Chatting It Up with Brandi Carlile

By: Kelly McCartney | August 20, 2012

Recently, I was given a second go at Brandi Carlile… Wait. Let me rephrase that. I was offered a second opportunity to interview her regarding her latest album, Bear Creek.

Recently, I was given a second go at Brandi Carlile… Wait. Let me rephrase that. I was offered a second opportunity to interview her regarding her latest album, Bear Creek. The first go-around was a short piece for NoiseTrade back in early June. It was a rushed set of questions culled before ever hearing the record. Now that I’ve not only heard the record, but also read more interviews with Brandi than I care to admit, I decided to take a different tack with my Velvetpark course. 

In a nutshell, the album is a pretty great encapsulation of Carlile and company’s artistry. But to get the full effect of what she is capable of, you really have to see her live. Luckily, she’s currently on the road with her Bear Creek Summer Revue Tour. (Note to die-hards: Allison Miller isn’t on this tour, though she did play on the album.)

Let’s talk about the difference between being a great artist, or a great singer, and being a full-fledged entertainer. For instance, our mutual friend Katie Herzig is a fantastic artist — and a very entertaining one — and Patty Griffin is both a great artist and a great singer, but neither are entertainers in the same way that you, Lyle Lovett, and k.d. lang are. What made you go for the gold there? Do you find it to be a dying art form? I mean, I can’t really think of any other artists working the classy, old-school tip.

I have such reverence for the Grant Ole Opry scene — nudie suits, one-liners, and country charm — and also the rock and roll crooners in jump suits like Elvis Presley. My teenage years were full of rock and roll flamboyance, and my love for Elton John and Freddie Mercury are noteworthy examples of this. Performing is as much, if not more, a part of my artistic expression as my lyrics.

To do it like that, you have to sort of set yourself aside and really step up as a performer, right? To be able to sell songs that you didn’t write, to be able to woo everyone in the crowd — male, female, gay, straight…

I’ve heard it said by great interpreters of other peoples’ songs that the key to being in the truth is really thinking the words as you sing them and making sure that the message rings true. I do, however, mostly sing my own songs.

There’s also a huge difference between what you bring in a performance and the show that, say, Madonna or Lady Gaga puts on. They seem to be all about the personas and big production value as a means to entertain. How do you think what you do in terms of connecting to an audience relates or stacks up against that more superficial offering, although superficial isn’t really the best word for it?

When I think about things like production, it makes me think of a different career altogether. I can’t speak to that accurately; it would be a bit like asking a baseball player about the rules of soccer. Performance to me is authentic; I’m never putting it on.

I’m intrigued by what you’ve said before about your creative cycle not being complete until the performance happens. And that everything you do as an artist is in order to have songs to sing. Do you ever feel like you could simply forego the whole songwriter bit and just do covers for the rest of your career? Or is that an important emotional and creative outlet for you?

At this point in my life, I would never be able to give up songwriting. It’s such a part of me now and everything I do informs it. Conversations, relationships, great books and films — they all lead me back to the construction of a song. It’s true that I leaned to write songs so that I would have something to sing, so they’re both a really big part of what I do in that way. One wouldn’t be the same without the other.

We could go on about music all day long, but let’s switch to the gay gear for a minute. You do realize that, without Miller behind you on drums this summer, when panties or bras get tossed on stage, they are meant for you. No more scapegoat. You’re gonna have to come to terms with your sex symbol status.

They’re still for Alli. We just FedEx them to her now!

I know you like to give credit to those who came before you for making it easier to be an out musician, or just out, in general. But as far as we’ve come in that regard, we still have a very long way to go. It doesn’t get better for everyone. What do you think it’s going to take for us to, collectively, get over it to such a point that Frank Ocean and Anderson Cooper don’t have to come out because it just won’t matter? Getting equal rights and equal protections under the law will help, but do you have any thoughts on how we break on through to the other side of that?

It’s definitely my hope that “coming out” for the generations ahead of me will be a peaceful and acceptable revelation amongst friends and family and won’t have a negative societal impact on anyone. I think time will help. The work is being done and the wheels are in motion; more and more heterosexual people and couples are coming forward in support of LGBTQ people. More American Christian churches are being vocal about Christ’s inclusive values that he brought into the world. All these things lead towards equal rights and inevitably equal rights will help.

Something I’ve talked to your BFF Amy (Ray) about in the past still seems fairly relevant… which is the sort of appropriation of queerness by the straight world as a form of entertainment, whether it’s Katy Perry singing “I Kissed a Girl” or something else. We agreed that those things are forms of internalized and ingrained homophobia in the straight and gay communities, respectively. What say you?

It’s entertainment because it is still taboo, because it still has a connotation of strangeness attached to it. I’m not sure it’s as intense as internalized homophobia, but it won’t be entertaining for too much longer… until the last person standing that doesn’t have a gay brother or sister finds something better to do.