Singer/songwriter/guitarist Brandi Carlile has come a long way since her days backing an Elvis Presley impersonator. That said, she admits to panicking last month when k.d. lang dropped by to watch her perform.
Medleyville.us: As a child growing up in a rural town roughly 50 miles outside of Seattle, were you aware of the city’s grunge scene as it happened, or did you learn about it later on?
Brandi Carlile: “I was completely oblivious to it. All my friends knew what was going on, but I was going around with a Judds jean jacket. . . . I had no idea what was going on.”
How old were you when grunge was going on in 1991-92?
Carlile: “I was born in ’81, so, like, 12. I remember I was in junior high, and all my friends had ripped-up jeans — they were writing all over their clothes and listening to this band called Nirvana, which I was totally oblivious to. I didn’t really catch on until the last few years, and now I love those Nirvana records. Some of the grunge bands in Seattle were pretty damn good, but there’s a few I never got into.”
You started out on piano, then moved to guitar at age 17. What prompted the switch in instruments?
Carlile: “I just never got good at the damn piano (laughs). I don’t know if it was the $75 Casio I had or if it was that I suck at it. I have a piano in my house now and I’m still no good at it.
“I wanted to be able to play wherever I was, and I just couldn’t take a piano everywhere. I started listening to the Indigo Girls, and I loved their guitar things and their harmonies, and so I learned how to play a few of their tunes on the guitar and never quite put it down.”
Do you remember the first song you played on guitar?
Carlile: “I think the first song I ever learned on the guitar was this song called ‘Mystery,’ an Indigo Girls song. And I learned it in a guitar book in an alternate tuning. Those Indigo Girls guitar books gave me a lot of freedom to learn alternate tunings, and if I couldn’t play everything perfectly in alternate tunings, it still sounded good.
“I learned a bunch of Indigo Girls songs; they were really easy. Then I tried to transfer the Elton John songs [that I knew from piano] to the guitar, and before long, I realized that I was going to become a better guitar player if I wrote my own songs on the guitar. So, I immediately starting writing songs and developing my own guitar style.”
And what was that first guitar you played?
Carlile: “A Harmony Sovereign was my first guitar. My mom found it behind the building in some bushes or something like that — a broken, beat-up guitar. I got this baby screwdriver and replaced some of the screws on it and fixed it up. I still have it.”
The action was probably six inches high off the neck, right?
Carlile: “Yeah — the thing is Harmony Sovereigns were used mostly for slide guitar because of how high the action was. I ended up naming my horse after [my first guitar] — his name is Sovereign.”
You once were a backup singer for an Elvis Presley imitator. Did he strive for the young, lean, sexy Elvis look, or did he opt for the jumpsuit-wearing, Vegas-era Elvis?
Carlile: “This is the best part about that — he did both. He did two sets: The first set was ’50s Elvis, and the second set was ’70s Elvis. So I came out in a poodle skirt for 45 minutes, and then go back in and come out in sequins for 45 minutes. I wore a teal sequined dress — I looked like a mermaid.”
What kind of moves did you have — did you stand still and sing or did you have any choreographed moves?
Carlile: “My parts were really thought out. There were a lot of songs that I wrote most of the backgrounds [for] — I didn’t really learn them for discs. I was doing a lot more thinking that I was moving. I think I just kind of stood there and snapped.”
When did you start booking gigs for yourself, and were you doing originals right away or cover tunes?
Carlile: “Originals and cover tunes — half and half. And slowly I sort of squeezed it out to where we were doing maybe two cover songs a set.
“I started booking myself when I was about 15 — in coffeehouses and bars, when they would let me. You had to sit on the stage, even during breaks, because you can’t be out in the bar. I played five to seven nights a week sometimes — $50 to $100 per night.”
It’s not easy booking gigs as an adult; as a teen, it must be even more difficult. Looking back, is there anything that you know now that you wish you knew then?
Carlile: “No, I think I did really well. Once I booked a gig somewhere, I’d go play once, and if I did real well, I’d take e-mails down and sell CDs and play for food instead of money. Then I would go talk to the club owner about having a residency — ‘Well, I’ll come back every Wednesday for the next two months, and I’ll do it for 50 bucks a night and clam chowder,’ or whatever (laughs).
“I had that to where I had a regular gig at the same place every Monday, every Tuesday, every Wednesday, every Thursday, every Friday and every Sunday. I usually had Saturdays off or it was a wild-card night — my night to do a big show somewhere.”
How many years were you doing that five/six-night-a-week thing?
Carlile: “I’ve been doing that since I moved out of my parents’ house — since I was 17-and-a-half, 18.”
How did you land your contract with Red Ink/Columbia Records?
Carlile: “I’ve always been looking for record deals and making demos. In the middle of playing gigs, I’ve also always been recording — going to studios, putting money aside or borrowing money to make demos and put my songs down on tape. I was always sending stuff in to get a record contract.
“I hooked up with the Twins [Tim and Phil Hanseroth], and we started recording our little acoustic songs. . . . Rick Rubin [heard our demo], and we started working with [him]. We were going to sign to his label, but it fell through because he was moving to a different parent company. We all decided that we were too young to sit around and wait for a record label to establish itself, so we went looking for another deal.
“We played a show opening for James Taylor, and the Columbia Records people were there, and they offered us a contract the next day. It’s a really good contract; we’re really happy.”
Let’s talk about your self-titled Columbia debut. Who or what inspired “Happy,” and do you know someone named Amber Lee?
Carlile: “I do — Amber Lee was my counterpart background singer for the Elvis impersonator and my best friend in the world. We got a little bit older, and I became absolutely obsessed with music, and she got married. And so we talked once a week, and then once a month, and then once a year. And then we just didn’t see each other anymore.
“I wrote that song about the fact that I was really happy in my life, but that I wondered where she was and that I missed my childhood friend.”
What’s different about the album’s original version of “Throw It All Away” and the re-recording you did that was added later?
Carlile: “The whole record was made before me and the Twins were signed. We made it on a shoestring budget, whenever we could afford it, here and there — we did a lot of it at my house. When we did ‘Throw It All Away,’ we had just written it. We did it 10 beats per minute too slow. It was just painfully slow, be we didn’t know it at the time and we didn’t have the money to go back and fix it.
“So when we got signed, we asked the record label if they would mind if we re-recorded the song. They gave us the money and granted us permission, so we did. [Now] there’s cello in it, less background vocals and it’s almost completely live.”
Amy Grant has a reputation as being extraordinarily polite. Was that the case when you made a guest appearance on Three Wishes, her NBC show?
Carlile: “Yeah, she’s real polite — unbelievably polite. She came up when we were soundchecking and said hello. My aunt is a huge fan, so [Grant] actually came on the bus and signed a backstage pass for me to send to my aunt for Christmas. I thought she was very polite — very sweet.”
What were your most memorable moments from this year’s SXSW festival?
Carlile: “Well, k.d. lang [showed up at my Driskill Hotel performance]. I didn’t know she was there until right before I was about to sing [Leonard Cohen‘s] ‘Hallelujah,’ which she covers on [2004’s Hymns of the 49th Parallel]. I looked up and saw her there and panicked, absolutely panicked. . . . I pulled it off; it was probably my most memorable moment in the last couple of years. It was a big deal for me to play in front of her.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Brandi Carlile, March 2006 in Austin, Texas
Photo by Chris M. Junior
Brandi Carlile on tour with Train (schedule subject to change):
April 5: Paramount Theatre — Denver
April 6: Uptown Theatre — Kansas City, Mo.
April 7: The Pageant — St. Louis
April 8: Ryman Auditorium — Nashville, Tenn.
April 10: Orpheum Theatre — Madison, Wis.
April 11: Riverside Theatre — Milwaukee
April 12: State Theatre — Minneapolis
April 13: Paramount Theatre — Cedar Rapids, Iowa
April 14 Taft Theatre — Cincinnati
April 15: Chicago Theatre — Chicago
April 17: House of Blues — Cleveland
April 18: Phoenix Concert Theatre — Toronto
April 19: State Theatre — Detroit
April 20: A.J. Palumbo Center — Pittsburgh
April 21: Borgata — Atlantic City, N.J.
April 22: Erie Civic Center — Erie, Pa.
April 25: Orpheum Theatre — Boston
April 26: Beacon Theatre — New York
Carlile’s tour with Train continues into early May. She has North American solo dates booked into early July.