The last five years have been tumultuous for Mary Chapin Carpenter.
In 2007, a pulmonary embolism ruptured in her lung, nearly costing the singer her life. More recently, she went through a painful divorce and buried her father, who died in October 2011.
These life-altering events form the backbone of Carpenter’s latest album, “Ashes and Roses” (Zoe Records), a stirring meditation on love and loss that alternates between shattered (the heart-heavy “What to Keep and What to Throw Away”) and newly resolute. “I keep on going and I hope I’ve learned more of what’s right than what’s wrong,” she sings optimistically on “Chasing What’s Already Gone.”
Carpenter, 54, penned the album at home on her secluded 82-acre farm near Charlotesville, Va., and that sense of stillness bleeds into the confessional songs, which often sound like they could have been recorded in those quiet late evening hours with the singer perched delicately at the foot of her bed. Rather than wallowing in grief, however, Carpenter finds a new way forward even as she mourns these losses, and taken as a whole the record’s 13 tracks serve to document the ongoing healing process.
“That’s very much how I feel,” said the singer, who visits the Barrymore Theatre for a concert on Friday, Aug. 3. “But at the same time…it’s not like you make this record and move on and everything is fine. There are still days I encounter something about my former spouse or missing my father or some fear of having another blood clot, and I’m pulled under like a wave pulls you under. Things happen, and it reminds you it’s not ever going to be gone.”
Things do get easier, though, a fact Carpenter acknowledges on “Soul Companion,” a duet with James Taylor that cuts through the storm clouds like a sunbeam three-quarters of the way through the record.
“Love finds its way in,” she sings. “Now let us begin.”
Though understandably guarded about her divorce — “There were a lot of other circumstances I don’t need to share,” she offered at one point in our conversation — Carpenter doesn’t pull any punches on “Ashes and Roses.”
On “What to Keep…” she packs away her ex’s belongings and straightens up the guest room where he last slept, even smoothing out the pillowcase that still bore the outline of his form. Then, on “Old Love,” which echoes a passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” (“It was a time when they both loved each other best…when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity”), she grieves the lost opportunity to experience a decades-spanning love tested and forged by time.
“You have to go through hell to get to that place, and I envy it in people,” she said. “My bass player (Madison native) Glenn Worf goes up to a cabin in Wisconsin with his family every summer, and their neighbor looks after the cabin when they’re not there. His neighbor has been married for, gosh, like 70 years, and one day Glenn asked this guy, ‘What’s the secret? How did you do it?’ His neighbor just looked at him and said very simply, ‘Nobody left.’
“I stopped in my tracks when I heard that, because in many ways it is that simple. You just commit and you stay.”
While Carpenter has never shied from opening up on record in the past (“I’m never going to cloak (my music) in some fictional character or something like that,” she said), she’s definitely grown more comfortable in her own skin on recent efforts.
“I think it’s an evolutionary process. It’s about learning how to be a better writer, learning how to be more comfortable with who you really are and just digging a little deeper,” she said. “I think it’s also a function of age. You’re not the same artist in your 40s and 50s as you are in your 20s. You’re just not the same person. It does take time.”
Considering the dark turns her life has taken over the last five years, it’s little surprise Carpenter has recently become hooked on the AMC television series “Breaking Bad,” which documents a high school science teacher’s brush with death and his steady evolution into drug kingpin.
“Someone wrote a comment saying, ‘I didn’t take you for a ‘Breaking Bad’ fan’ and I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” she said. “It’s only the best show on television.”
So good, in fact, maybe Carpenter should consider a song cycle inspired by the life of Bryan Cranston’s brilliantly flawed protagonist Walter White for her next album? Wouldn’t that be preferable to penning another set of tunes born of some deep, personal tragedy?
“Or I could just make a record describing Jesse Pinkman’s clothes,” said the singer, and laughed. “‘Yo, Mr. White! Yo!’”