By Sarah Van Harpen   Published Nov 08, 2002 at 5:19 AM

"There is great meaning in the smallest of things," writes Carrie Newcomer of a song on her newest album, "The Gathering of Spirits." According to Newcomer, lately she is focusing on what is simple and what is real in her music and in her life, a task that is often difficult to fulfill but can be richly rewarding.

On the opening track, "Holy as a Day is Spent," Newcomer exalts things such as, "The soap and sink, and the cup and plate. And the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile, showerheads and good dry towels."

With a clear voice, the songwriter uses elements of bluegrass, blues and folk as she tries to determine ultimately what is best for the song, a lesson she learned from a longtime friend and acclaimed folk singer, Alison Krauss. Krauss sings with Newcomer on the title track and together the two harmonize into a strong and soulful melody.

On tour, Newcomer will visit the Cedarburg Cultural Center on Fri., Nov. 15. Recently, OMC spoke with her about her music, her writing and the smaller things in her life.

OMC: You're from the Midwest. Has that had an affect on you as a musician?

CN: Yes, absolutely. I was born in Michigan, but I actually grew up in a little town in Indiana called Elkhart. Having a Midwest life has made a big difference in my writing. I still live in the Midwest, in Bloomington, Indiana, and I made a conscious choice to be here and not in a music mecca like New York, or L.A. or Nashville. There are pros and cons to that, but the pro is that you are forced to develop something of your own. You aren't just doing something that is a current trend. But then you also have to make a decision to travel a lot and make a presence in places like New York or Nashville.

OMC: You wrote all the songs on your album. Tell me about your writing process.

CN: Well, I'm a kind of a workhorse writer. Some people are more inspirational writers. But I feel I'm being the best kind of writer when I put time into it and write consistently. When I'm home I set aside time every day to sit down and write. It's kind of like running. If you've been running and then don't run for awhile, the first time you start up again you feel like you're going to die. If I'm writing a lot, it gets my thoughts flowing.

I teach songwriting and writing workshops and the thing I always suggest to folks is to set aside time to write everyday. I write everywhere, on the backs of napkins, in notebooks on airplanes. The more I write, the better I write.

Also, I am a voracious reader. I love to read and I read a lot. And I do a lot of listening to other songs. So, I think it's also a combination of reading a lot and listening a lot.

OMC: What do you read?

CN: I read all kinds of things. I just love to read. I recently got to do a benefit with Barbara Kingsolver who is one of my favorite writers. It's really nice when you get to meet someone that you admire and then you find out that you admire that person even more. It's not always like that. (laughs) Sometimes you meet someone you admire and think, "I kind of wish I hadn't met you."

OMC: What types of music do you listen to?

CN: I listen to all kinds of music as well, but I probably always return to musicians I call "singing poets.'" I also love people who are cross-over musicians. Alison Krauss is on my new album and she chooses some amazing songs. I just love the new Americana genre. It's wonderfully vague.

But I've been listening to people like Lyle Lovett, Richard Shindell and Moby, actually (laughs), so I'm kind of all over the board. I also really like Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn and Sarah MacLachlan. She has beautiful lyrics and melody.

OMC: What exactly do you mean by cross-over musicians?

CN: Well, for instance, you have your straight down the road country, straight rock and roll and straight bluegrass. And then there are the people that blur the lines, and ask questions like 'What is blue grass?' Or like Uncle Tupelo or Wilco, who have acoustic music blending with something more alternative. I really love the creative thing that happens when people blur the lines. It gives you the freedom to play with lots and lots of ideas.

OMC: Alison Krauss sings on the title track of this album with you. How was that experience and how did it come to be?

CN: Well, Alison is a wonderful, amazing musician who is so creative and gracious. She's also a Midwesterner, by the way. A few years ago I opened up for her Union Station tour. So we've been familiar for a long time. Then a band that she produces called Nickel Creek covered one of my songs, and it was through Alison that we were introduced. So, she's been very helpful and very gracious. I can't say enough good things about her. And I just called her up and asked if she'd like to do this with me and she said yes.

She is the queen of elegant lines. That's something that I've learned about her when I was opening for her. She has this certain kind of elegance. She taught me that what you don't say is just as important as what you do say. Simple is not always an easy thing.

And I would listen to her warm up with her band and think, 'These people can really play.' With her it's all about focusing on the song. You have to get your ego out of the way and focus on the song. It's a very mature way of playing. It think there is a lot of that in this album. I feel really great about the artists that worked on it and they really got the concept that this album is about the song, not about Carrie Newcomer.

OMC: Tell me more about your newest album, "The Gathering of Spirits.'"

CN: Well, I think this album is the finest thing I've ever done. I'm very happy about it, the songs, and the people and my producer, Mark Williams. You try to set up for a magical thing but you just can't predict it. And it really did happen this time.

The album has a lot to do with the small moments in life and very human issues. It seems that we live in the age of the celebrity -- like you're supposed to live for your 15 minutes on Fear Factor (laughs). Not that there is anything wrong with Fear Factor. But what I mean is that there is a great nobility in a life well lived. The splashy moments are important, like graduations or weddings. But we actually live mostly in life's small moments. It's important to be a good friend, or a good listener, or the person you can rely on when you need to borrow the truck (laughs) or the woman who always brings the casserole. It's the smaller things that are really important.

Its kind of interesting because my last album had a bite to it. But this one has a lot more tenderness towards people. There is also a spiritual context that runs through the album but not it's necessarily religious. Like my song "Holy as a Day is Spent." There are sacred moments in everyday lives. Other writers will tell you not to write about those things because you may be put into a category that you don't want to be in. But I don't censor my music, whether I'm writing about my romantic relationships, or my family life, or politics. I'm not going to sensor my music for the reason that it may not be as marketable.

OMC: By category, do you mean you would be categorized as a religious singer?

CN: That's a danger, yes. But this album doesn't fit into the category of contemporary Christian music even though I use words like "holy" and "sacred." I really don't want to give up those words though. They belong to all of us. They aren't just part of one group or another. So you may be put in a category or you may not, but those are powerful words and I try to use them. I hope that someone listens to my music and thinks, "I am so glad someone wrote about that." Or, "I never thought about that in that way." I try to write about things that are so true and human that we both recognize them. Everything I write about is very human.

I also think there is a lot of humor in my album. We are just so laughable. My song "Sober" is really a tongue-and-cheek look at loving someone for a long time. And I think if I couldn't laugh at myself I would have hung this up a long time ago.


OMC: You talk a lot about everyday things in your album. What are your favorite everyday things?

CN: I find so much comfort in making tea or coffee in the morning. Or walking my two dogs in the woods. I love the way the woods behind my house smell in the autumn. I do a lot of running and walking with my dogs. And I love to be home, to feel grounded in my place. I really feel strongly about a sense of place.

I think that every place has its own personality and I love that. When I'm touring, I am where I am. There is no place like Milwaukee, and Wisconsin. It's a land of its own. And when I am in Arizona, there is no place like Arizona or Vermont or Massachusetts. Places have their own personalities. And people are amazing everywhere. Their personalities seem to go along with their landscapes. I love that and I try to be open to that.

One of my writing exercises is to write down details every day. Just things that I've noticed in the last 24 hours. The small details. And that makes me continue to look for things throughout the day. We're all busy people and it's so easy to look at the end of your day and think, "Wow, I really missed that." But when I do take time to notice the little things I find I have a richer life. My favorite days are the days that I've noticed things and it makes me think, "Life is amazing and this world we live in is amazing.'"

OMC: What are your plans for the future?

CN: Well, right now I'm on tour so I'm on the road a lot. I'll probably be back in the studio this spring to record some new things. I might do a compilation of some older songs with some newer ones. And I plan to have a long Christmas break with my daughter. But mostly right now I'm just in the present and touring. Actually, as an artist, I never seem to think in the long, long term. (laughs) I'm just happy to be doing what I love. It's always a surprise to me that I can be doing this.

Newcomer will perform at 8 p.m. at the Cedarburg Cultural Center, W62 N546 Washington Ave., in Cedarburg. Tickets are $12 in advance and $14 at the door. For more information call (262) 375-3676.