Brandi Carlile

Music Features Brandi Carlile
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Every year, roughly 10 million visitors make their way through Seattle’s century-old Pike Place Market to shop for fresh produce, watch the fish mongers play catch with three-foot salmon and visit the original Starbucks. They’re also sure to encounter buskers like Artis the Spoonman, Howlin’ Hobbit on ukulele or “Mother Zosima” singing political songs in a nun’s habit.

Back before she was recording live albums with the Seattle Symphony or getting Elton John and Amy Ray to add their voices to her songs, Pike Place tourists were also likely to come across a young Brandi Carlile doing her best to catch their attention with her original songs and powerful voice.

“You could make $40 if you put a good, solid four hours into it,” she says. “The best thing about busking is that it’s so important, as a performer, to learn first-hand—in a really vulnerable way—what it is that makes people stop. I’ve figured out, over time, that it’s just total, unabashed, honest expression that does it.”

Carlile’s first lessons in entertaining came young. Her mother was a country singer playing with bands around Ravensdale, Wash. (pop. 1,000), a former coal-mining town between Seattle and Mt. Rainier National Park. When she was just eight years old, she won an audition for a chance to perform to a crowd of about 300. The spotlight is what she remembers most.

“I sang ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’ by Rosanne Cash,” she recalls. “It was a huge adrenaline rush for a little kid. And terrifying. I remember thinking how remarkable it was that I couldn’t actually see anyone or anything. It happened so fast that before I knew it, everyone was clapping and standing up, and I just knew from that point on that I couldn’t stop doing that.”

After she got a keyboard for her 12th birthday, Carlile began writing songs. “I’m sure they were awful,” she says. “I didn’t really play guitar until I was 16 or 17. So around that time is when I got really serious about being a songwriter and a musician.”

By that time, she’d already come out to her family and friends, a tough thing for a girl who’d been raised Baptist. “It’s gonna be difficult to be a teenager no matter what your plight is, no matter what you’re overcoming or what you’re having to work through,” she says. “It can be a little more difficult and exposing if you’re gay, because you’re dealing with issues of sexuality, which is never comfortable. At least when you’re dealing with acne, it’s something that everybody around you is experiencing and you’re having this coming-of-age puberty thing. But when you’re dealing with being the only gay kid, as I was in high school—I came out when I was 15—it was more difficult for me than it was received by my peers and by my teachers and my community. People treated me with respect.

“There was a lot going on to make me feel okay about it, even though when I came out, I had never even met a gay person in my life,” she adds. “The only problems I did run into were in church. I feel like I got a little bit chased out. I was a gay kid in a small town. The churches were really unwilling to let me be involved in music, because music is ministry. Even if they would tolerate my presence in a church, they wouldn’t allow me to lead in any way.”

But songwriting provided an outlet for some of those frustrations. She left school to pursue music full time. With the money she made from Pike Place, she bought a small P.A. system and found a new business model, going to restaurants without music and convincing them to let her play. They were “funny, awkward sets,” she says. “I would sit there and try to convince them that if they let me come with my P.A. system every Monday for two months, that by the second Monday, it’d be their busiest day. I had this whole spiel. They let me come in and set up my P.A., and pretty soon each one felt like they had to start paying me.”

For a young singer/songwriter pursuing her dream, it was all she’d hoped for. “At the time, I felt really successful,” she recalls. “I’d do those shows five, six nights a week. And then on my breaks, I would go throughout the restaurant, hang out with people at their tables, and then once a month I would do a proper rock show in Seattle at a cool venue like the Showbox or the Crocodile or the Tractor [Tavern]. I would call up everybody on that list—physically call them on their phone or send them emails—and we’d pack the place out. I’d be making flyers all week. I really felt famous at that time. I was always feeling like every sold-out show was my big break. I went to L.A. a couple of times to try and get record deals, and it didn’t ever work out. I made a lot of pretty stupid demos. And then I met the twins. That was a tipping point, the twins.”

Phil and Tim Hanseroth were playing in a local band called Fighting Machinists, who’d briefly been signed to Interscope. Carlile was too young for the clubs they were playing, but she’d sneak in, carrying an amp to look like she was with the band. “I didn’t really care for the style of music they were doing—it was this pop-punk, momentary thing that had happened, you know, post-late ’90s—but their harmonies were insane,” Carlile says. “So I hit them up and I asked them to sing with me. It turned out that the band had just broken up. They wanted to go in an acoustic direction, and I was really feeling the need to plug in. We met each other at these crossroads of compromise. They were really overwhelmed with my schedule, all my residencies. They had a tough time with it, but they did them with me. And then at the end of the night, they would sneak their money back into my guitar case because they knew that was my only job.”

It didn’t take long for Rick Rubin to make an offer, which led to other offers from a number of record companies. The trio signed to Columbia Records as “Brandi Carlile,” though they operate more like a band, sharing songwriting duties and operating as equal partners. “I always say if the band were called Phil Hanseroth I’d still be in it,” she says, “and it’s true. If we decided to change the name to The Twins, I’d be in the band.”

In a world filled with major-label horror stories, Carlile has nothing but good words for the support she received from Columbia. “I feel like a weirdo that I can’t just be indier-than-thou, and be like, ‘Yeah, fuck the man,’” she says. “But this record label has just been honestly so kind to our band. They bought a record that we had put together that was a compilation of demos. They started trying to teach me how to take pictures and get on the road and helped me into a van.”

The development work paid off for the label when the second album, The Story benefitted from its appearance on a GM spot during the Olympic Games in Beijing, eventually selling a quarter-million copies. Carlile and the twins had turned the car company down several times until GM agreed to make the commercial only about environmentally sustainable cars, going so far as letting Carlile write the script for the ad. She and the twins donated all proceeds to environmental organizations. They set up their own 501c3 organization, eventually broadening the focus from the environment to humanitarian concerns, naming a board of directors and an executive director.

“Now it’s used as aid in underserved communities where people are marginalized or disenfranchised,” she says. “We can actually spearhead campaigns and get our hands dirty and get involved with the work we do, as opposed to just funding the work we do. We taught self-defense courses to women in at-risk communities, battered women’s shelters, homeless shelters, vision- and hearing-impaired shelters. We’ve created educational documentaries that come out at the women’s prisons to help young girls alter their trajectories, who are at risk of being in trouble. We’ve done tons of work with the Maple Valley Food Bank [in Washington] and other local food banks, and we’ve done a lot of work within the senior center—an exercise program, a lunch program, a transportation program. We’ve filtered hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last four years to places that need assistance.”

It’s a long way from the sidewalks of Pike’s Place. “I didn’t even know this was real life,” she says, laughing. “I just thought this was something that happened to very few people and that in my little snow globe that I lived in, I was exactly where I knew I needed to be. Every step I take towards something greater than myself, even this year, headlining Red Rocks, is something that as a 12-year-old, I would’ve told you that you were out of your mind if you ever told me that I’d be on stage doing anything other than sweeping the floor.”

More than just taking the stage, Carlile released a live album last year, Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony, and has already followed it up with her fourth studio release.

Bear Creek Studios is a turn-of-the-century wood-plank barn sitting on 10-acre horse farm outside Seattle. For Carlile, the Hanseroths, cellist Josh Neumann and drummer Allison Miller, it was the perfect place to hole up for a month and record Bear Creek.

After a pair of records with super-producers T Bone Burnett (2007’s The Story) and Rick Rubin (2009’s Give Up the Ghost), Carlile felt it was time for them to create a more relaxed environment this time around. “The Northwest is our place; it’s our lives,” she says. “Seattle will always be my city, but we’re so rural at heart and the music always lends itself to that so much that we wanted to be in an environment that felt that way. Bear Creek is this huge, old barn that’s really beautiful and sounds really good. It’s actually on a creek. We wanted to work there because we thought it was kind of symbolic to us coming back into our own and producing a record ourselves, in our own state, in a place that looks like our town.”

Since the studio was about an hour and a half drive from their homes—and 20 minutes from any kind of shop—they spent many nights sleeping in the “country-ass loft” above the recording space. They’d just finished touring and unloaded the bus straight into the studio. The sound guy became the assistant engineer. The guitar tech worked on all the guitars. The tour manager became the runner. They worked and played and cooked and ate and constructed elaborate pranks together for a solid month with no days off.

During the sessions, Carlile banned computers from the studio and iPhones from the control room. She wanted people connecting, talking to each other, picking up guitars and jamming. Instead of taking cigarette breaks, the musicians would sheepishly go outside to check Facebook. Inside, they turned their energy towards playing around with whatever instruments were lying around.

“We were starting to really get comfortable trying things out that we hadn’t done before,” Carlile says. “Without the presence of Rick or T Bone hanging out in the control room, people felt a lot more comfortable picking up instruments that we don’t really play. When you play those kinds of instruments in front of a person who’s producing your record, they tend to think along the lines of, ‘Okay, that’s a really great idea; now let’s get the banjo player in here’ or ‘Let’s get the mandolin player in here.’ And then you get really possessive and scared that your music is gonna get messed with when you just wanted that little three-note part.”

They’d long wanted to make a record themselves, but they realized there was a lot to learn from their producers. “Making that first record, we were overseen by Rick Rubin all the time. And he would tell us things, and we’d send him mixes and then we’d sit around and wait for a week for him to call us back—on pins and needles, just dying to know what he thought. And then he’d call us back and he’d be like, ‘Oh, everything needs percussion’ and gives us these tips. It would piss us off so bad. But then we’d lay the percussion down, and sure as shit, everything needed percussion.

“So, then we got really good at figuring out how to make that sound good,” she continues, “what kind of percussion fit where, how come it helps the motor of a song to have a tambourine—little, tiny logistical studio matters. ‘We were like, ‘Okay, yeah, we’re definitely producers now.’ We wanted to make the next record ourselves. Then I met T Bone, and I thought there was so much we could learn from him. He was talking about vinyl, he was talking about the kinds of music that are made today, mastering, how to mic things, how irritating he finds certain aspects of the business. I found a kindred spirit in him. I was like, ‘Yeah, no, we’re not done with school yet. We’ve still got a lot to learn from this guy.’ Everything we do is different because of The Story. All the guitars we play, the way that we mic our instruments, the kinds of music we like—it’s all different. And then after that, we went back to working with Rick Rubin again, and yet, you know, another source of knowledge. So three records with these A-list producers, and we were like, ‘Okay, let’s not be perpetual students. Let’s try to apply some of this knowledge on our own, see if we can.”

But they knew they needed an experienced engineer, and they turned to Trina Shoemaker, who’d worked with Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris and producer Daniel Lanois. They came to trust her so much that they eventually invited her to co-produce. “Trina’s probably the greatest engineer there is, making music. And that’s a really big statement; we’ve worked with some really special ones. She’s unbelievable. So when we started making the record, we had a huddle and we were like, ‘Yeah, we’re producing, but don’t you think we should bring her in on it because she’s so amazing?’”

Bear Creek is a bit roots-ier than its predecessor, Give Up The Ghost, especially on the first couple of tracks. “Hard Way Home” is driven by a country shuffle, and “Raise Hell” opens with strumming on a lone banjo. But it’s the album’s best song, “That Wasn’t Me,” that just might stretch Carlile the farthest. Without dipping into specific theological territory, it’s undeniably rooted in gospel music. It follows a return to church for the singer four or five years ago.

“As an adult, I can see that faith isn’t something that should come easily to anybody,” she says. “My plight with it probably isn’t any worse than anybody else’s is. … I kind of got a hold of myself, and I was like, ‘Why did I get chased out of this? There’s nothing about my faith that should exclude me from getting to make music in church.’ So I started looking back into it, and I found one near where I live. I knocked on the door, and I asked if I could do music, and they said yeah.”

The Episcopalian church she now attends has about 50 parishioners. She leads them in bluegrass spiritual standards like “I’ll Fly Away,” “That Old Weathered Cross” and “His Eye Is On the Sparrow.” But with a big U.S. tour beginning in a couple of weeks, she’ll be away from church and home for a while. Aside from a few dates with the Dave Matthews Band, she’ll be headlining.

“I’ve been opening for people in these gigs—Chastain [in Atlanta] and Wolftrap [in Vienna, Va.] and Red Rocks [in Morrison, Col.]—for years,” she says, “and always wanted to be the headliner. This is the tour where we get to actually be the ones on stage when the sun goes down.”

Nobody will be slinging fish behind her or just trying to eat a meal in peace, but that same honest expression she employed to hold listeners’ attention at Pike’s Place or her restaurant circuit are what will pack venues from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Asheville, N.C. And just like when she was eight, that spotlight will be bright, and the cheers will be loud. And she won’t be able to imagine doing anything else.