We welcome singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer back to ReadTheSpirit to talk about her unique collaboration with the Khan family of India. The current patriarch of the family ensemble is Amjad Ali Khan (center in the photo at right with his sons). Khan has performed and taught in the U.S. for many years, although the sarod remains a largely unknown instrument in American popular music. Together, Newcomer and the Khans created an entire album that playfully leaps across continents and cultural differences. Don’t miss Part 1 in this 2-story series about their new Everything is Everywhere album. In that story you’ll find links to her website, sample lyrics and much more!
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH SINGER SONGWRITER
CARRIE NEWCOMER ABOUT EVERYTHING IS EVERYWHERE
CARRIE: Music goes straight to the heart. It’s almost as if music reaches a person’s heart and mind through a different channel than other forms of expression. That’s why I love writing music—but there is also a lot of language in my songs. I like to say that my job is to put the things we all know and recognize in life, but have no words to express, into language that’s poetic—that we can experience through song. In my songs, music and words inform each other. Everything the song is saying in words is supported by what the music is expressing. They are absolutely woven together.
DAVID: That phrase—woven together—is a good way to explain how you combine American folk music with the sarod. I’ll admit that, although I have been familiar with the sitar ever since Ravi Shankar performed with George Harrison and later Zubin Mehta and others—I don’t know much about the sarod. Listening to your new album and preparing for the interview, though, I’ve read about the sarod and the Khans. Tell us a little more about these unusual sounds we’ll hear in your album.
SHARING TONES OF SAROD AND APPALACHIAN DULCIMER
CARRIE: The easiest way to describe it for Western readers is to say: We’re familiar with the sitar from the music of the Beatles. They brought that sound into Western consciousness through the Concert for Bangladesh and then so many other collaborations happened after that. Well, if you thought of the sitar as the violin of the Indian classical world, then the sarod would be the cello of the Indian classical world. It’s played seated and it’s lower, deeper and more resonant than the sitar.
I play acoustic guitar. I fool around with other instruments, too. I also play Appalachian mountain dulcimer and I used to write on the dulcimer quite a bit early in my career. I love the droning sounds of the mountain dulcimer. I’m often tuning my guitar to create a droning sound from the strings. That kind of sound fits very well with the sarod. I could say that I’ve been playing all my life to prepare to play in India and with Indian musicians.
DAVID: The blended melodies, the unusual arrangements and the words all are woven together beautifully. In our Part 1 story, we will give readers lyrics from the album’s title song and links to hear clips of the music on your site. But, please, tell us more about how you dreamed up these songs. The idea is daring—and it probably was a little scary, too, right?
CARRIE: We didn’t know what would happen when we started. Yes, we were stepping into risky, uncharted territory here. But we kept asking ourselves: What is the thread that pulls between us? What is the thread that runs through our lives? We decided to risk it. Then, when we decided that we would try to create this kind of collaboration, we first had to determine how we would work together across such a distance. I was traveling in India, but was I heading home to Indiana. The Khans were going to be visiting the United States and would be in the Midwest, so we arranged to do some recording together while they were here in the Midwest. In preparation for that, I started writing songs for our collaboration and I knew that they play the sarod in the Key of C, which is a key I don’t usually work in. But I began working on writing these songs and I really came to appreciate the droning strings of the sarod. That’s why I decided to pull out my mountain dulcimer and several of the songs on this album were first written on the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. Then, later, I wrote the guitar versions for myself.
DAVID: You’ve been making music for quite a while, but you weren’t actually a part of that early wave of Baby Boomer music, were you?
CARRIE: I was in the very last wave of the Baby Boom. I wasn’t old enough to go to Woodstock. I do remember my first grade teacher coming into our classroom and saying that President John Kennedy had been shot. The reverberations of what Baby Boomers feel as a generation are things that were part of my growing up. But I wasn’t someone who grew up with a lot of contact with people from non-Western cultures. My family lived on the edge of Amish country in Indiana. Probably, my first encounter with someone who wasn’t from a Western culture were when I was attending Goshen College in the late 1970s. Goshen was a Mennonite college and had a lot of international programs, so I encountered a lot of different kinds of people there.
Then, 20 years ago, I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and started touring more nationally at that point. I did some touring in Europe as well, but still my experience was really Western. Even in this funky college town where I live, the diversity is still pretty Western. That’s why my trip to India two years ago was this wonderful awakening for me. This was a life-changing experience.
Our cultures and our music seem so different, yet we do share so much if we come back to our spiritual grounding. Where does our music come from? We both are tapping into deep wells within our lives—wells we share. There’s no language to express that more clearly, except to say: We play music from this deep well that we share.
DEEP WELLS IN MUSIC … AND IN JOHN PHILIP NEWELL’S WRITING
DAVID: You remind me, of course, of Philip Gulley. The two of you are friends and you’re both Quakers. But you also remind me of John Philip Newell. His new book uses that same metaphor: Drawing from the deep wells that we share. In that belief, John Philip says, we are able to talk honestly about our lives and our hopes—and we connect with the lives and the hopes of other people. We’re drawing from the same wells to use his phrase—and your phrase, too.
CARRIE: I haven’t read all of his new book yet, but yes—I do know John Philip and I’m deliberately reading his book slowly. I want to savor it. I was teaching at Ghost Ranch when he was there. We were able to spend time together. We talked about his experiences in India and his thoughts really did resonate with my own. The world is a much smaller place than we think.
DAVID: John Philip now talks about himself as connecting with the world “from the Christian tradition,” or sometimes he says, “from the Christian household” or “from the Christian family.” He’s very careful about how he identifies himself religiously.
CARRIE: I understand that. Right now, I think we’re at a time when to just tell people you’re “Christian”—just using that one-word label—may put you in a category that’s associated with things like claims of exclusivity. I choose not to say it like that. I’m coming at this new musical project and collaboration as a spiritual seeker. I was raised in the Christian tradition and so my references are from my Christian tradition. I find my Christian tradition beautiful and rich. I am especially drawn to the social justice teachings of Jesus. And I definitely describe myself as Quaker, but you know there are lots of flavors of Quakers just like there are lots of flavors within almost any major religious group. I have attended a silent or unprogrammed Quaker meeting for over 25 years now, so that’s my spiritual home. But I also love being a respectful visitor in all kinds of worshipping communities. There’s something wonderful about all the smells and bells we find in other forms of worship. I guess you can say that I’m a person who pushes the edges of theology and always wants to ask the good, hard questions. But, then, I’m also a nice Midwestern person at heart, so I do this in a gentle way.
I really appreciate being able to jump secular and spiritual boundaries. I’ll play at a regular commercial theater, then I’ll play in an arts center, then I’ll play in a church, then I’ll spend time on a college campus as an artist in residence, then I’ll play in a bar. And, whether I’m in a church or a bar or a college campus—I don’t change what I sing.
DAVID: Well, as you’ve said before, it’s easier to sing the same song than it would be to preach the same sermon in all those venues. Music is a powerful passport, isn’t it?
CARRIE: With music and with story, people leave their hearts open just a little longer. They want to hear that song. That’s what I find. We could climb up on soap boxes and start expounding about the world—and people would close their doors right away. But if we greet them with a human-sized song and story, people will leave their hearts open just a little bit longer. They are willing to join you for a moment, to swim around in the music—and maybe discover this new water isn’t so bad!
Remember: You can pre-order Everything is Everywhere from Amazon now.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.