Brandi Carlile discovers her soulful side on ‘Bear Creek’
Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile got a lucky break about ten years ago when Dave Matthews heard her singing on a side stage at the Gorge, the outdoor amphitheater located just outside of Seattle. Matthews hooked her up with his booking agent, and Carilile has been busy ever since. We recently spoke to her about that fortunate turn-of-events and asked her several questions about her fantastic new album, Bear Heaven, which comes out on June 5. On it, she explores her blues-rock side on “Raise Hell” and stretches out her soulful vocals on the first single “That Wasn’t Me.”
I know you’re opening for Dave Matthews this summer. Start by talking about how you first met him and how your career was progressing at the time.
I met Dave Matthews about ten or 11 years ago. I had been going to see Dave Matthews at the Gorge for years and years. I knew the people who were booking the shows and they would sometimes let me open for a national act. It was just a beer garden stage, but I went up there and rented a PA and was doing my soundcheck and Dave come up in a little golf cart and shot me a wave. I didn’t meet him then but that night after I played he called and got me my booking agent, Chip Hooper, who has been my booking agent ever since then.
How have you changed as a singer-songwriter in the ten years that have passed since then?
I changed immensely. When I began as a singer-songwriter, it was more about honing my craft and becoming a better singer-songwriter and a better performer. Now, because of my experiences and the natural progression of life, everything is based much more on experiences that have actually happened to me.
So your songs have become more personal?
Yes, I can write about things that are happening or have happened and I don’t worry about trying to become a better writer.
Tell me about the songwriting process for Bear Creek. Did it happen all at once or over a period of time?
It happened over the course of about a year or a year and a half. I guess it is a long period of time but I did a live album in between that was a lot of work.
Talk about the role of your producer, Trina Shoemaker, and how she helped form the songs and the music.
She just came in like a rolling stone and a Southern soul. All her ideas are compelled by classic rock and soul. I found that exciting. She pushed me in directions that were much different than the ones I was inclined to go in. As an engineer, she’s beyond brilliant. She wouldn’t even go get lunch. The other important thing that she does is headphone mixes. You put your headphones and it sounds like your record. A lot of times you put on the headphones and you’re supposed to do this performance to something that’s so dry. She makes every song sound magical.
Are you pursuing a theme on the album?
Not at all. That’s why it’s called Bear Creek. It’s a real coming home for us. We all live in the woods so we took everyone home. Our live guitar tech was our guitar tech for the recording. We wanted it to feel like our home and our family.
“A Promise to Keep” comes off as a break-up ballad. Is it?
Well, it could be about any significant loss, really. I like to think there are all kinds of loss.
“Raise Hell” is one of your rowdier songs. What inspired it?
Well, I turned 30 last year on June 1. I was on the road and I was having a tough tour. We were playing one show and there were thunderstorms and we were worried about being electrocuted. It gave me an adrenaline rush of fear. On June 1, we played in Boston and in a lightening storm and a lot of people died. I was fucking fed up. I wrote that song about trying to overcome those fears.
Your lyrics really stand out. How did you become such a good writer?
I don’t know if I am a good writer. The older I get, the more I worry that I was better when I was younger. I really worship Bernie Taupin and his ability to take himself out of his songs. Every great movement we’ve had in the last 100 years has been accompanied by a genre of music. You’ve got Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. They’re revolution writers, and that’s what I study.
Music is at such a weird place right now. Do you think you’ve secured a good niche?
Well, I’m not a smart business person or even a cautious one. I stumbled blindly into the ability to have a career that’s based on something almost as valuable as learning a trade. Because when everything falls apart and things aren’t going well, I can always go out and practice my trade. No mater what happens to the recording industry and no matter what happens in the battles for commerce, I can always play my shows and I hope that someone will come to see my shows.
When did you start performing?
I was like 10, 11 and 12 when I’d play at weekend festivals and parades.
That experience really paid off. It’s really important to be able to play live these days.
Yeah, it is really important. I’ve gotten to watching The Voice. I think Adam Levine is one of the nicest guys and I have fallen in love with Cee Lo. They have lights and pyrotechnics for the performers, many of whom have just played karaoke. They are not prepared for the pulse of adrenaline that’s going to hit them and you can see they’re out of breath in the first 20 seconds because they realize everything that’s going on and it’s too much. The ability to perform live is a process of separation. You can’t get too worked up. It’s hard to learn to control yourself and connect with the audience at the same time. It’s a real art form.