Chatting with Brandi Carlile about her symphony album
Growing up in the boonies an hour or so away from Seattle, the idea of standing onstage at Benaroya Hall and playing songs she wrote while Seattle Symphony accompanied her on arrangements they’d been handed by Paul Buckmaster, probably would have seemed a little pie-in-the-sky for a young Brandi Carlile. But, she’s now done just that enough times to warrant a live album out of the whole thing.
Brandi Carlile Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony (out May 3 on Columbia Records) is, in fact, her best record yet. Stripped of the pretense and pre-calculation of a studio album, Carlile’s live show tends to surprise cynical first-timers, and endear long-time fans. It’s the thing which makes it clear her artistic potential far outweights what she’s been capable of recording to disc. Not only is she’s funny and charming, but her band is tight as hell. It helps two of her bandmates share DNA. In fact, this record includes the Hanseroth twins’ version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” – a beautiful and eerie rendition delivered through their identically-toned voices. It’s one of the only moments on the disc where the Seattle Symphony is entirely absent, but the echo in the hall translates well. It’s a wonderfully chilling moment, like watching the clouds curl and the wind shift before a storm. Sort of.
The arrangements here come from Buckmaster and composer-to-the-Americana-stars Sean O’Loughlin (maybe best known for his arrangements for the Decemberists, although he’s done quite a bit more). It kicks off with her rendition of Elton John’s “60 Years On,” which has become a fixture of her live shows. Hearing it with Buckmaster’s original arrangement, written for Sir Elton now more than 30 years ago, certainly beefs the whole thing up a bit. But it’s “Looking Out” – a Carlile original – which really gets the disc going. It starts feeling much like the album version. Then the piano comes in. Then the violins, Allison Miller’s drums, and the percussive-sawing cellos which round out the bass line. They seem at one point to be playing accompaniment to Hanseroth’s guitar distortion. It’s that closely orchestrated, and rich.
As you’ll read below, Carlile hadn’t even heard the arrangements until rehearsal, so the sense that the whole thing is being balanced on a puddle atop a fragile membrane is real. It’s that dangerousness which could almost be called rock and roll, if the songs themselves had a little less pop and twang. “Before It Breaks” is finally fully realized here, as are “I Will” and “Dreams” (all three from her Rick Rubin-produced last album Give Up the Ghost). Granted, I’ve been following Carlile’s career for years, have written many words about her work, and seen her live more than a few times. Maybe I’ve developed a fan’s bias, but where her studio records have left something of her potential out, this live disc with the Seattle Symphony decisively fills in the blanks.
Carlile was kind enough to take some time out of her hectic schedule recently to chat with me about the disc. So, I give you the following interview:
KR: I was looking through my files to find notes from last time I interviewed you about [playing with the Symphony]. I think that was before your last record came out..
BC: Yeah, the very first symphony show was in 2008.
KR: You had these songs on the road for quite a while now, so it must have been good to hear them revitalized with the orchestra.
BC: Oh yeah, it was a total revival. To hear your music with a symphony behind it… it’s like playing it for the first time, or hearing it finally live up to its full potential. It’s really cool.
KR: And you worked with Sean O’Loughlin again this time?
BC: Yeah, we worked with Sean O’Loughlin on a couple of songs and we worked with Paul Buckmaster on a couple of songs, which was amazing.
KR: Whoa, what did he do? Aside from “60 Years On”?
BC: Yeah, he did “60 Years On,” obviously, but also “Before It Breaks,” “Cannonball,” and “Shadow on the Wall.”
KR: Did you do a similar process with him where you were sending tracks back and forth or did you get to work on that in person?
BC: In this instance, it was like – when you come up with a string arrangement for a record, it’s a little different than [doing it for a] live show, because the string arrangement has to support the song and has to support you as an artist. It has to support the record and the record’s continuity. It has different requirements. But, when you’re playing live with a symphony, the way I see it is it’s not my show. It’s my and the symphony’s show. So, the string arrangements I choose for the live work are different than the records, because they also have to showcase the symphony, as well as support the song and the evening. When Paul did the arrangements for those three songs, I didn’t have a single word to say about it. I just said, “You know what, do whatever you think will make the night amazing.” And that’s what he did.
KR: Did you hear those before rehearsal?
BC: No, actually, I never heard them with the symphony before the rehearsal. That was kind of a surprise. I had approved “Cannonball” and “Shadow on the Wall,” but I was on the road and it was something that…I had it in my head that I wanted to go back and forth with Paul about what things were going to sound like. I knew his arrangements would be strange, but that they would be perfect for what I wanted.
KR: How painstaking was the set list decision process?
BC: It was tough because it was two nights. I didn’t want to play the saem thing both nights in a row, but I wanted everyone to experience songs that I thought were important, in case they didn’t come both nights in a row. So I balanced it – I played “Cannonball” one night and didn’t play it the other night. I played “Hallelujah” one night and not the other night. There were just a few changes, but most of them were in the order of the songs…it was difficult just to make the set list short. We wanted to play for three hours.
KR: So, when you got to making the record process, did you have a hard time discarding things?
BC: No, because some of the songs stood out to me as more exciting than the other ones. Throughout the process of mixing them and altering things like the volume within the symphony and stuff like that, certain songs moved me more and I thought they’d move fans more too. The tough decision was deciding to use that many covers. But, our band really believes in cultivating standards out of cover tunes. It’s important to be able to do good songs, especially songs from the past 20-30 years. I thought, this is a show. It’s a record that’s supposed to be a show, and this is what we do at our shows. So to not counterbalance our originals with covers would not be as honest as it could be. When people come to our shows, they can expect to hear cover songs, so they should expect to hear cover songs on our live records.
KR: I know there was a lot of buzz on Cayamo, especially, about “Sound of Silence.” I’m sure there are going to be a lot of people who are glad that’s on record now…
BC: Yeah, it’s amazing. The twins – god they sound so creepy. They’re just these identical voices and it’s so perfect.
KR: Did you just get done recording another studio record?
BC: Yeah, we just finished. It was one of the coolest experiences of our lives. One of the best recording experiences we’ve ever had, bar none. It’s pretty amazing. I can’t wait for you to hear it.
KR: Where did you record it?
BC: We recorded it at Bear Creek here [in Seattle], actually. We all just kind of moved in there for the month. Our producer/engineer stayed there. Alli [Miller, drummer] stayed there a lot of nights. It was pretty special.
KR: What else was different aside from it just feeling better? I haven’t heard any of the new songs.
BC: We played a lot of different instruments we haven’t played before. We went in there with one common goal, which was that we wanted to, above all things, preserve energy in every song. With Ghost, as much as we love that record and as live as those songs are, we had recorded them so many times before we finally settled on that record being done. Even though we felt like the songs got better arrangement-and-performance-wise, there’s some unspoken tension in a song that hasn’t been recorded a million times, or labored over. You can’t quite figure out what it is, but it’s the same feeling you get from going to see a live show, from a live recording. The feeling that, at any second, it could be real. That’s the thing that makes it exciting. If someone labors over something, you can feel it. You can’t hear it, but you can feel it. So we tried to make energy the common goal on this record.
KR: It seems that tends to be the case in the studio – the first take is generally the strongest, no matter how many times you do it again.
BC: Yeah. The first song always sounds like the first song, too.
KR: Are there any covers on that record?
BC: There are not.
KR: Do you think you’ll ever do an album of country classics?
BC: I’d like to. I’d really like to. I’ve got, like, three right now that are written… oh you mean country standards? Oh my god. I don’t know where I would stop. The album would be three hours long.
KR: You could do a box set.
BC: Absolutely [laughs].
KR: I like to ask my Twitter followers if they have any questions when I’m interviewing someone. A lot of people wanted to know if you’re really not going to be on Cayamo again next year.
BC: [laughs] I’m really not going to be on Cayamo next year. I may be on the boat, but we don’t know how it’s going to work out. We need to give another artist a chance to have that opportunity.
KR: What’s new with the Looking Out Foundation?
BC: We’re up to a lot. The If Project just finished its education piece. We’re getting a late start on the Fight the Fear campaign this year, because of my touring and becauase Jenny Hopper has been working on a project called the Angel Band, which I’m sure you’re aware of – the recording. We’re going to get together and start having meetings here again pretty soon. We’re involved with a local food bank, having some personal endeavors that we’ll talk about during the Raise the Roof… extravaganza this year. The final thing we’ve been working on a lot, we haven’t commited to it yet but we’ve been talking to the Kent Commons Community Center. They’re trying to provide a meal a week for elderly folks, who are not necessarily capable of cooking meals for themselves, or can’t afford it. So we’re getting involved with helping them out.
Check out Brandi Carlile’s tour dates and other information at BrandiCarlile.com.