Interrogating Brandi Carlile: I Knew 'That Wasn't Me' Was Our 'Let It Be.'

This is the year of Brandi Carlile. Her new CD,, opened high on the music charts. Her tour is a nightly revelation. She just got engaged. It's been a long time since she sold her guitars to buy microphones for her guitarists.
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This is the year of Brandi Carlile. Her new CD, Bear Creek, opened high on the music charts. Her tour is a nightly revelation. She just got engaged. It's been a long time since she sold some of her guitars to buy microphones for "The Twins," Tim and Phil Hanseroth, the guitarists who stand lean and tall behind her on stage.

Brandi Carlile has a powerful voice -- she's up there with Janis Joplin and Melissa Etheridge -- but she's just as powerful when the tempo slows and the lyrics turn intimate. On the Bear Creek CD, there's a song like that: "That Wasn't Me." It's about addiction (not hers) and recovery, about not being as bad as you are on your worst day, about acceptance.

To hear "That Wasn't Me" is to be marked by it; the song haunts you. I'm far from the only one who feels that way, and who wants to know more about the song and its author. And you know how it is: ask one question and, before you know it, you've asked fifteen.

Jesse Kornbluth: Lots to love on the new CD, but when I wrote about Bear Creek, the song that jumped out at me and pretty much everyone who's heard it is "That Wasn't Me" -- hard not to have a good cry over it. So let's start there. When you write a song like "That Wasn't Me," are you in command of the process, or are you channeling?

Brandi Carlile: I think you could say I am channeling. I stand firm behind the belief that for me songwriting isn't something that I do or command, it happens to me. I can either choose to stop and acknowledge it, or put it off and hope that it won't fade away. "That Wasn't Me" is no exception -- it came together more quickly than any other song I have ever constructed on my own.

JK: When you write a song like that, do you immediately know what you've got?

BC: I did that time. I was really worried about what the twins would think, because it was so far from anything musically that we'd ever attempted. But I knew it was really special and I kept preempting it by nervously reminding the twins -- who are massive Beatles fans -- that it was going to be like our "Let It Be."

JK: Vladimir Horowitz thought of dinner and sex when he played -- even when he played emotional pieces. When you perform a song like "That Wasn't Me," do you ever lose yourself in it? Or is it a performance, and you focus on delivering the feeling rather than feeling it yourself?

BC: I've read and heard that some of the most inspiring vocal interpreters (just singers) adhere habitually to one rule: Always think the lyrics as you're singing them, so that the sentiment is always appropriate and heartfelt. If I'm singing a song and I forget to adhere to that, I forget the words altogether. This happens about once a year. Singing is a form of meditation... apparently the only one that I have command over.

JK: Have you always had this access to gut feeling? Or was there a catalytic moment that triggered this ability to write what we feel?

BC: I'd love to claim the title of "songwriter" or "intellectual," but the truth is that anything that I ever learned how to do in conjunction with music was purely so that I would have a platform to sing from. I mean this literally and figuratively. If I learned to play guitar it was so that I would have something to sing to, if I learned to write a song it was so that I would have something to sing. So the gut feeling you're talking about comes from singing and communicating the lyrics and what it is that we feel.

JK: I hear you're having some vocal challenges. I think of Adele, who's already had surgery. And of Gregg Allman, who got schooled when Floyd Miles told him: "When you know you're going to scream, you lay your head back, which spreads your vocal cords real wide, and when the scream comes out, it barely nicks your vocal cords. You don't want to do too much of that, because there's soft, tender meat down there." Do you have any strategies to protect your voice?

BC: I have vocal trouble from time to time associated with sleep or wine! Or from sleeping in a bunk the size of a coffin and breathing in bus air conditioning all day. But I feel like the kindest thing that I do to my voice is sing. A while ago a friend gave me a DVD called "The Zen Of Screaming" with some cool vocal warm ups and an underlying philosophy. But for me, the wisdom is in the title. So much of the way a singer physically damages their voice could be caused by stress or nerves. I would never be so brazen as to assume that it's the only problem but there's got to be a reason that a martial artist can harness enough peace to smash his head through a cinder block without leaving a scratch.

JK: I've read that you think of yourself first as a singer. BUT YOU WRITE SO WELL!!! Paul Simon describes himself as a songwriter who sings. Could you see yourself feeling that way?

BC: I would see myself feeling like a singer who writes. But I believe that writing for me is in a way like wisdom; in that as soon as you feel like you've got it figured out you stop growing and maybe even lose something.

JK: I've read that when you started out, you told the twins: Give me a year and I'll get us outta this town. That happened, and then some, but did you ever feel that might not happen?

BC: Now I've told them give me a year and I'll get us back home!

JK: "That Year" is about the suicide of a high school friend. Has his family heard it?

BC: The guy that I'm singing about in the 2nd verse -- the "bigger man" -- contacted me last year and told me that it made him cry. He said that it was healing for him but I don't believe him, he had it figured out all along; he was trying to make me feel better for being late to the party.

JK: I hate the pigeonholing of genre, but on my web site, I have to file you under something. Country or rock?

BC: How about ROCK AND ROLL!

JK: On your iPod, what's in heavy rotation?

BC: Right now, The Lumineers, Alabama Shakes and The Civil Wars.

JK: "Just Kids" -- is the title an echo of the title of Patti Smith's book?

BC: That's the second time I've gotten this question. No, it's a reference to how as adults we make excuses for not doing the things we wanted to do as children by saying that we were "just kids" then.

JK: Do you ever think: If I had to do it over, I might not have gotten those tattoos. Or are there more coming?

BC: There are more coming! More symmetry, perhaps a nod to Tim and Phil.

JK: Can the twins dunk a basketball? On how many levels do you "look up" to them?

BC: Oh, I completely look up to them. As I'm the eldest in my family, they were my first exposure to the concept of big brothers. I do consider them my brothers and whether they can dunk a basketball or not, to me they can do no wrong.

JK: If an advertising agency wanted to use your music in a commercial, how much money would you want -- oops, I mean: would you say yes?

BC: For every one thing I approve there are ten that I pass on. I'm not so arrogant to consider mine the only legitimate art form. I can't in one breath make a fuss about someone compartmentalizing music into genre and then in the next accuse advertising and short film of not being art. In these times I'm among those who consider such things as high art and enjoy being a part of it when it's right... I hate the Superbowl but I love the commercials.

JK: Early in 1964, Bob Dylan wrote:
I am now famous
I am now famous by the rules of public famiousity
it snuck up on me
an pulverized me...
I never knew what was happenin
it is hard for me t walk down the same streets
I did before the same way because now
I truly dont know
who is waitin for my autograph..

It seems this is starting to happen to you. (And congrats.) Do you have any genius ways to stay connected to who you were before the audiences got big?

BC: I don't echo Dylan's sentiment. Perhaps he was such a pioneer that fame marginalized him. I'm not sure I'll ever be famous by anyone's definition. I can only hope to be allowed by the audience to continue my life's work.

[Cross-posted from]