A Conversation With Brandi Carlile
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Brandi!
Brandi Carlile: Hey, Mike! How are you, man?
MR: Peachy. So the new album is called Bear Creek because...?
BC: It's the name of the studio where we recorded the record, but it's significant because of what Bear Creek represents to us.
MR: And what would that be?
BC: Well, it's just this barn in the middle of nowhere in the Northwest, and we just felt like it was sort of symbolic of who we are as a group.
MR: This album, Bear Creek, is a departure from what we're used to on Brandi Carlile records. Did you get inspired by something in particular to approach a project this way?
BC: Yeah, you know we got inspired by something that wasn't there, which was the boundaries of working on records that are coming out on a major label and always having to be in the studio with these big mentor style producers. We thought we'd just go in and make a normal record, and all of our songs were unintentionally genre specific, sort of what we do. But going into the studio without a T-Bone (Burnett) or without a Rick Rubin felt something like being at a sleepover without any parents.
MR: (laughs) Something that should never happen, of course, because we all know what happens at sleepovers.
BC: (laughs) Yeah, you cross into uncharted genre territory!
MR: All hell breaks loose...
BC: ...people playing instruments they don't know how to play...
MR: ...and other unthinkable abominations! Okay, let's talk about "Hard Way Home," which kicks off the album and totally ruins my life because I so identify with it, thank you very much.
BC: Oh, man! Well, there's something to be said for learning all your lessons the hard way, you know?
MR: It's unfortunate that we have to go through that, but we do. It's almost like, "Hey, how come I don't get the lesson the 25th time?" No, we have to have the 26th time, which is the most brutal one.
BC: It's like getting drunk. It's like, "I'm never going to do that again, and I can't believe I forgot what that feels like the next day!" But you do it again every time.
MR: Every time. Jim Croce had an interesting song about that, "The Hard Way Every Time."
BC: Yeah, yeah. Right, there you go.
MR: And that brings us to "Raise Hell," speaking of raising hell at sleepovers.
BC: Well, you know, I turned 30 years old on June 1st.
MR: (sings) Happy birthday to you, etc...
BC: Thanks, man, that was beautiful!
MR: Alright, back to raising hell.
BC: So we played some shows around that time. We were on tour with Ray Lamontagne. I was having a really tough tour. We made Bear Creek in April and May, and then we hit the road. Bear Creek was done, and I turned 30 on the road, and all of a sudden, these songs came out, and I had to put them on the record because I didn't feel like it was appropriate to make this kind of milestone record and really not include the significance of that experience. I just didn't anticipate it when we were in the studio because I didn't think it was that big a deal until it happened, you know?
MR: It's almost like some events in your life, at the moment that they're happening, you don't realize their importance, and then later on, all the sudden it hits you. It's like, "Oh my God!"
BC: Yeah! Like I knew I was freaking out when I turned 30, but I didn't really know why. It was just like I had to write these songs for some reason. And then a few weeks later, I was like, "Oh, those were my 'turning 30' songs. I can't put Bear Creek out without them on there."
MR: I love the line in "Raise Hell" that goes, "Mama didn't raise no slave."
BC: (laughs) Oh, thanks!
MR: Turning 30, you're probably also stating, "You know what, I'm here at this point, and these are my choices."
BC: Yeah, definitely. This is what my choices have lead me to. At least I think everybody goes through that moment--that pivotal "I'm not in my twenties anymore" moment. I've always thought it was such an overdone thing. You know, I wasn't pleased to be a cliché when I realized it was happening to me, but I think it was for the opposite reason that most people go through it, at least, because I realized that I had cultivated a career mindedness and hadn't cultivated other things having to do with learning to be still and being at home and being myself, being loud all the time and out on the road and in everyone's face throughout my twenties. But I'm finding a balance now.
MR: I identify totally with what you're talking about because to this point, I was also very career minded. It was at the expense of having my own family, and it was at the expense of having more intimate moments and all the rest.
BC: Yeah, oh yeah. You just wrote me another song! That's basically what it's like looking around a tour bus and going, "Uh-oh," or getting birthday cards from your nieces and nephews and kids in the family that your brothers and sisters are having, and your realizing that you're having a party, and that's great, but now you're 30. (laughs)
MR: Let's chat about your single, "That Wasn't Me." It's got the line, "Whatever you see, that wasn't me." The person that you thought brought shame on the family, none of that was me. And you end the song where the person who did all of these cool things, that was me.
BC: Or that will be me. My best self, you know?
MR: What else have you got on that one?
BC: Oh, you know, that song means a lot to me. It sort of came on the heels of the record. It was written just as I was going into the studio, and I was concerned about it at first. I realized that it was a little bit on the outskirts of the kind of music that I usually write. It has a little more of soul, Elton John's "Border Song" or "Let It Be" swagger to it, so musically it was a departure for me, and lyrically, it's ultimately extremely personal. So I was able to perform it in a way that I haven't been able to perform a song in the studio before, which is that the intensity in the lyrics and the fact that it's not something I've been playing on the road made it a pretty powerful thing.
MR: Then there's "Keep Your Heart Young," and now that you've revealed the "turning 30" songs secret, I'd bet you this was one of them. Great visual--"I talked to my brother on a fake CB that I made from a tic-tac box."
BC: Well, you know something, I have these two twin brothers, Tim and Phil Hanseroth. I've been playing with them since I was a teenager, and we're basically a family, like literally. One of the twins married my little sister, and they just had a baby, and the other one lives like a half a mile away from my house. We are all just really close, so we write everything together. When they presented me with the idea for that song, I found it so endearing, but I felt like it was a song that brothers would sing to each other, like a boy song. I pictured them and their little blond heads being naughty and making pipe bombs in their back yard and talking to each other on fake CBs and putting rocks in their snowballs. I thought it was a sweet song, but I didn't think that it would become something that we would do as a band. But then I sort of remembered what a tomboy kid I was and how half of that stuff is actually true. So when we started singing it, I really connected to that sentiment just on a level that I have such a penchant for classic country and western music and such a penchant for mischief.
MR: "Oh, can't take back what you have done, gotta keep your heart young." It's true.
BC: Very true!
MR: Now let's go to the flip. "If I live to be 100, if I ever get it right" from the song "100."
BC: Yeah, there you go. That's an opposite sentiment.
MR: And it also ties into "Hard Way Home." Yet another reflection song.
BC: Well, I think it's lucky, but it's nothing new. Bands go through these cycles in songwriting. You know, your first album is about really amazing things. Your first album is always about coming of age, first love, first loss, usually you suffer a first loss of someone that you love to death even, you know, really big life lessons, things you learn from your parents' divorce or from the travels that you took. That's what first albums are about, and then second albums tend to be pretty shallow. They tend to be about touring and being on the road, which is something that .2% of the population can relate to.
MR: (laughs) Sophomore jinx being the inevitable result.
BC: Yeah, rightfully so. You know, I tend to really try and avoid those kinds of songs even when those lyrics are on my mind. I dig beneath them to the reasons why they're there instead of just talking about the inside of a hotel room, which I know can be really easy to do. Third album starts to get more interesting because now you're settling into your new lifestyle, and then the fourth album, I think, is so reflective of a broader life view because you're really looking down the hill now at where you've come from, and that's what this album is for me. It's got a little bit of all of that in there.
MR: That's very true, and it's stepping into the next part of your life.
BC: It's just regular writers' cycles. Mine is no more interesting than anybody else's. I'm just trying to make great music, and I want to be a better singer every time.
MR: You'll be touring with Dave Matthews?
BC: I'm getting ready to go on tour with Dave Matthews in the summer, yeah.
MR: I'm imagining that's going to suck, huh.
BC: Yeah, Dave's a total jerk. (laughs) No, he's the nicest guy in the world. I mean, he's literally the nicest guy in the world, and he's so talented, and his fans are really, really special--totally unique in all the world.
MR: Brandi, I asked you this before, but what is your advice for new artists?
BC: My advice for new artists? You know, I'm not sure what my answer was last time. I've been cultivating this theory for a while. My advice to new artists is to embrace a broader concept of timelessness than vintage or retro. I think that our generation is in danger of becoming a conglomerate of the last four or five decades, you know? Stylistically, we tend to cling to decades or a genre, like we play '70s music and we dress '70s and we listen to '70s snippets and clips and talk show hosts, and we get into these sort of ground swellings of cultural times or decades. But we definitely need one for these fifteen or twenty years, so I would encourage new artists to embrace timelessness over the concept of being retro or vintage.
MR: Nice. And how do they get to the timelessness part?
BC: I think that they should set the standard on great and become less intertwined with listening to classic music and classic artists and trying to mimic that in this decade, and better focus on their own feelings and their own writing and what's around them within their immediate present. The other piece of advice I have that's really important is that community is so much more powerful than just one singer-songwriter trying to climb the ladder. Find the five singer-songwriters that live on your block or live in your neighborhood and put together an open mic night and learn how to play other instruments. Play nice with others, and you can get somewhere with your friends.
MR: This album, to me, is like a country/folk album as opposed to the projects that you recorded previously. Does that also tie in with maybe an evolving or changing taste in how you're looking at music these days?
BC: No, it has a lot more to do with the very first question that you asked, which was just the boundaries are kind of lifted off of this record because there was no captain, you know? That's kind of a special thing because I wouldn't say the record lacks continuity. It's implied in an energetic sense, but it definitely is hard to genre-specify.
MR: And the title Bear Creek sets the visual, like you out having a lot of fun.
BC: Yeah, it was really fun. There wasn't anybody going, "You know that song doesn't really fit this record because this record feels this way," or "That doesn't really work," or "This needs that." None of those kinds of sentences were spoken on the lips of anyone. It was more like, "Hey, let's try this," and "What if we do this?" That's a fun thing. Having said that, none of that knowledge would be applicable or valuable if it hadn't been gained from those producers and from those situations.
MR: So is it like leaving home or leaving your parents, sort of like your records can now go out into the world on your own?
BC: Yeah, it's like leaving college with your education and going, "Okay, great, I want to apply this in my own way now."
MR: (laughs) Yeah, I bet T-Bone and Rick are calling out, "Brandi...Brandi," wondering where you've gone, if you're eating your vegetables...
BC: No, no, no! They've got amazing projects going on, both of them.
MR: Yeah, the funny thing is that they are a bit of an assembly line, except that their production techniques don't really reveal that at all.
BC: That's a good point. The thing they have in common is that they fancy themselves as facilitators and documenters instead of hands-on sculptors. But what they don't understand is that their presence is massive because of the gravity of what they've done, so they don't really need to get overly involved to make a major impression on our record. All they'd have to do is kind of be in the room because it's that intimidating and impressive to an artist.
MR: Right, exactly. Brandi, I love our conversations, please let's do this again for your next project.
BC: Nice talking to you, thank you!
1. Hard Way Home
2. Raise Hell
3. Save Part Of Yourself
4. That Wasn't Me
5. Keep Your Heart Young
7. A Promise To Keep
8. I'll Still Be There
9. What Did I Ever Come Here For
10. Heart's Content
11. Rise Again
12. In The Morrow
13. Just Kids
Transcribed by Kyle Pongan
Introducing Galen Hawthorne
photo courtesy GH
So, there's this kid...nay, a young, budding journalist...who has some rad/not rad things to say about an album that dropped last week, and he throws in an education in genres and hipster pop like a bag of chips. Check it out and give him a little luv, oh whydon'tcha...
I've recently realized that I think of musicians the same way I think of superheroes. They're fantastic beings possessed of incredible abilities, whose adventures I follow closely and whose team-ups I relish. To run with the currently-popular example, Rocket Juice & The Moon is my musical Avengers. The group, whose eponymous album was released on the 26th of March, is built much like the core of the Avengers: Damon Albarn (of Gorillaz and previously Blur) takes Iron Man's tech-heavy role as the band's power cell; Red Hot Chili Peppers' famous bassist Flea is a legend comparable to Captain America; and Tony Allen, the Nigerian father of Afrobeat is, like Thor, a god.
The album starts off in a surprisingly low-power manner. The first song, "1-2-3-4-5-6" almost sounds like a sound check. Tony Allen lays down a beat on snare and hi-hat and Flea begins to pluck at the bass. Tony calls out the numbers of the beat, giving the song its name and soon after Mr. Albarn's bloopy tones descend like a spaceship from some unreleased '80s Spielberg film. It's a pleasantly humble start to a pretty chill experience.
The big single comes next, "Hey, Shooter," the first track of several that feature as many as three guest artists, something that reminded me why I always love collaboration albums: everybody brings friends. Featured on this album alone are Erykah Badu, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Thundercat, Fatoumata Diawara, M.Anifest, M3nsa, and Cheick Tidiane Seck. Damon Albarn himself gets the "featured" status on the two tracks to which he contributes his vocals (a treat for Gorillaz fans, a rabid lot likely to recognize 2D's soft stylings anywhere).
The musical sound itself is hard to nail down. Between the eighteen (!) tracks on the album there are flavors of Rap, Afrobeat, Calypso, Reggae, Slow Jams, Jazz, Math Rock and many, many more yet-unnamed sounds and feelings. It becomes easier to classify tracks by the bands you hear in them than by their titles; "Forward Sweep" becomes Battles; "Chop Up"'s main riff calls up Los Lonely Boys; "Poison" (one of Albarn's vocal tracks) is unsurprisingly a dead-ringer for Plastic Beach-era Gorillaz, and Flea definitely brought that RHCP feel deep down into "Rotary Connection." That's just four tracks that can display the unbelievable range in this album; just try to visualize what all eighteen does to you.
The genre-hopping isn't just reserved to between tracks either; it also happens within them. "Lolo," the third track, starts with Flea's slinky bass and quickly introduces a solid Afrobeat sound with bursts of brass and Fatoumata Diawara's spirited voice. Then, suddenly, Kwame Tsikata (a Ghanian rapper known as M.anifest) bounces onto the track and spits a verse about the way the world's fads have changed and what he as a new father expects of his son. Not content in merely ending the song on poignant lyrics, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble makes its presence once again known with a set of unbelievable trills. The rest of the song bursts forth from that point into a chill jam to the end. Each song contains multitudes like these.
For all of my enthusiasm, I must say that Rocket Juice & The Moon has one fault: The artists all play nicely together. While this means that never in the album is there a point of contention or a set of smashed toes, it also means their specific talents as solo musicians are never truly showcased. Perhaps it's the latently collaborative personalities of the men and their instruments alike, or the brevity of the tracks on the album, but they tend not to stick their noses out. This balanced nature does a wonderful job putting Tony Allen's talkative drums and Flea's cuddly bass on the same level as the more forthcoming singers and electronic instruments, but it still would have been nice to have each of them really cut loose and have their superhero moment.
Still, though, the boys have done it. When a group of spectacular musicians want to "get away from it all" musically, the result is almost always a treat. Keep this one around for early morning drives, late-night grooves, and impressing that well-travelled musician/artist/film junkie/poet you've inevitably taken a shine to. They've probably never heard it.
by Galen Hawthorne
2. Hey, Shooter
4. Night Watch
5. Forward Sweep
7. Chop Up
10. Rotary Connection
11. Check Out
15. The Unfadable