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Mary Chapin Carpenter looks forward to ‘best of both worlds’ at upcoming shows

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Mary Chapin Carpenter looks forward to ‘best of both worlds’ at upcoming shows (photo by Jonathan Stewart)

Mary Chapin Carpenter says that she is looking forward to “the best of both worlds” when she returns to Maine for three shows in July.

The five-time Grammy Award winner is set to bring her band to Portland’s State Theatre on July 20 before performing two sold-out concerts at Stone Mountain Arts Center, Brownfield’s intimate and ornate timber frame music hall, on July 21 and 22.

Carpenter says she had “one of the best times of my life” when she performed at the State Theatre in August 2017.

“It was such an incredible audience, they made us feel so welcome,” Carpenter told me during a recent phone interview.

“When I saw that the State Theatre was on the itinerary again this summer, I was really excited. And anytime we get to return to Stone Mountain Arts Center, that’s just the icing on the cake – no pun intended. They do serve you a lot of cake!” she said with a laugh.

Carpenter’s new album, “Sometimes Just the Sky,” is a unique career milestone featuring 12 newly recorded versions of some of her most beloved songs, each representing one of Carpenter’s 12 studio albums, from 1987’s “Hometown Girl” to 2016’s “The Things That We Are Made Of.”

The title song is a brand-new composition, partially inspired by a phrase Carpenter heard during a speech given by singer-songwriter-poet Patti Smith. In her speech, Smith referenced aspects of life both difficult and beautiful.

“She lists a few things, like sometimes it’s about meeting an old friend…and then she says, ‘Sometimes it’s just the sky,’” Carpenter said to Rolling Stone earlier this year. “Sometimes a phrase just jumps out and all of a sudden it means everything to me.”

In this listener’s opinion, “Sometimes Just the Sky” rests comfortably among the upper echelon of Carpenter’s very best compositions. The song’s lyrical imagery conjures snapshots of loss and regret in its first verse, acceptance and hopefulness in the second and the act of being grateful for life’s simple joys in the third.

Produced by Ethan Johns (Paul McCartney, Ryan Adams, Kings of Leon), “Sometimes Just the Sky” was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England.

Carpenter says she happened to bump into Johns in a hallway while attending the Americana UK Awards.

“We spent a few minutes just talking and I walked away from that interaction feeling like I’d just made a new friend,” she said. “A few months later, we were putting this project together when his name came up as someone to work with. I said ‘Oh my gosh, do you think he would?’ Happily for me, he was raring to go and it was such an honor to work with him.”

Bucolic Real World Studios was constructed in a converted 18th century water mill, corn mill and malt house, purchased by Gabriel in 1987.

“He refitted it with these beautiful mixing rooms and world-class recording studios,” Carpenter says of the facility. “When you stay there, you can work as long or as little each day as you want. And they offer you amazing food. Peter Gabriel’s place is just a dream world,” she said, laughing.

“Sometimes Just the Sky” was recorded completely live in the studio with no overdubs or edits, according to Carpenter.

“They (Johns and engineer Dom Monks) have this gift for setting up the room so we’re all playing together with no isolation booths,” she said. “Everything you hear is a full take.”

Carpenter says she did not have a theme in mind when selecting a song from each of her previous studio albums to re-record for “Sometimes Just the Sky.”

“It was more about which songs spoke to me or which ones I felt some sort of connection to – even in that moment,” she explains. “You know how you can literally feel different about something from day to day? I tried not to think too hard about it.”

The first order of business, she says, was to eliminate from contention any song that she had already recorded more than once.

“For example, a few years ago, when I did my orchestral record, I had included new versions of some of my favorite songs. Also, I wasn’t really interested in going back to the songs that had been – for lack of a better phrase – ‘radio songs,’” Carpenter said.

And there is an abundance of those “radio songs” in her back catalog, including “I Feel Lucky,” “Passionate Kisses,” “Down at the Twist and Shout,” “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and “How Do,” among her 21 top-40 Billboard singles to date.

One of the songs she elected to revisit for “Sometimes Just the Sky” (“Superman”) had originally been recorded in 2000 for Carpenter’s album “Time* Sex* Love*,” but instead came out as the B-side of a single.

“I was very disappointed by that because I really love this song,” Carpenter said of “Superman.” “When it came to put this album together, I thought ‘Here’s my chance to finally make it part of a collection of music.’”

The care and dedication to quality that Carpenter has demonstrated on each of her studio albums is reflected in the design of her concert set-lists, something that she says she takes very seriously.

“When I have a new record, I want to represent that somewhat but I also want people to hear things that they’re familiar with,” said Carpenter. “I want people to feel like I’m crafting a bit of a journey for all of us to go on together. It isn’t something that I just scratch out and throw in front of the band. It’s something I really think about.”

Carpenter has surrounded herself with a band of veteran musicians, each with an impressive musical pedigree. Don Dixon (R.E.M.) is on bass, Nate Barnes (Everlast) on drums, Jon Carroll (Danny Gatton) on piano, and Johnny Duke (Little Big Town) on guitar.

Carpenter says that she and her band are excited about their return to Maine next month. Between the State Theatre’s cool vibe and always welcoming audience, and the environment and intimacy offered by the Stone Mountain Arts Center, she says “You feel like you’ve been to the best of both worlds. They make you feel so welcomed, cared for and appreciated.”

(A passionate animal lover who encourages adoption from shelters, Carpenter has designated a portion of the proceeds from her sold-out July 21 concert at Stone Mountain Arts Center to benefit the Harvest Hills Animal Shelter in Fryeburg and the Conway Area Humane Society in Conway, NH.)

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