The Ms. Q&A: Singer-Songwriter Carrie Newcomer on Writing Her 20th Album, ‘A Great Wild Mercy’

“Artists never retire,” said Newcomer. To the singer, songwriting is her oxygen.

(Courtesy of Carrie Newcomer)

Singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer has been making music that inspires, challenges, questions, and affirms for nearly 40 years now, and she just released a new album, A Great Wild Mercy, in late 2023. 

Newcomer’s work deals with big themes in the small things of daily life. Her powers of observation and sense of wonder can provide uplifting anthems for feminists. We need that in these times.

I talked to Newcomer about her career in music and her new album. Her insights into the human condition, the social structures that shape us all, and the possibilities for love and justice, are profound. They ring loud, right as we face a 2024 election that could mean further rollbacks of civil and human rights.

Susan M. Shaw: This album feels lighter. How have the last few years had an impact on you, and how have you captured this moment in music?

Carrie Newcomer: There has been a gravity to our lives and to the world. We are living in challenging times. 

In the title track I say, “there’s news of the world and there’s news of the heart.” 

The news of the world will tell you to be afraid. Be very afraid. Then be enraged. Then be more afraid. That’s the news of the world—particularly our commercial media and ways of getting information. The news of the heart is more personal. 

If you ask someone, “Do you know anyone personally who is generous of spirit and doing what they can to make the world a little kinder place—do you know anyone who has reached across some line for family, for love, for the foodbank, whatever it is—do you know anyone like that?” And almost everyone will say, “I know a lot of people like that. I am like that.” That’s the news of the heart.

A lot of this album is [asking how to] hold these two things in some kind of life-giving creative balance? That also means not sugar-coating it. This is not just about positive thinking. It’s about finding a way to continue to be in the world in ways that are life-giving and meaningful. 

I go into every [new] album with no interest in remaking the last album. What is my growing edge this time? What feels a little risky? What feels like a pushing edge of who I am becoming? 

Carrie Newcomer

Shaw: Even in the worst of the times during the Trump years, I knew if somebody was in a car wreck, people would stop and help them. They are not going to ask, “Are you a Democrat? Are you a Republican? Are you pro-choice?” They are just going to help them. I felt like you were capturing some of that. 

Newcomer: It is complex. Love is simple. People are complicated. We are negotiating difference often, trying to step back and create enough space so that something creative can happen. There’s nothing creative that can happen if there is no space for listening or a story. 

I was reading a book by Ariel Burger who worked with Elie Wiesel for years. Elie Wiesel, as a teacher, created space where differences could be negotiated with respect and dignity, and creative things could happen in those safe spaces. But he would not be in a discussion with a Holocaust denier. The best way for him to hold that creatively was to step away and not recognize a really harmful idea as if it had validity. 

Shaw: I love your song “Room at the Table.” You [also] have to behave at the table.

Newcomer: In terms of that room at the table, there’s a song on this album called “Potluck.” I wrote this song with a wonderful young writer Siri Undlin from Humbird. I love her work. She’s from Minnesota. I think Southern potlucks are akin to Midwestern potlucks. We were musing about Midwestern potlucks, about how you just trust people and what they bring to the table. It’s such a beautiful metaphor. Maybe everyone will bring chocolate cake, and it will be fine. This idea of opening a welcoming table and trusting people a little bit.

There are songs like “A Great Well of Mercy,” which addresses the news of the world and news of the heart. There is a thread of good in the world and there is a wild mercy in the world that can still be tapped in to. 

People are tapping in to it—whenever we talk about news of the heart we are tapping in to that great wild mercy. There’s a line in it, “I am tired of the rage. I am tired of the worry. I am ready for the great wild mercy.” I think a lot of us are ready for that expression in our own lives and want to see it in the world. It happens first close to home.

There are personal songs. There’s a lullaby on this called “Another Day.” It’s kind of written for those of us who are not easy sleepers. I’m not an easy sleeper. My partner is. He’s one of those amazing people who is magical. He puts his head on the pillow and goes to sleep. It’s miraculous. I’m happy for him even though sometimes I want to nudge him. I don’t do that. 

It’s a lullaby for those of us who feel tenderness for the struggles of our time. Feel tender for those in situations of injustice and the kinds of suffering that injustice brings. Women as human beings. It was kind of a lullaby for myself and those of us who have trouble sleeping sometimes. To say, “it’s alright, you can breathe, and be with this with tenderness.” 

When I feel overwhelmed, when I feel the weight of the sorrow, bring it back home. What can I do, in my life, today? In the next moment? It really does matter. 

Yes, I am encountering things that are very hard and disturbing, but I also continue to encounter that thread that makes me keep hoping.

Shaw: So, as you think back over your career, what have you learned? How are these songs different from those very first songs? Are they different? What is that progress you have experienced?

Newcomer: I often do not know what an album is about until [it’s done.] Often, it’s in retrospect… “Oh, that’s when I was figuring that out.” 

I think for a lot of writers there are threads – things that continue to fascinate, continue to hold me back. I continue to write about what’s completely extraordinary in ordinary days. The inner life and how [it] informs our outer work in the world. If my inner life is reflecting on how to bring about a better, kinder, more inclusive place, [then] my outer work is, hopefully, kinder, more inclusive, welcoming. It’s all a continuum. When you have a trail of albums behind you. I am 65…

Shaw: What? You’re 65?

Newcomer: Yes, I am. 

Shaw: I thought I was older than you!

Newcomer: [Being 65], you have to get really comfortable with your growth being public. You have to develop a sense of love and compassion for the journey. 

One of the things I think I can do, looking back on 20 albums, [is notice that] the songs that that pushed me in some way were always the ones I look back and say, “that was the song. I am really glad I took the risk with that one because it is my favorite one now.”

I go into every [new] album with no interest in remaking the last album. What is my growing edge this time? What feels a little risky? What feels like a pushing edge of who I am becoming? 

That’s something beautiful about songs. Songs have their own lives. At a certain point you just let them out in the world. 

Carrie Newcomer

Shaw: I love the phrase that you titled the album and the song: The Great Wild Mercy. Where in the world did you come up with that?

Newcomer: I had no idea that I was going to make a life in music as a singer/songwriter in the middle of Indiana. How unlikely would that be and what would that look like? A successful, satisfying life in the arts. I’m really glad. I couldn’t imagine it at the time. That’s good because it’s been way more interesting than I could have imagined. 

What is needed is for me to be my most authentic and true voice. That my most powerful, most poignant voice will always be my truest voice. [This] has led me to writing songs about the great wild mercy. That’s the thread. 

Shaw: If you could go back and talk to 20-year-old Carrie, what would you tell her about all of this? What would she need to hear from you?

Newcomer: I think—gosh—be kind to yourself. Have compassion for yourself on this journey. Then, and now. I have a lot of passion for my work. Writing songs is like breathing and I probably won’t stop writing songs until I stop breathing. Have compassion for yourself and claim your own voice. It’s strong and it’s true. 

Shaw: Going back to the phrase, “a great wild mercy,” it made me think of something Annie Dillard would have written. What are the other influences on your work? Who do you read? Who do you listen to? Who informs how you think about the world?

Newcomer: I am a voracious reader. I read a lot of different things. Novels, […] spiritual literature, and poetry. [This informed my] song called “A Book of Questions.”

Shaw: Talking about “A Book of Questions” reminded me that part of the genius of your work is the way you are able to use the specificity of things – the small things, the individual people – to say so much more. Do you just walk in the world this way?

Newcomer: I lose my keys all the time… I do kind of walk in the world alive, isn’t that the work of the poet, the songwriter? 

It’s been interesting – one of the things that’s been happening with my writing during this album is that I’ve started a Substack page. Do you know what Substack is? Substack is the alternative to Facebook – there are no ads, no algorithms. A lot of interesting writers, newsletters, but more than that – there is interaction. 

I put up poetry and videos and new things I am working on. That’s a really interesting development. I’ve been doing it for about a year and a half and love the community. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful community that is gathered there. It’s more about what I write about than about me in person. It’s really pushed me to dive into prose writing. My songs often come out of poetry or prose I am writing.

Shaw: What do you hear from people when you are out there, touring and interacting with the people who listen to you? What does your music do for them?

Newcomer: Different things. I am always grateful. I am grateful now at this point in the pandemic that I can go out and I can talk to people. I like to go out and sign books and CDs and talk with people. People are always very generous with me. 

Songwriters put their songs in to the world and we don’t know where they will land. All we can hope is that they land well and with our best intentions. It is a particular gift when someone says this song landed well and safely in my heart. 

People tell me stories. This particular song – “I sent this to my daughter” – or “this song was played at mother son dance at the wedding.” I’ve had, “we listened to this when the baby was born” – or, “this song helped me through a very difficult time and gave me some comfort and encouragement for that journey.” I am always grateful for that. 

That’s something beautiful about songs. Songs have their own lives. At a certain point you just let them out in the world. 

One of the things I do on Substack is to teach people how to play the songs. I call them song labs. I talk about the songs, and, if there are guitar players, I show them how to play the song. That way a song has its own life. There’s no greater thing for a songwriter than to hear that someone is playing the song and making it their own, passing it along. 

We have tremendous power in how we live our daily lives. What will I do with this great wild moment?

Carrie Newcomer

Shaw: Now that I know you are 65, I have a whole other set of questions because we are at similar places in our life journey. How do you think now, being a woman of a certain age, is affecting you?

Newcomer: I feel very fortunate and grateful. I think there’s something that comes with having that trail of music and songs behind you. It was always the one that pushed the edge. I think that perspective helps in terms of staying creative. 

I love the collaborations on this album. Three of the musicians were in their 30’s and three were over 60. The conversations were fabulous. I love the interactions [between] musicians. I loved writing “Potluck” with Siri, who is a wonderful, young songwriter. I am loving what I am learning. 

I am also enjoying a certain perspective that comes with more years behind you than ahead. There is a curious promise of limited time. I think that promise becomes more poignant, each day is such a miracle. 

The question is not, “What will I hold on to?” It is, “What will I embrace with all my heart?” 

Artists never retire. 

Shaw: I am counting down myself.

Newcomer: We just keep on making art. Songwriting is like breathing. It’s how I write myself in to my next becoming. Some things have shifted… I think the pandemic did that for people too. I think there’s a continuing honing in – What do I love? What really matters?

Shaw: One of the things that seems to be consistent in your music is going back to that present moment, who we are, how we are with others, and how we treat others in those moments. It seems like that has been a thread. Maybe that is the Quaker influence across your life?

Newcomer: Those things I continue to write about. That’s why I am a folk singer. One of the things I like about being a folk singer is that you don’t have to censor your subject matter. In folk music, we still write romantic songs, but I can write about all kinds of relationships. I can talk about family relationships. I can talk about spiritual relationships. I can talk about political relationships. 

Shaw: A line in your song, “it’s not the things I’ve gone and done I’ll regret or be ashamed; it’s the things I did not say or do because I was afraid.” I think that you are right. Knowing this is the moment we have to do these things… It becomes clear that “great wild mercy” comes back to being in the moment, in those small and intimate things. 

Newcomer: We have tremendous power in how we live our daily lives. What will I do with this great wild moment? It’s a continuing theme. It’s also one I wrestle with. Why do I write about it? It’s a question for me. Part of my own growing edge. 

How do you hold, in creative tension, a passionate life in the arts, a love for people, a love for places, a love for making art… As Terry Tempest Williams said, “making beauty in a broken world is making beauty in the world we find.” I just love that. A passion for beauty because we need beauty right now. 

Mary Oliver said, “we need beauty because it inspires us to be worthy of it.” How do you balance that with “I need to do my laundry. I need a break. I need to go out in the woods and be quiet because that is the inner work that informs my outer work in the world.” I write about it because I’ve been trying to balance a busy, passionate life.

Carrie Newcomer’s 20th album, A Great Wild Mercy, is out now. You can listen on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever you stream your music.

Tallulah Costa provided editorial assistance with this piece.

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Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University.