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On her first new album in five years, Mary Chapin Carpenter comesto grips with being a grown-up

Story by Chris Neal

Mary Chapin Carpenter is sitting in a London hotel room, trying to explain her absence. You see, it's been five years since she has released a full album of new music. On radio and in music stores, she's been a missing person. What took so long?

"I just wasn't in love with anything I was writing enough to rush into the studio and record it," she says. "It's really that simple. There's pressure in this business to put out a record as quickly as possible, as often as possible, whether you feel good about it or not. But I wanted to withstand those kinds of pressures as much as I could."

So instead, she relaxed and waited until she came up with a group of songs that excited her - and the result is a Top 10 album, the new Time*Sex*Love*. While she usually records in Virginia, near the home in Washington, D.C., that she shares with her two golden retrievers, most of Time*Sex*Love* was laid down last November in London. Part of the reason, she says, was to avoid outside interference.

"On the last record I made, I felt a lot of pressure from outside sources," she recalls, "and I didn't want to have that experience again. That was reason enough to go somewhere different."

Once she settled on recording in England, her only plan was to have some fun. "My most important mandate to myself was to laugh my ass off," she chuckles. "I wanted to have a great time doing it, and I succeeded a hundred times over. It was a very all-consuming, creative time."

The result is a sprawling, 15-song, 73-minute trip through Mary Chapin's emotions - and her concerns. "The subtitle of the record could be, 'The way one 43-year-old woman looks at the world,' " she says with a smile. "It's just my perspective."

In a musical atmosphere often dominated by the tastes of teenagers, Time*Sex*Love* is almost defiantly mature - an album about coming to terms with the emotional tangles that pile up in any adult life. "Someone told me they thought it was 'a record for grown-ups,' " she says. "On one hand, I really like that assessment - but on the other hand, sometimes I don't feel like a grown-up at all. I feel like I'm still 15 years old and completely spastic. So I laugh when I think it's 'a record for grown-ups.' I'm sort of looking at myself, saying, 'Who are you kidding, you unsophisticated idiot?' "

No one who hears Time*Sex*Love* will think its creator is unsophisticated or an idiot - not with thoughtful, clever tunes like the album's first hit, "Simple Life."

" 'Simple Life' is nothing very profound," she says modestly. "It's about our great obsession with trying to find the next thing that's going to make our life complete, when maybe the place to start is telling yourself that you're not screwed up. You really don't necessarily need all that materialistic stuff in order to have a basis of sanity and peace and contentment."

Another of the album's highlights is the gorgeous ballad "Swept Away," which drew on a long-ago real-life heartbreak for inspiration. "I wrote it about a fellow I had run into in an airport, who 20 years before had broken my heart," she confesses.

"My first thought when I saw him was to turn around and keep walking, but there was something that kept my feet stuck to the floor. Time had finally healed some of that stuff, and I ended up greeting him. The song is about that overwhelming sense of everything making sense again once you've gotten past heartache."

"Swept Away," co-authored with Kim Richey, is one of several writing collaborations on Time*Sex*Love* . Over the last couple of years, Mary Chapin also co-wrote hits like Terri Clark's "No Fear" and Trisha Yearwood's "Where Are You Now." Still, she says, "I don't write with people that often. I'm so used to working on my own that sometimes getting together with people can be a little intimidating. I liken it to kind of like a blind date - and you don't know if you're gonna get a kiss at the end or not."

Not all the work Mary Chapin does with others these days is artistic. In February, she traveled to Cambodia with the Vietnam Veterans Of America Foundation to bring awareness to that group's Campaign For A Landmine Free World, which aids the victims of landmines and seeks to ban their use. Landmines kill 26,000 innocent civilians each year around the world.

"The Foundation likes the people they work with to see firsthand the results of their efforts and fund-raising and awareness campaigns," explains Mary Chapin, who was recruited to the cause through friend Emmylou Harris. "It was extraordinary, a life-altering experience. It makes me feel more committed than ever to raising awareness as much as possible about this issue." Mary Chapin also appears on the benefit album Concerts For A Landmine Free World.

Her current overseas trip is a bit more fun - she's here in London as part of a European tour. She's just been to France, where audiences responded emotionally to her music despite the language barrier. "We've been coming here for many years," she says. "It feels wonderful to be able to kind of go this far from home and find people who are aware of what you're up to."

Those fans are likely to remain keenly interested in what Mary Chapin Carpenter is up to - and she doesn't plan to disappoint them.

"It's the things that you haven't done yet that may matter the most," she says. "That's certainly not an original thought, but I think it's something we constantly need to be reminded of."