For the last decade, Brandi Carlile and her band mates have been mesmerizing audiences around the world with their musical ingenuity, lyrical honesty and strong vocal performances. Legions of fans have been drawn to albums such as The Story like moths to a flame, and last year’s concert release Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony demonstrated just how popular her symphony shows are with audiences. Now Carlile is back with her latest LP, Bear Creek, which is as impassioned, gritty and honest as anything her band has ever written. Yet musically it is more diverse than ever.
Brandi recently took some time to talk with us before she heads out on tour this summer in support of the album. She had a lot to say about what drives her to make music, how grateful she is for tendinitis, and how she and the band decided to completely ignore genre labels while recording this surprising and powerful album.
SSv: So tell us about Bear Creek. I’m really digging it, by the way.
Brandi Carlile: Aw, thanks man. It’s the one I am most proud of, I think, in a number of ways. Everything about it was sort of all-consuming for me — from the artwork to the videos, from the recording, the sonic part of recording it, to the writing for it. It was a big journey for me.
SSv: This album feels more organic and earthy than some of your other releases. Talk a bit about the writing process and what that was like for you and your band mates.
Brandi: It was really cool. We ended up writing a lot of the stuff right up until going into the studio, and even some of it while we were actually in the studio.
Brandi: Some of the almost avant-garde appeal to some of the songs you hear on the record that sound a little rough around the edges. Maybe stuff you haven’t heard from us before. It’s just experimentation that we were kind of able to do this time because we didn’t have a producer, per se.
Brandi: So you find yourself more liberated to do things and try things you wouldn’t ordinarily try. Now that might mean that you’re gonna make some mistakes as well that are gonna make it onto your album that you might take some heat for… but you just feel more inclined to pick up an instrument you haven’t played before or try some weird daisy chain of pedals that may sound strange and those sorts of things, than when there’s a guy in the room who already knows how to do it, you know?
SSv: Sure. Now you’ve worked with guys like Rick Rubin and T-Bone Burnett in the past, so what was it like being in control this time around?
Brandi: It was good. I think we found ourselves a few times, at least, in tense exchanges, if not conflicts, because of the fact that there wasn’t this kind of mediator there, but in that way there also wasn’t any imposition, you know? And any time we ever found ourselves in conflict or feeling the intensity, it was only to push one of us harder to do better.
It was never a matter of, “I don’t like that,” or “That doesn’t belong.” It was always a matter of, “You should do more, you can do this better.” And without a producer in there, that had to come from within ourselves, you know? From within our group, and it was strange. Typically we all go on the road and we know what our jobs are and we do ‘em and we have a great time, but it’s not like us to sit down and pick apart Bill’s bass line. But it was that way and it was to our benefit as a band, and to the record’s benefit too.
SSv: It’s nice to know you guys were up to the challenge and could do that in a constructive way instead of imploding from all the stress of it all and just tearing each other apart.
Brandi: Yeah. Well it doesn’t work that way in this band, because tearing each other apart would not be conducive to the fact that we’re literally a family. Phil (Hanseroth) is married to my sister and they have a baby, and the baby is Tim’s (Hanseroth) niece, and me and Tim are an aunt and uncle together. We all live in the same town within a mile of each other’s houses. We can’t have a fight in the studio because we’re all gonna get back in the car in three hours and drive home. It’s like this is how we do things and we have to learn to cope with each other in a healthy way.
SSv: Wow, that’s an interesting dynamic for sure.
Brandi: Yeah, it’s great!
SSv: So how long has that been the case, all of you being related like that?
Brandi: Well, Phil and my sister just got married, I think, the year before last, and they had the baby just a couple months ago. And Tim and Phil bought houses in my hometown and they’ve lived here now the past few years. We’ve been together for a decade and we split everything in our band three ways. Nobody has any more power than anybody else.
SSv: So with the guys moving closer and with Phil marrying into the family and everything, did that change the dynamic of the band in any way? Or did that maybe just serve to enhance what was already there between you three?
Brandi: It just happened slowly, and I think we’d all felt the way we feel now before the things happened that made it a more literal situation. We all spent a lot of time together, we got matching tattoos and before that we were in vans together for years as a band, you know? And then you live in a bus and you literally sleep in a coffin-sized bed three feet away from one another. Whether it’s marriage or moving to the same town, how things turned out was just a real natural trajectory after having lived together on the road in that way for so long.
SSv: There’s a lot of musical variety on this record: Country, Blues, Gospel, Americana, Folk rock, Bluegrass and all kinds of different things. So how did you guys determine what you were going to do with this album, musically? Or did you go in without a plan and this is just what ended up happening?
Brandi: Well, Phil and Tim were like bouncing off the walls before the record about this idea of not thinking about this record in terms of continuity, no matter what. They just wanted it to be this totally bi-polar, up-and-down genre, things that don’t make sense next to each other and stuff like that. And they were talking about these Beatles albums where they used all these different genres on the record, so we decided to go into this record with our writing and try to be the completely anti-genre band.
So if one of us had a country song, we chose not to say that it didn’t belong. If someone had a rock ‘n roll song that sounded like it might even be a tad British, we didn’t exclude that song. If somebody had a soul song, we did that one based on how things were fitting together on the record.
Every record we’ve ever made we’ve had a concept like that going into it. When it was The Story, it was this live concept. We really wanted it to sound like it was a continuous show, so we played all the same instruments, we set up in the same way and we made this album that I think sounds a bit like a set, you know?
Brandi: And with Give Up the Ghost, we all got together and we said, Okay listen, every band’s second album is about being on the road and that’s really annoying. [Both laugh] So we need to take the temptation of that lyrical theme and write outside of it. So if you are sitting in a hotel room and you’re feeling lonely don’t write a song called, “I’m Sitting in a Hotel Room and I’m Feeling Lonely,” but think about why you really feel that way and write it about that.
So that was the lyrical theme of Give Up the Ghost. And then with the live album we wanted each song to sound like its own record, so we had a new set up for every song, just the opposite of The Story. And then with this record, we said Okay, we’re not gonna have a producer, we’re gonna finally apply the knowledge we learned from T-Bone and Rick in our own way, and let’s not put any shackles on our writing at all. Let’s just write wildly outside of our usual genre, our current mindset. And that’s what we did.
SSv: Wow. Well I think it works out really well.
Brandi: Thanks man. I am really, really proud of it. I’m signing over 3,000 lyric booklets right now. They’re all piled up on my lap and all over the floor and I just… every time I look at this record, I’m proud of it.
SSv: That’s definitely a good thing to know that you’re proud of it and aren’t just mailing it in and hoping for the best without really caring about it all that much.
Brandi: No way. I think I actually have tendinitis right now.
SSv: Oh, no! [Laughs]
Brandi: I’ve written the lyrics to “That Wasn’t Me” 95 times for this special I did. There’s this CD package where you can buy the CD and I’d write the lyrics to “That Wasn’t Me” and that has taken me months. Yeah!
SSv: But it sounds like it’s all worth it though.
Brandi: Yeah it is. It’s really cool. Actually I consider it a privilege that anybody wants my signature on anything anyway.
SSv: A lot of the songs on the album center on relationships and it feels like this is a deeply personal album for you guys. How much of it is autobiographical and how much of it is observational?
Brandi: Well, I think pretty much everything on this record is autobiographical. The interesting thing is because I live so closely with The Twins [Phil and Tim Hanseroth], you tend to become interpreters for one another. Some of the lyrics on this album might be a Tim song, like “A Promise to Keep,” and I’ve found myself totally inside that song, believing it. So even though I didn’t write “A Promise to Keep,” I really do feel like I did because I know what it’s about. I was there, I saw that whole thing happen. It’s funny, when you live that closely with your co-writers it does become one solid lyrical theme.
SSv: Wow. Now had you guys ever had experiences like that on previous releases? Or was this a phenomenon that was exclusive to this album?
Brandi: I think relationships ebb and flow. On some albums I’ve had to sing something that Phil’s writing and I’m thinking, “I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.” I’m just singing it, you know? [Both laugh] And on some albums they’re having to play one of my weird songs where the verses are all different lengths and the bridge doesn’t make any sense and I’m sure they don’t know what the fuck I’m thinking about.
So at different times it hasn’t always lined up like that, but on Bear Creek, for some reason, it really lined up like that. It’s probably because of the move to the same town, the wedding and the baby. All these things made it a pretty connected experience.
SSv: Well that’s cool. It’s like you have this nice juxtaposition where you’re connected within the songs and maybe even between one song to the next because of the content, even though the genres of the songs are different and there’s no real musical theme to the album, per se.
SSv: So there’s this underlying thread of connectivity throughout, which is awesome.
Brandi: Yeah. And if I’m singing a song on my album about a breakup that one of The Twins went through, chances are I can’t stand that bitch worse than they can, you know? It’s so bizarre. I feel the same way that they do, if not worse, because people tend to forgive the trespasses of those who trespass against them more easily than their family does. I find it real easy to sing a breakup song that has to do with Phil or Tim or something.
SSv: That’s interesting that you can experience the songs that deeply even though you didn’t write them.
SSv: What was the inspiration for “Raise Hell?” I like that song a lot.
Brandi: Aw, thanks man. [Laughs] That was mine, that was all me. I was hung over in Boston on my 30th birthday, backstage during a thunderstorm while on tour, waiting for them to tell me whether or not the show was going to happen because the thunderstorm was so intense. A bunch of people had died that day from the storm and there were tornadoes everywhere. It was just really tumultuous, dark, turbulent times, physically and mentally for me.
So instead of writing this tortured, inward song, for some reason this sort of up-tempo face-off happened where I ended up in this “Devil Went Down to Georgia” situation. And I found myself just kind of trying to decide whether to stand up and look it all in the face, or just take a Xanax and go get in my bunk and go to sleep, you know?
Brandi: And so “Raise Hell” ended up being one of the most up-tempo, turbulent songs I’d ever written. And of course it does have that “Devil Went Down to Georgia” thing where I was like, “All right. No way. I’m not gonna let this get me down.”
SSv: I feel like with “Raise Hell” and one or two other songs on the record, you have this lively, up-tempo sound getting matched with more serious lyrics.
SSv: So it’s interesting when I hear songs like that because my first thought is it’s going to be happy and you can get up and dance to it, but then I start listening to the lyrics and suddenly I’m thinking, “Well, maybe not.”
Brandi: Yeah. “Hard Way Home” is like that too. It sounds so lighthearted [Brandi imitates some of the song’s more whimsical and cheery notes], there’s like a piano and a banjo—but it’s literally saying, “I’m going to fake my death. [Laughs]” I mean it literally says that. “I’m gonna fake my death and never be found.”And it’s just one of those things where you sing the song with a smile on your face because that’s really what life is about. The people who have the most fucked up experiences and situations innately know how to laugh at them.
SSv: Right. Well that’s cool. I’m glad you could do that with a couple of the songs.
Brandi: Yeah man, thanks for noticing.
SSv: We talked earlier about how most of the record focuses on relationships. Two of the songs however—“Keep Your Heart Young” and “Just Kids”—seem to circle back around to the vibrance and hope and the promise of youth, and they act as a sort of necessary counterpoint to all the adult heartache that’s going on in the rest of the record.
SSv: Was that intentional or was it just a happy by-product of the writing process and you just thought these songs worked well enough that they should be used?
Brandi: It’s just a glimpse into the collective mind of our band, you know? In the midst of heartache and all the things we’ve dealt with in the last decade—from divorce to loss to love to stumbling in faith, problems with politics and just really difficult but normal life situations—there is this undercurrent of hope, of youth, that surges through our band. And we make a point to do things like go fishing together or catch frogs or build something weird or watch a cartoon.
We make a point of doing those things because that’s what being a person is. It’s balancing that dichotomy between the child that’s always in you and always finding a way to sort of raise its head, and the situations you have to deal with with wisdom as an adult. So those songs have to be there just like they have to be there in your day, you know?
SSv: I like that. It’s so easy to get lost in the reality of adulthood that we forget to do these things.
Brandi: Yeah! Every once in a while you’ve just got to put a frog in a jar and look at it or find some pieces of scrap wood in your yard and build a fort, which we do. We’ve done those things so those aren’t just random examples! [Laughs]
SSv: There’s this juxtaposition between yearning—whether it be for lost love, your childhood, for some kind of forgiveness—and release, whether it’s the album’s occasional upbeat songs or the vocals on “Save Part of Yourself” for example. So how does this collection of songs live together in both of those worlds, yearning and release?
Brandi: Well, I think for me, most songs that are written from a sense of yearning or confusion or sadness or something that needs to be fixed work out. It comes from something broken. So to learn to love a gift or a skill you have that comes from something broken is first of all a journey in itself. [Laughs]
Brandi: But second of all, there’s never a release; it’s never finished for me until I’ve completed the cycle of not only writing the song, but then performing it for other people. So songs aren’t a release, there’s not a release in them. And as a listener you might find it just because somebody has gone through what you’ve gone through and by writing this song understands some of your pain, but as a performer I don’t ever find it until I’m on the road, which is why if you see my schedule, I’m on the road a lot!
SSv: And that’s a good thing.
SSv: What keeps driving you guys to make the music that you make?
Brandi: I don’t know about The Twins. I mean I know I’m really innately just culture-driven, to my own detriment, you know? I won’t ever have toured enough or played enough places or seen enough crowds. That’s what keeps me making music is that: performing live. Everything I’ve ever done in the form of musicianship—whether it’s learning to play an instrument or writing a song—has always been so that I have something to sing, or something to sing to.
So to me it’s so centered in singing and performing that songwriting is this fleeting thing that just kinda happens, you know, like a dream? And when it happens to me it kinda happens all at once, and then when I wake up from it, when I’m done, I can’t even remember if I know how to do it anymore. Like right now I’m not writing because I’m getting ready to go out on the road, and if you told me, “Sit down and write a song,” I don’t know if I could actually do it. Like I don’t know if I’ve honed it as a craft, but I know I could sing a song any day around the clock, you know?
SSv: That’s cool.
Brandi: It’s a fun job, man. I’m glad to have it. [Laughs]