Some people are able to separate the art they enjoy from its creator. They don’t care if a singer has mob ties or if they are at home popping pills and shooting their television in their spare time. I am not one of those people. When there is a singer, poet or artist that I like, I find myself worrying about them, hoping that they are able to keep their muse hanging around.
In order to keep the muse close at hand an artist has to chase their passions. This gives them a sense of purpose. Then they have to create enough space in their life that they can fan the flames of their curiosity. Eventually, they learn how to tie these components together into a process that works for them.
This is how any of us can remain engaged in our lives and feel young at heart. And this is exactly where I found Carlile during the following interview. On her fourth studio album, “Bare Creek,” she sounds comfortable with the skills she’s honed. Simultaneously, she is breaking new ground.
Fans may be used to Carlile’s versatility. Her musical palette has always included country, rock, folk, pop and gospel — often heard within the space of just one song — but the handclaps and bright background vocals on “Bear Creek” are another story. Her latest endeavor is decidedly upbeat.
Carlile and Tim and Phil Hanseroth, “the twins,” as she calls them, make up her band. The brothers are Carlile’s co-writers as well.
Q: A lot of [lyrics] on the new album seem like they are from a kid’s point of view. Is there a child that you were thinking of when you were writing the songs?
A: In general, I think me and the twins sort of have a childlike essence about us. We don’t have regular lives or regular jobs and when we get days off we do childish things—jump in the lake and go fishing and try to find frogs and we go to Disneyland. We like to ride roller coasters. There’s a part of us that’s really in touch with that because in some ways we haven’t exactly had to grow up and act like we’re adults. You ever read the book “The Little Prince?” I love that book. But, it sort of speaks to that mentality. I turned 30 when we were writing the album and I think all of us do generalize, where we’re kind of finding ways to bring that sort of childlike essence into our adult lives. Those kinds of things are coming out in our songwriting, for sure.
Q: Between the last studio album and this album, was there something you were thinking you wanted to try or do differently on the new album?
A: Not consciously, but in retrospect I could see how that happens. Our first three albums on a major label were all sort of in this pressure cooker of an industry, like when you’re in school or you’re starting a new job for the first time, you’re just learning a lot of hard lessons and you’re trying things that are difficult. There’s this labored feeling — our records definitely aren’t labored in a negative way. But I do feel like this record was free of any of that, just because of the absence of a producer and the fact that we recorded it in a town where there is no industry. It just felt very free and raucous and fun and despite the somber connotations that are attached to the songs in the lyrics, there is an element of fun. Maybe that was where some of this childlike essence is coming from.
Q: I hear R&B background vocals and country background vocals. Not many singers pay such close attention to details like these.
A: The twins can sing so well. That’s what first drew me to play with them. When you make records in a certain way with producers — in L.A. and New York and Nashville — there’s kind of a formula, you know? This chorus needs background vocals or this chorus doesn’t need background vocals or these types of moments need ooo’s or these types of moments need aaah’s. There’s this kind of formulaic sensibility to this 9 to 5 way of making records. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that it leaves very little space for something like what would happen to Crosby, Stills and Nash, where a song is three-part harmony the whole way through. I don’t think we’ve heard that kind of thing happening for a long time. So with the absence of a producer and the absence of the industry on this record, we just found ourselves singing a lot more in that way than we would have.
Q: My son is 5. My wife was talking to him about singers and she told him there are stars and legends. He wanted me to ask, when are you going to be a legend?
A: I want to know the same thing. I think I would have to be at least 60 years old to be a legend. You have to earn that title.
Q: As you go from album to album, is there pressure to sound a certain way?
A: I apply an internal pressure to sound different than the one before. But there’s definitely industry pressure to have an up tempo song or a mid tempo song with a big chorus and they have a formula. They have a way that they think songs become “hits” and they definitely want to hear songs like that as would any industry that thrives on that for success. But, songs are something that happen to artists. I could never write within the confines.
Q: Is there pressure to have a song that sounds like “a Brandi Carlile song”?
A: How so?
Q: I’m thinking about “Just Kids” on the latest record. That keyboard-based, atmospheric song sounds very different from the other songs on the album. I can picture that song on an experimental electronic album.
A: Yeah, yeah. I love that song.
Q: But when you turn something like that in, do they look at you like, “Hmmm, where’s the acoustic guitar?”
A: If you give ’em three to work with they let you kinda go crazy on the rest of the record.
Q: Since you are three writers in the band, how do you have the consistent sound you have?
A: Man, your guess is as good as mine. I would have to say that probably the main reason that me and the twins have such consistently, symmetrical, synonymous lives, that we have the same day. We live in the same town. We share the same family. Phil is married to my sister; they have a baby. We see each other every day and so our songs tend to be about the same scope, the same view. It’s difficult for even me to remember who’s written what, you know?
Q: Do you have the same passions?
A: I think we do, yeah, we definitely believe the same things. That’s how we’ve been what we are.
Q: What is your favorite thing about your voice?
A: My favorite thing about it…um, it’s sort of my Achilles’ heel. If it’s OK, it’s feeling good, it’s feeling strong, I kind of feel really strong as well. It is pretty reflective of who I am. But if it’s wobbly, if I’m feeling hoarse, chances are I’m feeling wobbly and hoarse as a person. I’m not sure which comes first, you know? Whether my voice causes me to feel that way or whether I feel that and it comes out in my voice.
Q: Is there an aspect of your voice that you don’t like?
A: The same thing, how well I function throughout the day is contingent upon how my voice feels.
Q: What do you spend most of your time practicing?
A: Piano and I’m not getting a lot better. I practice all the time. I even have a cheap Casio keyboard on the bus.
Q: I just saw you on Jay Leno playing piano.
A: Yeah, and I was having a heart attack.
Q: It’s kind of gutsy for you to play the thing you need the most practice on national TV.
A: I know—first time it’s ever happened.