Songs come to musicians in all sorts of ways, and they make notes and shape ideas and work out words and melody in all sorts of ways. “If you line up eleven songwriters and ask them their process, they’ll give you eleven different ways,” says Carrie Newcomer. “For me there’s there’s kind of literary bent to it, I guess, where I do a lot of poetry writing, and short stories, and essays. From those pieces, songs emerge.”
She isn’t thinking about the songs while she is immersed in other sorts of writing, though, not directly. It is, rather, the ideas and characters and flow of things she is working on -- or working out.
“I might have to write the whole essay to get tot he one line that starts a song,” she says. “Also, a lot of it is how I process -- people say I’m pretty prolific, as a songwriter, but I think it’s just how I process my world, and my life. So I’m always writing, and I do a lot of poetry.
“Once I have the poem or the essay or maybe even a series of poems,” she continues,”I have all this language, and all these ideas I’ve been musing with -- it’s like I have this whole palette of stuff to work with, and I’ve thinking about it, mulling the idea over. Then when I go to write the song I might have some language I’ve been thinking through, but the words and the music happen together.”
What has also happened recently is the publication of Newcomer’s first book, called A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays. It is a companion piece to her album A Permeable Life. Newcomer turned to community funding for this recording, and at first was going to put together a small collection of poems to thank those who had helped make the album possible. “I had started a blog and begun posting some of my poems, so there was some interest in seeing a collection, so I thought I was going to put together a few poems that people might see as having a connection to songs,” she says. “But as I was doing that and we started sending them out, the response I was getting was really wonderful, really heartwarming, and we decided -- actually, my husband really encouraged me, he said you know, let’s just release this as a companion piece to the new album. So I said, yeah, sure, let’s do that!” Newcomer says, laughing.
”I’m used to putting out albums, and there’s a certain kind of thing that happens whenever you put out an album, or a song.You’re taking a certain kind of risk -- whenever you put yourself out there artistically, there’s certain kind of vulnerability to it. I’ve done enough albums now that I’m expecting it -- that doesn’t mean it gets any easier, it’s just that you’re familiar with it,” she says. “ But I had never put out that kind of art work before.”
There are thirteen essays and twenty six poems in the book. It is not necessary to know Newcomer’s work as a musician, or to have heard the songs on the album A Permeable Life, to appreciate what she’s doing as a poet and essayist, though the ways she tells stories and the ideas she choose to emphasize, and the language she chooses, do cross points and paths across the two projects. There are some pieces which relate directly to songs, and some which do not, or for which the connection is less clear. What is clear, however, is that Newcomer’s gift for observation, for including details of the natural world, and now and then bringing in her wry sense of humor come through whichever art she is practicing. So, too, does her gift for making the personal universal, and the thread of finding the sacred in the ordinary. In the essay called In the Sitka Pines, for example, an experience of the wilderness of Alaska an learning about Alaskan salmon forms the gateway into thoughts on transformation, in a piece that’s slightly longer than a page and all the more powerful -- and all the more leaving room to draw the reader in -- for its brevity.
Transformation, the idea of thresholds, and the practice of being present are threads which run through the songs on the album A Permeable Life
and in differing ways through the material in the book A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays as well. The poem To a Titmouse finds transformation anchored in connection to an encounter on a snowy walk; Dharamsala, a poem begun after an experience while visiting India, suggests presence, connection, thresholds, and the possibility of transformation as well -- all done through an account of a procession and those watching it.
As a songwriter and singer, Newcomer has command of her tools and uses them to invite community, reflection, and the asking of good questions about life, faith, and change. These too are present in what she creates with her essays and poetry.
Countless prayer flags lifted in the mist
It was like music,
Light and fleeting,
LIngering in the quiet,
Filling the world with longing
And our own good intentions.
~excerpt from Dharamsala copyright Carrie Newcomer
You may also wish to see
Music and Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer
India to Indiana in song and image
Ireland's Music: The Small Hours: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Ireland's Music: Cara Dillon: A Thousand Hearts
Labels: americana, books, Carrie Newcomer, essays, Indiana, poetry, reflection, songwriting