Interview With Brandi Carlile

Brandi Carlile Talks About Her Album The Story and Life on the Road

Brandi Carlile Live in Concert in Seattle
Brandi Carlile Live in Concert in Seattle. © Kim Ruehl, licensed to
Singer/Songwriter Brandi Carlile and her twin collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth have been playing together for five years now; but with the release of the band's latest effort The Story, they're drawing in sold out crowds across the country. Carlile's summer tour takes her and the twins to pretty much every corner of the continental U.S. Despite the hectic pace of her schedule, in the midst of her tour with the Indigo Girls, Carlile was kind enough to take some time out for this interview.

Kim Ruehl: So I'll start with the [easy] question. Do you consider yourself a folksinger? Do you identify with traditional music at all?
Brandi Carlile: I identify with traditional music, yeah. I think that the concept of putting things into different genres is kind of a new concept. I think that Bob Dylan used to be country and Willie Nelson used to be folk, and it’s all the same thing. So, yeah, I consider myself a folk musician.

Just in the year since I've found out about you, your videos are on CMT, your music is on pop radio. It's kind of all over the place. Do you feel like that is a good thing, do you kind of identify with one market [more]...?
No I think it's a good thing. As long as nobody's forcing it to happen; you know what I mean? As long as people want to hear the music, I'm all for getting it to them. If that makes it pop music or country music, that's fine with me. Like I said, I think the whole idea of categorizing music into different genres is kind of silly.

It's all the same.

I read a couple of articles right after The Story came out where different writers at different magazines were sort of pronouncing that "Brandi Carlile" ... well, you're Brandi Carlile, of course ... but that "Brandi Carlile" refers to the band name. Do you consider yourself a band leader? If the band breaks up are you going to still be Brandi Carlile, doing the "Brandi Carlile" thing?
[laughs] No, I'm still "Brandi Carlile." I've been playing with the twins [Tim and Phil Hanseroth] for five years, and I’ve known them for eight years ...

you know I was playing around town [back before that] and I was Brandi Carlile; so when they started playing with me, that's the way it was all the time. We all have an equal share of the workload in general, you know, lugging all the gear and driving the van. You know, all the s*** that you do when you're a band on the road. We divide everything in our band right down the middle. We treat each other with equal respect all the time. We think of ourselves as a band. I don't know how somebody else looks at us, there’s nothing we can do about that. But [the twins] don't have a problem with being in a band called Brandi Carlile. If there was a band called Tim Hanseroth, I'd be in it.

How do you approach songwriting? Obviously you all write songs, but as far as arranging; when you write a song, do you have an idea in your head of what parts they'll play? Or do you kind of bring it to the twins and it's every man for himself, and what works, works?
Those guys are psychic. When I write a song, they just know what to play and when they write a song [what I play] goes without saying. That's why we work so well together. If the lyrics aren't something I would say or something I feel then I'll change it.

I'll sing it differently or change the key, or sing it higher. If I come up with a song and they think there should be different chords, then they'll just do it, and then the song is what it is. It happens so naturally that it's not worth messing with. Sometimes one of us will have music and no words and another one will have words and no music, and then we'll write a song together, all three of us.

Back to The Story—these are all songs you were playing in your live show for a while. How did you go about translating what they'd become in your live show, into the studio? Or was that something T Bone [Burnett] took care of?
I think that was T Bone's biggest contribution—making us realize we weren't as slick as we thought we were. We were going to make a record in like a day. We were just playing shows every night, kicking ass, you know, and we just thought, we're going to go into the studio and plug in our guitars and just play a set.

That ended up not being the case. He was really brilliant to make us play really unfamiliar instruments. And Mark Chamberlain playing on the drums, bringing new life into every song, there aren't words to describe what that guy is. The only word that comes to me is "genius," but it applies to him. T Bone ... he walks in the room and there's an instant environment of T Bone-ness. There’s something about that guy.

I'm assuming you two weren't real tight before you started working on this record ...
Me and T Bone? Uh, no.

So how did you go about acquainting him with your songs before you started recording? Or did you just dive right in?
We sent him a lot of live demos. And then we went to his house a few weeks before recording and played some songs for him in his living room. Yeah, I don't know that he was well-acquainted with them before we went into the studio. Maybe it's good that he wasn't too acquainted with them; I know we were too acquainted with them. We were way too acquainted with them, so maybe that made it a little fresher.

Page 2: Brandi Carlile on becoming more popular and touring
Page 3: Brandi on her influences and what makes music so good

It seems like The Story came out and you've become kind of a superstar outside of Seattle. How has that changed things for you? Have you felt that at all? Have you noticed the surge in your audiences?
No ... I mean I hope that it's just a natural progression of what touring does. When I talk to the fans after the show, they never say I came because I saw you on this TV show or I heard you on this radio station. They say oh I saw you open for Ray LaMontagne or ... it's a touring thing. The biggest difference I've seen which just makes me smile ear to ear every show is hearing people sing the words in the audience.

That's got to feel good.
It does. It feels so good. You know, I used to go to Indigo Girls concerts as a teenager. People would start singing so loud and now, seeing that kind of experience in our audience, it just makes me feel so good.

Well especially after, I'm sure you've had this experience, too, where you’re touring and you wind up in some town playing for six people and noone’s listening...
[laughs] Yeah, well, at any level it's a luxury to be able to tour. I have this friend in a band called [inaudible] I was just talking to her, she's in the Midwest right now, in the middle of Iowa. And [she had a show where] the power went out and she wound up playing to five people by candlelight.

I miss when that s*** used to happen. And trying to figure out where you're going to sleep, whether the car’s going to make it ... there's something really romantic about that kind of touring, too.

Is it nice, though, now that you have someone driving you around in a big bus; you can just kind of kick back in the back and do whatever it is that you do?
It's nice for different reasons, yeah.

It's really cool.

So how do you pass the time?
Oh, well, I draw horses, talk on the phone. I try to avoid the computer at all costs ... Sometimes we'll stop off at state parks and go fishing and stuff.

How has it been to hand over your front line of communication (who's answering your emails and doing your MySpace page, etc.), having to give up that sort of direct access to your audience? Is that weird for you, or frustrating? Is it just part of that process ...?
Well I've never been really good at the computer thing. I've never really dealt well with updating MySpace and stuff like that. I still get emails that I respond to. What I do with my journal and stuff like that, I write it down on a piece of paper and then I call my manager and read it to him over the phone, and he puts it into the computer. One of the things that's been really hard with me is going out after the show and meeting the audience ... I had to stop that, because now it can take hours. You know, that really makes me feel awful because I feel like I have a responsibility to people to go out and talk to [them], thank them for seeing the show. That's one of those things that are getting pushed more and more out.

And how do you see your music evolving, in terms of your next album? Obviously songs evolve the more you play them every night, but what direction do you see your next record taking?
Oh, it'll be different; it'll be another theme.

It's hard to say. I've been playing a lot more electric guitar, but I could see the next record going in a really raucous acoustic direction, too. Because I think you can make some heavy music acoustic—heavier than electric rock and roll songs. Acoustic instruments are so percussive. There were a few songs on The Story where, in the studio, I didn't play guitar, I just sang instead. And the songs were so much heavier when I had an acoustic guitar. There’s something about ... guitars just being beaten to death. It sounds really reckless to me. I love it.

Well, yeah, you get that percussive smack of the strings on the wood.
Yeah, I know, it's great. It can be so loud, too ... it's so percussive you almost don't need drums. You know, bass notes are in there ... I'm touring with the Indigo Girls now and Amy [Ray] plays acoustic guitar so loud and reckless, she plays like she's playing an electric guitar.

I just think it's so cool. And the two of them together just sounds [even] heavier.

Page 1: Brandi on The Story and working with her band
Page 3: Brandi on her influences and what makes music so good

What kind of influence, if any, has Seattle and the Northwest had on your music?
Someone [recently] told me that I'm really Northwestern, which is funny because normally people think I'm Southern. I think that I've been so involved with country music since I was so young that it's just a part of who I am and it's a part of the way I sing and, I guess, even the way I talk, subconsciously. But I think the Northwest has had a huge influence on me. If anything, just the natural beauty of it. A lot of my songs have reccurring themes that have to do with nature and the kind of nature [that I see] where I live.

Wait, you said Seattle and I thought you meant Northwest, but I think you meant Seattle like the grunge thing?

Well, I think I kind of meant that, but I like your answer. [laughs] I was actually talking about, because this is such a rock and roll focused town, whenever I see another singer/songwriter do well from Seattle, I wonder what kind of influence the local rock scene has had on them.
Because of where I grew up and I was so into country music, I had ... absolutely no idea what was going on, even living like an hour outside of the city. And I didn't understand it until I was in my 20s; I started to understand ... Kurt Cobain and the grunge scene, all that beautiful music. But I'm affected by what that left behind, in a very good way.

I was looking at your tour schedule and it's pretty crazy ... how are you keeping up your voice and energy?
Well I just try to get as much sleep as I can, and take advantage of our days off. I don't drink red wine before I go to bed anymore. You know, I just take good care of myself.

Do you have any specific processes or rituals on the road or in the studio that you go through to get yourself in the mind-frame of making music? Or is it just kind of like you're at work and you're working, and when you're not, you're not?
I know that, like everybody else in the world that sings, I like to close with "Hallelujah" [by Leonard Cohen] at the end of the night.

That's something I do for me, for myself. That’s the way I feel like I need to close more often than not these days.

Well that's a beautiful song, you can't really get much better than that.
It is a beautiful song.

What do you think makes a good song?
The lyrics are incredible. The melody is very soaring. You can do a lot with that melody. The melody is beautiful, I mean if someone played "Hallelujah" on the recorder it would still be beautiful.

Totally, but I meant what makes any song a good song?
Oh I thought you meant "Hallelujah" specifically. [laughs] A good song is a good song no matter how many instruments or elements are introduced into it. [Also] I think a good song can stand on its own, without anything. I think you should be able to speak a good song and have it still be a good song.

Brandi Carlile is currently touring the U.S. Check out her tour schedule on her Web site

Page 1: Brandi on The Story and working with her band
Page 2: Brandi Carlile on becoming more popular and touring