In 2005, Rolling Stone magazine tapped singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile as one to watch. Three years later and the Washington State native is well on her way to becoming a household name. Her powerful voice and sophisticated songwriting have been featured in the film Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and, more notably, on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, which showcased three of her songs, including the hit single “The Story.” For the past five years Carlile and her longtime bandmates, twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, have been touring consistently in support of her latest album, The Story, produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett. Finishing up a stint in Australia with Maroon 5, Carlile is back in the U.S. hitting theaters across the country including a stop at the Lobero in Santa Barbara.
Last month I chatted with Carlile over the phone about heading into the studio, musical pigeonholing, and having Rick Rubin as a mentor.
How is it going? Really good. We’re just getting ready to make the next record : at this place called Blackbird in Nashville : That’s the whole point to this tour-trying out new material to record on July 1 : We write our music for a live audience so it doesn’t make much sense to not play [them live] before we decide what we should or shouldn’t record. : Songs, you know, there’s a freshness to them when you first write them and the audience feeds that energy into your song and without the energy of playing in front of other people, it’s kind of just a song. It’s all about performance for us.
It’s difficult to classify your music because there are elements of many different genres. How would you categorize it? I just say rock and roll because rock and roll covers so many genres. There was a time when I was a kid when I didn’t remember compartmentalizing music into genres. I felt like Bob Dylan was country and Johnny Cash was rock and roll and Neil Young was both and everybody was sort of all the same thing, you know. I even heard notes of jazz vocals in Patsy Cline’s music even though she was a country artist. There are all different genres incorporated with my favorite artists so I’ve never really been able to categorize [music] or wanted to.
How did you get producer Rick Rubin as a mentor before you were even signed to a major label? Well, we sent the music out. It was just one of those little acoustic demos-we recorded it on a four-track. Nobody really had a division for it and didn’t like it very much, but Rick Rubin loved it. He sort of big-brothered us throughout that year we were making our [first] record, Brandi Carlile, [on our own].
It must have been exciting when he called you up. Yeah, it was pretty cool. In fact, when I played for him the first time I was sick and I overdosed on cough medicine and played the whole show out of my fucking mind. I couldn’t remember chords, couldn’t sing. I sounded like I was 11 years old, my voice was so tiny and thin. He said, “I can see that you’re not feeling like yourself. I’ll bring you back out and we’ll do this again.” And I was like, “Yeah, right.” Nobody in L.A. gives you a second chance, you know. I came home and got better and sure enough, like two weeks later he bought another plane ticket and flew us out.
Are there different pressures on you now that you’re working for a major label as opposed to on your own, or have they let you have artistic license still? Well, they’ve let us have artistic license but not without supervision. Even if they don’t really push us in one direction, they’re always supervising. I think the days of a band just going into a studio and making a record by themselves are out, you know.
I like that your songs are lyrically introspective and evocative. In “The Story,” for example, you write about the inner you as compared to the way others perceive you-at least that’s what I got out of the song. Phil wrote that song and I’m sure that for him it’s a love song. But my interpretation is just what you just said. That song really broke the ice between me and the twins because that was a song that they had when I met them and it took me a long time to get the nerve up to ask Phil if I could sing it. And when he said that I could sing it and that he was excited about it, it really opened the door for being a collaborative songwriting team. It really is the thing that got it all started.
Brandi Carlile performs with special guest Priscilla Ahn on Sunday, June 22, at 8 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.