Right now, Brandi Carlile is arguably the biggest music star in the country who hails from Seattle. The alt-country/pop singer-songwriter's second major-label release, The Story


Interview: Brandi Carlile

What's the story, Brandi?


Right now, Brandi Carlile is arguably the biggest music star in the country who hails from Seattle. The alt-country/pop singer-songwriter's second major-label release, The Story, has been selling well, remaining on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart ever since its April release. And her songs are all over radio, prime-time TV, and VH-1 thanks to a style that crosses Melissa Etheridge, Lucinda Williams, and Coldplay, and is quite obviously appealing to the masses. Tonight, she returns to town -- specifically, to the Paramount Theatre -- to wind up VH-1's successful "You Oughta Know Tour," which has had the 26-year-old Carlile out around the country for the past two months with opener A Fine Frenzy (the band fronted by Alison Sudol, another Seattle native though she now lives in L.A., whom you should get there early to check out, if you're going).

I chatted with Brandi a couple of weeks back; after the jump, read what she has to say about the tour, her new songs, fears of upsetting people with her songwriting, and why she's typically angry onstage.

So the tour's going well?

It's going pretty good, yeah. I caught bronchitis in the middle of it, but I'm okay now.

Are you serious?

Yeah, so lame.

How do you deal with that, did you have to cancel any shows?

No, I almost did but I didn't end up canceling anything. It's pretty scary, actually, because when you have bronchitis you have no control over your throat, so you don't know what's gonna come out when you open your mouth, and that sucks! That can be embarrassing. I tell you what, when I make mistakes I make 'em loud.

So I interviewed you a couple of years ago when you were still sorta coming up, and now you've arrived, and have had a pretty successful year. How's it feel?

It feels really good. But I never feel comfortable staying in one place for very long, so although everything is bigger and better and so great, I'm already thinking about how I can change, how I can start getting involved in some activism, and start to get into some high schools and colleges and playing for kids. I'm never very comfortable feeling stopped, so even though I'm not right now, I see it coming for miles. I'm having a great time, but I never rest on my laurels.

What kinda work are you thinking about doing with kids?

I'd like to do something environmentally focused, and I wanna do things to empower young people, cause I'm a young person and I feel like I relate on that level. I wanna do something to help kids in high school feel like there are things that they can do.

What's it like when kids come up to you after shows and tell you that you've inspired them and whatnot?

Well, we play so many bars and clubs that it doesn't happen that much. But when it does happen, it affects me and overwhelms me.

Were you the type of kid that wanted to approach and talk to artists you admired?

Fuck yeah, I mean, I was the queen of waiting in autograph lines. Totally. Music controls my whole life, music is a conduit of everything for me, everything spiritual, everything...just all this energy, so I was definitely that person that took all the cues from the bands I liked.

Did you always feel you had something to say to them, or was it awkward?

Sure. Sometimes it was both. Even now, when I think of what people say when they come up to me, that used to be me, and it doesn't matter so much what I have to say to them, it's more about what they have to say to me. They wanna say thank you, they wanna give me a necklace, it's like, the part of the interaction that matters to them is them doing what they need to do, and my reaction isn't as important as that.

Some artists aren't really comfortable talking directly to the fans, I guess they just want the music to speak for itself and for them or whatever.

Well, I do want the music to speak for itself, but I just think that the exchange between an audience and an artist, energetically, is just an important thing. I used to sign at every show -- I don't sign now because there's just too many people and not enough time between the end of the show and when the bus is supposed to leave. But I miss doing it because I felt like that was taking it to the next step and I'm just a fan, you know? I'm just a fan of like a hundred other people.

Do you find that now that you've been playing these songs night after night, and the fact that some of them were written years ago, that they take on different meanings to you, or you have a different relationship with the album now?

Ahh, I guess I'm finally really comfortable just letting it go, letting it be out there, letting it be in peoples' brains and ears and stuff. I wasn't as comfortable with that before because the songs are so personal, but because I'm writing new songs and moving on from those songs, I love that recording and I'm really proud of it and I'm glad some other people like it, too, and I'm ready to do the next one.

It seems like a strange position for an artist who's always working on new stuff and thinking of the next thing to be pulled backwards in the sense that albums usually come out many months after they're recorded, and tours can go on for a year, when you're already onto the next thing in your mind. Do you find that weird?

No [laughs]. Well, I mean, the artists that I'm inspired by and the artists I was in love with growing up were putting out one or two records a year. There was a time when Elton John was putting out a record every eight months, consecutive number-one records, like incredible works of art that took a few weeks or a few months at most to record in the studio. They were great thematically, lyrically, musically, the artwork was amazing, there was so much work that was put into them and then they would tour quickly, and put out another one. And that's just, fucking...I know that's fast-paced, but to keep our songwriting prolific it feels important to me to constantly be moving forward with the work. And the same with touring, I mean, not playing the same clubs all the time or all the same things … just keep moving forward in life.

I guess life changes fast and in some ways you're probably a different person than you were when you wrote The Story -- does that make it easier to look at it objectively?

Yeah, I mean, it comes down to, I dunno, it's down to just trying to keep the wheels turning. I mean, I flunked out of school but I'm still kind of an overachiever, I just don't wanna stop from moving forward.

Are you afraid of burning out?

In my life there's no such thing as burning out. I'm always going to be doing what I'm doing at whatever level that requires. If that means I'm back in Seattle playing in bars every night this time next year, I'll be doing it. Just like I'm doing this every night.

When you're in the midst of writing, do you ever think about how people are going to react to your music?

I didn't used to worry about it, I worry about it now.

What changed?

If I'm writing a song about a certain person, I'm worried about how it'll be received by that person, you know what I mean? I don't worry about how it's going to be received by the public or whatever, that shit never crosses my mind.

So you just worry about how it impacts people in your circle...

Yeah, but I don't wanna worry about that anymore. I didn't used to worry about it, and I think it made me a better songwriter.

Then do you find yourself holding back from what you really wanna say when you're writing now?

Yeah, sometimes. I wrote a bunch of shit about all kinds of people but that's what I thought was my bubble, you know what I mean? I always just write about how I'm feeling and I expect nobody to notice or care, you know what I mean? Nobody used to care when it was like open-mic night at the Paragon, and now everybody cares now that it's on VH-1.

You think in the future you’ll consider writing more “universal" songs, ones that aren't quite so personal, because of that?

No, it's turning into more … it's made me become more of, like, a real writer, like trying to write things now that maybe people won't understand or see through so easily, you know, trying to find a way to disguise things with clever metaphors and things like that.

How many new songs that you haven't recorded yet are you playing in the set now?

Like five.

Wow, that’s a lot. Do you think those songs, as they stand now, are the versions you're going to record?

Well, I think they're certainly evolving, and that's my favorite thing about introducing new songs on the road all the time. I mean, I do it constantly, I did it before The Story came out, and I'm always gonna do it. That's how they take their shape for me, in the live scenario. I really feel like we're a live band, you know, we record our records live, so why shouldn't we play the songs for the record live for a year before they're recorded? Otherwise we're just gonna go in and record 'em and we're gonna think of other things on the road, because that’s how everything develops for us, and we’re gonna be so pissed we didn't put it on the record. You know, "Why didn't I think of that chord change or that harmony before we did the record?!"

It seems like it's pretty hard for you to let things go...

I'm totally obsessive about that, you're right. We're always pushing each other, and all of us in the band are always going through phases and falling in and outta love and getting angry with people and writing songs about it, you know? So things always change.

Some artists say they write about things in the moment, while others need time to process and get distance from things. Do you ever try to go to a calmer place or do you always do things in the moment?

Yeah, I process things right away through music. I had a really stressful day yesterday, and so I had a great show because I had so much to let go of. As opposed to some people who need to be zen and in a really comfortable frame of mind to go onstage and play for people. The more fucked up I am, the better it feels to me to get out on stage for two hours.

So what are you feeling like out there on stage, just angry?

Well, I just like yelling and screaming and taking it out on my guitar and singing and really understanding my lyrics in different ways and different scenarios. I mean, I wrote things 10 years ago that I’ll apply to different situations now, and that’s kind of the way I exist.

Tell me more about that -- is it all a blur, is it a sharp feeling of understanding yourself in that moment? Seems like you're going through this pretty intense, deep experience.

It's an exchange of energy and a feeling of being understood, and not just understood by someone you're talking to, but being understood by a thousand people, you know what I mean? It's just physically and emotionally challenging, and sometimes it's what I need at the end of the day instead of relaxing and having some tea. It's better, for me.

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