Rendezvous with Brandi Carlile

First published in The Shorthorn in November 2009.


Fans of Brandi Carlile can still buy tickets for her House of Blues Dallas show March 7, but residents might be able to catch her on the street or in a local coffeehouse.

Carlile’s third album Give Up the Ghost has several critics stamping “breakout album” on their reviews. The soaring vocalist and songwriter has accumulated much of her popularity thanks to “Grey’s Anatomy,” which has featured songs from each of Carlile’s three albums, including “Before it Breaks” on its Nov. 5 episode.

The artist took a few minutes to talk on the phone with about her early days busking, which is essentially performing on sidewalks, her kinship with Texas and a possible new band member.

The Shorthorn: Growing up in Washington, who or what were your influences?

Brandi Carlile: It’s weird because Washington is not just Seattle and the grunge scene. Like, there are parts of Washington state that are very, very rural…. And so growing up in rural Washington state, my influences were actually classic country and western music more than anything else.

Any particular artists?

Specifically, Patsy Cline, but also Brenda Lee, Kitty Wells, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton. The women of classic country and western music. And then, of course, Johnny Cash and Jim Reeves. And even some of the ’80s country artists like Randy Travis.

So how did you, growing up, develop your style of singing?

It started out singing country, like I started out trying to learn how to yodel and trying how to sing powerful and sweeping notes like Patsy Cline. Then, about 11- or 12-years-old, I fell in love with Elton John and started to develop the traditional falsetto. And then, through falling in love with Elton John I kind of heard of Brit Pop, and that’s why I love The Beatles and specifically Freddie Mercury and Queen. And so I was just always trying to sing really loud and really big when no one else was home, that’s kind of how I developed my vocal style. I’d say that, if it has any uniqueness to it, it’s only because I’m such a conglomerate of so many different influences that there’s an inability to peg any one of them at any one time.

So, I guess let’s talk about Elton John then. What was it like to have your voice sit next to his on “Caroline” [on Give Up the Ghost]?

It was so cool to hear, you know? When I first heard it, it was alone. He sang to my lead track and there was no harmony yet. And I was sort of walking into my room. I had left to get a pop or something and when I walked into the room I heard him sort of singing my lyrics. That was something I was not prepared for, to hear lyrics I had written in his voice.

So, is that kind of like a dream come true? You said he was one of your early influences.

It was like, um, I think the plane’s going to crash dream come true.

So, how would you describe your music to someone who has never heard you but might want to take a listen?

I would have to go, like, the opposite of trying to describe it and say it’s rock and roll music and that there’s a timelessness to it. Not a retro theme. Not a vintage theme. But a timeless theme to it. There’s a lot of harmonies and big vocals.

So does that kind of come from your early influences in country?

The harmonies?

And kind of working that in to the rock and roll sound.

Yeah, it is. It comes from my early influences in country and western music and all of the bluegrass harmonies. And, also The Beatles and The Beach Boys. The twins [guitarist Tim Hanseroth and bassist Phil Hanseroth] are a big part of the harmony influence in our band.

You mentioned the twins. Not having a permanent drummer, per se, how do you collaborate but still keep in mind rhythm and the beat of the drum?

Well, the twins are both drummers, so they play in time together. But I don’t have the best timing. I tend to rush a lot. So there’s this kind of push and pull between the three of us where we kind of established a meter, without a drummer. Basically, in the beginning, we played tons of shows as a trio, acoustic. And when you have two acoustic guitars – the acoustic guitars are pushing the rhythm for the bass. So, me and Tim have this meter that comes from within, that’s kind of innate in the three of us.

So, you guys almost don’t need a drummer when writing your music?

Yeah, although I think we’ve found one that we’re going to try and keep.

Do you have a name?

Yeah, her name’s Allison Miller. She’s unbelievable. She’s the best drummer that we’ve ever had.

Where did you guys find her?

She lives in Brooklyn. And she plays with like Ani DiFranco and she’s kind of – [session drummer] Matt Chamberlain is a friend, and he always recommends her to us whenever we need a drummer – “You guys got to call Ally Miller.”

So you guys think you might add her into the band?

We’d love to. We’ll try and get her to marry us.

So, talking about music, what are you listening to right now?

Actually, there’s this guy, Gregory Alan Isakov. He’s out of Denver, Colo. and he opened for me a while back, and I fell head over heels in love with his music. Because his band consists of two cellists, a violinist and a drummer and he’s just like an incredible songwriter. So, I’ve been listening to his records That Sea, The Gambler and This Empty Northern Hemisphere – like beautiful string music. I love strings.

And the thing is, I’ve been listening a lot lately to the people who out on tour are opening for us, like Katie Herzig, a band called The Noises [10], Gregory.

So, when you’re not on the road or playing a gig, what do you do with your free time?

Well, this time of year I’ve been doing a lot of cooking. I like to cook dinners like every single night and have the twins over and just mess around with that, but also we do a lot of fishing, the three of us together. We all moved to the same small town, so we spend a lot more time together, even when we’re not on the road, which makes being on the road seem more like home and makes being home feels like being on the road.

So, is it in Washington that you’re living?

Yeah. We live in like rural Washington State, near Mount Rainier, in the foothills.

So, is fishing something you kind of grew up with and kind of being outdoorsy?

Yeah. I introduced it to the twins, but they surpassed me in fanaticism.

So, you’ll be playing here in Dallas on March 7, in the House of Blues. What’s it like to play in Texas?

You know, I always wanted to go to Texas since I was a kid. Growing up, listening to country and western music, I mean I knew that Nashville was the seat but I always felt like Texas was the fundamental south.

(Pause)

Sorry, there’s a tree down in my driveway.

And, you know, so I always wanted to go to Texas. And now having been there so many times, I’ve been to Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, even San Antonio and Helotes, Texas. It feels kind of like a second home to us, for sure.

So what’s your favorite part of Texas?

Austin.

Can’t beat that?

Well, there’s so many artists there, you know? I’ve played some really fun shows in Dallas, too.

So, touring kind of around and in Texas, what do you do when not playing a gig? Do you take in the sights?

Yeah, I mean. If it’s summer time we try and find a place to fish. If it’s not, if its raining, we’ll try and find a really cool restaurant, go see a local band. Check out – there’s a good artist’s community in Dallas that we’ve gone to that part of Dallas a couple of times, walked up and down the street. Also, thrift store shopping. That’s a fun day off thing to do.

So, should people expect you to be out on the town before or after your gig?

I don’t know. Just depends on the night, you know? Sometimes you’re just so wound up after a gig that you just have to go out. Sit and drink a beer and hang out with the band.

So, your live set, for those that haven’t seen you, should they expect Give Up the Ghost, The Story, your whole discography? What should they expect?

Probably a couple songs from the first record, Brandi Carlile, and then a fair amount of songs from The Story, most of Give up the Ghost, and some covers.

What covers?

Might be Johnny Cash, maybe Elton John, Radiohead, maybe Creedence Clearwater [Revival].

So, what’s your favorite cover song to sing on stage?

My favorite cover song I’ve ever played on stage is “Hallelujah” – haven’t been doing that one so much any more.

Is it the Jeff Buckley version or Leonard Cohen?

Jeff Buckley. I don’t really play it so much anymore because so many people play it and we have so many other covers now that if everyone in the audience kind of requests it, then we’ll have to play it. It’s my favorite, so it’s hard not to.

Do you feel Give Up the Ghost is kind of a breakout album for you?

Um, no. I think it’s a really bright spot in an evolution for me. I’m really proud of it. And I believe I kind of – I came to a new song writing understanding, myself.

Do you hope to take it forward?

Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know what the next record will be like, but I know it’ll be more extreme. The same way Give Up the Ghost is more extreme than The Story.

Like, extreme as in heavier?

Well, the heavier songs are heavier and then the songs that are intimate and stripped down are much more intimate and stripped down.

For young artists, maybe hoping to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you have for them?

Well, I think that my advice is based in the reasons why you do things and if you do music because you’re made to do music, it’ll never feel like work no matter what level you’re at. I always felt like I was successful, as long as I was able to play. I think my advice is to love what you do, as much as you can, love practicing, love busking, love playing in restaurants. Love the things that the people who don’t do music for the right music don’t care for.

Busking. I know you kind of did that at your start. Do you still do that ever? Is it possible to do something like that?

I don’t know. That’s a good question. What we will do sometimes is we’ll play a show and then like go down the street to a coffee house or to a bar and like play something else, keep playing. But not so much busking anymore. I think I sleep too late to busk on the road.

Do you miss it at all?

Yeah, I do. I do. I miss like feeling what you feel when you make people stop what they’re doing and come back and listen. And that’s the thing about busking that’s really good for artists that are emerging. If you can learn what it is that makes people stop in the street, when they’re trying to get from point A to point B, and change their direction to listen to you, then you know that you’ve got what it takes to command someone else’s attention, you know? I like that about opening for another artist, too. You go there to entertain people that aren’t there to see you. If you’re able to capture, you’ve really done something big. Sometimes you’re not able to, and you have to go back to the drawing board.

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