Carrie Newcomer's sound comes from home

January 25, 2018

By Chrissie Dickinson
Chicago Tribune

Carrie Newcomer has always been profoundly connected to the heartland. In the pre-internet 1980s, when aspiring musicians often relocated to music industry epicenters LA, New York and Nashville, the singer-songwriter took a pass and, instead, built an esteemed and long-running career from her home base in Bloomington, Ind.

Personally and artistically, it was a natural choice for Newcomer. "I'm very Midwestern at heart," she says, calling from her Indiana home. "I have a very Midwestern voice and sensibility to my writing."

Across a string of albums, Newcomer's graceful arrangements, haunting alto and disarmingly spiritual lyrics have made her a beloved artist in the folk world. She's appeared on PBS, toured with Alison Krauss, had one of her songs covered by Grammy-winning band Nickel Creek and toured India as a musical ambassador. She's published two books of poems and essays and saw her first play, "Betty's Diner: The Musical," performed at Purdue Theatre.

Newcomer performs with an acoustic quartet at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Saturday.

She's touring behind her latest CD "Live at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater," a performance recorded at the historic venue in her hometown. The concert was filmed by the public television station WFYI in Indianapolis, aired on PBS and released on DVD.

Newcomer called recently to discuss the mystical threads that run through her work and her attachment to her home. This is an edited transcript.

Q: What made you choose the Buskirk-Chumley Theater as the setting for your latest DVD and CD?

A: The Buskirk-Chumley is one of those wonderful old theaters. In a lot of towns, they went from being vaudeville houses to movie palaces. Many of them eventually fell into disrepair and the communities tore them down and put up a parking lot. I'm so grateful to the city of Bloomington and the Buskirk-Chumley family for coming together to save this wonderful place. These venues are charming, beautiful and intimate. They're made for live sound and the musical experience. Also, there's nothing like playing a concert in my hometown. It was a happy thing all around.

Q: What made you stay in Indiana rather than making a move to a bigger music market?

A: There was a point in my career when I was establishing myself nationally and common wisdom said I should move to one of the music meccas. I seriously thought about it. But then I fell in love with my little Midwestern college town and my place out in the woods. Bloomington is very centrally located. It's very supportive to creating something unique in the arts. I had a daughter at home at the time and this was a lovely place to raise her.

Q: How has living in Indiana shaped your artistic sensibility?

A: There are continuing threads in my songwriting that fascinate me and that I revisit. One of those is the natural world. I live in the middle of the woods. I appreciate what happens when I have a long and personal relationship with a bit of land and a community.

Q: There's a lot of spiritual observation in your writing. How does that manifest itself in your life?

A: Another thread that runs through my work is finding something sacred in an ordinary day. We live such busy lives. We're not encouraged to stop and reflect or even be present in our own lives. But I can make a decision to be right here and take notice of my own life. There's a continuing exploration of what happens when I'm present. What do I see? What are the miracles that present themselves if I'm paying attention? What is there when I pull away all the layers of distraction in my life? What's at the heart of it?

Q: How do you find hope in hard times?

A: I've done several spoken word and music collaborations with the wonderful author Parker J. Palmer. I've always loved his definition for hope — it's to hold in creative tension all that is with all that should and could be and then, every day take some action to narrow the distance between the two. I love that. Hope runs through my last two albums. But it's a gritty kind of hope, not a candy-coated or Hallmark Cards hope. It's the kind of hope where you get up in the morning and try in your own way to make the world a little kinder. Then the next day you do it again. Every day you take an action to narrow that distance between what is and what could be. That's the kind of hope for hard times.

Q: You gave the commencement speech at Goshen College in Indiana for their Class of 2016. What was that experience like?

A: I was honored to be asked. I'm an alumna of the school. It's a lovely community there. They gave me an honorary degree in music for social change. I have it on my wall now. It's a degree they don't actually offer, they made it up for me. I totally got a kick out of that (laughs). The speech gave me a chance to stop and think about what I wish someone had said to me when I was graduating and going out into the world. It was an honor to say things like, 'Be true, be kind and pay attention.' That was the title of my speech.

Q: When you finished college, did you ever consider pursuing a more stable and predictable career?

A: After I graduated with a degree in visual art, music was calling me. I had no idea where that would take me or what that would mean. But it was my calling and I needed to follow. All these years later, I'm still following and it's still surprising me. I have a deep sense of gratitude that I get to do this thing I love. I've been able to grow and deepen in ways I could never have foreseen when I was starting out.

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