Reaching Out For Kindred Spirits

A talk with Carrie Newcomer

By Terry Roland

Carrie_Newcomer_Kindred_SpiritsYou should never journey farther in a day than your soul can travel.” - A Native American saying

On what has become an annual phone conversation with singer-songwriter, Carrie Newcomer, she sighed and laughed when asked what one song from her new Rounder Records Anthology, Kindred Spirits, best represented her work over the past 20 years. It’s not a fair question to pose to any artist, but especially one as prolific as Newcomer. However, Kindred Spirits has so many gems on it; it seems to invite such a question. As a songwriter, Newcomer has long demonstrated the lyrical ability to reach into something as ordinary as a rock and find some universal treasures. It’s a gift carried with accountability and skill. She is to the American song what Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) and Anne Lamott (Traveling Mercies) are to storytelling.

Kindred Spirits could not come at a more critical time. Although she has previously released an anthology on Rounder Records, 2004s Betty’s Dinner, her work since has deepened and grown more integrated and in-tune with her spirit and the times. Her songs are like flashes of light; the lyrics accompanied by her soulful alto voice enlighten the listener to the miracle of life as it is, in the moment, whatever and wherever that may be. While her songs are reflective they are not introspective. She never succumbs to self-indulgence, a tendency at times with singer-songwriters. Like the best writers of today, she invites us into her world then lyrically shows us the hope that is on the horizon as in the cut from the Geography of Light CD There is a Tree.

There is a tree beyond the world.

In its ancient roots a song is curled.

I'm the fool whose life's been spent.

Between what's said and what is meant.

The best American folk songs are topical and timeless. The larger task of any songwriter is to be both personal and universal. They somehow reach out to the troubles and care of the day, but then leave us with something larger, authentic and real. Kindred Spirits is a prime example of walking this fine line. It speaks to the angst, the national grief many feel today. But each song leaves us with the resolve and certainty that peace is possible. After the tension of the recently polarized national election, a major natural disaster on the North American East coast and two mass shootings in less than a year, life is more precious than ever. Her song I Believe, illustrates the faith found as life is lived with mindfulness and compassion.

I believe there’s healing in the sound of your voice,

And that a summer tomato is a cause to rejoice,

And that following a song was never really a choice.

Never, really.

Carrie_NewcomerAs a contemplative Quaker and an energetic creator of songs and words of hope, Newcomer’s body of work seems essential to our national conversation today. On songs like Holy As A Day Is Spent, There is a Tree, A Gathering of Spirits, she leads us through emotions like grief and anger rather than around them. Her lyrics look into the darkness and then gently light a candle. For her, as reflected in these songs, life is to be lived fully in the moment. In a world so controlled by violence-not just the physical kind, but spiritual as well, it’s imperative that the poets, storytellers and the seers of hope speak out. With this anthology, at this time in our common history, Carrie Newcomer has done just this. She has spoken out.

As she said during our interview when I mentioned President Obama and Governor Christie’s efforts during Hurricane Sandy, “During an election season that became so divisive it’s good to see we can work together. It’s a wonderful thing.  My song If Not Now is all about this kind of hope. It comes from the famous quote by Rabbi Hillel, ‘If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

The arc of the spiritual theme begins on the opening, new song, Faster Than My Soul. It speaks to the tyranny of modern technical distractions and the speed our culture leads us through at the expense of our souls. With a voice as soothing and warm as a prairie night, the songs don’t come off as preachy, rather we feel encouraged to give our lives another look. She said of this song, “I’m really exploring this idea we feel awful like there isn’t enough time...perhaps the answer is not to speed up, but maybe the answer is to slow down, to live into that moment. Do one thing well at a time.”

The 18 songs that follow don’t move in chronological order. In fact, a live version of her early song, Bare to the Bones concludes the collection. Rather, Newcomer has selected songs that flow sonically with lyrical imagination that is rare in their depth and wisdom. As she described it “there’s a reason the songs are on the compilation.” “The album is spiritually themed,” she continued. “I’m one of a growing number of people who don’t want to put the Sacred in such as small container. My work has a spiritual current running through it because my life has a spiritual current running through it. I’ve never censored that from my writing. At the same time I’ve tried mindfully to write inclusively and not exclusively.”

GeodeEach song on this collection serves the theme well. The flow of songs moves from insights into the natural world to personal experiences of joy. In the enigmatic Geodes, as Carrie describes her southern Indiana home in the woods with a stream running on her property, geodes are everywhere. To the uninitiated, a geode is a rather unattractive rock made from volcanic actions millions of years ago. If you look only on the outside, you will be unimpressed. However, if you look beyond the strange rock to its inside it is filled with a shining crystal like beauty. We don’t often take the time to look beneath the surface of things we pass by every day. Then the lyrics turn to humanity.

All these things that we call familiar,

Are just miracles clothed in the commonplace.

You’ll see it if you try in the next stranger's eyes,

God walks around in muddy boots, sometimes rags and that's the truth,

You can't always tell, but sometimes you just know.

The album includes her 2011 collaboration, Everything is Everywhere with proceeds going to The Interfaith Hunger Initiative. In 2009 she was invited by the American Embassy in India to be a good will ambassador. She performed concerts and provided day classes and workshops in writing and songwriting during for the Delhi youth at the Embassy school. Through her time there she met sarod musician Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan. A sarod, as Newcomer describes it, is an Indian version of a cello to the sitar’s violin. The songs included here, Breathe In Breathe Out and I Believe show a beautifully woven continuity between the music of two cultures.

Today, our culture seems so far off the mark of peace, it’s clear we have a ways to go. The songs on Kindred Spirit are helpful signposts of what direction take toward personal and universal peace. If the divisiveness and conflicts we experience today are acts of violence and demonstrate a way of life that often out runs our souls, then Carrie Newcomer demonstrates that the way to peace is to slow down and listen to the music, stories, words, mindfulness and compassion that is all around us.

Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude’ at an early age.