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The impossible question 

Soul-searching songwriter stays true to her art

Newcomer can turn household devices on and off with a clap of her hands.
  • Newcomer can turn household devices on and off with a clap of her hands.

Carrie Newcomer is the kind of songwriter's songwriter whose work is as deeply emotional as it is beautifully crafted. So it's no surprise that her fan base includes high-profile admirers from Alison Krauss to Barbara Kingsolver, Rolling Stone to Sojourners as well as ordinary folks who relate to the spiritual questioning that underscores her folk-pop repertoire.

As Newcomer puts it, "There just aren't a lot of easy answers in this life, but there are some really good questions. We need to ask those questions and then ask them again."

The Indiana songwriter says that much of her most recent CD, The Geography of Light, is about "living the questions."

"You know," she explains, "what do I love beyond words and measure when I peel back the layers of distraction in my life? What's at the heart of the matter? How do I not be afraid? How do I get up every morning and forgive the things that are unforgivable?"

Such concerns may not echo those of chart-climbers like Katy Perry, Lil Wayne and Nickelback, but that isn't Newcomer's intent. The longtime Quaker activist's evocative alto, sophisticated lyrics and chamber-folk inclinations (she says the new album is her most acoustic in years) have a broad appeal even to secular audiences that wouldn't normally embrace an artist whose venues, often as not, are Christian churches.

"My songwriting does have a very deep spiritual current to it," says Newcomer, who recorded two albums with an Indiana-based folk outfit named Stone Soup prior to launching her solo career. "It doesn't fit neatly into a contemporary Christian category or into straight secular music. Sometimes people will say that you need to pick a category and just stay there. But I don't know, I guess I've believed for a long time that when you're staying true to your art, if you're creating art with integrity, there'll be a place for you."

The Krauss connection

Newcomer says she's gotten nothing but support in that regard from Rounder Records, which has been releasing her albums for the past 15 years. The renowned roots label is also home to Krauss, who played an important role in Newcomer's early career.

"I opened for her and Union Station throughout Europe and many shows in the States," Newcomer says, "and she was the producer when Nickel Creek covered my song 'I Should've Known Better,' which she brought to them. She's been a wonderful advocate, and probably one of the most gracious people in music."

In addition to authors and theologians, Newcomer's influences include fellow Christian crossover musician Bruce Cockburn, whom she calls "an inspiration as an artist and also as a personal spirit."

It was Cockburn who shocked some Christian audiences by singing in his 1984 hit, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," that "some son of a bitch would die."

"It was really an astounding song," says Newcomer, who sees it as still relevant in today's political landscape. "That whole album was influenced by the atrocities he saw happening in Central America. And I think it was just this incredible expression of righteous anger, from a person who so often in his work was advocating for peace and for justice."

Our cultural story

Newcomer, who's known to contribute a portion of proceeds from her own touring and CD sales to food banks and Planned Parenthood, says she wasn't surprised when support for family planning was excised from the latest stimulus package: "For whatever reason, there are always hot-button issues, and I imagine they'll continue to be hot-button issues."

Still, Newcomer says she has great hope for the future.

"With the election of Barack Obama, I feel this renewed hope for the idea of transformative change," she says. "We've changed our cultural story forever; what we used to think of as impossible is possible. That applies in the political arena, as we just saw, but it also applies personally. Creating the peaceable kingdom here on Earth is impossible that's the story that our culture has told us but the impossible may be possible. We've seen it happen."

Newcomer figures her experience on the road has given her a less jaded view than the New York-, L.A.- and Washington-obsessed media tends to foster.

"Traveling songwriters see the world pretty darn close-up," she says. "It's not like we're going from arena to arena. So, you know, I see communities in every part of the country that still have such wonderful and interesting personalities."

When introducing one of her best-loved songs, "Betty's Diner," Newcomer likes to ask audiences the specialty of the diner in the town where she's playing. Having herself worked in a number of diners ("I am an artist, so I've waitressed"), Newcomer says she's definitely called customers "Hon" and can carry three water glasses in one hand.

"You know you're in an Indiana diner," she adds, "because when they offer you three vegetable sides with the entre, two of them will be applesauce and macaroni and cheese. And maybe the third will be green Jell-O."

bill@csindy.com

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