Catching Up With Brandi Carlile

Music Features Brandi Carlile
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Catching Up With Brandi Carlile

The idea of artist development—a major record label discovering a talent, nurturing it and giving it time to grown—is dead. Just don’t tell Brandi Carlile. The first time I heard the young singer/songwriter, she was in our first tiny office studio. I was outside, but the studio door was no match for her voice. She and her band—Phil and Tim Hanseroth, who co-write, sing, play and share equally in any money their music generates—slowly graduated from playing coffeehouses to small clubs to theaters, as album sales have steadily climbed.

After three albums and two additional band members—cellist Josh Neumann and drummer Allison Miller—Carlile decided to release the self-explanatory Live at Benaroya Hall with The Seattle Symphony, due out tomorrow (which you can stream here). I spoke with my kids’ favorite singer about the live album and the upcoming studio album she just finished recording.

Paste: So last time I saw you, you were dropping your niece off at the childcare on Cayamo. How was that having your whole extended family along?
Carlile: Well, I was investigating childcare to see if I was comfortable dropping her off. It was really chaotic, but really really fun.

Paste: Releasing a live album right now makes total sense for where you are in your career and actually capturing your live show. What led to recording it with Seattle Symphony?
Carlile: I’ve always wanted to do a live album as my fourth record. It’s been in the plan since the very beginning. I wanted to do a live album that would be a recordable tour and then put together a compilation of performances from the tour that all meant something and then we name the album after the tour. Or we’d do a show in a really spectacular venue, something legendary, and then just pray that it’s sold out, and then name the album after the venue. But as soon as we started doing symphony shows—which we started with the Seattle symphony—we though, “It has to be a symphony album. It’s going to be really difficult to record because there is going to be 75 tracks, but it has to be a symphony album.”

Paste:How did it come about with the Seattle Symphony in particular?
Carlile: They were the first one, and it just seemed natural because they are in our hometown. Benaroya Hall is a legendary venue. A lot of the symphony halls that we have played at have been newer performance-art-center-type places and and just not really live-album worthy. Benaroya Hall has significance—not just to me, but I think it’s renowned and so is the Seattle Symphony. It just seemed an appropriate way to give a nod to our city and to our venue, our symphony, and make a live album.

Paste: I’ve seen a little into what goes into these symphony performances—there’s not usually a ton of time to rehearse, to really get through everything. How was that process? Did you feel like you were going in really prepared?
Carlile: No, there’s no time to rehearse. The symphony concept is really the clashing of two worlds. It’s two different kinds of artists, two different kinds of musicians that have gotten into music and art for two completely different reasons, and then the fans are two different kind of fans. It’s a marriage that’s not made in heaven, but it’s very interesting. We don’t need a rehearsal; we’ve played these songs every night for years so we know how to play them. And the symphony doesn’t need rehearsal because they can sight-read so incredibly I can’t even describe it to you. When you show up, they know how to play your song so much better than you that it’s embarrassing. But you still have a rehearsal. You rehearse around noon, early in the morning, which is so un-rock star because you’re usually asleep at that time, but you do it. You find out after a few symphony shows there’s a reason that you do it. It’s just to make sure everything goes alright and make sure everybody knows the songs. It prepares you for exactly how powerful it will be during the show, because when you’re standing on stage singing a song that you sing every night and then all of a sudden 30 more musicians start playing with you, it causes you to take pause. And you can’t take pause; you have to keep going. You could get emotional, you could get choked up, you could forget your part because it is so powerful, but it’s to prepare you that, “Hey, this is a big deal, this is going to sound crazy.” That’s what the rehearsal is for. It’s really moving, actually.

Paste: Who is involved in creating the charts for the different musicians?
Carlile: There’s a guy from L.A., his name is Sean O’Loughlin. He did our first wave of charts and he then did half the songs in our second wave of charts, because he’s done charts for two years. He’s really amazing and super cool to work with. Then there’s one of my great heroes, the legendary Paul Buckmaster. He did the other half of the charts and his are really, really, very, very avant-garde, super-special. With Sean, I got to get really involved, and we had a dialogue, and it was really fun to work the charts out together. But with Paul, a dialogue about symphony charts is not fun because he’s brilliant, and he’s intense, and he’s so true to his art that he really doesn’t take too kindly to pop-singer terms regarding symphony charts. So you just let him go, you let him do his thing, and then you hear the song in the show.

Paste: In particular, “Pride and Joy” just becomes something completely else with the symphony was that a Sean or a Paul chart?
Carlile: That was a Sean O’Loughlin chart. He actually did that one before we recorded “Pride and Joy” for the record. So “Pride and Joy” was actually the chart that was done before we recorded it for the album which is what gave us the idea to have a string arrangement on “Pride and Joy” for Give Up the Ghost. But when it came to the live version, me and the twins really liked the idea of having an album version of “Pride and Joy” and a live version of “Pride and Joy,” so we stuck with the previously constructed rock-and-roll chart for our live shows.

Paste: It’s funny that you have the strings on the record and you have them live, but somehow it’s more of a rock song.
Carlile: Yeah, they are completely different. Neither one informs the other.

Paste: Now, there are a few covers on here as well. Everyone who has heard you live has heard the twins sing and knows what great voices they have, and of course they sing back-up on other songs. Was that nice to be able to let them step out on “Sound of Silence” and kind of step back?
Carlile: Oh I love it, I really love it. It’s like pulling teeth for them because it doesn’t occur to them that anyone would want to hear them sing alone, and they couldn’t be more wrong. They sound so beautiful, and they’re such a special part of the show, and they’re so unassuming. When I first got them to start doing that song it’s because they had been using it backstage to warm up their voices up. They would draw the openers out of their dressing room to find out who the hell was singing the song. When I asked them to do it they were like, “Well you’ve got to come up with a harmony then or you gotta play guitar or you can play piano.” And I was like “No, I need to be able to sit on a chair backstage and watch you guys do that song every night or I cannot go on.” The fact that it got included on the record was tough for them, but I think that now they really love it.

Paste: You describe it as one of “the creepiest and most beautiful things” that you’ve ever heard.
Carlile: It is creepy sounding—they sound like the same person. It’s creepier when you see it live because with the magic of the recording technology now-a-days we can duplicate all of those kind of things digitally. But when you see it live and see it’s two people, it’s just bizarre because they sound like they look, which is identical and strange.

Paste: Another song that you do on here obviously been covered before, a lot. Was it daunting to cover “Hallelujah?”
Carlile: It’s always daunting to cover “Hallelujah.”

Paste: I’ve got the version from the Paste party you did years ago, so I’ve had that on CD for awhile, but not of this quality and not with the strings.
Carlile: Well, around the time that we decided to do a string arrangement for “Hallelujah” I was going through a phase where my evolution with that song had taken me to a place where I had gotten a little self-conscious about singing it. Because so many people had been singing that I was nervous that maybe Leonard Cohen would hate that or that wasn’t appropriate or something. But I’ve since done a complete 180, and I believe that what that that song has meant to singer/songwriters throughout last decade has caused it to become a standard for our generation, which we need. Singer/songwriters have gotten increasingly more and more snooty about covering other people’s music and the individualism of our art, and that we should sing our songs—that’s true but we do need to set a standard for our generation. And I believe that “Hallelujah” will be that because of how influential it’s been to singer/songwriters.

Paste: You have another cover that I don’t know that anyone else I’ve heard cover: “Forever Young,” the hidden track.
Carlile: Yeah, it’s on there. It’s kind of become one of my favorite songs. I’m such a child-of-the-’80s nerd and I have the Neverending Story tattoos on my arm. I’m just a geek. So “Forever Young” is one of the songs that I loved in the ‘80s. I went back and listened to it again when I was on the road because I heard another song that reminded me of it—that Killers song “Human.” So I went back and I listened to “Forever Young” again, and I realized aside from being a totally ‘80s-production-glam drama, the lyrics are actually really moving so I just had to start singing it.

Paste: Usually when you see a live album like this, it means a longer break between regular albums. Did this feel like this was just time for it or that you wanted to kind of step back from the every two years cranking out a new album pattern or what’s the plan for the future on new songs?
Carlile: I don’t know. I don’t really have a pattern, that’s the thing. I mean I have a map where I kind of hit a stride or a rhythm because touring takes precedent over everything else. Which is another reason why this album came live is appropriate and the reason why I’m most proud of it out of everything we’ve done because at the end of the day we’re a live band and that’s what’s most important. So this album really is exactly who we are, and it was important to me that it was that. But I just finished the new studio album.

Paste: Oh, so this isn’t getting in the way of your release schedule at all?
Carlile: Nope. I spent the whole month of February mixing this album, the live album. Then the whole month of March into early April I spent recording the studio album. So I went from album to album. Once we got into the studio and started making the two albums that was just a whole other experience that I can’t wait to recap and go into depth about with you.

Paste: Does it have a name yet?
Carlile: It has a name that I’d like to call it, but I don’t know if I will be able to get away with it. The experience was far above the best and most magical experience. The studio was really beautiful too, it was a barn out in the middle of nowhere, it’s called Bear Creek. We made it with Trina Schumaker. It was just really, really fun. I want to call it Bear Creek, but I haven’t told anyone else that yet.

Paste: So a tentative title, but not a set one. And where is that middle of nowhere? Just out in the middle of Washington?
Carlile: Yeah, it’s east of Seattle.

Paste: And being out in the middle of nowhere while you recorded was probably a little bit of a different experience for you guys?
Carlile: Yeah, we’ve recorded in some of the biggest metropolitan areas on the West Coast. It’s a little bit counter-cultural for me, to the way that I create. But in this instance really actually in being in a barn and having to cook for ourselves, it brought out more of my person. Which I think it shows.

Paste: Do you have any idea for a release date on that?
Carlile: No idea.

Paste: And you haven’t switched labels—you’re still on Columbia?
Carlile: Still on Columbia. They’ve been really supportive about the record, about this next record, about both records. The live record cost them a lot of money to make because all of the string musicians have to get paid, and they’re all in a union and recording them cost an extra-special amount of money. They were so supportive about the concept of doing the symphony album, and it literally would be probably one of the most expensive live albums you can make, and they were just awesome. This next record they were awesome about too. They let me pick who we wanted to work with, where we wanted to work. They’ve just really honestly proven to be such a great record label to us. I feel like a weirdo that I can’t just be indier-than-thou, and be like, “Yeah, fuck the man.” But this record label has just been honestly so kind to our band.

Paste: It just dawned on me that everyone talks about the death of artist development and you really seem to be the exception to that rule. You came up on Columbia and that first record and…
Carlile: 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. There is no way I could ever claim that.

Paste: How did you guys accomplish keeping artist development alive in one little corner of America? Did it seem like a different deal than other people were getting?
Carlile: I don’t know. We feel we got one of the last great record deals. We didn’t get asked to sign any 360-agreements or anything like that. We got a great record deal with tour support. We have seen employees of our record label come and go, and we remain friends with every single one of them to this day. It’s just like anything else—the people that work there love their jobs. They love music or they wouldn’t work there. They just really gave us a lot of space. When I came onto that label especially I didn’t know how to be on camera, have my picture taken. I didn’t even know how to put on make-up. No one ever put any weird pressure on me to sort of kowtow to the status quo or to not be gay or any of those things. Actually I don’t even know how the hell we got so lucky. But I know that that’s not the story for everyone else and so I respect that, too.

Paste: So thematically the new record, did anything seem to surprise you that you were writing or that was different?
Carlile: Yeah. Just in general my songwriting has made such a transformation. I know people go through some kind of strange transformation when they’re getting ready to turn 30, but my songwriting has become so much more sacred to me. I think I started out writing songs not necessarily from a place of experience. And I wouldn’t say it was derivative; it was just I was being influenced by a generation of songwriters, and I was writing about my experience of their experiences that I hadn’t yet had. They may have been 15-20 years older than me or more. I think now the lyrics come to me first and I have to find a way to construct them into a song, and it takes a long time. The more poignant and profound, to me, that they become, the fewer and fewer songs I write. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to perform those songs on stage casually, which I think is a good thing.

Paste: So you think this would be a more personal record? You say they are more from your own personal experiences as opposed to others.
Carlile: Well they’re all based so personally I don’t have enough time in retrospect, which is how I figure out all my songs, to be able to answer that question honestly. I can’t totally say for sure, I know that some of the songs are more personal than anything I’ve ever ventured into writing. Uncomfortably personal. But not all of them. The twins wrote a lot of songs on this record, which is so cool.

Paste: How is that process? Do you guys all bring songs to the table? Do you ever set out to write together?
Carlile: Well me and the twins believe in total equality within regards to money and credit and all those kinds of things. So whenever somebody brings a song to the table and we feel it sounds great and it’s done, then it’s just done. We don’t even mess with it. But if it needs adjustment or I feel it needs a bridge or Phil feels he doesn’t like a chord in the chorus, we just change it will all of us with the understanding that everyone is equal, and no one makes anymore or any less for any reason than anybody else. Publishing just doesn’t even matter to us.

Paste: It seems like you all are in a band called Brandi Carlile.
Carlile: Yeah, no doubt about that! I always say if the band were called Phil Hanseroth I’d still be in it, and it’s true. If we decided to change the name to Twins, I’d be in the band.

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