by Albert Rodriguez -
SGN A&E Writer
She's one of us! Brandi Carlile, a longtime resident of Maple Valley, is really a Seattle girl at heart. An artist who got her break by literally knocking on doors of restaurants and bars for a chance to play her music is now a respected singer-songwriter with a major record label contract. Her newest album, Bear Creek, debuted strongly at No. 10 on Billboard's weekly album chart.
Hailed by Paste magazine as 'the best voice in indie rock,' Carlile is also openly Lesbian, so we're proud to have her in our LGBT family. Besides her appearances on late-night talk shows and NPR, Carlile recently performed alongside Willie Nelson and Norah Jones. Her tour itinerary this year is packed with shows through fall and winter, including back-to-back concerts at Benaroya Hall on November 23 and 24. I spoke with the artist by phone just before she hit the road. Here's what Brandi Carlile had to say inside this special Pride edition of The Music Lounge.
Rodriguez: How often do you come into the city?
Carlile: About every day, or close to it. It's impossible for me to not come into the city because once you get used to eating in Seattle [laughs], or the coffee shops, it's tough to stay away.
Rodriguez: Do you have any favorite coffee shops?
Carlile: Yeah, I love Victrola. I also love Stumptown. I know that's not a Seattle [brand], but I do love their coffee.
Rodriguez: Do you have a favorite concert venue in Seattle to perform at?
Carlile: One of the greatest things about Seattle as a city, being a musician from this town, is that it's fantastically full of music venues. Not every city has those smaller ones, those gems Seattle has, left over from the grunge scene. I love the Paramount Theatre. I love Benaroya Hall. I used to love the Pier, when the Pier was around. I actually really enjoy the [Woodland Park] Zoo. It's hard to narrow it down to one.
Rodriguez: Do you have any memories of Pride over the years that linger with you?
Carlile: I love Seattle Pride. I'm almost always on tour now when it happens. I have been going to the Pride Parade in Seattle since I was about 16 years old and I remember being driven downtown with all my friends, getting to stand outside the Deluxe or stand on Broadway and watch the parade, to be around all the people. It gave me so much energy and it made me feel really accepted and excited about my community. I played at Pride in my early bands. Busked - I did some busking at Pride [laughs]. In recent years, I just go drink a couple beers at the Wildrose and catch up with old friends. We have a great Pride in Seattle.
Rodriguez: When you're touring and you happen to be in another city when it's smack dab in the middle of their Pride, do you check it out?
Carlile: I have a couple of times, and I'll give a quick shout-out on stage to the people at Pride. I hope I can be in a city that's smack dab in the middle of their Pride this year. I just think it's a really important thing for cities. The people I really admire coming out to Pride, aside from all the Gay folks, is the families who come out and bring their kids just like it's any parade, so they can see the way other people live. I love when moms and dads march in Pride. It's a special celebration in every city, and I have a special place for it in my heart.
Rodriguez: Some people actually discovered you from the GM commercial. It's one thing to hear your song played inside a store, but it has a different impact when you're watching TV and suddenly there's this commercial with a really great song behind it. That had to have been exciting to get such wide exposure for 'The Story.'
Carlile: For me, it was actually based so much more on principle than that. That particular commercial had come along and I said no to it twice and finally the company got frustrated and I ended up on the phone with the VP of advertising for GM. He's like, 'Why don't you want to do this commercial during the Olympics?' And I was like, 'Man, I gotta tell you I feel uncomfortable aligning myself with a huge American car company that's notorious for manufacturing gas guzzlers at a time when the environment is an issue. I just think it's irresponsible and divisive.' He said, 'Well, if you have a problem with it we obviously want to give our company perception a facelift, so what would you do?' I said, 'I'd have it be only about environmentally sustainable cars.' And he's like 'OK, done.'
He let me get involved in the commercial - I couldn't believe it. So there was all this footage of people plugging their cars into their garage and talking about the Chevy Volt and hybrid emissions, and all their environmentally sustainable sort of future-minded cars. I got really, really into that commercial and then I took all the money and donated it to environmental grassroots organizations.
Rodriguez: When you go on tour, do you feel that your older material from your earlier albums needs to be changed so that it sounds different, or do you think the audience wants to hear the songs as they were originally done?
Carlile: Well, I do both. I do find it irritating when you go see an artist and they don't hit any of the high notes or do any of the things that are important to the structure of the song. Especially singers - I don't like to go see a singer not sing the notes. So I'll always stay true to the melody and to the vocal notes and aerobics of the song. For me, that's a big part of the show. But there are certain things, like musical arrangements, that I'll add to - never take away from - but add to just to give a song a new breath of life. Not for the audience, but for myself. Because if I ever feel stagnant or tired of the way that I perform a song, then it's just not honest for me. Sometimes if it's a song that's been played a hundred times, I'll double the guitar solo and jump up and down with it. Nobody's missing anything, they're just listening to new parts.
Rodriguez: Have you seen anybody in concert recently that just blew you away?
Carlile: Oh, my goodness ... [talks to herself] Have I seen any concerts that blew me away, recently? I've seen so many shows. Let me think about that one and get back to you.
Rodriguez: You've toured and opened for lots of artists. Is there anyone you haven't yet opened for that you're dying to?
Carlile: Not opened up for, really, but collaborated with, for sure. There are duets that I really, really want to do. A duet with one of the great country women, like Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton.
Rodriguez: The old vanguard - they're still amazing to this day.
Carlile: So listen, guess who I saw recently that blew me away?
Carlile: Willie Nelson. Yeah, I saw recently Kris Kristofferson who blew me away, and Willie Nelson. I did a thing for Johnny Cash's 80th birthday, and Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson did 'Highwayman,' but they also did their own respective songs. Kris Kristofferson did 'Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down' and it was just haunting. Also, I gotta add a couple names to that list: Lucinda Williams. I saw Lucinda Williams recently and she made me cry. And then I saw the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and they inspired me. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson blew me away because they're legends and they're amazing, Lucinda Williams made me cry, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops just gave my heart a kick. I needed that motivation.
Rodriguez: Whenever someone in the entertainment world comes out, like Adam Lambert, there's tremendous pride within the LGBT community. Do you think it's still relevant for artists and actors to come out, or is it not a big deal anymore?
Carlile: I think it's really important at this point for people to live honestly. Just live as honestly and openly as they can. Everyone has a right to privacy, to a private life, but I think that when you are too protective over your privacy it speaks to the young mind that there's something about you that is hidden. I wouldn't even use the term 'coming out' anymore, just because I think that it sounds like such an ordeal. There are big sweeping moments, big leaps of faith in our community that make an impact. We should let those things take center stage. We should let Barack Obama, the first sitting president of the United States [to say] Gay people ought to [be able to] get married, be the spectacle of the year.
Rodriguez: You actually started out playing clubs here in Seattle, like up on Queen Anne at the Paragon. For anyone wanting to break into the music biz, would you advise going that route, going the American Idol route, or sending their demos out? How would they get started?
Carlile: I wouldn't advise the TV route. I would advise, if you really want to work on your chops and you really want to get good, look for places to play music that don't normally have music. The way that I got my residency at the Paragon was by going in on Sundays and asking, 'Can I play here?' and they let me play there. I would go into Duke's Chowder House, I would go into Salty's on Alki, I would go into Dubliner and Fado and bar after bar in Seattle and play gigs for people who didn't know they were coming in for a concert, they were just going to grab a bite to eat or a drink. And those people stay with you - I see them to this day. They say, 'I saw you at the Dubliner, I saw you at the Paragon. I was just going to grab a beer, I didn't know I was gonna see a concert.' And that's what I would recommend for young artists who want to get really good at what they do. You have to have a community, so you find other people to play with and other people to have gigs with, and put yourself in a situation to make friends. There's nothing better in the world than people coming together to help out.
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