Speaker: Carrie Newcomer

Asking the Right Questions in Song

Carrie Newcomer is an American performer, singer, songwriter, recording artist, author and educator. The Boston Globe described her as a “prairie mystic” and Rolling Stone wrote that she is one who “asks all the right questions.” According to a 2014 PBS “Religion and Ethics” interview, Newcomer is a “conversational, introspective” songwriter who “celebrates and savors the ordinary sacred moments of life and champions interfaith dialogue and progressive spiritualty.” Krista Tippett notes that Carrie is “best known for her story-songs that get at the raw and redemptive edges of human reality.”

Newcomer is a committed Quaker and connects her faith, her sense of social justice, and her songwriting. “My songwriting has always had a spiritual current to it. There’s a spiritual current in my life, so there is in my work. Otherwise I’d be censoring something important.”  She has performed around the world for humanitarian efforts and carved out a niche as a folksinger who is also an international emissary for peace and tireless advocate for living a more contemplative life. “I would have to say that my most profound and consistent spiritual practice is songwriting—that idea of sacramental living, of seeing the world as sacrament, seeing life as a sacrament of compassion and forgiveness,” she says.

Newcomer has produced 18 solo CDs, eight collaborative CDs, three DVD’s, two LP’s with Stone Soup, and has received numerous awards for her music and related charitable activities. Her most recent album is 2019 The Point of Arrival. She has released two books of poetry & essays, A Permeable Life: Poems and Essays and The Beautiful Not Yet: Poems, Essays & Lyric. Her song “I Should’ve Known Better” appeared on Nickel Creek’s Grammy winning gold album “This Side”, and she earned an Emmy for the PBS special “An Evening with Carrie Newcomer.”

Newcomer says one of her greatest achievements is writing a song that has become an anthem for social justice activists. She wrote “Room at the Table” after listening to an interview about the importance of folk music to the American civil rights movement. “So, it’s done in call and response: ‘Let our hearts not be hardened to those living on the margin. There is room at the table for everyone.’”

She cites Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Bob Dylan, “people creating music and trying to tell story in a poetic way” as influences on her songwriting style. The themes are deep: “There aren’t a lot of black-and-white answers, but… there’s a lot of good questions. I think folks are ready for conversations about questions without being told a pat answer.” She describes her work as “an art form that’s an authentic spiritual relationship that’s pressing in.” She says she has “spent a lifetime trying to describe in language those things we experience that have no words. You do that as a songwriter…Talking about that experience—what is it at the heart of things, right at the center of things. And what is this journey of trying to put into language these things we know, but we have no language for.”

Many of the themes in Newcomer’s work come from her friendships and collaborations with activists, authors and religious figures like Parker J. Palmer, Jim Wallis, Scott Russell Sanders and Barbara Kingsolver. She also credits theologians, religious leaders and famous authors as influences. She has done numerous collaborations with authors, academics, philosophers and musicians, including Alison Krauss, Jill Bolte Taylor, Philip Gulley, Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Newcomer explains, “There is simplicity when you don’t know what else to do and then there is simplicity when you can play all sorts of notes and say all sorts of things but you don’t. It’s elegant, myself and all the musicians, it’s a very ego-less kind of playing.”

Newcomer has had an ongoing, long-term collaboration with Parker J. Palmer, with whom she has co-written several songs and performed a spoken word/music in live performance, including Healing the Heart of Democracy: A Gathering of Spirits for the Common Good and What We Need is Here: Hope, Hard Times, and Human Possibility. Newcomer and Palmer also are actively collaborating on The Growing Edge, a website, podcast, and retreat. Three of Newcomer’s songs are included in Palmer’s newest book.

Newcomer has toured the United States, Europe, Africa and India including performances with Alison Krauss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, American singer-songwriter David Wilcox in shows based on spiritual story. She gives a percentage of her album sales to charitable organizations including the Interfaith Hunger Initiative, American Friends Service Committee, America's Second Harvest, The Center for Courage and Renewal, and Literacy Volunteers of America. “Every album tour I try to partner with a particular social service or justice organization, and I try to choose something that kind of goes along with the themes of that particular album.”

In 2009 and 2011 Newcomer traveled to India as a cultural ambassador, including musical performances organized by the U.S. State Department and worked with students of the American Embassy School in New Delhi. In 2011, she released the album, Everything is Everywhere, which featured Amjad Ali Khan and his sons, Amaan and Ayaan on traditional Indian instruments. In 2012, Newcomer made a similar trip to Kenya and performed at various locations in rural Chulaimbo, Kenya at the AMPATH HIV center in Eldoret. She says if she’s learned anything on her goodwill tours, it is that kindness will save the world. Not necessarily grand gestures, but simple small acts of compassion that she says are like the country cousin who sings in the kitchen and does the dishes before she’s even asked.

Newcomer also speaks and teaches about creativity, vocation, activism, and spirituality at colleges, workshops, conventions, and retreats. She often explores the connection between creativity and the spiritual life. Newcomer’s first theatrical production, Betty’s Diner: The Musical, was performed at a sold out run at Purdue University in 2015 and is now available to interested theaters, universities, and spiritual communities.
Newcomer is the recipient of numerous awards, most recently the 2019 Shalem Institute’s Contemplative Voices Award. In 2016, Newcomer presented the Goshen College commencement address and was awarded an honorary degree in Music for Social Change. In 2010, Rich Warren, host of the Midnight Special radio program, selected Carrie Newcomer as one of the 50 most significant singer-songwriters of folk music for the last 50 years. Warren also selected her Geography of Light as one of his favorite CDs for 2008.

Newcomer was born in Dowagiac, Michigan on May 25, 1958 to James B. Newcomer and Donna Baldoni Newcomer. Her mother was raised Catholic, a first generation American from an Italian family and her father was raised Methodist with a background as Mennonite and Amish. Newcomer grew up Methodist, but her fury with the traditional church’s treatment of women led her to find spiritual community with the Quakers. She began writing songs as a teenager and performing in restaurants, coffeehouses and at benefits and festivals. She began her university studies at Ball State University and then Goshen College. Newcomer spent five months teaching art in an elementary school in San Isidro, Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, she encountered the silent- unprogrammed Quakers in Monteverde. “It felt like home,” she says. She completed her studies at Purdue University and received a B.A. in visual art and education.

Newcomer is married to Robert Shannon Meitus, an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer. She has one daughter, Amelia Newcomer Aldred. Carrie lives in the woods of southern Indiana with her family.

Join us in conversation with this gifted artist and soulful performer!

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