Interview: Brandi Carlile Talks New Album, New Baby, and KEXP’s New Home

photo by Victoria Van Bruinisse

When Brandi Carlile and her cohorts Tim and Phil Hanseroth (a.k.a. The Twins) take the stage this Friday night at the Moore Theatre for a sold-out “Pin Drop” show to benefit KEXP’s New Home, you can expect to hear new songs crackling with energy and emotion. That’s a direct outcome of the real life feel-for-all the band encountered while making its forthcoming album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter (available March 3).

“You should’ve seen the fireworks in the studio,” says the Washington native. “There was storming out of rooms, there were tears, there were group hugs.” It was far from business as usual for the longtime collaborators, who were startled by their own outbursts. “[Recording] hasn’t been like that before. We were looking at each other, going ‘Are we Fleetwood Mac right now?’”

The end result might not go on to sell as many records as Rumors, but The Firewatcher’s Daughter rivals that 1977 classic in both breadth and intensity. Likewise, romantic relationships – albeit happier ones – played an essential role in the album’s writing and recording. Carlile describes “I Belong to You” as a “weird, twisted love song about my wife, and how that relationship has changed me fundamentally,” and “Beginning to Feel the Years” previously served as the processional when Carlile and Catherine Shepherd tied the knot in 2012.

Their family was about to expand when Carlile set to work on the new album. “My wife was about eight months pregnant when we started recording, and nine months when we finished, and the baby was born just a few days later. It was a really tricky time for me – and really special.”

Because so much of her focus was on her pregnant wife and the pending arrival of their daughter, Carlile found it easier to surrender control of some of the more excruciating details of the record-making process. In a departure from earlier albums, pre-production was kept to a bare minimum. “We really wanted the songs to happen in the studio,” she explains. “There’s that brief moment when you’ve learned the song, but don’t know it so well that you have any control over it. I really felt like we needed to capture that for the record to sound really fresh. We’ve never done that before.”

That meant hashing through the new material many, many times at Woodinville’s Bear Creek Studios, until Carlile and The Twins arrived at a version they liked – or, in the case of “Wilder (We’re Chained),” two versions they liked.

After twenty-odd takes, “Wilder” seemed to have crystalized. But Carlile felt something still wasn’t right – and working on the song’s gorgeous, three-part harmonies around a single microphone wasn’t helping. “We were getting irritated at the smell of each other’s breath,” she says affectionately. So they went outside for a change of atmosphere.

“We started playing the song again and we could hear the creek in the background and through the firs.” Bingo! They recorded a whole other take in the great outdoors, and then married the two versions into one. “There’s the really tight take that happened in the live room, and the really loose one out by the creek, and we doubled it, at equal volume, which is why ‘Wilder’ sounds a bit otherworldly.”

photo by Victoria Van Bruinisse

Mike McCready joins the band for “Blood Muscle Skin & Bone.” The Pearl Jam guitarist also played a pivotal role in the hard-rocking “Mainstream Kid,” even though he doesn’t play a lick on it. In recent years, McCready and Carlile have dabbled in covering the music of Jimi Hendrix together; their performance of “Machine Gun,” featuring Barrett Martin and Duff McKagan, was a highlight of the November 17, 2012 Hendrix tribute concert at EMP.

Whereas the improvisational Hendrix sang and played simultaneously, McCready and Carlile divvied up responsibilities – and encountered some challenges as a result. “We were never able to really play and sing those lines completely in time, since they’re totally intuitive. But the Hendrix tribute was really fun, and I thought, ‘I want to write a song where the vocal melody is happening at the same time that the guitar is.’ So ‘Mainstream Kid’ is my impression of learning about Hendrix from Mike.”

Lyrically, “Mainstream Kid” acknowledges some of the frustrations Carlile felt during her tenure as a recording artist for Sony subsidiary Columbia: “You can own me, you control me/Individuality has never stood a chance against you.” “It’s quite indicative of my divorce from the record industry,” she confirms. (The Firewatcher’s Daughter marks Carlile’s debut for ATO Records.) “But it’s much more significant about where I’m at musically.”

Friday night’s Pin Drop concert won’t include Hendrix-style pyrotechnics. Nevertheless, Carlile says she and the Twins have discovered unlimited creative opportunities in playing these unplugged shows, which completely eschew microphones and amplification. “We have gotten meticulous about every element of a Pin Drop show: the lighting, the equipment, the venue, the songs… and every room we play is different, so it’s a totally different show every single time.”

Carlile is intimately familiar with The Moore – her new video “The Eye” was shot on its stage, and she’s seen plenty of shows there, too—but that’s not the case for most Pin Drop venues. So how do she and the Twins know if a particular theater or hall is right for such a special performance? They do their homework, that’s how.

“We’ve had the same sound guy for the last twelve years, and we send him out on scouting tours.” Having measured Carlile’s voice at its loudest and softest volumes, their audio expert scopes out potential venues, tests the natural acoustics with a dB meter, and reports back with a verdict on whether or not the room right for a Pin Drop gig.

The shows on last fall’s Pin Drop tour sold out quickly – and so did Friday’s Moore date, which Carlile has graciously arranged to be a fundraiser for KEXP’s New Home at Seattle Center. “We’re huge fans of the station… and we’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from you, big time,” concludes Carlile. “KEXP is really special to us. You’re eclectic and not afraid to be strange, and you’re here in our hometown.”

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