Brandi Carlile's powerful voice soars over the 13 tracks on Bear Creek, her fourth studio album. After breaking through with monstrous AAA radio hits like “The Story” and “What Can I Say,” the folk rocker spent time putting together her fourth album, resulting in a lush, full collection that of course highlights one of the best voices in indie rock. When she's not performing, Carlile joins campaigns for marriage equality and hunger relief.
NUVO: When I first saw you'd be performing with Blitzen Trapper, I was surprised. But after I listened to your new release Bear Creek, I realized they're a perfect fit.
Brandi Carlile: Yes, I've been a fan of Blitzen Trapper for several years now.
NUVO: What do you like about them?
Carlile: I have to say, I specifically like their songs. I like their songs, their melodies, their lyrics. That was my draw to them. But I saw them live recently, and I was totally impressed with their production and stage presence. I'm pretty psyched to see them live every night.
NUVO: Can you describe the recording process for this new album?
Carlile: We recorded, obviously, at Bear Creek. We didn't have a producer, we had an engineer. We went in to document these songs, and we wanted to do pre-production for five days, but we ended up getting our first song on the first day, because Trina [Shoemaker, the producer] wanted to document pre-production. The truth happens, you know, when you're practicing. So, we ended up not doing pre-production and just making the record.
NUVO: What are a few of your favorite moments on Bear Creek?
Carlile: When Tim came up with the guitar line on “Rise Again,” that was one of my favorite moments. When we finalized “Just Kids,” that was one of my favorite moments because that was an experiment that was getting exhausting for me to explain it all to the band. I couldn't actually play the piano part — it was too difficult. I could only play it for like 30 seconds at a time and then my hand would fatigue. I was trying to piece it together and it took a really long time. So, when that finally came together that was a big moment for me. But my favorite moment was when we finished “That Wasn't Me,” because it was going to be an all-day ordeal and we ended up getting it one live take. Without an arrangement, without anything we just performed the song. We didn't know what the breaks would be, or where the bridge would be, or how it would begin or how it would end. That's one of those moments where you can never take that back and do it again.
NUVO: I think a lot of people would be surprised that you work with two twins [Tim and Phil Hanseroth] who are essentially your siblings. What is unique about your writing process with them?
Carlile: Well, it goes so much deeper than that. They're not my actual siblings, but we've been playing together for over ten years now. One of them is married to my little sister. And they have a baby, my niece Josephine who's six months old and tours with us. She's not just my niece — she's Phil's twin brother's niece, so me and Tim share a niece.
We all live in the same small town. They all moved here from Seattle. It really works for us, to be together here, on the road and in the studio and alto to be together at Thanksgiving, Christmas. For the twins to come to my baptism, for me to go to a family member's funeral. For us, it works that way. And the reason it works that way is because of the writing process. It turns three separate songwriters into one very diverse songwriter. When Phil or Tim turns a song into me as an interpreter, it's not difficult for me to understand it or perform it, because we essentially have parallel lives.
NUVO: So I would imagine you know them much more deeply than most songwriters know their collaborators.
Carlile: Yeah, we don't have to explain to each out what our songs are about, or what our lyrics are about. Furthermore, if I turn a song into the twins, they never have to ask me what it's about. And if it's 25 percent finished lyrically, they can finish it, because they know what I'm saying, where I'm going with it.
NUVO: That sounds very complicated, but very rewarding.
Carlile: I've written more than one song about one of their past breakups, or their divorce. I've written a lot of songs about the happenings in their lives and vice-versa.
NUVO: I”m very interested that you donate so much money to the foundation you founded. It's a really great way to give — almost like the fans are donating. Can you tell me what causes you'll be highlighting in the next year or upcoming years?
Carlile: Absolutely. The first order of priority is that we're taking on hunger as a cause for the fall. We teamed up with an organization called Why Hunger. Like the summer tour, we're taking up a cause of the day. We researched each city and found a grassroots organization with a big impact with absolutely no boundaries — whether it was about sex trafficking or eating disorders, or overall poverty, drug and alcohol addiction recovery, the environment — we had so many different causes for each city. All of them made a big impact on me. All of these booths would come out and set up, hand out pamphlets, and I'd speak about them onstage.
We're doing that for the fall as well, but we're focusing specifically on hunger and poverty. So, food bands, soup kitchens, food pantries. They're going to come out, hand out their materials and I'm going to speak about them on stage. That way, when I come to your city, you're going to know which food bank or organization is making an impact.
NUVO: That sounds so cool. I could talk to you about so many in Indy.
Carlile: Oh, really? Well, I want to hear about the one you would recommend.
NUVO: You know, I'm really passionate about Second Helpings, which is a food reclamation program here. They rescue unused food from all of these grocery stores and different places. Then, they cook healthy meals and feed every member of the Boys and Girls Club and other targeted areas. They also run a really amazing culinary training program that gives people the skills to become chefs and work in the food organization. They pull in so many different parts of [a hunger organization].
Carlile: That's exactly what we're going for. How much do you want to bet that's the organization we're focusing on?
NUVO: I would bet it would be a contender, because it's really really great.
Carlile: Let me ask my wife, because I'm totally curious now. (calls to wife, away from phone) Catherine, what's the Indianapolis cause of the day? Hang on, she says.
NUVO: It could also be Gleaners, which is a really great food bank.
Catherine Shepard, Carlile's wife: It's a food bank.
Carlile: What's it called?
Carlile: It's Gleaners. (laughs).
NUVO: Well, we really love Gleaners as well. You'll have to come back and do one with Second Helpings too.
Carlile: Well, that's the great thing about non-profit work: nobody is in competition with anyone else.
NUVO: I know. Please feel free not to answer this. I know you came out publicly several years ago. I know there is a lot of pressure for public media figures to take a side during hotly contested political races. Are you campaigning at all for LGBT rights?
Carlile: Totally, especially in Washington State. Marriage equality is up for discussion in November. It's Referendum 74, is what it's called. Back to what you were saying about coming out and the high-profile obligatory attached to coming out. I would say that coming out is something I did when I was 14. At that time, although I didn't have a voice or a platform, or anyone who cared besides my parents and my teachers, I know that those kinds of things have a ripple effect. They start out small, but have really broad reach.
As I got older and moved my way up through the music business, it never occurred to me that there was a necessity to me to come out. Once you do it that young, and part of explaining your orientation at that age, it becomes just that: your orientation. You believe it's visible, just like your eye color, it's on your sleeve. I really believed it was common knowledge about me.
But since it wasn't, I do understand the importance of making an issue —- of highlighting that about a person. It was important to me to have those kinds of role models to look up to. Having done that and having said that, doing that without a cause, it's more than just making an example about yourself and saying, “Look at me, I'm gay too and I'm happy.” It's more to make an issue about a specific cause — marriage equality. Marriage inequality sends the most violent message to adolescent gay youth that you can possibly send. That is, not only can you not be happy, but you can't be normal. You can't do even the basic day-to-day things. You can't become a civil rights recipient. And that's why i'm involved in Referendum 74.
And I hate to call it campaigning, I think it's a social welfare issue; it's not a political issue at all. I think that political discussions can only happen between two people of an equal platform. And if I don't have the same civil rights as you, we don't really have a discussion at all — we have a grievance.
NUVO: You came up in Seattle's coffeehouse circuit. What is your advice be to people who are doing that same thing right now —- young singer-songwriters searching to break into touring?
Carlile: Well, first of all, if you're coming up in the coffeehouse circuit, my first piece of advice is that you limit yourself to one cup a day. Coffee just makes you do stupid stuff faster. (laughs) I say that with my cup of coffee.
I think that the most important things about coming up is that one — you can't skip those things. You can't skip those steps. You have to play bars, restaurants, coffeehouses, and, in my opinion, you have to busk as well. The reason for this is that music is an over saturated thing. Everybody's doing it, everybody's putting their music on the Internet and going the same direction. But not everybody knows how to perform in a way that makes people stop what they're doing. So you have to first learn how to make people stop, physically stop, where they're walking when you're busking. You learn, when I do this thing, when I play this chord, when I hit this note, people are stopping.
Then you move into a restaurant and you figure out what it is that makes people put down their fork. And then you move into a bar and you figure out what it is that makes people put down their beer and stop talking to their colleague. And then, by the time you graduate into playing theaters and actual shows with your band, you really do know what it is that makes people stop what they're doing. And when you have an audience, it becomes a refined craft. That's one thing, playing in uncomfortable situations that you may not think are cool.
The second thing is community. You have to find other people to play with and work with, set up shows with and jam with. Nothing big every happens throughout the course of history without people coming together in community.
Brandi Carlile performs on KFOG in San Francisco
[A+E] Festivals + Parties, DJs + Dancing, Rock, Hip-hop
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[Music] DJs + Dancing