Brandi Carlile (The Extended Interview)

I’m not sure I can take it
I’ve nothing strong to hold to
I’m way too old to hate you
My mind is full of razors
To cut you like a word if only sung
But this is my song 

Those are lyrics from “My Song,” the first Brandi Carlile song I ever heard live, and it’s the one that made me fall in love with her music. I don’t know what I was expecting when I saw Carlile perform for the first time, but it wasn’t an immediate burst of powerful lyrics about being bitter, about getting older…about not getting what you want in life. If anything, I was expecting a quiet evening, or a “mid-tempo” evening of music — maybe one or two moments that really made me think. But, I learned quickly that Brandi Carlile is mostly about heart and emotion, and you’re always thinking; there’s little surrender in her artistry.

And the more I see live music, the more I’m convinced that Carlile is one of the best live performers out there. I’ve yet to see of a show of hers where the intensity and focus hasn’t been anything less than stellar, and that’s not even commenting on her voice, which is quite heavenly and has infinite range. Carlile and her band are a special live act, one that I’ll gladly travel any distance to see again and again.

Which brings me to her live album, Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony, released yesterday. Live albums can be hit or miss in my book, but not this one. Carlile’s is an impressive moment captured in time; it features a full symphony, her unyielding band, and a perfect collection of her songs, like “Before it Breaks,” “The Story,” “Dreams,” and “Turpentine,” to only name a few.

If you can’t make it out to see her on her upcoming U.S. tour, Live at Benaroya Hall is a fine consolation prize. I recommend turning up the volume and closing your eyes.

Luckily, we were able to catch up with Carlile over the phone before the release of Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony. 

So, Brandi, the last time I saw you was at Bonnaroo last year…

Oh, I’ll never forget that show, that was fun.

It was a great, rocking performance. But, your live album is a little different. You’re performing with a full orchestra. What sort of mindset do you and your band need to get into for a show like that?

Well, it’s an experience that’s so refined all day long. Because, first of all, you have to come up with the charts for the songs. You work with a composer who composes these charts for the symphony, and it’s complicated — sometimes, there are thirty to sixty instruments involved in this. So, you come up with the charts, and then the symphony gets the charts like a month in advance, and they learn these songs. And, they are a different kind of a musician than we are, you know. We all started playing guitar to…you know, to get girls. And they started playing instruments to go to college and please their parents. So, they have totally different perceptions of why they play rock ‘n’ roll!

You get to the venue, and it’s so highbrow all day long. You have a highbrow rehearsal, you have a highbrow schedule, and it’s so refined. And then you get out on stage, and it’s still your fans, and your audience, and they’re nuts, and you go nuts. It’s this meeting of raucous rock ‘n’ roll culture, with this refinement — and what you come out with is something that’s huge, very regal and profound, and it makes for a really great performance.

Definitely. And the sound of the live album — it’s so clear. It’s a different experience for the listener, I think. Is that what you were going for?

Yeah, well, you know, there’s depth to it, because there are so many musicians involved in this. And everyone is having their own experience. And there is an underlying element of “liveness” that I’ve always believed in, when it comes to the art of recording, anyway. Which is that, you can feel when something is recorded live, and it’s something that definitely gets captured. What it is, is it’s the knowledge that anything could have derailed at any moment. In a lot of recordings, you don’t get this, because they’re constructed in such a way where there is no risk involved. When we record a song live, anyone can break a string at any moment, and there’s this on-edgeness about that energy. And that’s what makes a live album so exciting.

Well, when I heard that you were releasing a live album, it made total sense to me, because I fell in love with your songs when I saw you live for the first time. 


Yeah, that’s when I understood you as an artist. Hearing that, is that a compliment to you?

It is a compliment, because at the end of the day, we’re a live band. And, that’s all what we ever really wanted to be, so, we’re constantly in the process of learning how to capture that, and how to make recordings as a live band that is rough around the edges. So, if your first introduction to us is a live show, and that brings you to our songs, that makes so much more sense to me than your introduction to us being our songs bringing you to the show. That’s why I love the concept of the live album, because this will be the first thing we’ve ever done that is truly and exactly who we are.

And you tour pretty much all the time. When do you ever find the time to write new material?

You know, you end up writing a lot when you’re on the road. You have a lot of time, but it’s not the kind of time that you need to really relax. It’s just time and space — waiting for sound check, waiting for the show to start. And, a lot of times, you fill that space with a guitar in your hand, and you end up writing songs. We’ve just recorded, actually, nineteen songs for our next album — we finished it! Of course, all nineteen won’t make it, but… (laughs) Do you write songs?

Ha, I wish I could!

Well, when it happens, it happens. It’s like, when it comes to you, it almost doesn’t matter where you are, you have to write it down. You can be in your sleep, and you wake up and write it down on whatever piece of paper you can reach from your bed. So, as far as whether you write on the road, or at home, or at some retreat you go to — you can’t make it happen.

On your current tour coming up, when people hear the presentation of the live album that’s coming out, do you think they will be anticipating that kind of sound, even if there won’t be an orchestra?

No…I don’t think so. Even if they are, we can get pretty close to at least being able to emote that much. Even if the strings aren’t there, we do have a cellist on stage, and he’ll probably pick up a lot of slack. It’s less about that and more about the environment you create. We know there has to be an element of weight to our performances in the next year. I think we’ll be able to pull it off, but we’ll let you be the judge of that! (laughs)

Well, I’ll be down catching you in Gruene, Texas at Gruene Hall.

Oh yeah! Gruene Hall is amazing, I love that place!

I’m really looking forward to it. That place…and I’m no musician, but I would think that would one of the best places to play.

Yeah, and it’s legendary, too.

You’ve played there once, right?

Yeah, it was amazing, I loved it. I’ve been trying to get back there. I’ve been asking my agent, “can you guys get me at that Gruene Hall again?”

It’s like an old barn in the middle of nowhere.

And it’s half-open, too. What it is, it’s an old dance hall.

I can’t wait.

Yeah, me too. See you there!

Well, I have a couple more questions for you. When I first heard your live album, the one song that struck me was “I Will.” And the performance if it, I thought the lyrics really stood out. Can you talk a little bit about that song, and how it is to perform it? It’s a wordy Brandi Carlile song!

You know, I’ve been writing a lot of songs like that lately, actually. It comes from a really deep place in me as a songwriter. I don’t typically write those songs very often — those songs come along like once a year. And, they’re the kinds of songs where the lyrics are what are totally overtaking my mind. Like, all those things are there, and I need to say them. And I try to make them rhyme, and I try to make all of the different play on words and the vernacular sit within something that’s slightly musical. But, then I have to construct music around it, like a platform for this kind of lament.

It’s difficult because a lot of times these things don’t have choruses or verses, and I have to add them later, and stuff like that. But, they always end up meaning the very most to me, because it was something I had to say first, and that’s what “I Will” is. And I’ve been writing songs like that lately, and like I said, they are fewer and farther between, but they end up being the ones that stand out to me through the years as my favorites.

From an emotional aspect, it’s one of my favorites.

It gets heavy when I sing that one, too. There are others like that — “Before It Breaks” is like that. I tend to get heavy when I sing that one, because I’m so nervous when I play the piano. But, “I Will,” when I’m singing it sometimes, I go back to the place that I was in when I wrote it, and I feel a little overwhelmed with whatever it is.

You know, one of my favorite moments in a Brandi Carlile show is when you’re playing “The Story,” and you get to strap on an electric guitar and rock out!


How does that feel on stage, Brandi? Because that’s one of the bigger moments in your show, I think.

I don’t know, it feel great! Because I love playing that electric guitar, and I’m going to try to play it a little more on tour than I have been in the past. I like being turned loose at that point in the song. What it does, is it really gets me ready for what I’m about to do, which is scream at the top of my lungs! (laughs)


And, it’s a little harder to do that with an acoustic guitar, but you can make it work. My favorite moment in the show actually comes just about thirty seconds after that, when I’m getting ready to do the big, “All of these lines” line…


And the whole audience just stops breathing for a second, because they wonder what’s going to happen — is she going to hit the note, is she not going to hit the note?  And there’s this element of nerves, and it overtakes the room…and it only happens for three seconds a night, but it’s a golden moment of what live music is to me, where everybody is listening, everybody is wondering if I’m going to be able to do it. And, I get nervous, like, ‘Am I going to be able to do it?’ It’s just this exchange of energy, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. As many times as I’ve sang that song, it’s still my favorite song to play.

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