Brandi Carlile: Raising Hell and Finding Personal Growth With ‘Bear Creek’
Brandi Carlile has spent the better part of the last decade traversing the planet, bringing her music to an ever-growing following. Her new studio album, Bear Creek, sees the singer/songwriter using the experience garnered from life on the road to elevate her already astonishing artistry to a new level.
Recording at Bear Creek studios, a converted turn-of-the-century barn nestled among the tall trees of Woodinville, Washington, proved to be ideal. In March 2011, she brought co-producer Trina Shoemaker, a Grammy Award-winning engineer and mixer, and members of her “road family” – including multi-instrumentalists/songwriters Phil and Tim Hanseroth (a.k.a. “The Twins”), cellist Josh Neumann and drummer Allison Miller, as well as her touring sound engineer and guitar tech – to Bear Creek, and together they spent the next month recording.
The new album was released last month, and Carlile and company have hit the road for an extensive summer tour opening for Dave Mathews and headlining dates at Red Rocks, among the highlights.
I caught up with Brandi Carlile at her home in Seattle to talk about the new album and her storied career.
RICK J Bowen : You recently performed at the Johnny Cash tribute show, “We Walk The Line” in Austin, Texas. How was that?
Brandi Carlile: It was so special; so many great people were there, Shooter Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson.
RJB: You opened the show with the “Folsom Prison.”
Carlile: Yeah, I didn’t know that was gonna happen, until that day. But I’m always ready to throw on my guitar, get out there, get people going and on their feet. I also got to sing with Sheryl Crow on “Walk the Line.” I just love her.
RJB: Must have been amazing hanging with your heroes.
Carlile: Yes, it was great until I spilled a drink all over Lucinda Williams. I felt so embarrassed. It was a wild night; I got no sleep and had to catch a flight in the morning. It was a proper Johnny Cash tribute.
RJB: You were scheduled to play the Erase Hate event in Tampa the next day, but it was rained out. Seems you are quite involved in activism and being a role model.
Carlile: Yes, the Erase Hate event will get a makeup date; it’s very special event and needed in Florida. But I don’t know if I am a role model; I’m as flawed as anyone. But I have a forum as an artist, to raise awareness and try to make myself a blessing to others.
RJB: I would say you’re a role model to young women as an artist who has “made it.”
Carlile: I don’t feel I’ve really made it big yet. I don’t have a red sports car and a swimming pool. I’m not going for the Hollywood type thing, that’s not what I mean. I am still working hard and feel I have a ways to go.
RJB: Wouldn’t you call being the producer on your new record, Bear Creek, “making it?”
Carlile: Yes, producing the album with the twins and Trina [Shoemaker] is a mark of success and personal growth. It was a chance to apply all the knowledge we’ve acquired from the past. It’s exciting to do that. No one wants to be a perpetual student. All the combination of producers, like Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett on the previous records has brought us to this point. I just hope people like it and it has a chance to grow over time. Some records age better than others, so I hope this one does.
RJB: As the producer were you going for a certain sound or concept with Bear Creek?
Carlile: Well, we have cultivated a band sound for some time now. So we wanted to bring that feeling and sound into the studio. We went in as a band and played the songs the way we do live. There is so much pressure if you’re in L.A. and making a record with a big producer and you’re worried about fucking up that little guitar part, because there are 10 guitar players down the street who can do it better. Doing this record ourselves, closer to home gave us a chance to stretch our legs and relax. Then we took it a step further and brought in our road crew. So we had our sound tech and guitar tech to help us get our sound.
Every time you make a record people start talking about how great records were made, and who played on them, all the classic sounds from famous studio players like the “Wrecking Crew,” and the “Motown guys,” and try to reference that sound. But what people forget is they were a band. That is how they got that great sound.
RJB: Did making the live album have an impact on that?
Carlile: Oh, yeah. After listening to the Benaroya Hall record, which I love, even after listening to it a lot, you know it’s tough for a singer to listen to themselves. We brought that concept to Bear Creek and brought in the whole live crew. That will be the hard part now, when we take these songs on the road. I like to change little things on each song when we play them, but because we worked out the nuances as a band I won’t have as much to change. But I’m excited for people to hear the record.
RJB: Tell me about the songs and the writing process. You and the twins are credited as writers.
Carlile: We write everything together. I don’t care who writes the songs in this band. When I say “the band” I mean the twins and I. We are very close. They only live like a mile away, so I see them all the time. We’ve been together over a decade, and we do everything as a band, all our business and life decisions, like family. I am naturally codependent I guess, and the twins being born together are sort of forced by nature to be that way. But we are going for that classic songwriting collaboration like Elton John and Bernie Taupin.
RJB: So it’s not “I’m the lead singer, do as I say.”
Carlile: No, not at all. We are a band; just because my name is on it, doesn’t mean anything. I’d be in a band with those guys no matter what it was called.
RJB: The album has defiant tone overall. Is that accurate to say?
Carlile:: My mom says I’ve sounded that way since I was 13. It was a time of some upheaval; I had just turned 30 and spent the year considering that and all the things I’ve done. You seem to over-nurture some aspects of your life and career and under-nurture others. The songs reflect that.
RJB: Have these songs been around awhile?
Carlile:: Some have, yes, and they took a while to cultivate. Others are new. I wrote “Just Kids” in the studio.
RJB: That song is very Brian Wilson.
Carlile:: Well, we did listen to “God Only Knows” to reference the drum sound, so the influence is there.
RJB: And “Raise Hell,” you have called this a storm song. Why?
Carlile: I was really grumpy when I wrote that song. We were on a tough tour and kept getting hit with these amazing thunderstorms that threatened to cancel like a half dozen shows in a row. I would sit backstage and wait to see if we could go on. It was frustrating.
RJB: It does have a terrific guitar solo.
Carlile: Yeah, it does, thanks man. Tim had been trying to find a song for this great solo idea, so I said, “Let’s write the song around it.”
RJB: Are you going to release that as a single? Guitar solos are what’s missing on the radio these days.
Carlile: I don’t know, a few people are afraid it might be a polarizing, saying I’m gonna raise hell. It’s also kind of a weird song.
RJB: No weirder than the line in “Keep Yourself Young” about filling snowballs with rocks. What is that song all about?
Carlile: That song is a testimony to the twins and their naughty childhood.
RJB: This has been a year of firsts for you, first time producer, first solo tour, and first time at the Grand Ole Opry, now headed out on a headline tour. What’s next?
Carlile: Isn’t that enough [laughs]? Oh yeah, the Opry sure was special. Well, I’ve tried to my get personal stuff together and want to focus my energy on doing good things. I have changed my foundation ([Looking Out Foundation] to a public company. I want to bring in the fans and make it a collaborative effort. I think that way we can really make an impact. I am excited about the tour and Red Rocks, wow! That’s gonna be something. Then we will be back in Seattle with the symphony in November.
RJB: Thanks for taking time to talk to me. I really dig the new record. I think it’s going to blow up for you.
Carlile: Oh! Thanks man, glad you like it.
RJB: Now go raise hell.
Carlile: Thanks! I will.
video from 2011 ACL…Brandi Carlile –Raise Hell
***Originally apeared in Innocent Words July 2012***