Simple Is Not Easy

An Interview with Carrie Newcomer

Carrie Newcomer: 'The diner people weren't done with me'Singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer tells about a friend who leads a group of people who knit for the local food bank. They’ll set up somewhere and knit with a sign that reads, “Knitting for the Food Bank.”

“People will come and talk to them,” Newcomer said in a phone interview last week. “Folks who might not maybe go up to someone on the corner and talk to somebody who has a sign will sit down with a group of women knitting and talk about the issue. ‘What’s happening with the food bank?’”

The lesson is that directness often isn’t the best way to reach people. “Sometimes our most powerful activism, our most potent activism, comes out of what we love,” she said.

Newcomer is foremost a writer and a storyteller. Although clearly interested in activism and social justice, she pursues those through her songs and the little tales they tell.

“I’m not a political writer,” said Newcomer. “I’m very much a storyteller. The state of the world and the human condition are really important to me, and really move me, so that does get into my writing and into the stories I’m telling.”

But like the women who knit for the food bank, Newcomer believes that sometimes it’s easier to connect with people not through confrontation but by offering something comfortable and nonthreatening. “Most folks don’t want to be hit on the head ... with political commentary,” she said. “But most of us will listen to a story.”

And as a writer, that approach makes massive topics approachable. “It’s very difficult to write about world peace,” she said. “You can’t get your arms around world peace. What is that? But you can tell a story. You can tell a human story, and speak about those big things that we’re interested in and moved by, but from the small context. ... That’s just a more effective way to approach ideas, from the story. ... We’ll leave our ears and hearts open a little longer for a good story, even if we don’t agree with it.”

Newcomer has been praised for her attention to everyday people, and unlike many folk singers, she has an ear for distinctive arrangement, and her voice has clarity without sacrificing depth or feeling. wrote: “Carrie Newcomer wonderfully combines the earthiness and social conscience of contemporary folk with a strong flair for elegant pop melodies.”

In her song “Betty’s Diner” — which she recorded for her 2004 best-of collection — Newcomer offers brief sketches of a handful of employees and patrons: “Miranda works the late night counter / In a joint called Betty’s Diner / Chrome and checkered tablecloths / One steamy windowpane / She got the job that shaky fall / And after hours she’ll write ‘til dawn / With a nod and smile she serves them all.”

The song was finished, Newcomer said, but she kept returning to that imaginary restaurant. “The diner people weren’t done with me,” she said. “They had more to say. ... Writing an album’s worth of diner-character songs was not something I set out to do.”

But she spent 18 months writing more than 20 songs of diner characters, and that became her 2005 recording Regulars and Refugees — her 10th CD. She envisioned the diner as “a gathering place for humanity,” and each song is a story told from the perspective of somebody at the diner.

“The genesis of ‘Betty’s Diner’ was really being a traveling songwriter for all these years,” she said. “As a traveling songwriter, you see the world pretty close up. ... I’ve never met a person yet without a really amazing story. Sometimes you have to get ‘em going, but once you do ... .”

Newcomer said she’s a prolific writer, penning essays, poems, and stories at airports, in restaurants, and in hotels. “It’s not always easy to pull out my guitar and start working on a song in an airport,” she said.

Those writings often “feed” her songs, she said. “Betty’s Diner” started as a short story that was translated into song. Her own thoughts on songwriting represent some of the most concise guidelines for writers that I’ve heard.

“Songwriting is a very specific kind of writing,” she said. “You have to have this fascination with every word counting. You really only have a few verses, a few choruses, maybe a bridge to tell a complete story, and to tell it really powerfully. So every word has to count. Every line has to count.

“It’s all about condensing. But at the same time, it can’t be just an outline. That doesn’t move anybody. So you have tell your story in a really poetic and powerful way.

“And then on top of it, a song is real time. It’s not like a poem, where you can go back and read the line before because you didn’t quite get it. With a song ... you hear it being sung, so there has to be a certain kind of elegance to it. If you lose your listener for one line, you’ve lost them for four lines. They’re still back there trying to figure out what you said. There has to be this real kind of clarity and elegance about how you present a song. I mean, simple is not easy. Simple is elegant.”

Newcomer’s songwriting skills have been sharpened by the company she keeps. She gets together monthly with four other songwriters (Tim Grimm, Krista Detor, Tom Roznowski, and Michael White), and those meetings led to the CD Wilderness Plots, based on a book of short stories by Scott Russell Sanders.

“We give each other challenges each month,” Newcomer said. “‘Come back next month with a song without a chorus.’ Or, ‘Come back next month with a song story taken from a historical story, or something from literature.’ ... It’s a great way to kind of push your edges.”

One member of the group suggested that each person write a song based on one of Sanders’ stories, set between the Revolutionary and Civil wars. “We had so much fun, the next month we said, ‘Let’s do another one,’” Newcomer said. “So that’s like 10 songs already. It caught all of our imaginations.”

That led to concerts featuring readings from the author, and then to the recording.

Newcomer will be in the studio in a few months, recording a new CD for release early next year. As with previous albums, she’ll partner with a not-for-profit organization that will receive some of the proceeds from the tour. For Regulars and Refugees, that group was America’s Second Harvest, selected because of the album’s interest in characters on the edge of poverty.

“It sounds kinda altruistic but it’s really not,” she said of her partnerships. “What it does for me is that it keeps my hope alive. Everywhere I go, I get to work with these amazing people, trying to make the world just a little better place for all of us.”

This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the River Cities’ Reader.

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