Brandi Carlile Keeps You on the Edge of Your Seat

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There’s always been urgency to the music that Brandi Carlile makes with her longtime collaborators the Hanseroth twins, a channeling of bone-deep wounds and ecstatic pleasures that can accompany emotional intimacy. But the songs on their new album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, teeter from a higher precipice, way up there where relational bonds and responsibilities are tested and tried.

“When you get older, you start to realize that family’s really not about blood anymore,” Carlile offers, “and it really changes your perspective on life.”

Since releasing her 2012 album, Bear Creek, the roots-pop singer and songwriter has not only welcomed a wife and daughter into her life, but shifted to independent record label ATO, recorded new songs while they were still fresh and raw and stepped onto quite a few stages without so much as a P.A. behind her.

CMT Edge: Wasn’t your daughter born just two days after you finished this album?

Carlile: Yeah, like, two days. It was so crazy. My wife went into labor and I was like, “Aw man, if you had done this 48 hours ago …”

With all of that on your mind, I’d almost expect the album to be an intensely introspective, quiet affair. But it’s got wild and woolly expression on it. How’d that happen?

There wasn’t a cell in my body that wasn’t tuned in to the fact that I was about to be a mother. It could happen any second. … I had this almost counterintuitive reaction to that, where I went totally hyperactive. I had to say some things before I became a mother. Sometimes you have to say ‘em really loud.

In another interview, you said that switching to an indie label freed you and the twins from the drawn-out song-demoing process. What did that do for the feel of the album?

It was absolutely paramount. I would say it’s the cornerstone of why The Firewatcher’s Daughter has such a recklessness to it. And I’m fully aware that some people might respond to that recklessness and feel uncomfortable because it does have this edge-of-your-seat feel to it, like anything can happen. You really do feel like that guitar solo could derail — because it could’ve.

I really wanted to make an album that had that feeling to it, that didn’t sound practiced, that didn’t sound demoed. Those moments are gonna happen, whether they happen at band practice or whether they happen on a demo recording. But once they do happen, you don’t get them back really. They’re moments. The harmonies get tighter, the rhythm gets more refined. But that one moment, you don’t get it again.

You’ve said you felt like you reached a point where you leaned too much on your entertaining sensibilities and Opry, Vegas and glam rock influences. What was wrong with that?

I don’t know about “wrong with.” Just maybe it was obscuring a few important elements of my personality.

I cut my teeth on Grand Ole Opry one-liners. The ba-dum-bum between songs became as important to me as the songs at times. I have a major propensity towards comedy. I loved Little Jimmy Dickens, and I cried when he died, and I love Minnie Pearl and the tongue-in-cheek Loretta [Lynn] lyrics. Those things are just molecular to me. They really do make me the artist that I am.

And then as a teenager, I sang background vocals for an Elvis impersonator and got swept up in the sequins and the dancing and the background vocals. Then I [got] into Elton John and his costumes and Freddie Mercury and his drama. And those are the things that I lie in bed at night thinking about.

It’s really easy for me to get really swept up into that moment because I care so much about the people that come to see us sing that I don’t wanna make even a single moment of our shows lackluster. But some people do want to see heroic displays of honesty and vulnerability, too. I certainly want to be at least capable of them, if not prone to them. So I went on a solo tour.

Are you talking about the Pin Drop Tour [where she performed without amps or mics]?

No, this is a solo tour. … It was just me by myself and I changed the set list up every night and I went out onstage in my street clothes instead of getting kinda dressed up. It was a reintroduction to myself for sure.

The Pin Drop Tour is another one of those things where we wanted to get past some of the affectation and reach across the line between an artist and an audience and be in the same room with people for real.

The MTV Unplugged series used to present popular performers in what felt like a more stripped-down, authentic setting. Would you say the Pin Drop shows have a similar effect?

It’s going a lot further in the direction that you’re talking about, unplugging and playing acoustic instruments.

Somebody said to me one time that the measure of a great song is what would happen to it if the lights went out. That is something that I’ve always tried to keep in mind, especially with production and stuff like that. A song can’t lean itself on a drum loop or a synthesized moment and still be a classically great song, I think. Because if the lights went out, then it would just be a lyric, you know?

The Pin Drop Tour, though, it’s much more interactive because the audience has to be open to the fact that they’re not gonna hear a show the way they’re used to hearing one. They also have to be open to accepting the venue as a band member, which is really weird. The Pin Drop Tour is also about seeing what some of these rooms have to say that were built pre-amplification.

Every night is a totally different show, from the songs we sing to the way we sing ‘em to where we stand on the stage. It all comes down to the room and what the people are willing to be open to.

There are particular performing configurations that people are more familiar with — the coed duo; the front woman with a male musical mastermind behind her. Less so, I’d think, the configuration that you and the twins have as collaborating, performing songwriters. What has it taken to establish the fact that this is a real creative partnership?

It’s kind of like half musical and half just love and affection-based. I know how silly that can sound but the three of us, me and the twins, we love each other and we see each other as complete equals in all things. We all have individual talents. Trust me — we all take center stage in different ways. But Tim and Phil backing me up the way that they do is really unusual. It’s really unusual for a woman to front a band with male background singers, or male musicians [to be] content to be in that position.

You see the dynamics of male front people and female background singers a lot. … It does strike people as strange that these men are involved in the music, but aren’t in the forefront of it. I think it’s really cool. I think it’s a really cool look. God knows the boys like it. They don’t like that center spot on the stage as much as you’d think most people would.

You’ve been at this for a while now and I think you’ve been able to maintain quite a bit of continuity in your musical identity. Do you feel that way?

Thank you. I really appreciate that. I feel like I’m all over the place. I remember listening to my first record before I started writing for this recent one and going, “Oh, I just hope I can find whatever innocent place that was.” … There is no trying to do that sort of thing. It either happens or it doesn’t. It’s so accidental for me. There’s no workmanship or skill really involved in it.

Trying to regain innocence is an elusive pursuit. But you can strip away things you’ve come to rely on, as you’ve done in recording this way.

It’s just cool to me that there never could’ve been a Firewatcher’s Daughter chapter in my life other than right when it was, right when it happened. It’s been that way for every record. I could never recreate that year, that breakup, that loss, that gain. I could never recreate my wife being eight months pregnant and getting ready to be a mother for the first time and having to get some of this stuff out.

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