It is the most standard of questions in any interview with a musician: ‘Who are your influences?’ So standard (and cliched) in fact that readers will often breeze right past it to get to the juicier parts “Beatles…blah, blah, blah….Dylan…blah, blah, blah… Stones…blah, blah…Did I mention that Brad and Angelina will be starring in my next video?”
But when a singer/songwriter like Carrie Newcomer includes the names of theologians, religious leaders and famous authors among her influences, clearly the traditional categories no longer apply. On her 11th studio album, The Geography of Light Newcomer is not destroying old categories as much as stretching herself and her music across categories and helping them make sense.
As a committed Quaker, Newcomer forges a connection between her faith, her sense of social justice and her songwriting that is unique. The new cd features her trademark guitar picking style and deep, rich voice but some of its inspiration and themes are indebted to Newcomer’s friendships and collaborations with activists, authors and religious figures like Parker J. Palmer, Jim Wallis, Scott Russell Sanders and Barbara Kingsolver.
Newcomer sat down with BustedHalo® just prior to a recent show in New York City to discuss her new cd and how she weaves the disparate aspects of her life, work and spirituality together.
BustedHalo: You’re able to mix social activism, songwriting and spirituality. How long has your connection to the theologians and religious activists you know been important to your work?
Carrie Newcomer: My songwriting has always had a spiritual current to it. There’s a spiritual current in my life, so there is in my work. Otherwise I’d be censoring something important. I’m kind of a voracious reader and, okay—I’m a little bit of a theology nerd at heart. [laughs] My husband says that I have the lending library of progressive spiritual literature.
BM: Songwriters can often neutralize their music by having a political agenda in some way. But it seems to me you clearly are coming from a deeper place lyrically. How do you put that together?
CN: You know, I think I’m one of the growing number of voices that are choosing to not put the sacred in such a small container. A Christian label would probably not touch my stuff with a ten-foot pole. [laughs] I think the theology in terms of what I’m talking about nose-dives a little to the left. But like I said, there’s a spiritual current in my life so it gets into my work—it’s just how I see the world. So it’s not something that I think is an agenda or something that I’m trying to promote. It’s just how I see the world.
When I write a song like ‘Geodes’ about rocks in Indiana, which I love—I love their little funky brown rocks and inside there’s crystals; they’re just an amazing metaphor—I love the idea that in the most common of things there’s something miraculous. If we pay attention when we peel back the layers of distractions because we’re so busy, there’s usually this mysterious center. I really look at the world that way, so it gets into my writing. Sometimes it’s a difficult thing. It’s ‘well, are you a spiritual writer or are you a secular writer, and where do we put you in the record bin?’ And also in performances – I jump secular and spiritual lines all the time. My best prayers are songs, always have been.
BM: Do you talk about God in your shows?
CN: Yeah, I do. And I tell people I play churches, I play bars, and I don’t change my show.
BM: I noticed in your touring shows you do a lot of stuff with kids at risk.
CN: Yeah, I do work with a lot of social service organizations, and this tour, part of the proceeds of the album sales goes to AFSC, American Friends Service Committee, and they’ll be here tonight with a table.
BM: The American Friends Service Committee is affiliated with the Quakers…is it humanitarian outreach?
CN: They have a long history. They won the Nobel Peace Prize for work they did in Germany after World War II in terms of peacemaking, so they do a lot with peacemaking, emergency relief, and social justice causes. They’re just good folks, they’re really great folks. And they’re Quakers so you know most of the money actually goes where it’s supposed to go. They’re thrifty! [laughs] I wasn’t raised a Quaker. My mom was raised Catholic. Someone told me once that Catholics and Quakers meet on the other side of the barn. And there’s always been an element of the Catholic church, too, that appreciates mystery. The Benedictines and that whole idea.
BM: So your mom was Catholic…?
CN: My dad’s family background was Amish and Mennonite, and he went to a Methodist church. I’m the only Italian, like, Amish person I know.
[laughs] Yeah, Italian-Catholic, in Indiana. I’m the only Italian-Amish person except for my sisters, I think, in the world. So I ended up being a Quaker. [laughs] I kind of discovered the Quakers when I was attending a Mennonite college— Goshen College—for a while. I was really always attracted to the social justice component of the peace churches, and I was doing a service assignment a lot like Peace Corps but through this college. I heard about a Quaker community up in the mountains and so I took a holiday and went up there, went to my first silent meeting, and fell in love with it. It felt like coming home. So when I got back to the States I just continued to seek them out. People will ask me, they’ll say, ‘you’re a songwriter, you make your life in sound. What’s the deal going to a silent meeting?’ And for me it makes all the sense in the world.
BM: Can you explain a little bit about silent meetings? Don’t you speak when you’re moved to speak?
CN: There’s programmed meetings and un-programmed meetings. The un-programmed meetings, there’s not a pastor and people sit in a silence. Sometimes someone will speak out of the silence but it’s not group therapy; you need to feel it be very impressed upon you that this is for the community. And henceforth, Quakers—you should almost shake that this is not just group therapy, you know?
BM: Is that where ‘Quaker’ comes from that it is such an intense experience that that when you speak you’re sometimes quaking with the Spirit?
CN: Yep. I mean, historically—as I understand it. Someone raised Quaker would probably say ‘well that’s not right’ but that’s how I understand it. So sometimes people will speak out of the silence, but there’s a lot of respect for the silence and the idea that we talk at God so much that something really important happens when you listen. And for me, my best words come out of the silence. I go to the silence to find my best language. Some folks experience silence as an absence of sound but you can also experience it as a fullness of spirit. So that’s what has attracted me and brings me back to it. It reminds me to listen—to listen to my own heart as well. We’re so busy.
BM: There’s a very contemplative aspect to your work. What music were you into as a kid?
CN: Well, I was always just attracted to the singing poets—Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, you know, Dylan … people creating music and trying to tell story in a poetic way. I listen to all kinds of stuff but I always kind of come back to the singing poets. The response has been very interesting to this new album. I think one of the major themes that runs through it is this idea that there aren’t a lot of black-and-white answers, but that there’s a lot of good questions. I think folks are ready for conversations about questions without being told a pat answer. We’ve been hearing so much from one religious voice in the last years, and that’s one voice—it doesn’t speak for all of us and it doesn’t speak for me. I think folks are ready for that conversation. There’s this rumbling out there; I hear people, and folks will talk to me and say, ‘I’m a deeply spiritual person, and I want to talk about it, but this is a very small container and I just kind of can’t go with that.’