Brandi Carlile: Razing the Walls

Music Features Brandi Carlile
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The door was closed to the tiny closet of a room that served as Paste’s podcast studio. Outside, our inaugural music and film festival, the 2006 Paste Rock ’n Reel, had brought together bands from around the country on a cold, misty day in October. But inside, a voice rang clear and loud, making a mockery of any attempts at soundproofing we’d installed. It belonged to a then-25-year-old Brandi Carlile, and it stopped us all in our tracks.

That powerful set of pipes is part of what enabled her to embark on a The Pin Drop tour this past year, playing a series of historic theaters with no amplification at all. Along with her bandmates—twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth and cellist Josh Neumann—Carlile would stand at the front of the stage and let the acoustics of the room do their magic. They were inspired at a show one night when the PA cut out during a set and they had to finish without microphones or amps. But it was the connection with the audience that made Carlile hunger for more.

“There are just so many things that divide us,” she says, “artists from our people—people that love our music and love us. There’s just a lot of industry in between us, and there’s a lot of affectation. And the Pin Drop Tour, and the album, and the videos and everything that we’ve done in the last couple years is just really to just try to strip away those divisions. We’ve been playing tours and shows for the better part of a decade with sound and lights and big, elaborate reverb, and backdrops, and all kinds of really fun rock show affectation, but we felt like that maybe this one could be about reaching across the line.”

The Firewatcher’s Daughter, her sixth album, comes out today on ATO Records. After nearly a decade with Columbia, her indie-label debut afforded the band freedoms they’d never had before. They returned to Bear Creek Studio, but this time went in without any demos or rehearsal sessions. “We stripped away some of what divides us from having a really pure experience on this album,” she says. “When I talk about this, it sounds accusatory, but it’s just happenstance that the system of making a record on a major label at that level requires a certain amount of laboring the songs, and turning in demos and kind of making the songs prove themselves before they’ve really sort of hit their stride. One of the things that happens to me is the song’s big peak moment in its life that it’s only really had once, kind of happens in that process. So, not being in that world anymore, we were able to kind of just skip that process. And so all of the really cool shit that happens to a song happens on this record, and didn’t happen in a home studio or a practice space.”

Even the videos from the record are all live-performances. The Eye is a one-shot close-up on her and the twins in front of a black background. The video for the lead single, Wherever Is Your Heart was recorded in a tunnel. There’s no studio track to sync to—just three voices and guitar caught in the moment. “Maybe it’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to what you just described,” Carlile says. “It’s not so much that it’s a bad thing; some of my favorite videos are videos that are synced to the master. When I think about that single tear in that Sinéad O’Connor video, I think there is certainly nothing to be criticized about the art of making music videos. But for us, we just really wanted to make this one about getting across that divide for the first time.”

If anything in particular triggered Carlile’s desire to connect more directly with her audience, it was becoming a mom. She, Phil and Tim each have one child now. “I just think that the coolest thing in the world is not ever believing that no matter what you do that you’re cool,” she says. “And nothing’s really taught me that more than having a daughter. I’m just trying to live outside that affectation as much as I can and just get on a level with our people that we play music to that have been around for all these years. We’re starting to really realize that our impact on the record industry doesn’t match our impact on the road and what we’ve done as touring artists. We think that the people that are responsible for that are the people that are coming to see us year after year. We’re kind of feeling a really strong allegiance to them at this point in our lives because of the families.”

The songs on the album range from quiet country ballads to amped-up blues to big, loud rock songs like “Mainstream Kid,” that probably won’t show up on a Pin Drop set list. “Actually, we haven’t learned how to play that one yet,” she says. “We learned how to play it in the studio and kept the second take. And then there were a lot of songs on this album that are many, many, many takes in because we were learning them. But as far as the Pin Drop Tour goes, it’s just kind of a special thing we’re going to do every once and a while. Obviously every song requires a total reworking and re-adaptation of every single song. Like, even ‘The Story’—you wouldn’t think would work in a Pin Drop scenario, but we do it so differently. It’s kind of like paying tribute to our crowd more than it is really honoring the recorded versions of our songs.”

She plans on continuing Pin Drop shows to go along with the band’s regular touring schedule. A former street busker, it’s exhilarating to make that kind of direct connection with an audience again. “The reaction is amazing, and every time you play one you think it’s not going to be because it’s terrifying. We don’t know if my voice is going to fill the room, or if the songs are going to come across, or if the rhythm’s going to wash out, or if the audience is going to get bored and there’s just so many question marks. There’s always a lot of apprehension around it with folks in the industry. We have to sell them the idea because it’s just not something people have done before. So there’s always this element of doubt whenever we do one of these gigs, and I think it makes for a really cool night. Everybody’s bored with people being sure of themselves.”

But none of it would be possible without that voice, strong enough to push through studio walls or to carry to every seat in the house.