One of the words Carrie Newcomer continually returns to when discussing the songs, themes, even the cover art of her recent album, A Permeable Life, is "intimate."
Granted, that might seem an obvious term in describing the lightness and immediacy of the folk inspirations that have long been key to the music of this Michigan-born songsmith. But intimacy also extends to the poetic and often spiritual nature of the songs she has penned and recorded over the past 25 years, and to the collaborative artistic relationships she has forged with numerous authors and activists (Parker J. Palmer, Barbara Kingsolver and Philip Gulley, among them). But on A Permeable Life, intimacy permeates the music as well as the inspirations behind it.
"This is probably one of the most intimate recordings I've ever done," says Newcomer, who performs Saturday at EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. "The idea behind this album was to feel as if I was sitting across the kitchen table from you instead of singing from a stage."
What is perhaps most striking about the recording is how pervasive the intimacy is in the arrangements and the production. On one of A Permeable Life's most infectious songs, Room at the Table, a sunny, percussive and chant-like melody brings out the deep, resonating calm of Newcomer's singing. During Abide, a tune she co-wrote with Palmer, the vocals glide gracefully on cushions of cello and guitar.
"Every album I record generally has a theme," Newcomer says. "Often a collection of songs will have some kind of question or theme running through it, so you want to create a musical space that really works with those ideas. The themes on this album deal with things like finding something really extraordinary in an ordinary day, because there is something really honorable about our daily lives. There is a lot on this album about presence. We're not really encouraged in our culture to actually show up for our lives. We're so busy. So when we're actually here and present in our lives, that's when you see amazing and wondrous things. Every day, when we pay attention, there is always the miraculous.
"So the music, the arrangements and the production were intended to hold those ideas in a way that makes sense and the songs in a way that makes sense. The artists who played on this record were just wonderful, elegant musicians that could play you a whole lot of notes, if that is what the song needs. But if all it needs is a few notes and a pause, that is all they will do. So it's a very egoless kind of camaraderie. It's all about creating something very elegant. Simple is not easy. It is elegant."
Intimacy also will surround Saturday's concert. With longtime pianist Gary Walters as her only band mate, Newcomer will perform with the audience seated alongside her on the EKU Center's stage. Finally, she finds additional intimacy in another striking but perhaps underappreciated aspect of A Permeable Life's design: its cover art. The album jacket depicts a lone boatman floating on calm waters near shore while being approached by two decidedly non-aquatic creatures: giraffes.
"The designer's name is Hugh Syme," Newcomer says. "He has designed the last nine of my albums. I sent him the collection of songs, then we started talking about the image that would go along with the album. What he sent me ... there was beauty to it, there was intimacy to it and there was also this sense of wonder and whimsy. When I opened it up to see it on my computer, I just said, 'This is perfect.'"