Just after playing Chicago’s lovely Millennium Park, singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile talked with QRO. In the conversation, Carlile discussed her new live album, Live at Benaroya Hall with The Seattle Symphony, other great venues like Millennium Park, work with the Seattle Symphony, working with heroes of hers like Elton John, not coming out to the L.A. Times, and more…
QRO: I know you just celebrated a birthday last week, so happy belated birthday.
Brandi Carlile: Thank you.
QRO: I saw that you were able to raise quite a bit of money for freshwater projects just by making that your birthday wish.
BC: Yeah, it was my manager’s idea actually. He found the organization and I looked into it. I always love when there are grassroots organizations like that where 100% of the proceeds go towards the cause that you’re trying to support.
QRO: Yeah, definitely. So how’s this tour going? How does it feel to be back on the road with Ray LaMontagne?
BC: Oh the tour is fantastic. You know, I love Ray. I’ve been a huge Ray fan for a long time; it’s such an honor to get to do this bill with him. The audiences have been unbelievable, as his crowds have always proven to be. They feel like genuine music fans. And also I’m really inspired by The Secret Sisters who are also on this bill.
QRO: Seems like you’re always on the road. Has that been going on for a while?
BC: Actually right before this tour, we had been off for six months, just recording and just kind of stretching our legs out at home. And we feel pretty energized and excited to be back on the road right now.
QRO: Well you guys put on a great show last night – I was really happy I got to be there.
BC: Thanks. I loved that show last night. I love Chicago.
QRO: You had mentioned last night that you had always wanted to play that Millennium Park stage…
BC: Always. I’ve heard it’s the indoor theater, outdoors. That’s what the sound and the environment is like. It proved to be even more than that – I thought it was pretty fantastic.
QRO: Are there any other venues that you’ve really looked forward to playing?
BC: Yeah, absolutely. There are two that I was really looking forward to play that we got to play and we’re getting to play again. The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, which is the mother church of country music and original Grand Ole Opry. And the other is Red Rocks in Colorado – which was such a total dream come true. The other one is
something I always wanted to see from the stage looking out.
QRO: Speaking of the album, what made you make that decision to record your fourth record as a live album?
BC: I’ve kind of always wanted that fourth record to be a live album, a combination of the songs we’ve been writing and the energy, and the friends and fans we’ve been cultivating on the road over the past eight or so years we’ve been doing this. I think it was just time, you know. At the end of the day, we’re a live band and I think we had to put that out there.
QRO: Where did the decision come in with the 30-piece Seattle Symphony?
BC: Well, I’ve always loved symphonies. I always love the moods and drama of the strings and rock and roll music – the marriages of two uncomfortable worlds. When you think about it, the influences, you don’t think orchestration or string arrangements but if you think again, you picture Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley and Roy Orbinson. Those were heavily orchestrated styles of music. And like Elton John and The Beatles – you think about it, you can hear the strings and the symphonies – they’re there. You know, the strings and that music, its there when I write songs, whether I hear it or not.
QRO: Was it hard to arrange your songs for an orchestra?
BC: Well, I didn’t arrange them; the string arrangers would do it. Notably string arrangements are not something that really an artist can do unless they understand engineering or study classical music. I can consult and definitely be a part of it, hum melody lines or say, ‘I don’t want any horns in this part,’ or ‘I think this needs a symphony drum’ or something, but I’m not really capable of writing string arrangements.
These two guys – one guy, Sean O’Loughlin, out of L.A., who does a lot of records, and the other guy’s name is Paul Buckmaster. Paul is a great hero of mine. He did all the early Elton John string arrangements from Madman Across the Water, Tumbleweed Connection, etc.
QRO: So you’ve definitely worked with some of your role models recently, Paul being one of them, Elton John being another. What was it to like to work with Elton on “Caroline”?
BC: Fucking crazy, I mean, you know –
It was really profound. We talked about a lot of things that I’ll never forget. Set my own pace to be the kind of artist that I want to be.
QRO: I know a lot of the artists you’ve looked up to, like Elton John and The Indigo Girls, happen to be openly gay artists. Did having them as role models affect your decision at all to come out to L.A. Times?
BC: Well, nothing ever affected my decision to come out to L.A. Times, but I will say that I did to tend to have gay role models growing up. Which I find to be a profound responsibility for me, because it was important to know that there were successful people that were like me and were okay and living happy lives and had partners. I lived in a really small town and didn’t know anyone who was gay and it was important to me to have those role models. So, you know, I feel a responsibility to maybe be that in some way.
However, I didn’t ‘come out’, I wouldn’t say, to L.A. Times – I’ve been out since I was about 15 years old. Coming out, was what I did in high school. [laughs] Talking to the L.A. Times about being gay was just natural, because no one had ever asked me about it before.
QRO: Were you ever worried that being open about it would affect people’s perception of you as an artist?
BC: No. I don’t know, I think the Lord has blessed me with some kind of obliviousness to that. I’ve always been oblivious to it.
That’s because of the way it’s been paved for me and other people that took that hit before me.
I’m not saying we don’t have a long way to go, as far as inclusion and acceptance or even that women don’t have a long way to go in general – in the work force, in the music industry and every industry like it. I’m just saying that the people that paved the way for me did a good job and that it’s a blessing for me to not have to think about that every time I sit down to talk to a reporter or every time I ask for an opportunity. It never occurs to me that I might not get it because I’m gay. And if I find out that I didn’t, then I’ll fight for it.
QRO: Speaking of women in general, now that knowing Sarah McLachlan isn’t continuing her Lilith Fair, what did that mean to you to be a part of some of those dates last year?
BC: I feel a part of Lilith Fair since inception. I was a fan before I ever joined the team, but I was in attendance at every single Lilith Fair that came to my town. It was a pivotal point in my teenage years. It made a really big impact on me as an artist and it made a really big impact on the music industry that followed it. So, Lilith Fair… it was great to be a part of it in the seats and great to be a part of it on stage. Sarah McLachlan is so important in our community and whatever she decides to continue or discontinue, I’m going to be a part of it.
QRO: On your new album, you started it off with a cover of Elton John’s “Sixty Years On”, and then covered a few other songs as well – “Sound of Silence”, “Hallelujah”, “Forever Young”. How do you choose the songs you cover? Are these songs that mean something to you personally or just that you really enjoying singing?
BC: Oh it’s all different kinds of things. I think every generation needs a collection of standards. You know what I mean? To sort of continue on and look down at another generation. You look at like what modern standards are, or whatever, you think of “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Hallelujah”. Those are going to be the standards for this cluster of generations. And the only way to make sure that happens is by other artists paying homage to other artists by covering and cultivating. So I choose covers based on how I feel they impact the world and whether or not they move me.
I do have a guilty pleasure, a fondness, for doing covers that were sung by men because I like to take the lyrics and change the perspective. It’s all different reasons why we choose covers, but those are some of them.
QRO: As far as your own songs, I know you collaborate with the twins (brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth) a lot; do you ever co-write with other artists?
BC: Yeah totally. If they inspire me, I love to. Yeah. That part is actually the most fun for me. It pushes me out of my own head and then I can totally hone in on the craft of song writing and what it is actually as a skill or a trade. Instead of like, ‘Oh my god, this is something that I have to say or I’m going to die…’ [laughs]
QRO: What would you say inspires your lyrics the most?
BC: Oh it varies. If I’m co-writing a song and working with The Twins, like I do most of the time, I’m just trying to say an extension of whatever it is they’re saying but in my own way. And if I’m writing by myself, it tends to usually be something that I’m trying to work through or something that’s keeping me up at night. It’s not ever really, generally inspiring so to speak, it’s usually like daunting. [laughs]
QRO: Do you ever put so much of yourself into a song that it becomes almost hard to perform it in front of a crowd?
BC: Increasingly more and more as I get older. Maybe not difficult, just less and less casual.
QRO: So now that you’ve collaborated with Elton John, who’s next on your wish list? Who would you love to work with in the future?
BC: Oh my god – Dolly Parton, maybe. Or Loretta Lynn. [laughs]
QRO: I know your roots have always been in country music, your mother being a country music singer. Last night, The Secret Sisters, who are also more country, opened up for you and also joined you on stage for a song. When you choose people to tour with or to open for you, do you think it helps if the artist has a similar sound?
BC: Yeah, I don’t care what their sound is or if they have a similar sound. If it’s authentic, if it’s moving, I want to be a part of exposing it – that’s how I choose an opener. But to collaborate with… yeah, it all comes down to just being moved. You know when something moves you, when its really happening and when its not.
QRO: So you’ve accomplished so much already in your career… Are there specific short term and long term goals you’re always kind of striving for?
BC: Um, I’ve thought about that a lot lately – especially turning 30 this last week. And I think if I had a goal in life, it would just be to always remember kind of what a blessing it is to be where we are right now. And if there’s something for me to hope for, it’s just continue on – to be able to continue to be as prolific and content and energized as we are right now. If it could be this way in ten years, I wouldn’t dare ask for another cent.