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MAY 08, 2007
Interview: Brandi Carlile

Brandi Brandi Carlile is back - and it seems like the world couldn't wait any longer. This alt-country singer who hails from Seattle, drew a lot of buzz for her self-titled, critically acclaimed 2005 debut - and picked up a lot of fans during two years of near-constant touring.

Last fall, she and her bandmates, twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, stepped into a Vancouver studio with legendary producer T. Bone Burnett for two solid weeks to churn out The Story, a 13-song mini-novel capturing moments from throughout the singer's life.

I caught up with Brandi, who is currently on tour with singer/songwriter Cary Brothers, in Austin, Texas, to talk about working with legends like Burnett and the Indigo Girls, family and fishing.

Read the Q&A or just listen to the entire interview now. [You can also read the shorter version I did for the Associated Press that went out earlier today.]

[Photo credit: Jim Cooper/AP]


SomethingGlorious: The last time your album came out, you were named a RS artist to watch. Now there's definitely buzz around this release. How does it feel to have done that whole push, take a step back, record with an amazing producer and it's all starting again. How do you feel right now?
Brandi Carlile: A little bit overwhelmed. I got accustomed to being at home. I guess I'm like a dog who needs to be socialized again to learn how to be around people because I live so far out. It's been weird doing interviews again because I haven't done them since the last record. Now I have to remember to answer in answers that are detailed and long instead of yes or no answers.

SG: Last time we chatted in September you said you had just come off whirlwind tour and you said you wanted to learn how to get back to yourself. Then you went into the studio then took time off during winter. Were you able to figure out who you wanted to be again?
BC: I think I did that right after we spoke. The pre-production time was a good time for me to get it together and be confident about making the record. Going into the studio is a stripping humbling process.

SG: How so?
BC: Because there's no one there everyday to tell you how great you are and how amazing you sound. It's important to not believe the words that get thrown around so easily. In the studio, there's no one there to throw those words around after your performance and no one's clapping. You're just left with your thoughts - it's a humbling experience.

SG: Do you feel like there were moments in the studio - without the accolades from the fans - that you were broken down at all where you felt like you weren't good enough to do it?
BC: Yeah. There were times where I didn't feel like a good guitar player. There were times where I was nervous to mess the track up for everybody else. The whole time it was two weeks of questioning myself.

SG: So how do you feel confident coming out of it knowing that what you got is it - that's it's good enough?
BC: I love the record. It's done. If you'd asked me a few days after we recorded I wouldn't know. You can't really hear yourself sing. I didn't know what the record sounding like until it was done.

SG: What were your feelings in between the time you finished recording and it was done and mastered?
BC: I was so worried. I was obsessive. I couldn't stop listening to it, to every single song - what it was going to sound like when it was mixed, what people thought of it, what T Bone thought of it - it was a stressful time where I couldn't see clearly through the fog. But it was very brief.

SG: Obviously you had to trust in T Bone - did you take that into account and know it was going to be fine?
BC: I almost never do. I don't ever want to blindly trust. I don't ever want to not be a part of anything. I want to be a part of making decisions and if there's something I don't understand I want to be made to understand it.

SG: Was he a good teacher - what did he bring to the process?
BC: T Bone is an amazing facilitator. He creates an environment and a vibe. The way he explains it is he takes pictures, which means he records it. And his extensive knowledge of recording and engineering - and how to record to tape and what a great live take is versus a live performance. That's where things get really foggy. He understands the difference between those two things.

SG: With setting up the environment, when you went into the studio and saw what he had set up with all the vintage instruments - what was your first impression?
BC: I saw some of the stuff at pre-production and asked if he was going to bring the things to the studio. He shipped it all up there. He picked up a 1932 Rosewood Martin that he picked up in Nashville just for me. I don't know what it means but it was amazing.

SG: Did he give it to you as a gift afterward?
BC: Oh hell no.

SG: With playing like instruments like that is there a huge distinction for you and the music you want to create with playing on vintage instruments vs. something new?
BC: I think you can make vintage instruments sound timeless. I don't think you can make a new instrument sound timeless. You can make a vintage instrument sound hip, but you can't make a new instrument sound classic.

SG: How do you take that - what you used in the studio - and what you put on the record and translate that when you go on tour? Are you more comfortable with what you recorded on now?
BC: I play Taylors live. Those guitars are solid steady guitars - they always sound good. It doesn't matter what the room looks like - whether it's a bar, a theater or a shed - it sounds great in every room. I play Taylors live - it's really reliable and it always sounds good. I've been thinking about pushing it a bit and maybe micing the guitars live this time. Tim, my guitar player went in the other direction. He bought the amp we used in recording; he bought some vintage guitars and pedals and has become a total gear nerd. Part of that is T Bone's fault ...

SG: Or credit.
BC: Right credit! He really made us think about the instruments we play.

SG: A lot of the songs on this album you introduced on the road throughout the last year. What differences are there now from playing them live and then recording them and now bringing them back out on the road?
BC: There really are no differences. We play them live like we play them in the studio and we play them in the studio like we play them live. So there really are no arrangement differences. I just think it's a really good quality live performance.

SG: You had talked about how it was a step up from the first album to these songs. You hear it in your voice - you're reaching for a whole different level. Where do you see yourself going now - will you continue stepping up and bringing more of your inner soul?
BC: I hope so. I wouldn't have been able to predict what the last year or two years has done to me - in a good way. I've grown so much, aged so much - vocally, lyrically - I can't predict what the next two years will do to me. I might make a blues record or a country record.

SG: I'd love to hear you do a blues record and you're so inclined to country already. It's so in who you are.
BC: They're kind of hand in hand - like Delta Blues kind of thing.

SG: That's perfect for who you are. I mean when I first heard your debut I was like Patsy, Dolly, Roy. And where you've come now. The songs - like Josephine. Didn't Tim write that song?
BC: We wrote it together but he wrote most of it.

SG: Who is she?
BC: Josephine?

SG: Yeah?
BC: Good question.

SG: Could be anybody?
BC: Yeah.

SG: But as far as the bluesy aspect, I feel like you've reached in somewhere deeper - what where you going through and can you say what you've taken from the last two years, personally?
BC: Yeah. I feel like I had a lot to live up to. I felt incredibly inspired and vulnerable but also I felt like getting to make a record with T Bone in that studio in that way having all the label support. Having Matt Chamberlain play drums was very important to me because I've been a big Matt Chamberlain fan for years. It felt like a victory so I felt empowered at the same time. I think all of those things are very clearly imprinted on the record.

SG: You said you felt inspired ... by?
BC: By T Bone. By Matt. By the instruments we were playing.

SG: But even leading up that. What are some of your outside influences from being on the road and even life in general. I mean, you're what twenty...
BC: 25 I'm turning 26.

SG: And your first album came out when you were 23? Almost three years, you've grown personally ... what are some of the things you can point to over the last couple of years that have helped you to become who you are now?
BC: So much has changed in my life in the past few years since I got signed that I think the list of the things that haven't changed is shorter [laughs]. There's been so much inconsistency but one thing that's been consistent is that I've learned to miss home. That's something I think a lot of artists get into that trap - their first album is about all different kinds of things - breakups, turmoil, family dysfunction, love songs ... all these different things influence their first record. The next record is all about being on the road and missing home. [laughs]. Every single song, you know? I always thought that was so cheesy and silly like I feel so bad for you that you get to tour while the rest of us stuck here in our hometown playing five nights a week at the local chowder house. But every time I sat down to write a song, I can't explain to you how overwhelming the feeling of being taken away from your environment is. It's really overwhelming and I'm inspired by that for sure and I hope I can pull myself out of that trap.

SG: So what do you do to bring yourself back home when you're not at home?
BC: I go to Starbucks. I know that sounds silly but when you walk into a Starbucks it doesn't matter where it is - it looks the same, smells the same, people are the same - it's very consistent. You start to become this kind of like OCD person with these sorts of routines and when someone fucks with your routine you're really irritated. Like me and the twins we never change the beds we sleep in at the hotel room. Phil always gets the window side, I always get the door side ... it's just the way we do things. That's one way to make yourself feel in your environment. And on our days off, we try to go somewhere with nature. We take the bus and go to a state park and just sit in the woods for a while because I'm such a country girl.

SG: And go fishing.
BC: Oh, we go fishing constantly. In fact this time on tour, we're going to take it to a whole new level. We bought a flight case for our fishing poles, we each bought a one-man inner tube, the kind you sit in with neoprene chest waders and so there's gonna be the three of us floating on inner tubes on lakes all over the country.

SG: See, that's the beautiful way to do it if you can take the time off.
BC: Also on the road, I arrange a lot of visits. I fly people out to hang out with me on the bus.

SG: Like friends and family?
BC: Exactly.

SG: Any rituals you do before a show or things you have to have with you on the road?
BC: Some stuffed animals, a couple pictures I hang in my bunk, a pillow I take everywhere that I've had for nine years. It's terrible - I've heard about the dust mite thing where if you hold it up and it falls over you should get rid of it. So I hold my pillow up and it falls over so I'm like I'll just put a few more pillowcases on it!

SG: Who are the pictures of?
BC: Just family.

SG: You have a younger sister don't you?
BC: She's 20 and she sings very well. We always do stuff. We've done a couple of recordings. If she's ever in town with me she always gets up on stage and sings with me.

SG: That's cool - I know you also sang with your mom at the Ryman.
BC: Yeah mm-hm.

SG: You need to do like a McGarrigle Sisters kind of thing.
BC: I know - my brother is a great singer too. He makes me look silly he's such a great singer. He's a year younger than me. He's been married for four years now and has a baby on the way - my first niece. Do you have a niece of nephew?

SG: I have two nieces and a whole brood of friends' kids.
BC: Is it your sister's kid or your brother's?

SG: My brother's
BC: Did it freak you out when he told you he was going to have a baby?

SG: No, because I had so many friends who'd already had kids. But I was definitely excited when he called me. I can see where you and your brother are so close in age and sound like you have a great relationship.
BC: Used to be - everybody thought we were twins because we're only 11 months apart and our birthdays are like three days apart. And we were always around each other. We shared the same grade at one point - I got sick and missed a year of school. We got to a certain age - he got married, joined the church group. And I did the opposite of that in every way and started making music. So to have him call me and tell me to come over to mom and dad's house and tell me he was going to have a baby was really weird. And exciting.

SG: Has it brought you closer?
BC: We've gotten closer over the last few years, but I'm gone so much but it's hard for me to be close to anybody. I go home and have to remember how to act with my family. We were talking about the interview thing and I'll go home and my mom will be like "what did you do today?" and I'll then return her question in her answer and talk for like five minutes and she'll be like "are you done talking about yourself yet?" I forget how to talk to people normally.

SG: It has to be a weird transition to go from being on-the-road musician life to being a real person? How do you deal with that or do you have to be conscious and flip back and forth?
BC: It takes time. It takes like a couple weeks between each transition to get fully back into place.

SG: So many celebrities live on a different plane and don't know how to deal with regular people Going back to what you said before about going into the studio and being humbled, is that something you keep with you in your mind that you say "I'm just a regular person doing what I love"?
BC: Yes. Absolutely. Humility - and self-awareness is the most important thing. Being so aware of yourself to the point of being almost critical. Never believing in, without being cliché, the hype that people sell you about yourself because it's not true.

SG: Are you sure it's not true?
BC: No, I don't think it is true. There are no geniuses. There isn't anybody that's brilliant or beyond anybody else on another plane. It happens to be an art form that people get passionate about. I don't believe those kinds of things - it's important to me that I don't.

SG: What about being down here in Austin having interview after interview and having the buzz and the hype. Do you feel like people are goading you into giving certain answers or do you think people are genuine and want to just have a conversation?
BC: It's one of those give and take things. If I'm sincere with you, you're going to be sincere with me. I've never had an interview where someone hasn't been sincere with me ... I think. Sometimes I get asked stupid questions or get asked the same questions all the time - like they read the bio word for word. It doesn't bother me; I just answer it and it doesn't affect me any longer than the 10 minutes [it's going on].

SG: Going back to being at home and recording. You recorded the first album at home in your cabin in the woods and then you went up to Vancouver in this amazing studio with T Bone and all these vintage instruments. What was the biggest difference for you between the two processes of the first and second album?
BC: Well, the first album - I have to explain that it was recorded over the course of a year and it was before we got signed to Columbia. IT was just at any time we had the money to do it. If we had a couple thousand bucks we'd go into the studio. If we had no money, we'd rent a Pro Tools rig from my buddies and do it at my house. The means were restricting us from what we wanted to do. At the advice of Rick Rubin actually we saved what we considered to be our best songs for this [new] record. And we put out what was supposed to be an EP of what was B-sides. Then we got signed to Columbia and they gave us a couple bucks to go in and record a couple songs acoustically which ended up being "What Can I Say" live and "Closer to You" live. It made the record 10 songs and that ended being the [first] record. I'm proud of it. It was effective. It was great. But it was sporadic. It didn't feel like making a record but putting together a compilation of recordings. So what I wanted to do this time was take what I consider our best songs and go into the studio and have a solid, thematic record. One producer, the same instruments, all recorded the same way - live to tape - in the same place without any breaks where nobody leaves. And it was really cool because that's the way some of my favorite artists did it in the late '60s and '70s. When Elton John was making records like Tumbleweed and Honky Chateau, locking themselves in a studio you know. I wanted this record to sound like a record and not a compilation of songs.

SG: As far as a theme goes, how would you, in your words, describe what's going on on this record? What's your story for this album?
BC: Well, I know it sounds silly but I see it as a story with chapters. I've had some of these songs since I was a teenager. A lot of them are about my brother and my life until now. So they're kind of like chronologically separated for me.

SG: Are they in order?
BC: Some of them are - there's a trilogy in there. It's like a chronological timeline of my life and my experiences. Even the songs I didn't write. The ones the twins wrote I take them to heart and interpret them. I've applied them to my own life. I see it as a story. That's one theme. I also touch so many times on the record on nature and isolation and being out in the country. I noticed that after the record was made that almost every song talks about the grass and the moon and the stars and the trees. And just its conduciveness is a theme in itself.

SG: Any favorite songs - either the content or from the recording - the process that you take away as memorable?
BC: I think "Cannonball" because it has the Indigo Girls and that's a huge deal for me.

SG: I know they recorded in Atlanta...
BC: Yeah, I was there.

SG: So it was just the three of you in the studio. What was that like for you?
BC: It was great. I think my palms did not stop sweating the whole time. How do you act? I was so nervous but trying to be so cool and funny. They're so chill and they're obviously not nervous. I felt like the boy in the bubble where I couldn't act right.

SG: What is it about them - I mean, I know Elton is a huge influence and you grew up listening to Dylan but what is it about the Indigo Girls that you wanted them to sing on your album? Why them - what makes it so special?
BC: Every artist that I really admire is responsible for a beginning or end of a musical phase of my life. Elton John represents the beginning of me loving pop music and the end of me thinking that classic country was the only thing that existed. The Indigo Girls for me are the end of the rock/pop phase I was in at the time. By rock/pop/glam phase I don't mean anything more than Elton John, U2, Queen. So when Lilith Fair came to town I was like 16. I heard the Indigo Girls and I had been playing piano and I saw them and I was like "man I gotta play guitar." I wouldn't be a guitar player if it weren't for them.

SG: Interesting. So that was like a culmination of your musical path up until that point?
BC: They represent a big part for me.

SG: Obviously, personally you mesh with them?
BC: They're so cool and individually they're so different and so separate. They're the kind of people I'll be friends with forever.

SG: Who else is on your list of people you want to work with?
BC: I'd love to write a song with Bernie Taupin some day.

SG: Do you think that's realistic?
BC: I don't know - I'm afraid. I was out with Jamie Cullom and I heard that Elton John was gonna come out to the show to see Jamie and he got sick at the last minute. I was sick - all day. I couldn't think about playing in front of Elton John. What if the person that inspires you to write songs doesn't like your songs? Where do you go from there?

SG: Well there's a lot of people who do like your songs. Last question: We're still at the beginning of the year. Your new album is about to drop. What are your goals professionally and personally for this year?
BC: I want to ... all I can really control is what I do personally. I want to write better songs for the next record. I want to collaborate with the twins more. And I want to increase our touring and play bigger venues and tour internationally.

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Cecilie G.

Great effin' interview! :)

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