Brandi Carlile: The Fine Line Between Art and Entertainment
Photographs by Jacki Sackheim
During her recent interview with Scott Goldman at the Grammy Museum’s “An Evening With” series, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile paused for a moment, then spoke about the distinction between being an artist and an entertainer. It is a fine line many artists have wrestled with over the years. When does the artist simply entertain and when does she persevere on to something deeper and more enduring than the momentary celebration? And more important, does she bring her audience with her to that unique place she has mined in the process?
As she demonstrated during the 90 minutes of conversation and music, for Carlile, it is a balance that needs to be nurtured and grown through the process of authentic living with flexible boundaries between family, friends, and career. She made it clear that this issue is deeply personal while striking a distinctly universal and inclusive note. She also described an overall lifestyle and approach to the creation of music that unites rather than divides things up into tidy boundaries and categories.
Branching out on her first independently produced album, Firewatcher’s Daughter (released this past spring), which she wrote and produced with band members Tim and Phil Hanseroth (aka the twins), has proven to be a creative high water mark for the singer-songwriter’s decade-long recording career.
During the course of the evening, Carlile described the challenges presented by an ever deepening artistic process and a daily commitment to life as it presents itself, while career success is breaking out around her. That commitment includes being present to growing a family — in the last few years she has married and now has a baby daughter. She spoke optimistically about the discovery that she can keep her creative edge as domestic contentment sets in along with releasing a popular and critically successful new album, as well as with the constant demands of touring.
However, it was when she spoke of playing festivals last summer, when she found herself having such a good time on stage, she began playing to the ‘beer garden’ crowd, as she described it. This in contrast to her recent performance at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, when she realized again the connection between all that she has become over the last decade of performance in the studio and concert stage. For her, that performance, was a breakthrough returning her from the festival entertainer back to her sensibilities as an artist.
However, she understands that both the entertainer and the artist work together to create something uniquely accessible about her music.
She noted that it all comes down to the authenticity and integrity she has found over a decade of recording and touring. It’s a stream that runs through her life and music, be it her relationship with her wife and daughter, her bandmates, or the steps she’s taken as an activist to help women protect themselves from violence and hate crimes through her Looking Out/Fight the Fear foundation.
Her songs, written in collaboration with the twins, are at once deeply personal as well as hitting a universal note that invites the listener into the heart of something real, through music that can sway seamlessly between bluegrass, folk, country, and alternative rock.
The reality Carlile brings consists of what we all experience in life — that mixture of dark and light, celebration and suffering, lessons learned, unlearned and redeemed through a perseverance that can only be described as love. It all shows up through the finest of melodies, lyrics, and distinctively beautiful music from Carlile and the twins. The temptation to simply entertain is great when the art is this whole, delivered with such grace, love, and vulnerable joy. But, they have done so much more.
When Carlile spoke of her family, she included her wife and daughter, as well as the Twins and their families. This may be the key to what makes a creative talent move so well from an entertainer to an artist and activist. As she spoke, there was a generous and hospitable inclusiveness that suggests a view of community through her art rather than a pop-star-like status trip so common in popular music today. This may be why, as her career has grown, there has not been a divide between family and career or everyday reality and the songs she and the twins write. It is all one. And it’s sewn together by a tough-minded form of love that has been lived out in the the lives of the artists.
When Carlile talked about the process of writing songs, she said that equal credit is given to her and the twins. They write carefully, placing each of their unique marks on the songs. When she was asked who wrote the majority of specific songs, Carlile stated it was Phil Hanseroth who wrote her most famous song, “The Story.”
As she moved from interview to an all-too-short performance of five songs from her new album, the fruit of her word became a living thing. It was evident from the warmth of the performance and the chemistry between the musicians. The set included moving and dynamic versions of “Wherever Is Your Heart,” “The Eye,” “Wilder (We’re Chained),” as well as her version of The Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City.” On the touching “Beginning to the Feel the Years,” the artists stepped away from their microphones for a ‘pin drop’ moment, referring to a past tour which centered around all-acoustic performances, with no amplified electronic assistance. This song, with its vulnerable lyrics, made a powerful statement on the connection between the art, the song, and the audience. Throughout the evening Carlile held the audience’s attention, but as she sang these words, the drop of a pin most likely could have been detected in the room as she sang:
I’m beginning to feel the years
But I’m going to be ok
As long as you’re beside me along the way
Going to make it through the night
And into the morning light
If there is any word which describes what Brandi Carlile, her friends, and family brought to the Grammy Museum’s series last Wednesday night, it would be “wholeness.”
Good art may indeed entertain, but it comes from a deeper soul-place that reaches out and embraces all that is real in the world around us, as it wraps us in the beauty of words, music and performance. As portrayed by Carlile during her performance at the Grammy Museum, the connection between art, entertainment, and the hope of love through music, was in full play.