Singer talks new album, career epiphany, how ‘even lesbians have chickens and horses,’ and how she’s changed hearts and minds
Here’s what we know about Brandi Carlile: Her lung power is a bigger threat to humanity than any nuclear war; she’s cool enough to sing with Elton John, who recorded a track with the singer for her last studio album, 2009’s Give Up the Ghost; and she’s totally girl crazy. Carlile’s fourth LP, Bear Creek, named after the secluded studio outside of Seattle where she and her twin collaborators recorded the album, takes her further into the Americana genre she’s gradually pursued since dropping her debut seven years ago.
It doesn’t surprise me. It’s the first record we’ve made outside the boundaries of working at a faraway studio with a major producer. It really did feel like the kind of record you make if you are a kid having a sleepover and the parents aren’t there. We ended up doing things that we didn’t expect.
“Just Kids” sounds like nothing you’ve recorded before. Can you tell me about that song?
I call that my 3 o’clock in the morning song because after the session would end and everybody would leave, I’d work on this crazy song that I had been tossing around in my head that no one got. I couldn’t get anybody to get it because it was too difficult for me to play.
You always come back to songs about childhood. Why do you feel a connection to that time?
I probably always will. I’m super in touch with my inner 8-year-old. I have The Neverending Story tattooed on my shoulders, and that’s just how I live my life – so I’ll probably always write from that vantage point. I hope I don’t ever lose that because that’s my compass.
Are your twin collaborators, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, big kids too?
Oh yeah. We get together and catch frogs and things like that.
Is that what you did at Bear Creek?
Quite a bit. We went down to the creek a lot, and the frogs were insane. What you hear at the end of the record was just a really great microphone that we ran out the back window and down to the creek to record the frogs, which is difficult, believe it or not.
Why is Bear Creek significant?
That whole area of the northwest is significant to me. It’s a rural northwestern recording studio built from a 100-year-old barn – more similar to my living situation. It’s really near to where the twins and I grew up; we all lived in the area, and we’d all get up every morning and carpool or just stay overnight there.
Many of your childhood influences were country artists, and you’ve gradually moved into that genre. Have you considered doing a country record?
Yeah, I’ve thought about it a lot. Someday I’d love to do a country duets record. Country is just full of duets and has the best duets there are. I’d love to do an album of duets with current country artists that I love – and then some of the older country artists that are hanging around Nashville that probably wouldn’t give me the time of day. But I would beg them.
Being a lesbian, do you think the country genre would welcome you with open arms?
I haven’t made any strategic moves or decisions to move toward a more country-defined flavor to my music or in my lifestyle. I love country music so much because of the way it sounds and because of its traditions, but also because it really does speak to the way I live when I’m in my truck and I’m going to get hay for the horse and I’m chasing chickens around the yard.
My sexual orientation has very little to do with that, so I expect the country-music industry to catch up to that sentiment – that even lesbians have chickens and horses and problems finding work and all the things that they sing about, and they will catch up to that eventually. I am of the strong belief that where you stand out most is exactly where you’re needed.
Last time we spoke you mentioned that you didn’t recognize a huge gay following despite you being out. Has that changed?
Yeah, the blinders have been removed a bit. I guess (gay fans) kind of always were there; I just didn’t notice. I have total career-mindedness and tunnel vision, and I get ultra focused. I’ve just been living on adrenaline and momentum for the last decade and singing and touring, singing and touring. I never notice what the venues are or who’s calling or where they’re from; I just have these discussions and they’re great, and then I move on. But now I do see things – like, I look at my schedule and I go, “Chris is calling me; OK, this is a gay publication, this is exciting and I’m ready to dive into that conversation.”
Well, I turned 30. (Laughs) I just woke up one day, and it happened to be on my birthday coincidentally, and realized that I cultivated a real career-mindedness and was being neglectful. I plan to get a little more involved with activism in the coming years. I’m getting pretty excited about broadening my horizons.
Activism within the gay community?
If it calls for it, then certainly. I tend to be more moved by humanitarian issues, issues that are less politically motivated. The gay community is one of the interesting situations where, politically, it does veer into humanitarian and human rights territory. It’s one of the last civil rights situations and, to me, that is a humanitarian effort. So it definitely falls in the category of what I want to focus my charity on.
What was your experience growing up gay in a small town?
It wasn’t a difficult process for me. My parents were amazing about it, my siblings were great, they came around, and I had the support from my community. Again, the whole concept of where you stand out the most is where you’re most needed. I think I had a good reputation and I had a lot of love and friends and family in my small hometown, in my small school. Just being and living openly in that area changed minds on its own.
I wouldn’t say I made a big momentous occasion of coming out. I just was out, and there was really no hiding it. I mean, the way that it changed minds wasn’t that I was standing outside the church with a protest sign; the guy at the grocery store would hear and go, “Oh, she’s gay? But I really like her.” And his mind would be changed.
You know, I’ve always had a crush on the twins.
I believe you! One of them is married to my sister though, so that disqualifies him. So there’s only one left for you; that’s Timmy. He’s not married, and no, he’s not gay. (Laughs)
Having known each other for so long, and being around them as much as you have, you must have seen them naked once or twice.
More than once or twice. Once or twice a day. Look, all modesty goes out the door when you live on a tour bus – that thing is 45-feet long by 8-feet wide, and when you have 12 dudes on there at one time, there’s just no privacy left, there’s nothing sacred anymore.
What have you learned from each other?
We’ve meshed and become a machine that moves in the same direction. And we’ve learned a lot from each other personally. It’s been a crazy year. Phil married my sister, and I was the maid of honor and Tim was the best man. Just a couple of weeks ago, Tiffany and Phil had a baby, so me and Tim were in the hospital, the auntie and the uncle – a pretty strange way for a band to be in the same room.
What happens five minutes before you hit the stage?
I say a prayer if I’m really nervous. A lot of times Phil goes off the rails and into some manic pep talk; he’s like a football coach that’s just taken cocaine. He gets really into it, jumps up and down and slaps high-fives. And he yells “Iron Maiden” all the time, which is really weird. Tim just kind of plays his guitar and I might do a shot of whiskey. We love to play, so we don’t tend to ritualize it.
Is the song “Josephine,” from the album The Story, about an ex-girlfriend?
No, just a county in Oregon. Though now, Josephine is the name of my niece.
For the longest time I thought it was about a lost love.
No, no. But you’re very romantic.
I’m not sure if you’re still with your girlfriend, but how has she, or any other girlfriends, influenced your songwriting?
It’s funny. I rarely write songs about a person that I’m in a relationship with at the time. It’s always someone I’ve been in a relationship with or someone I want to be in a relationship with. So no, I would say not. And I’m not still with her, but she was such an influence on my life that I’m sure she’s in there a little bit and probably always will be. In true gay fashion, she is, of course, one of my biggest friends.
Those lesbians can’t let go.
(Laughs) We cannot! If you made me a T-shirt that said, “Those lesbians can’t let go,” I would proudly wear it.
Brandie Carlile in concert, July 15, Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre, 7 p.m. Tickets $33-38, redbuttegarden.org.