“When you live a permeable life, you’re making a deal with the universe that I will be here and I will be present and I will take in the world,” Carrie reflected with me over the phone last week. I say her name plainly but this is Carrie Newcomer, folk singer and songwriter, who on April 1st is officially releasing her fifteenth studio album, A Permeable Life, and – for the first time – a book of poems and essays with the same name to accompany it.
Songwriting, like a permeable life, requires the practice of attention, says Carrie, and the choice to show up as your true self in the world. Even after just a few moments of spotty cell coverage, me in my Durham office and Carrie in her home in the Indiana woods, it’s clear that this woman practices what she preaches. Her speaking voice is as kind and slow as her singing voice is deep and wise. I decide to count my conversation with her as my spiritual practice for the day. She’s that good for the soul.
I’m a fairly new fan to Newcomer’s music. I met her for the first time last August at our annual Habits of the Hearts for Healthy Congregations retreat with Parker Palmer where she shared her music with a group of over 100 clergy and faith leaders and shared her life in quiet conversations played out over mealtime. I remember asking her about dogs, and whether Rush and I should get a second one. I worried we couldn’t love another with the kind of teeth-clenching intensity we felt for our red-headed mutt Amelia. “Love is not like a pie where there are only so many pieces to go around,” she said. “With every dog, or every child, you just get more pie. There is always more love available to us.”
With that same bent toward simplicity, she set out to create her latest album. Her voice quickens for a brief moment as she divulges the collaborative process with producer Paul Mahern and a handful of talented musicians, many under thirty. “There is simplicity when you don’t know what else to do and then there is simplicity when you can play all sorts of notes and say all sorts of things but you don’t. It’s elegant, myself and all the musicians, it’s a very ego-less kind of playing.” These are true enough words for a musician as they are a writer or a preacher. Two kinds of simplicity – the one that comes out in your first draft, lazy in its pomp and wordiness, and the one that finds you on the other side of time. It’s after the throat-clearing quotes and meaningless jargon disappear that what you’ve been trying to say all along becomes clear.
I listen to Carrie’s music when I need to de-clutter my mind. I put her music on when I do yoga in the sun room; sometimes Amelia comes in and does a downward dog under the bridge of my downward dog and I collapse over the mystery. I put her music in my CD player when I’m driving to church on Sunday nights and mustering the courage of true self. Carrie is by no means a “Christian artist.” She says, “Theologically you get the eight crayon box in the Christian music world; theologically I’m the 48 crayon kind of girl. There are beautiful things than can be created with the 8 crayons but at the same time, there’s a hunger and longing for music and story and dance and art forms that lean into the spiritual, that is looking for new language.”
I ask Carrie about her spiritual heritage; I tell her I suspect she’s what I call on this blog a “faithful rebel.” She grew up Methodist but her fury with the traditional church’s treatment of women led her to find spiritual community with the Quakers. Friends commented, “You make your life with sound and yet you go to a silent community!” She laughs as she’s telling me this, but then becomes serious. “We talk at the universe or God or the Light as Quakers would call it, but something really amazing happens when you are quiet long enough to hear.”
It’s hard to be quiet in a culture like ours where the impulse is to do more, be more, throw one more ball up in the air. Carrie challenges the assumption of “not enoughness” in her pie-life-philosophy and prophet-like-words in the new album and book (available for pre-order on her website). When we’re all scrambling to find a life of more, maybe the answer is to do less. “We expand time by actually being there,” Carrie tells me.
We’ve only been talking for forty minutes, but what she says is true; my breath is deeper than when we started.