With hits like “Passionate Kisses” and “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” Mary Chapin Carpenter has won five GRAMMY Awards (with 15 nominations), two CMA awards, two ACM Awards and is one of only fifteen female members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Over the course of her acclaimed career, Carpenter has sold over 15 million records. In 2020, Carpenter released two albums—The Dirt And The Stars in August 2020, and One Night Lonely, recorded live without an audience at the legendary Filene Center at Wolf Trap in Virginia during the COVID-19 shut down—in addition to sharing “Songs From Home,” a virtual concert series which has been viewed over 10 million times.
Of the new album, The Dirt And The Stars, produced by Ethan Johns (Ray LaMontagne, Paul McCartney, Kings of Leon) and recorded entirely live at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Bath in southwest England, Carpenter quotes the writer Margaret Renkl, “‘We are all in the process of becoming.’ That doesn’t stop at a certain age. To be always a student of art and music and life, as she says, that, to me, is what makes life worth living. The songs are very personal and they’re difficult in some ways, and definitely come from places of pain and self-illumination, but also places of joy, discovery and the rewards of self- knowledge. They arrived from looking outward as much as inward, speaking to life changes, growing older, politics, compassion, #metoo, heartbreak, empathy, the power of memory, time and place. So, I suppose I could say there are many themes, but they all come back to that initial truth that we are all constantly ‘becoming’ through art and expression.”
Three years after the release of her critically acclaimed debut, Putting On Airs, Nashville-raised singer-songwriter Erin Rae shares an intimate, honest, and playful version of herself through her sophomore album Lighten Up. Produced by Jonathan Wilson, and recorded in the musically hallowed grounds of California’s Topanga Canyon, the album represents a sonic and inner shift for Rae. In it, she embraces more of her influences, like baroque-pop, cosmic country, and indie-folk songs while mirroring a more compassionate self-view she calls “accepting my humanness”.
Although she grew up in a musically oriented family, Rae’s pursuit of music happened by accident. After being gifted a Martin acoustic guitar on her 18th birthday, Rae decided to drop out of college after just one semester. Her goal at the time had little to do with making music into a career, and everything to do with spending more time and energy with the community of musicians and writers she knew back home. Looking back on those days, she recalls the initial high of playing live at an open mic during winter break and realizing, “this is how I connect with people. I have to pursue this.”
Rae has continued to connect with people through her music ever since, performing at mainstays like Newport Folk Festival, Red Rocks Amphitheater, and sharing stages with Father John Misty, Hiss Golden Messenger, Jenny Lewis, Jason Isbell, and Iron & Wine. The success of Putting On Airs also earned her a nomination for Emerging Act of The Year at the 2019 Americana Music Awards alongside other trailblazing artists like Yola, Jade Bird, and J.S. Ondara. When the Covid-19 pandemic called a halt to touring, Rae took advantage of the opportunity to revel in a wide range of musical influences she had absorbed since the making of Putting On Airs, sitting in an un-rushed space while deciding which direction she wanted to take her music next.
Though Rae says the core of her work will always stem from the songwriting she was raised on, the making of Putting On Airs with collaborators Jerry Bernhardt, Dan Knobler, and Dominic Billett inspired her to deepen her music exploration outside the traditional Americana box and listen to records in a broader way. “It opened up a sonic world to me that I had always enjoyed, but that felt mysterious. The process of making my last record allowed me to visualize how recorded sounds come to be, so returning to recordings of beloved artists like Feist, Judee Sill, Wilco, became exciting all over again. I could suddenly imagine what was happening in the room to create what I was hearing on the recording.” This newfound excitement led Rae down many rabbit holes, particularly a deep-dive into English psych-folk artists like Kevin Ayers and Pete Dello And Friends, as well as songwriters like Gene Clark, Scott Walker, and Jesse Winchester.
That expansive discovery of musicality led her to connect with Wilson, known for his work with artists like Father John Misty, Jenny O., and Roger Waters. Their shared love for the cinematic pop of the Walker Brothers, Bobbie Gentry, and the folk stylings of Margo Guryan created a solid foundation to create together, so Rae flew to Wilson’s Five Star Studios in February 2021. Wilson called on musicians Jake Blanton (Bedouine, The Killers) and Drew Erickson (Weyesblood, Father John Misty) to contribute bass, keys, and string arrangements, and played drums and lead guitars himself. Erin invited friends Kevin Morby and Meg Duffy of Hand Habits to contribute, and Wilson’s longtime friend Ny Oh to sing some of the background vocals. The result is a fresh, authentic, and singular collection of recordings that are clearly rooted in a classic “canyon” sound.
Lighten Up also showcases a new level of personal growth for Rae, and invites listeners to share in the results of her work towards self-acceptance. “My last record was a lot of self-assessment and criticism, and trying to kick old habits and ways of relating to people,” Rae acknowledges. “This one is about blossoming, opening up, and living a little more in the present moment. Accepting what it is to be human.”
In the lead single, “Modern Woman” Rae celebrates womanhood and femininity in all of its forms, countering outdated beliefs over driving drums and rocking guitars and inviting an inclusive perspective through her cheeky lyrics “come see a modern woman.” With “Lighten Up and Try” a song that embodies the album’s title, as well as its ethos, Rae dwells on the process of opening up to love and to life, and the vulnerability that comes with that process. Expounding on the song’s meaning, Rae shares, “This song for me just feels like celebrating the vulnerability of living. Saying yeah, ‘No one really knows what they’re doing. You just have to try.’”
In the measured track, “Mind – Heart” Rae outlines the dangers of codependency, and through the straightforward lyrics, “the mind is fucked but the heart is pure,” she meditates on the unreliability of thoughts. “Both of my parents have practiced meditation throughout my life following different traditions. This song for me is essentially using mindfulness to detach from habitual patterns of thought and behavior, and reconnecting to the heart, the intuition.” In “True Love’s Face” she opens to the potential of love and the choice to not flee from it over retro melodies, affirming through her bell-like vocals, “I will know it when I see it / I will not turn it away.” And in the psychedelic “Candy + Curry” Rae balances awakening and being centered in the present moment, with a soundscape that invites the listener to relax and enjoy the ride.
With Lighten Up, Rae hopes to give listeners the opportunity to borrow what she’s learned, that there can be a lightness when things feel heavy and that even our darkest corners can allow us to shine. “I hope this record encourages people to be a little softer towards themselves.” Rae shares. “If [Lighten Up] gives people listening the space to feel more tender towards themselves and move in the world from that place, that would be the dream for me.”