Singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer is what people in the industry call a “musician’s musician.” Her inspiration springs not from record sales or revenues but from a probing desire to take the tools she has and make an impact in the world around her. Perhaps that comes from an innate sensitivity or the spiritual connection she sites with the other people that call this planet home. Whatever its origin, it’s what makes here one of the most compelling artists on the folk music circuit today.
If my recent interview with Newcomer taught me anything, it’s that there’s so much more beyond the surface of this artist, and what powers her is capable of making more of a potent impact than anything that tops the charts or fills a stadium on its best day.
Q. Rolling Stone Magazine noted that you ask “all the right questions” in your music. Where does this probing introspection so prevalent in your work come from?
A. Good questions are great companions and I guess I’ve always been more interested and drawn to good questions than easy answers. I guess I’ve always been one of those people who watched and listened, and then needed to ponder what I heard and saw.
Q. What exactly was it like for you touring India as cultural ambassador for the American Embassy?
A. It was an amazing life-giving and life-changing experience. I love our differences; thank goodness we are all not exactly the same, and that cultures and landscapes are rich with personality and diversity. I was also deeply touched by the common human thread that pulls between us. Songs about family, grief or struggle, joy or a faithful and gritty kind of hope are immediately recognizable.
I loved creatively working with students at the Embassy Schools in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. It was also amazing to travel all over the country with the American Embassy’s cultural outreach program. I sang for Indian audiences and visited community service organizations, particularly those that involved young Indians.
During my first tour in the country, I met Amjad Ali Khan, and his two sons, Ayaan and Amaan Ali Khan, who are the three world masters of the Indian classical Sarod. I was invited to his home and met his lovely family. We shared songs and talked about music all afternoon, and even though we were grounded in very different musical traditions, there was an immediate spiritual connection...There is something about music that transcends the boundaries of our spiritual traditions. Music comes up out of the deepest parts of us. It moves us and speaks of our human condition and deepest longings.
Q. How cathartic was it for you, then, to “debrief” artistically following the tour with the subsequent benefit album, Everything Is Everywhere, collaborating with artistic masters of Indian genres and developing such a signature blend of voices for the one-of-a-kind recording?
A. Everything is Everywhere was definitely a project of love. When I returned from India, I had notebooks filled with poetry, lyrics, essays and other reflective writing. The Khan family was going to be touring in the United States that summer, and so we decided to go into the studio together. It was an interesting challenge to write for this collaboration. I don’t compose Indian classical music and so the songs would all need to be written in a western contemporary folk format. In that sense the songs are accessible to the western ear. But at the same time, I wanted to honor the Khan family’s incredible musicianship, leaving space for what is unique and powerful in the Indian classical tradition. It was an exciting project; some of most magical moments in the studio I’ve ever encountered happened in the making of Everything is Everywhere.
Q. With such a pondering soul, there has to have been incredible growth in both your music and your own personal walk. Where did you start in terms of your approach to music,and perhaps even life, and where has your journey taken you?
A. I have always been drawn to creative endeavors like music, story, poetry and visual art. I guess I was a pretty sensitive kid and a voracious reader. I’ve also always been fascinated with people. I’ve said for a long time that love itself is actually kind of simple, but people, people are kind of complicated. They will surprise and inspire you, bewilder and disappoint you. I really do love people, which in some circles is unfashionable to say. But honestly, most folks are doing about the best they can, and I’ve never met a person yet without an amazing story to tell.
I didn’t go to school for music; I think I wasn’t ready at that time to risk what I loved the most. I think some of us have to get ready to risk what is at the center of our hearts. But I continued to write and play my songs in coffeehouses, bars and where ever. After college, I had to follow this thing I loved so much. I had no idea what that was going to look like. I just knew it was what author Parker J. Palmer calls true vocation, “the thing you cannot, not do.” I think there are things we were born to love; when we engage in these things we lose all track of time. We can learn to do a lot of things well, but the closer we get to what we love deeply and truly, the more potent our work becomes. It may not look like you expected. I mean if to have a successful, satisfying life in music you had to become the next household name on the charts, that’s a very narrow picture. I just think if you follow your true heart, it will take you where you need to go. That may not be where you expected, but it will be where you needed to go.
Q. What is on tap for guests of your March 8 City Winery performance? Can we expect to hear songs from your April 2014 release, A Permeable Life?
A. Yes, I’ll be performing songs from my new album as well as songs that have become old friends, and brand new songs that have not been recorded and released to the public yet.
I always love returning to the Chicago region. I grew up in northern Indiana and it always feels like coming home.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Singer/Songwriter Carrie Newcomer will bring songs from her 2014 release, A Permeable Life, to City WInery this spring.(photo by Jim McGuire).