Mary Chapin Carpenter is a songwriter who strikes me as a good example of a second act because she was kinda more traditional Nashville when she was a songwriter, but somewhere around, I want to say ‘98, ‘99, she seems to change up her game to be more singer-songwriter-y. She’s mastered the craft, she writes these incredibly gorgeous songs.
Everyone has a thing they do, musically. [Mountain Goats drummer] Jon Wurster has talked about this, that every guitarist he’s played with has a default strum pattern that they go to, and I do too. Jon points it out to me, makes sure I’m aware that I’m not hitting my default too many times per record. She has a thing she does where the mood of the song and the depth of what she’s talking about will coincide with the broadening of the sonic picture. That makes me cry every time, and with songwriters, that’s the thing I’m looking for. I’m looking to be crying very hard, and repeatedly. Her record, The Calling, is a very, very incredible record. The most painful songs I’ve ever heard, like “Here I Am.” The problem is, I can’t tell you very much about them without getting really emotional.
I feel like we’re not exactly living in an age of great ballad writing. When I was in my junior year of high school, in room 6, “The Love Cats” by The Cure came out. I don’t know if you know this song, but it was a big move for The Cure. They had done a thing, and then they’d done a slower, goth-ier thing, but “The Love Cats” was a jazz tune, essentially, and it was pretty bold. It was a really lovely little song about young people in love, and I was 16, so it reaches you right where you live. Being 16, I took a pencil in my chemistry class and wrote the first verse on the desk, underlining and doing little graphic font stuff with it, and then somebody followed it up with a different Cure lyric. They had the same class in a different period, and we had a little back and forth thing.
But that’s what I do with lyrics. With “Here I Am,” what I can tell you is that she says “I’ve waited longer for lesser things, but here I am. Who really knows what tomorrow brings, but here I am.” Aw, I can’t even tell you about this song. “Just in case you were wondering, just in case you got lost again, just in case you run out of friends, here I am.”
It’s just gorgeous. It’s so communicative, and so sparse. So much accomplished with such short strokes. There’s people like me, who are lesser workers and have to say a whole lot to get stuff done, and then there’s masters who can do a lot with very little. That, to me, is the stuff I look up to. I used to be a lot wordier, but you have to embrace what your own gifts are, and mine are more of an uzi rather than a sniper rifle or a bow and arrow, and that’s what Mary Chapin Carpenter is working with.
As told to Matthew Perpetua.
John Darnielle has been writing and recording songs under the name The Mountain Goats since 1991. The band’s latest album, Transcendental Youth, will be released on October 2nd, 2012.