden, my community and I feel grounded here—but at the same time I’m restless as an artist.

I like traveling. I like going different places and the kind of presence you have to have to travel.

I’m also talking about this in the sense of personality. There are parts of me that love the groundedness of my life and there are parts of me that aren’t so tame. And I think also for a lot of people we do have to sometimes acknowledge and work with and understand our full natures. People are complex beings. We have great strengths and beautiful gifts and at the same time we have a shadow that we know and have to work with as well. The song talks about this blend of shadow and light in our lives.

DAVID: Talk about “I Do Not Know Its Name.”

I love this song! In writing about your work, back in January, I tried to describe the mysteries of this song. You’re talking about the tough-to-express nature of—well, I described it as “God’s grace.”

How do you describe this song?

CARRIE: It is one of my favorites on the album, too. Sometimes I struggle a little bit with God language, because often the metaphor is taken to be solid. And when we use metaphors that are too solid, we’re shoving the sacred into a small container.

I wanted to write a song that approached this as the Nameless.

What is that spirit we sense in these moments of our life when we’re paying attention? What is it that makes our hearts feel too big for our chests?

This song is a series of moments. I describe experiences of transcendence and the sense of the sacred in my life. They’re very earthly in a lot of ways.

I describe eating peaches by the side of the road. And, I describe a man singing to me in the shuttle on the way to the airport. The first verse is about a Quaker writer who I had breakfast with—and he read Mary Oliver poetry to me at breakfast. How do you capture something that in the midst of an ordinary day becomes so extraordinarily holy?

In creating this album as a whole, there’s something really fearlessly uncluttered about it. Everyone who worked on this album, all the musicians who I collected to work on this, are masters of their instruments—but this album was all about creating something that was very elegant and clear. This wasn’t about a lot of notes—it was about the right note placed perfectly. That’s very ego-less playing. You have to be unafraid to do something that clear and that simple.

Simple is not easy. It’s elegant.

We live in a more-is-more world and this album really is attempting to peel away distractions and get down to the heart of the songs, the melodies—and our lives.

DAVID: I have to ask you about “If Not Now.” To me, this song is like hearing Woody Guthrie in all his soul-stirring glory. Among the song’s lines are these:

I see sorrow and trouble in this land

“I see sorrow and trouble in this land

“Although there will be struggle—

“We’ll make the change we can.

“If not now—Tell me when!

CARRIE: I wrote this song with a powerful melody line—and with powerful sentiments almost like “We Shall Overcome” and so many of the other beautiful spirituals that have moved me over the years.

Everywhere, there is a sense of time. There’s a sense of need and urgency. Yes, it’s good to spend time being thoughtful about things. Yes, it’s good to spend time considering the effects of our actions. But for so many issues, there seems to be such a strong need for action—a need for finally moving forward.

If we don’t start taking care of our environment, now—Tell me when!

If we don’t start including everyone, all people, at the table, now—Tell me when!

If we can’t start recognizing the love around us, now—Tell me when!

I sang this song a lot in India and it was so amazing to hear Indian audiences singing this song with me. It resonates as I travel around this country, too. It’s such a delight to hear people’s voices rising with me. The key line in this song for me is this: “It’ll take a change of heart for this to mend.” Real change doesn’t happen until there is a change of heart.

DAVID: It’s almost a matched set with the song “A Simple Change of Heart.” Hearing you talk about “If Not Now,” I realize they’re strongly related, right?

CARRIE: Yeah! We’ve tried yelling at each other and that doesn’t work so well. It’s time for greater solutions that truly do come from a change of heart.

Yeah, these songs really are companion songs and they were written in a very similar time period in my life. I was thinking very hard about these questions.

There’s another song, too, that’s part of that same collection of ideas. It’s “Stones in the River.”

DAVID: I really like that song, too. We’ll include some lines from it for readers (in Part 1 of our story this week).

CARRIE: That song, “Stones in the River” came out of a conversation I had with Parker Palmer. We were doing an event together and we were talking about how we may never see the fruit that will grow from the seeds we’re planting now. But that doesn’t make it any less important for us to keep on planting.

This is a whole way of living our lives. Everywhere I go, I’ve always planted lilac bushes—and lilacs take seven years to bloom, at least the varieties that I plant. Now, I know that my own plantings won’t bear flowers while I’m still around to see them.

But here’s what I can see: I can see someone walking outside one day, taking a deep breath and saying:

“Ohhh! Lilacs! Someone planted lilacs!”

REMEMBER: You can order a copy of “Before & After” by clicking this link and jumping to Amazon right now.

CLICK on the video screen, below, to see a 5-minute clip of Carrie introducing her new album. (If you’re reading this via Email or RSS feed, click on the headline at the top of this story and you’ll jump to the main page, where you can watch the video.)

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