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Brandi Carlile

You know you're a special singer/songwriter when both T Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin have produced albums of yours. And Brandi Carlile is just such a special artist. Much like Ray LaMontagne (an artist she's also opened for), Carlile is also a distinctive vocalist. She has a powerful, soulful singing voice that raises her head and shoulders above many of her Americana and alt.country contemporaries.

You also know you're something truly special when Elton John sings a duet with you, as he did with Carlile on the song "Caroline." And just as Elton named an album after the funky studio where he recorded it (Honky Chateau, named for the Château d'Hérouville studio in France), Brandi titled her 2012 release Bear Creek, after the studio tucked away outside of Seattle. It's her fourth studio album, and once again it's a collaboration with the twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth, who she writes, records and performs with (Phil is married to Brandi's sister).

Carlile combines the passion of a gospel vocalist with the introspection of a folk singer. She can write for other artists, as she did with Miranda Lambert on "Same Old You," but Brandi's own songs are deeply personal, as she explains here.

Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Hi Brandi. This is for Songfacts, so we're hoping to learn more about your songs and songwriting. Let's start by talking about your single from the Bear Creek album, "That Wasn't Me." Can you tell me a little bit about how that song came about?

Brandi Carlile: Well, I had never written in that vein before, although I am an enthusiast of blues and soul-rock, because I'm such a huge Elton John fan. But I have a piano in my living room and I was running out of the house one day. I went to go hit an E chord and my thumb slipped, and I hit this kind of bluesier sounding chord. And I couldn't get it out of my head. I got in my car, and I had a lot of stuff going on mentally. I wrote this song around that chord. When I got home, I was able to piece it together.

Songfacts: So one chord inspired the song?

Brandi: It inspired the song musically. Lyrically, it's a whole other beast. It's about addiction, what's happening in my family. An addiction recovery and the reaction people are expected to have after one recovers from an addiction after years of turmoil.

Songfacts: I see. I notice that you write with Tim and Phil Hanseroth no matter who your producer is or what the project. Is that because you feel comfortable with them?

Brandi: For this band, yeah. I mean, it's not only a matter of comfort, because I love to write with other people, with other projects. I do side projects and things - I write with Emily Saliers and the Indigo Girls a lot, and I write with Miranda Lambert and a lot of country singers. And I've even been into writing with the Civil Wars recently.

So I do love collaborating with other people artistically more than I like the solitary pursuit of songwriting. I'm a performer, and if I can perform, then writing songs is a means to an end. But this band is about me and our songs and our sort of scope. So we tend to only write together for this project.

Songfacts: Well, you opened up a can of worms there, because I really like Civil Wars. Can you tell me what you've written with them recently?

Brandi: I just spent a whole day with them in Nashville talking about songwriting and playing songs for each other and telling jokes and laughing. And we sort of came up with a dark little thing at the end there that they're writing a chorus for and sending it back to me.

Songfacts: What have you written with Miranda Lambert?

Brandi: The song on her record that she's just done of "Same Old You." She very much made that one her own.

Songfacts: So did you write it for her or did she contribute to it?

Brandi: I wrote it for a joke. I thought it was really funny, something that would make my mom laugh. And it ended up not being that damn funny, you know. It ended up being just kind of good. I sent it to Miranda and it really took on a new life. She nailed it. She was made for that song. She's the kind of person that that song applies to.

Songfacts: I've been listening to a lot of your music, and one of the songs just really stuck out was "Pride and Joy." I read that you were influenced by Patsy Cline, and when I hear that, especially the live version, it just has that big pop-country orchestral feel. Were you going for a Patsy Cline thing when you were putting that one together?

Brandi: I was thinking more along the lines of Radiohead. But when I sing, it brings that Patsy Cline/Roy Orbison element to it no matter what I do. But I think, eerily, Radiohead and Patsy Cline have more in common than most people fully understand. Don't you think?

Songfacts: I agree with you. And you've covered "Creep," too?

Brandi: Yes. I love that song. I actually love that record. I'm one of the Pablo Honey fans that not many people are fans of. I love that one.

Songfacts: Yeah, it's kind of interesting. Radiohead diehards kind of think they really didn't come into their own until The Bends. But there's a lot of great stuff on those early records.

Brandi: Yeah. It's really great. I mean, who cares about coming into your own, you know. The clumsiness of life is what music is about. And being able to accept imperfection and awkwardness and these sort of rough circuses. To me Pablo Honey is kind of this clumsy genius thing that happens that I find very attractive. So I like a lot of bands' first records, the ones that maybe they're not even crazy about, more than I should, probably.

Songfacts: I want to talk about another song that I think is one that you would probably describe as one of the highlights of your career, which is "Caroline," which Elton John plays on. Is that a song about a place or a person, or both?

Brandi: It's a song about my niece, my very first niece, Caroline. I had so much to say about her that I couldn't fit all the words into that song. It was like a total tongue twister, that one is.

Songfacts: Did you explain it to Elton?

Brandi: Yeah. I explained it to him. He wrote her a little note that I'm going to give to her when she'd old enough to understand how special it is. And he knows it's for my niece.

Songfacts: Yeah. That's really cool. The other song that I was listening to that really struck me was "That Year." I've read that that was a reaction to a friend's suicide, is that right?

Brandi: Yeah. I lost a friend to suicide when I was 16. He was 16, too. I was just in such a hyperactive phase in my life. But one of the ways that I moved past it was by blocking it out in terms like applying this sort of ridiculous rigid concept to it about selfishness. I just wrote it off and never talked about it or thought about it. And then like 10 years later this song came out of nowhere. You know, your feelings, it's just funny how they surface like that. And I wrote this song about reconciliation and forgiveness, and the understanding for the first time that he's what happened to him, not anybody else.

Songfacts: That's interesting that something would take so long to come to the surface. Are there other songs that you can point to that took a while before they went through a metamorphosis into songs?

Brandi: Yeah. There are variations of repression that don't take any time, and some take a really long time. Some songs, and I won't say which ones, are conclusions or sequels to other songs.

Oh, no, you know what, I will say this one. I used to write a lot of songs about my brother, and a falling out that we had and then the changes over playing music together. We used to play music together like Tim and Phil do, and we fell out and stopped playing together, completely, altogether. So I wrote all these songs about having a problem with him and our fights and our disagreements.

And then things happened and I got older and he got older and he got married and had kids. This light bulb went on in my head like, Oh, this is what life is all about to him. He actually wasn't wrong, and I wasn't wrong. He just had a different path in mind for himself than mine.

And so I wrote some other songs like, "If There Was No You," and even "Heart's Content," about the next chapter about how my feelings about him evolved over the years. I don't feel wrong about the way that I wrote about our relationship in the past, I just feel like it has evolved.

Songfacts: How interesting. So Brandi, do your more perceptive fans pick up on these connections?

Brandi: I don't know. I used to speculate a lot about all my favorite songs and what they were about and what that means to me and what that must have manifested itself as. But there's a lot between the lines. And fans have their own feelings and their own thoughts between the lines that you've actually written. And that's what songs are for, is interpretation. They're malleable. They can be made to be about one's life. If it's a love song, it can very easily be interpreted as a song about someone's parents. If it's about addiction, it could very easily be interpreted as being about a divorce or death. It's relative. And that's what I love about the art of songwriting.

Songfacts: Growing up, I was a really big fan of R.E.M., and Michael Stipe used to mumble something awful. You really didn't know what a lot of the songs were about, but if you were going through something and it somehow touched a nerve, it still comforted you. So I think a lot of times leaving that open actually makes it more meaningful for listeners as opposed to just spelling it out and saying this only applies to me and maybe it'll resonate with you.

Brandi: Yeah. When I was like 4 1/2, 5 years old, I had this teddy bear that you'd squeeze its stomach and it would play different lullabies, but only the music to them, like "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and "Hush Little Baby" and "Rockabye Baby" and it would just go through this catalog of these lullabies. I didn't know what any of the lyrics were, and I made up these really complex songs to it. I don't remember how any of them went, but I had all these lyrics to these little lullaby songs that came out of my teddy bear, and I just sang with them.

Then as I got older, and I started actually hearing what the songs were, I didn't fully believe it. I was like, No, no, no, that's not how this song goes. I kind of forgot that I had written those words to them. [Laughing]

Songfacts: You were one precocious little girl, weren't you?

Brandi: I was a weird kid, yeah.

Songfacts: Your songs are so emotional, do you have to be in a writing mood where you can create such expressive songs?

Brandi: Yes. Exactly. Otherwise, all that comes out is like a fun song or a song for someone else about something they're dealing with. If I'm sitting across from another writer in the room and they're telling me, "Oh, yeah, I've just gone through a divorce and this happened and that happened," I can fit a story and I can imagine this thing happened. But for me, myself, I'm absolutely incapable of forcing songwriting.

April 4, 2013. Get more at brandicarlile.com.
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