The Joy of Life: an interview with Brandi Carlile

“Brandi Carlile’s deep, emotive voice is instantly recognizable by the crack it inevitably hits just before liftoff,” I wrote in a music story for The Montclair Times. “With only three studio albums under her belt, Carlile has toured with the Dave Matthews Band and collaborated with Elton John. She’s worked with the most sought-after producers in the business and counts childhood hero Amy Ray of The Indigo Girls as among her friends.”


In the interview that follows are questions and answers that did not go into the story I wrote for The Montclair Times. This Q&A shows a different side of the artist—her Zen-like approach to life. She even applies this approach to screaming.

Gene: After your first album came out, 2005’s “Brandi Carlile,” Rolling Stone and Paste magazines were calling you an artist to watch. Did that create pressure for you?

Brandi: Well, that’s the thing…pressure to do what? When music is innate in you and it feels like who you are, as long as you’re doing it at whatever level you’re doing it at, you feel successful. So when those things happened, I just felt successful. Even when I could just fill up a bar on a Sunday night, I felt successful. If I could get somebody to stop and listen to me play a song, I felt successful.

Gene: What do you enjoy the most about your job?

Brandi: I enjoy the exchange of energy with a multitude of people. I really enjoy standing on stage and projecting as much energy as I possibly can to a thousand people and having them project it right back. That feeling and that rush of being an entertainer and also being entertained is what I’m happiest about with my job, and the platform it gives me to affect important change in the world that I’ve always thought about but never been able to do.

Gene: The break in your voice is a key part of your sound. How does it affect how you approach a song?

Brandi: I think it probably came from Patsy Cline. I spent a lot of time mimicking her when I was young…The break in my voice, you know, I’ve been criticized for it before and warned that maybe it’s a flaw. But when I do it, it’s a place to get power from and it feels good to let my voice break because I don’t really know how it’s going to recover and I think that unpredictability is what makes my voice keep people on edge.

Gene: Does it keep you on edge, or do you plan out in advance how you’re going to use it?

Brandi: I don’t plan anything. I plan every day to get up on stage and sing with restraint and just sing my songs, but it doesn’t work that way. I end up a total vehicle.

Gene: There is a version of you doing the song “Creep” live in Boston. It sounds there like you’re really tearing your voice. Are you really blowing it out or is there a way to do that where it sounds like you’re blowing your voice out, but you’re not?

Brandi: There’s this woman in Seattle named Susan Carr who teaches how to do it and there’s a woman named Melissa Cross who has a DVD series called “The Zen of Screaming.” I’ve never trained with either of those people and I’ve only touched on “The Zen of Screaming” DVD. My friend Amy Ray loaned it to me. But I understand the concept. The concept is that behind that scream, behind that power, you have to be calm and know enough that you can do it before you do it. It’s tension and the nervousness behind the scream that tears your voice up because it forces you to use a part of your instrument that shouldn’t be used to push that much power through your throat. But if you’re confident when you scream that way, you can use your core in a way that it doesn’t really ever touch your throat. It’s kind of the same concept behind how a martial artist can smash a cinderblock with his head and not have a scratch on him. It defies physical reason.

Gene: Amy Ray, there’s somebody who was on a poster on your wall and now you are [friends]. Does that feel surreal?

Brandi: Well, when it comes to Amy and Emily, particularly, it was never about them being on a poster. It was about the message they were sending out. They were sending out a social message in their activism, and in their lyrics. There was a time when the Indigo Girls were a call to arms for collegians and academics and gay kids, political kids. That was what I got swept up in — that kind of hurricane of social consciousness. It affected me as an artist. I’m still in awe of it. They have no idea that they have that effect on people. And there’s a reason why they have no idea that they have that effect on people and that is because you can’t have that effect on people and know it. If you knew it, you wouldn’t be able to innocently do it.

Gene: How so?

Brandi: The theory that I have is that you can’t know you’re wise and be wise. You know what I mean? You can’t be searching for the answer and think that you have the answer. If you think you’re wise, then whether you want to or not, you found a way to stop learning.

Gene: Do you worry about preserving your voice so you have it 30 years from now or do you think that that “Zen of Screaming” technique is good enough?

Brandi: I think that technique is good enough. I have confidence in the evolution of my voice and my artistry, that as time goes by, my voice may mellow out. I may become a different singer. I may become a jazz singer by the end of my life. I don’t know what’s gonna’ happen. I don’t know what will happen to my voice, but I’m confident that what’s meant to happen to it will because that’s what’s brought me to where I am now.

Gene: What’s next for you?

Brandi: Hmmm. What’s next for me is just the continuum of my life right now. I’d hate to put more milestones in front of me because I already feel — and I mean this genuinely – just overwhelmingly fortunate. And if I can just continue on this way and if I can get on a tour bus for my next tour and continue to go play venues and have people show up, then I’m really happy with that being next for me.

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About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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