Monday, June 4, 2012

Interview | Brandi Carlile: "I've always just thought I was a singer."

I'll tell you how I want to live
Forget about the take, forget about the give
I want to leave this town
Fake my death and never be found 

Those words are taken from "Hard Way Home," the opening song on Bear Creek, Brandi Carlile's fourth studio album (available June 5th via Columbia), a collection of genre-bending tunes that find the singer-songwriter from Washington in a passionate and vulnerable state of mind. Bear Creek is the kind of career-defining record for an artist who's already made a strong statement with her previous work.

But, as Carlile asks on her first single, "That Wasn't Me," a song about addiction: what defines us, really?

Is it what we've done in the past? Is our darkest moment always part of who we are? Do we let someone else define us, based on previous actions? Let's have a listen.

If I've learned anything about Carlile's music in just the past few days, it's that her fans don't just listen passively to her songs, they feel them and they can relate to them. I solicited thoughts from readers as to the meaning of "That Wasn't Me," and while many of the stories that came in were different, they all shared a common notion: we all have time to prove that our former selves do not need to define who we are today.

I hope Bear Creek becomes part of your record collection not just because it's an important piece of work for Brandi Carlile, but that it carries an important message for all of us: that life is about constantly redefining who you are.

I recently spoke with Carlile about the recording of Bear Creek, growing older, and her thoughts on being viewed as a singer. 

Well, I've been listening to the new album, and I tell ya what -- this one starts off with a bang.

You like that? (laughs)

I love it! (laughing) I was listening to it in my car the other day, and I've decided that's the best place for it.

Well, that's my favorite way to listen to music -- in my car.

For sure. It's really the best way. So, you named the album Bear Creek after the studio you recorded it in. How did the recording process go, and what was special about Bear Creek the studio?

Oh, it was pretty cool, man. Bear Creek is a place that's in Washington State, and it's pretty reminiscent of where the three of us all live -- me, Tim, and Phil -- a place called Maple Valley, and we all live in kind of farm-style places, you know, on acreage. And this place is really similar. We all really wanted to do this record in a way that felt unsupervised by the industry, you know? Without a big producer...we're always in a big shiny, industrial studio. And this time we wanted to be home -- we wanted to see if we could capture some of who we really, really are. And so, the recording process felt like kind of a big sleepover; we realized that the parents were gone, and that's where a lot of the spontaneity on the record comes from.

A lot of these lyrics -- when I listen to these songs, I think about how fast life goes by.

Yeah. (laughs)

Do you see a theme there in these songs? (laughing)

Yeah, I can see why you feel that way. You know, I turned 30 on June 1st (of 2011), and a lot of the record is pretty centered around that shift. Because you're not in your twenties anymore, and maybe you want to leave some things from your twenties and not take them with you. Or maybe you want to do some things in your thirties that you haven't done yet. Sometimes that can make a person really mad, or it can be exciting, but there's a lot of that motive behind the record, I think -- a paradigm shift.

Yeah, I didn't know that you recently turned 30, but I still got that feel from listening to these songs. These songs sound personal, and they sound like you're searching for truth wherever you can find it.

I would definitely say that that's happening in this record. It gets complicated, because the twins (guitarists Phil and Tim Hanseroth) all write lyrics to songs, so it all comes down to what we're all collectively feeling. Which works for me, because I'm innately co-dependent.

The last song, "Just Kids," especially, is sort of like a dreamy way to close out the album. Did you set out to have that sort of sound with that song?

Yeah, I wrote that song in the studio. And I would be just playing on the piano, so I would be practicing it all day. And everybody would leave, and I tried to record it, and I would always try to record that one at like two or three in the morning. And so it ended up being a two or three in the morning kind of song. We would add bits and pieces to it, to where it's that mystical thing that you hear now.

And when it gets cut off at the end -- I don't know what those sounds are.

They're frogs.

Oh yeah?

Yeah, we took a microphone and we set it out on the creek.

Oh nice.

And we let the frogs end the record, because that's what we were hearing every night. We thought it would be a cool way to end the record.

You know, there's a lot of different styles of the music from song to song on this album. Even like, a song like "Raise Hell" sort of sounds like a rocky, western sort of deal.

Like "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky," the old Johnny Cash tune?


Yeah, it was neat for me. Certain songs will just come out of me at the time -- we made the decision to just totally shun the idea of genre compartmentalization. Every record, we start out with something that we're not going to do. With The Story, we were not going to build tracks, we were going to play live -- that was our plan, and we did, and we love the record for that reason. With Give Up the Ghost, we decided we were not going to write an album full of road songs about being on the road. Because we felt that so many artists made their first record about life and loss and first loves and coming of age, and then the second record a band released -- it's always a band about being on the road. So, we said, "okay, we're not going to go in for Give Up the Ghost and make a record full of road songs."

And then, for this album, we said, "we're not going to go in and tell ourselves we're a rock band. We're not going to go in and tell ourselves we're a folk band We're going to go in and say we're a band." So, the compartmentalization of genres is what we decided to boundary off this time, and to instead play according to what we're feeling.

I feel it. And I always associated your music with more than just one sound. This one really shows all of your talents, so that's cool.

Thanks, man.

I think the first two songs really start it off well. And I think that first song -- you're saying so many things in the song, that it really gets the listener's mind thinking a lot, like right from the start. Do you want you listeners to really get hit hard with your words? Is that really important to you?

Yeah, in some ways. I mean, I definitely want it to be relatable, I want to be as personable and as honest as I can, as a writer, about my own experiences. But I have a lot of respect for story writers, too. Artists like Bernie Taupin, who's a writer, but he wrote all those songs for Elton John to sing -- so all of the songs he writes are about this other guy's life, or about Marilyn Monroe, or about a drug addict. And there's something really selfless about that kind of art. And as a songwriter, I really do want my songs to play a part as a human soundtrack of someone else's life. So, it's not that I want them to be hit hard with my lyrics, I want them to be able to relate to my lyrics.

I think there's a lot of these songs on this album that people are going to relate to on a personal level, that's just my take, anyway.

Thank you.

You know, I saw you solo last year in Columbia, Missouri. And seeing you solo -- it showed off a real personal side to your music. I think you played some of these songs that night. But these songs -- these songs are sort of stories. Do you see yourself as a storyteller?

Yeah, I hope so. That's kind of what I want to be, you know? Everything I've ever done is something to support the fact that I'm a singer. If I'm honest, I've always just thought I was a singer. If I would ever learn how to play an instrument, it's because I would have something to sing to. And if I ever would write a song, it would be because I have words to sing. And as much as I do need to write down and create in an art form, my personal experiences, it's more important that I sing them. Singing is more important for me, it's not the writing. So, I tend to write stories because I want to tell them.

Does it bother you if you're referred to as just a singer, though?

No. In fact, in a guilty pleasure sort of way, that's what I've always wanted. It's like I have a weird, secret fantasy -- I want to go on all these singer shows on TV and shit, and just like...(laughing)...there's a karaoke singer in all of us, and I'm not above it just because I do this for a living.

That's cool. I guess I asked you that because when I first started listening to your music, I thought, "wow, what a voice." But then when I kept seeing you live, I felt that maybe there's many more sides to Brandi Carlile.

Maybe there are, but I don't see them. (laughs) I just want to be a great singer, you know?

Yeah. So, back to the album. What was your favorite part about recording Bear Creek?

My favorite part about recording it was that it just kind of felt like a bunch of people did without any supervision. There was no captain. It was experimental -- nobody was afraid of trying anything. I never would have before felt comfortable picking up some weird instrument and saying, "okay, I'm going to play this on this track." Because before, someone would have laughed, and say, "we'll get the ukelele player to play on that track." (laughs) Everyone (on this record) was on a little kid level -- it was unsupervised, and that's what this album is.

It sounds pretty liberating.

Yeah. Yeah, and maybe it should be that way, I don't know. But maybe we couldn't have done it if we didn't learn what we did from those producers (on the previous albums). It's the concept of being able to apply your knowledge to life -- and we had knowledge to apply.