Carrie Newcomer’s Latest Harmonious Call for Inclusion

Carrie Newcomer’s 19th album, “The Point of Arrival,” is personal and contemplative—and it’s the kind of inner work that inspires her activism in the world. Deeply influenced by her Quakerism, Newcomer’s music reflects an inclusivity and a call to “lean in toward the light” that offers an inspirational soundtrack for social justice movements.

I talked to the singer-songwriter, author and progressive faith activist before her concert in Corvallis, Oregon about music as a vocation, inclusive faith and making the impossible possible.

Grand oak in Urvaste, Estonia

What have you learned about what music can do for people, what it can do for the world?

As an artist, one of the things I’ve learned along the way is that every time I go in for a recording I have no interest in just redoing what I’ve done before. Every time I go into the studio with a collection of songs it needs to push some kind of growing edge . . . I really thrive on creative challenges and creative expansion. One of the things I’ve learned along the way is to follow that instinct, to keep growing and keep challenging myself, keep pushing whatever that growing edge is, even when it may be a little uncomfortable.

In terms of looking at a long history in music now, you get very comfortable with your growth being public. I know some artists have a trail of albums behind them and they just want to discount their earlier work, and I’ve just come to the place where my 25-year-old self had something to say. She said it as well as she knew how and with a lot passion. I’m really glad I learned not to try to rhyme orange. To look at that part of myself with fondness.

In terms of music and the world, I keep coming back to music. There’ve been a lot of times in this history when the going got tough and I thought about walking away, never from music but maybe from the music business, and it always called me back because I see music as something really essential for human beings—music with message and music with meaning. I do think it changes the world. That’s why music is so dangerous sometimes. If you listen to anyone who’s been part of a really powerful movement for change, they sang their way there. That kind of power music holds is really needed today.

You see music as a calling, a vocation.

I really do… Parker Palmer says vocation is the thing you cannot not do. Frederick Beuchner says it’s when the soul’s great gladness meets the world’s great need. It’s more than a job. My music has always had threads of spirituality, and I’ve always been an activist, and there’s threads of that that run through it. What does love as public policy look like? What does love as action in the world really look like? What does love as action even toward ourselves look like? That is a thread that has hung on through my work. That feels like a calling too. Something changed in my vocation when I stopped just following music and started following what the songs were about. It was always there, but there was a moment. I write songs that are about something. I think I need to be following that where it takes me, and it’s probably going to take me off the beaten track.

In the new album, it sounds like you’ve reached this place of deep acceptance of yourself, that you’re really at peace with yourself and what you’re doing in the world. You sound really at home in yourself, and, of course, the title is “The Point of Arrival.” How is the music intersecting with where you are in your life at this moment?

Well, it always intersects with my life, every album. What I’ve found over the years is that I’m writing to the next growing edge. I’m writing about the next thing I’m about to do or I’m about to step into with all my heart. So often I’m writing beyond anything I know right now. I think this newest album is probably my most vulnerable album. There is a sense of being all right, having a sense of befriending myself, befriending my own mistakes. 

There are parts of this album that are about the process of grief, and then there are threads that I seem to return to, this idea of finding something extraordinary in an ordinary day, that we’re not living days, we’re living moments. 

The song, “The Point of Arrival,” is about sometimes how it takes a while to get to the place where you can start. And there’s a lot of work that happens. It’s kind of the work before the work, to get to the place where now you can start, and that doesn’t mean you’ve arrived at some end point. It means you’ve arrived at the place where you can step forward again in a new way.

Your songs are populated with quirky characters. What is it in your vision that is so inclusive so that all of these quirky characters, these “crazy, holy hungry ones who still believe in something better,” as you put it, belong?

I have to say, I really love people. I know that’s not the hippest thing to say right now, but I really do love people. People are amazing. They’re funny. They’re interesting. They’re inspiring. They’re bewildering. They’re all of the above. And I really do kind of love humans and the human experience.

Some people do get lost. And I do have a sense that our default is kindness. I have a new song with a verse in it: “Most people that you meet will open the door and save your seat. Will rest a blanket around your shoulders when the storm is done and the worst is over.” We default to kindness. In a crisis, after a storm, opening the door for someone. I see it all the time.

I think right now we’re getting this overwhelming amount of information about the worst of human nature. From every screen. In such volume. There’s a thought that conflict sells, that salacious sells, that shocking sells. Focusing on the worst we can be is something we get so much of. Everywhere I go I meet people who default to kindness. I meet people who are working in all kinds of ways to reach across dividing lines. I see people reaching across those lines all the time, for the food bank or family or love, for all kinds of reasons.

Something in us expects kindness, and I find it to be that way. There’s this gravity I see in people. After deep, deep grief, someone comes back to love. How do they do that? And yet we do. You see it all the time. There’s a gravity to love that humans carry around.

You seem so able to hold onto hope in the face of divisiveness and all the chaos. How do you do that?

These are really discouraging times. They’re deeply troubling times. We’re living in times when we’re being asked to be better people than we ever thought we’d have to be. What does that really look like in daily action?

I don’t think of hope as being for the faint of heart. Hope isn’t gossamer. Sometimes I think we think of hope in a Hallmark card kind of way. I don’t see hope like that at all. Hope is gritty. Hope is daily. It means getting up in the morning and trying again to make the world a better place, and then the next day we do it again, and then the next day you’re really disappointed, and then you still do it again.

We are getting this monsoon of information, and a lot of it very bad and deeply troubling. And it’s easy to get overwhelmed by that. And that’s when I have to bring it back to human size. I have a song on my album “The Beautiful Not Yet” called “Three Feet or So.” I can’t change the whole world, but I can change what’s three feet around me. I can have a significant difference in how I choose to live my daily life. We all have significant power in how we live our daily lives, and claiming that, claiming what that means within us and claiming what that means between us. It’s not gossamer; it’s not candy-coated; and sometimes it’s really not easy.

I’ve been working a lot with Parker Palmer. I love his definition for hope. It’s holding in creative tension everything that is with everything that could and should be and each day taking action to narrow the distance between the two.

I love that definition because it doesn’t blink the hard stuff. Here it is, what is. And this is what could and should be. And what can I do within three feet of myself today to narrow the distance there? And I have tremendous power there.

I think we’re always living in the Beautiful Not Yet, but just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I may not see the fruit from the trees I plant, but I’m planting them anyway.

You put your heart out there, and you may not see the fruit, but you have this faith that your music is bringing about something beautiful and profound and important in the world.

You send it out with a lot of love and best intentions. This question of hope is one that a lot of us are wrestling with, how do I stay grounded? Who will help me carry hope when I just can’t today? That’s about community as well. There are days when it’s hard for me to take those daily actions, and who are the people who can help me carry that on the days when I’m having a pretty hard time doing that.

There is a continuum. It’s really important what I do today. But I’m grateful for all that came before me. And this next generation of young people, they shine. They’re awake in different ways. Every generation has its own personality, but there’s a generational sensibility and movement—all is not lost. There’s a really shining next generation moving forward. And they have wonderful mentors.

The new album is really contemplative and personal. Of course, in the feminist movement, we’ve always said the personal is political. How do you think about an album like this as something political?

I think it’s impossible to address a divided world unless we address what’s divided in ourselves. It’s always a balance of doing the inner work and how we bring that to our outer lives. For some people, there’s a sense that if you’re doing personal work that’s selfish or you’re copping out on the cause. I think this is a really important piece of the puzzle. The inner work is where we ground ourselves for the long haul. We dive deep so we can bring what we find up into our outer lives and our work.

So this album is deeply personal, but the personal is always in contact with the political. There’s a song on this called “Impossible.” The idea is that so many things are thought of as impossible, and they’re impossible until they’re not. That’s been proven again and again. It’s impossible for women to get the vote. How many women have been told, “This is impossible.” And they’ve said, “Watch me!” It’s only impossible until it’s not.

You’ve been at this a long time. You’ve been on the road a lot. Yet somehow you still find the energy to stay out there and do this work. What energizes you? How do you manage the toll of a lifetime of making music?

Self-care. I think that’s something a lot of us have had to learn along the way. Building in that time when you recharge. You rest in community that helps you carry it a while and balance that with my time touring and being out in the world, especially as I’ve gotten older. Part of it’s physical, and that’s, at times, such a surprising thing. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

I meditate every day. I write and I read. I go to the well every day. It’s not a luxury. People say, “I’m too busy. There’s too much to do.” It’s not a luxury. It’s what grounds it all for me and keeps me going. And that means planning it into your day. 

I think it’s also important not blinking the hard stuff. Saying I’m tired and I’m discouraged right now. I can turn on the news or I can read in the newspaper, and several things will feel like an attack on everything I hold dear. And that’s wearying when it’s coming in waves. So part of it is choosing how much media I consume, balancing the news without and the news within. I have to take media breaks and remember the news within.

What else would you like readers of Ms. to know?

Having a trail of albums behind me, it’s really wonderful to feel like my most recent album is the strongest thing I’ve ever done. I feel that way particularly about my last three releases. It’s a wonderful thing to feel like what you’re doing continues to grow and gets deeper. This is the first album I produced myself. It’s a wonderful thing to feel like there’s still a growing edge here, and that’s the point of arrival.

I’m doing a podcast with Parker Palmer called “The Growing Edge.” There’s a website and spoken word and music program that we do together with another instrumentalist, Gary Walters. The show is called “What We Need is Here: Hope, Hard Times, and Human Possibility.” It’s been interesting doing the concept because the concept of the growing edge is addressing the growing edge personally, vocationally, and politically. Where are those growing edges?

You were asking about evolution, when I stay true the way is true. If I really follow my heart, follow the next growing edge, it’s going to take me where I never expected. I’m at the next point of arrival, and I’m stepping into the next growing edge, and, if I am true, the way is true.

About

Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University.