BRANDI CARLILE:
This Soulful Singer Is ďLooking OutĒ For Others

By Paul Freeman [August 2012]

Alternative folk-rock-country singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile has known all along what she wanted from success. Not fame or fortune. Just a chance to help others.

In 2008, Carlile established the Looking Out Foundation, which channels money and resources to organizations that support the arts, women, public health, the hungry and the homeless.

Her music enhances the lives of an ever-growing number of fans, thanks to a spectacularly soul-stirring voice. Her vocal power and range can be heard on the diverse and meaningful new album, ďBear Creek.Ē She collaborated on the material with longtime musical compatriots, twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth.

Despite a momentary panic at turning 30, Carlileís life has never been richer. In June, she announced her engagement to Catherine Shepherd, for years Paul McCartneyís charity coordinator. Their commitment to philanthropy is a strong bond.

Carlile has been singing since childhood and writing songs since her teens. She began her career by performing in Seattle music clubs. Her recording debut with Columbia Records came in 2005 and earned rave reviews. 2007ís ďThe Story,Ē produced by T Bone Burnett, had a stripped-down, edgier sound. 2009ís ďGive Up The Ghost,Ē helmed by super-producer, Rick Rubin, included Carlile collaborations with Elton John and Amy Ray. On ďBear Creek,Ē Carlile shared producing duties with the Hanseroth twins and engineer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Queens of the Stone Age).

On both of Carlileís shoulders, Auryn tattoos, derived from ďThe Neverending StoryĒ sentiment ďDo what you wish,Ē reflect the purity of her creative pursuits.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Brandi Carlile prior to her Aug. 23 concert at The Mountain Winery, Saratoga, Ca., concert. For ticket information, go to Concerts.MountainWinery.Com.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
Do you view ĎBear Creekí as a return to your musical roots?

BRANDI CARLILE:
Oh, my goodness, maybe like a discovery of them, more than a return to them. Itís all part of my evolution.

PCC:
The mix of genres, which is wonderful, does each song dictate the direction it will take? Or is it a conscious decision?

CARLILE:
Pretty much. Iím really glad that you feel that way, that you noticed that, because it was the objective my band, the twins, Tim and Phil. Phil is obsessed with genre-jumping records. He loves - and I love, too - ĎA Night at the Operaí [Queen] and basically, every Beatles record and how crazily non-intertwining these songs are. They donít all have to sound like they belong on the same record. He likes excitement like that. So the sequencing was thought out in that way and not thought out in that way.

PCC:
When youíre writing songs, are you basically just getting out what you have to say, from mind to paper to record, or are you thinking about how it might move the listener?

CARLILE:
No, not really at all. Weíve always thought that way, especially because weíve written our songs and then tested them out on the road for a long time. So, whether we wanted it to or not, how the songs move the listeners always been a great influence on how we choose and sequence the record.

But, for this record, we happened to be off for a lot of our writing process. We didnít get to do that. And we decided to use that as an excuse to just not labor over the writing process, to not exclude certain songs or weird genres. If we had impulses to write in other directions, then to just not resist them. Just write what we want to and then put on the record what we thought was the best. And, if it didnít sound great together, then talk about it afterwards.

PCC:
And some of the material came out of a difficult time you were going through as you turned 30?

CARLILE:
Yeah. Actually, there were 30, 35 days in Bear Creek, we recorded like 19 songs. And we thought the record was done. And we cracked open a bottle of champagne. And then we went on the road and two weeks later, I turned 30. And there was this totally unexpected meltdown clichť. And it ended up in the writing. I felt like, ĎIf I donít put these songs, or this experience, on this record, Iím really doing an injustice to this time in my life, because, if I wait for the next record, two years will have gone by and it wonít matter.í So just jumped on a plane to Nashville and recorded two or three more songs.

PCC:
The music, both writing and performing it, has that always been cathartic or you?

CARLILE:
Performing it, more than writing it. Itís like, writing is sort of putting a puzzle together halfway. And then, performing it has always been the completion of it. Once that happens, Iím feeling verbally communal with other people. Itís out there and I feel so much better about it.

PCC:
When you first began writing songs in your teens, did you instantly find that to be a vital way to vent your emotions and express yourself?

CARLILE:
No, actually, not at all. Iíd been a singer since I was eight. When I was in my teens, I was always finding it inconvenient to not be able sing anywhere and anything. I found karaoke to be really fun, because you could go and sing all your favorite songs on stage. Or if you had a friend who knew how to play an instrument, that was fun, because you could go over to their house for a jam session. But, without that, you felt kind of like a plug without a socket. I felt like I was just singing and didnít have anyone to sing to or any songs to sing or any music to sing to. So I learned to play an instrument and I learned to write for that reason. Writing really never was cathartic to me, until I was much older. It was only to provide a platform for me to sing from.

PCC:
Was it difficult to get to the point where youíre not self-conscious about the writing, not worried about revealing too much of your inner self to strangers?

CARLILE:
Well, I think Iím a bit of a glutton for punishment. I almost never really realize if itís appropriate until Iím looking way back at it, from a long way.

PCC:
Do you analyze, technically, what you want to do, vocally, in a song? Or is it coming solely from an intuitive, emotional place?

CARLILE:
Iíve analyzed it before the show and if I can keep it together during, great. If I canít, great. Itís like, if I tell myself, ĎYeah, listen, I want to slide up into this falsetto note, because itíll sound really great,í sometimes I get on stage and Iím just screaming the song out for two-and-a-half minutes, you know? It just really depends on the direction Iím going in emotionally, more than technically. But I really admire technical singing and I think about it a lot.

PCC:
Just as a lot of songwriters feel that their songs are coming from something or somewhere beyond them. Do you ever feel that way about your singing voice? That youíre sort of channeling something?

CARLILE:
Yes. Sometimes I do. Especially, if like I feel physically incapable of something Iím about to do vocally. And then I just do it? Then Iím like, ĎYeah, that wasnít me.í [Laughs] That was something else.

PCC:
Establishing the Looking Out Foundation, itís important to you to use your prominence to promote worthy causes?

CARLILE:
Yes. Itís really important to me to promote worthy causes. But not in a heavy, obligatory, responsibility way. I really admired that as a kid, learning about the Elton John AIDS Foundation. And I was obsessed with The Indigo Girls. And they are the consummate activist group, always reaching out, especially to Native causes and things like that.

So, as I got older and got a record deal, it was always in my mind to be able to contribute, to become that sort of figure, in some way, to always be a conduit for aid, wherever it needs to be applied.

So the Looking Out Foundation was something that happened like in 2007. It started out as an environmental effort, but has since been switched almost exclusively to humanitarian needs. And itís probably almost as important to me, if not more important, than the music nowadays.

PCC:
And your fianceeís background as a charity coordinator, does that give you an extra dimension of bonding and commonality?

CARLILE:
Yeah, we talk about it all the time. In fact, we have to create boundaries to not talk about it. Itís like ĎNo talking about charity after 6 p.m.í [Laughs]

PCC:
Do you welcome the opportunity to be viewed as a role model? Or is that a burden sometimes?

CARLILE:
I think itís an honor more than anything. And itís one of my great passions in life. I donít mean to sound like a Pollyanna or anything, but I had a difficult time in my childhood. My family fell on hard times a lot. We ended up in and out of food banks, clothing banks, and things like that. And so, I really have a passion for those people, the people that meet you at the door of the food bank and make it sound like fun that you have to go in there and get your food. And those kinds of things really touch my heart. And thatís what I do with the Looking Out Foundation.

Itís not just that. Itís not just around those things. Itís also civil rights violations that really pull on me, empowering women really pulls on me. And also, research into disease, cancer aid, education, awareness, those types of things.

PCC:
To this point, what have been the greatest challenges? What have been the greatest rewards?

CARLILE:
Well, the greatest challenges have been overcoming the distance between the people that Iím close to, and I mean really close to. I grew up in a single-wide, three-bedroom mobile home with my family. And now I see them like half a dozen times a year. Figuring out how to come home and talk to them again and feel like myself has probably been the greatest challenge.

The greatest rewards have been the Looking Out Foundation, which we talked about, some of the things that Iíve been able to do, that I canít even mention, in the Looking Out Foundation, families Iíve been able to touch.

And then, also, meeting my heroes. Thatís been a really big reward for me. I got to meet and sing with and talk with and write with my great heroes in life.

And then some of these milestones, I canít help but mention, like Red Rocks and the Grand Ole Opry. So the distance is a small price to pay.

PCC:
So the career goals, you view them not so much in a statistical sense, but in terms of something way less tangible?

CARLILE:
Yeah. I would think so. Itís all relative, though. I mean, I felt really successful, when Iíd sell out the local bar.

PCC:
The tattoos on your shoulders, whatís the significance to you?

CARLILE:
Nobody ever asks me that! Cool! Itís funny, because my Mom said, ĎDonít get a tattoo. Youíll regret it. Youíll regret it.í And so, as kind of a joke, I thought to myself, ĎWell, whatís something that Iíve liked for a really long time that Iím not going to stop liking?í And I thought of all kinds of things, like unicorns and weird shit like that. But I love the movie ĎNeverending Story.í And I watch it several times every year. Itís one of my favorite movies. Itís so silly, if youíre not a child of the Ď80s, youíre not really going to get it, you know?

But itís about this boy whoís trying to defeat this thing called The Nothing. And itís overtaking this land called Fantasia. And I always thought, even as a young kid, that it was symbolism for the infiltration and imposition of societal impulse on a personís imagination and creativity. So he wears this little thing called the Auryn, as protection from it. And thatís whatís on my shoulders.

For the artistís latest news and tour dates, visit www.brandicarlile.com.