An early interview with Brandi Carlile.
By Melody Alderman
I remember the first time I met Brandi. It was nearly a decade ago and she was a local Seattle artist who caught my attention. We met up at a little Turkish restaurant on Capitol Hill. She was late but apologetic because she was in the recording studio. She seemed nervous and out of her comfort zone as she sat across from me. Then the waiter broke the ice when he brought me Turkish coffee and I was clueless on how to combine it. Brandi had to help me out.
Neither of us knew it at the time but soon, Brandi would be reaching a much larger audience while making some of her biggest dreams come true. I have been fortunate to see many aspiring artists reach their dreams but for some reason, with Brandi, I truly get emotionally filled with joy when I think of her singing with her hero Elton John. That's just one of the many dreams that the sweet, shy, humble girl I met with several years ago, has made a reality.
PS: You’ve had an amazing summer.
BRANDI: We’ve had a great summer. It’s been real fun. Less camping and fishing than I’m used to though.
PS: Well you’ve been to the Gorge a couple times, right? Dave Matthews Band, the Sasquatch Festival. How was that?
BRANDI: Well Sasquatch was really fun. It was a really great show but we didn’t get to play for as long or as much as I'd want. But then we got to play in the Plaza show with Dave Matthews Band and that was really cool because we got a really big stage and a big sound system.
PS: Is that the biggest show you’ve done so far?
BRANDI: Well I’ve played the Lilith Fair at the Gorge. Probably, off the top of my head, I’d have to definitely say India.Arie. I thought it was pretty incredible. I was so nervous though. For like two seconds, I was nervous.
PS: Do you always get nervous before you play?
BRANDI: Never. I never get nervous. Although, I get downright horrified, terrified scared if I have to sing the national anthem at a game or whatever. But you know, as long as I’ve got a guitar to hide behind or a band, I’m okay.
PS: So your record We’re Growing Up, just came out early summer.
BRANDI: Yeah, on June 1st, my birthday.
PS: What a good birthday present.
BRANDI: Yeah, it was fun. We did a big show and we sold a bunch of records and we had a good time.
PS: Yeah, you’ve been sold out of records for some time.
BRANDI: Oh yeah we sold the 1,300 press within two months. We had to burn CDR’s. We probably sold 1,500-1,600. For a local scene and because we haven’t really left Seattle, we know there’s at least 1,500 people in Seattle that have our CD.
PS: Are you planning on touring on a wider scale?
BRANDI: That’s what I’m planning on, yeah. I’m going stir crazy. I want to really get on the road. We did some stuff. We went to San Francisco last weekend and Spokane, Portland, Bellingham. Those were really fun. I’d love to get on a circuit though and conquer a region. Make a trip and spend a few months going back and forth. Getting each individual city and community excited.
PS: Did something come of opening for India.Arie or Shawn Colvin?
BRANDI: Something always comes of those things. If anything, you sell a bunch of records and a bunch of people who didn’t know who you were hear you.
PS: How do you decide what songs to cover?
BRANDI: Well my usual kind of ammo on that is that it has to be a band that either isn’t playing anymore or isn’t playing that song anymore but I’ve found that that’s just a little bit too general. I like to cover songs that guys sing because that way, even if you don’t change the style of the song too much, it’s still individualized because of a girl singing it. And, a song that typically a girl wouldn’t sing, you know what I mean? Like we covered "Creep" by Radiohead. They’re still touring and playing that song and everything, but you wouldn’t see too many girls singing that song.
PS: Didn’t you grow up in a really small town?
BRANDI: Yeah, I grew up and still live there now.
PS: Well I grew up in a town of 1,200 people so I completely understand that small town mentality and environment.
BRANDI: You either want to leave or you want to stay. I decided to get a house there and stay.
PS: Do you think you’ll be there a while, regardless of success?
BRANDI: I hope so. Well, if I move I’ll just simply move to another small town. That’s where I like to be.
PS: Growing up in a small town can either inhibit you or encourage you to go farther. There seems to be the people who get married right out of high school or the people who leave.
BRANDI: I’ve seen some of my siblings affected by that mentality but not me. My brother got married when he was nineteen. He’s twenty now and he’s been married for a year. I thought that was pretty stupid. Well, actually I shouldn’t say stupid. It just wasn’t one of the decisions I would’ve made.
PS: Yeah, my sister’s twenty and just got engaged.
BRANDI: Really? Do you just shake your head and say ‘congratulations?’
PS: But you know, I’m twenty-seven and I don’t have a clue. So who am I to say?
BRANDI: Well you never really do. It’s just when you start thinking that you do is when you start making dangerous decisions like getting married at a young age. So I guess the smartest thing you can do is to just kind of conclude that you don’t have a clue.
PS: That reminds me of what my friend Christina was saying the other night. I was talking about some situation in my life and I said, ‘I don’t know. I think I’m just crazy.’ Then she said, ‘Okay, you’re definitely not crazy because the people that actually are crazy are the ones that think they’re not.’
BRANDI: (laughs) That is so true. It’s like especially, with teenagers or people who are ‘coming of age’… the ones who think they’re grown up are the ones who have the furthest to go.
PS: Is it hard to have conversations about your life with complete strangers?
BRANDI: I think I meet so many people through my job that it just becomes really easy to meet people. I get so busy that I don’t have many strong, lasting friendships. So it’s easy for me to have these casual things with people that I meet. That’s easy for me in a lot of different ways. Then the friends I do have are always pissed at me. ‘You didn’t call me back. Why can’t we go to a movie?’ Because a movie’s two hours longs. Those two hours could be spent practicing.
PS: So you stay pretty busy?
BRANDI: Mmm-hmm…. If you’re not playing, you’re recording. If you’re not recording, you’re practicing. If you’re not recording, practicing or playing, then you’re doing this kind of thing.
PS: Are you in rehearsals this week?
BRANDI: This week I’m going into pre-production with a producer. We’re recording three or four new songs.
PS: Are you working with Rick Parasher again?
BRANDI: Yeah. I’m pretty excited. We’re going to do some ballads.
PS: Are you going to have the band with you?
BRANDI: Yeah. It’s been cool working with new songwriters. One of the songs I’m recording, Tim my guitar player, wrote by himself. I’ve actually had to learn how to sing other people’s songs which has been kind of cool.
PS: How long have you been writing with other people?
BRANDI: Well, I met a guy named Eric Schermerhorn. He was in Iggy Pop and the Stooges and was on David Bowie’s "Afraid of Americans" tour. He’s basically a really amazing, amazing guitar player who just goes on tour with people and goes in to record records. So I went and flew down to L.A. and I wrote some songs with him and that was one of the first times I ever really collaborated in my writing. We came up with some great stuff. Then I came back and the band I was playing with at the time, we just couldn’t write together. We just had too different of taste in how to write songs. It wasn’t until I started working with Tim that I started really learning how to collaborate. So I guess I would say it started working with Eric Schermerhorn but my most successful writings come from writing with Tim. Then when Tim’s brother jumped on board… Tim has a twin brother named Phil… and once Phil was playing with us, it’s basically like writing with two of the best songwriters in Seattle. Tim and Phil are just geniuses. We’ve come up with some really great songs in the past couple of months just because of them.
PS: Is that what inspired you to get back in and record so soon after the last record being released just a few months ago?
BRANDI: Well I’m not really recording an album. I’m recording EP’s or demos to send out there and say this is what we sound like. I don’t think the album really portrays that anymore because when we first wrote the record, we were just beginning to get together as a band. We didn’t have Phil in the band. We were trying to learn. If you listen to the record, although I think it’s really good and it represents me really well, you can definitely hear that we were trying to find some kind of genre to slip into. We go anywhere from sounding like Radiohead to the Beatles to Third Eye Blind. It just covers a bunch of different genres. I think the next record’s going to be a lot more uniform I guess you could say.
PS: The band line up that you have now, are they going to be a part of your music indefinitely?
BRANDI: I hope forever. Tim is just great. Our acoustic stuff has been really fun.
PS: Do you have a good following?
BRANDI: Not only do we have a lot of fans, but the fans that we do have are really cool people. They are pretty much really kicked back and respect our privacy and they love our music and they’re always really supportive. They’re the kind of fans that want to know what they can do to help you. Flyers or whatever, they’re just really great. They know the words to the songs. That’s fun.
PS: That must make it that much better when you’re playing. To look out and see that people know the music and are responding to it on that level.
BRANDI: It makes it really fun.
PS: You’ve had so many phenomenal opportunities in your career. How have those opportunities come about? Is it word of mouth?
BRANDI: Yeah. People hear about you. I guess the India.Arie thing was that we’d just been sending demos to the Pier. By we, I mean the people who work on our team and help us promote shows and stuff. Gosh, you know that’s a really good question. I don’t really understand how things come about. I just don’t. I get told that I’m playing here or I’m playing there and that’s the way it goes. I know that Vienna Tang kind of helped hook me up a lot this summer.
PS: Do you have a day job or have you been able to do music full time?
BRANDI: No, I just do this.
PS: You’re already a successful musician then.
BRANDI: Oh yeah, hardly. A day job would not just be time consuming but it’s thought consuming. I think that it benefits me to spend twenty-four hours a day focused on music and not to take eight of those hours away for anything else. Even if I’m not playing my guitar, as long as I’m focused on that and I’m not worried about inventory at some grocery store or some employee that I can’t deal with, you know what I’m saying? It’s just not in the cards for me to have a day job or any kind of other career ever.
PS: That makes sense. It can set you back so many years when you’re energy is focused elsewhere. I’ve waitressed in the past and it’s ridiculous how much it affects you.
BRANDI: It does affect you. Even if you don’t take it seriously and you say, ‘oh, it’s just a job’. Anywhere you spend eight hours a day, you can’t not take it home with you. The only thing I’m going to be taking home with me is my rehearsals and my recording and my shows.
PS: What’s been your favorite experience thus far?
BRANDI: When we were in L.A. a couple of years ago, I got to have sort of an encounter with one of my biggest all time heroes, Bernie Taupin. He’s the lyricist to half of the entity that is Elton John. It was pretty cool because I got to go into the management company, the people who manage him and go into his office and sit in his chair. Then they made a phone call to him. It was pretty cool because I just think he’s amazing. I’m super blown away by him.
PS: How did that happen?
BRANDI: Well the management agency that manages my producer was just kind of giving us a tour of their offices and Bernie Taupin has his own office there. He wasn’t there but I got to go sit in the chair in his office. I wouldn’t say that’s one of my most inspiring moments, but if you think about it, I had a picture of Bernie Taupin on my wall when I was like eleven years old but I also got to do something really cool last year. I got to go sit in on a strings session with Paul Buckmaster. He’s a string conductor, like a maestro. He writes and records strings for people’s records. He did Elton John’s records from like 1969 to like 1975 or something like that. So basically everything that was ever really, really good. I had a picture of him on my wall from the time I was like eleven years old too. So I got to hang out with him and watch what he does and see it really close up. That was really cool. Then every time I get to record with Rick, he’s kind of a legend too so that makes things pretty fun.
PS: Doesn’t it make you realize how small the world is when you have encounters like that with people you’ve looked up to for so long? When you’re younger those people seem so out of reach and so inaccessible, but in reality, the world is very small.
BRANDI: There are all of these big rock stars and movie stars that you think are so inaccessible like they must live on Mt. Olympus or somewhere in another world. But if you go to L.A., it’s like you can’t go into a coffee house without running into Diane Keaton or whoever. It’s like these people are just normal people and they’re so accessible. Actually, often times they’ll disappoint you. You know what I mean? If you meet somebody you really admire, it’s so likely they’re going to disappoint you. They might be having an off day or they’re just not going to care about meeting you. It’s not that they’re bad people. They’re just so busy. Going in and just kind of chilling out and looking at Bernie Taupin’s notes and hanging out in his office and taking a picture and things like that because he’s such a huge star to me, I think was way better than actually meeting him because suppose he was an asshole or something. How would I have felt? ‘Oh no! Everything I ever believed in…’ I think that’s why I haven’t met Elton John yet. Everybody I’ve really wanted to meet I have met but Elton John’s kind of… I guess that Elton John and K.D. Lang are my He-man and She-man I guess you could say. The two ultimate.
PS: So you haven't met K.D.?
BRANDI: I haven’t met K.D. Lang, no. I went and watched her show at St. Chateau Michele Winery. I thought that was probably one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen in my life and I’ve seen an insane amount of concerts. I thought that she was so incredible vocally with just a cool presence and stuff. She’s funny. It’s like going to Vegas and seeing a show. It’s really cool. She’s got props. Her band looks like they’re going to kill over and die but she’s just like vibrant, incredible, full of energy.
PS: Have you seen Elton John?
BRANDI: Oh yeah. Every time he comes to town I see Elton John but I haven’t like, I haven’t found it in myself to call up his management company and say, ‘hey, can we get…’ I don’t want to play that card.
*Editor's note: Since our interview in 2003, Brandi has collaborated with Elton John on her song "Caroline." If that isn't proof that dreams come true, then I'm not sure what is.
cause you so much friction
I never saw how jaded I'd become
I never meant to
harbor some addiction
I really wanna turn my head and run"
Song * Somewhere Along The Way
Album * We're Growing Up
I'm sad to say I miss my friends
I know that I'm supposed
to step away
But they need me to stay
and keep a watchful eye
On all my heroes
and all their demons"
Song * Again Today
Album * The Story
Aren't I swinging on the stars?
Don't I wear them on my sleeve?
When you're looking for a crossroad
It happens every day
And whichever way you turn,
I'm gonna turn the other way"
Song * Before It Breaks
Album * Give Up The Ghost