Brandi Carlile tells us how to break into music (and other killer advice)

If you know Brandi Carlile’s music, you love Brandi Carlile’s music. Or at least, that seems to be the pattern. The three-person rock and roll band, named after one human woman, consists of Brandi Carlile herself and Tim and Phil Hanseroth, two brothers who everyone refers to as “The Twins.” The singing and songwriting and instrument playing trio make unfathomably beautiful music together and have been for 15 years. It’s music that bends and winds, sometimes stopping at gorgeous storytelling and harmonies, other times manifesting as crank-it-all-the-way-up garage rock.

The band’s new(ish) album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, came out in March, and today, they begin what is sure to be an absolutely killer summer tour, with stops all across the U.S. The entire mood of The Firewatcher’s Daughter is an evolution for the band, and seems to be a settling into a sound they’ve been working towards for years. It’s their first album released post their departure from Columbia Records, it’s produced by the trio, and it’s marked by a quality of impulse, experimentation and power found so palpably in their live shows. It should also be mentioned that the album was recorded in the lead up to significant personal life changes; Brandi’s wife, Catherine Shepherd, was pregnant while they were writing and recording. With all that in mind, The Firewatcher’s Daughter is incredibly special to the band for reasons both personal and professional. And oh yeah: it’s excellent.

After listening to the album roughly 700 times, we were lucky enough to score a phone call with Brandi herself getting the opportunity to pick her brain about her career and her music. Brandi chatted with Hello Giggles and walked us through her origins in the biz, what her process is like, and her favorite songs. We also learned that in addition to being the badass musician that she is, she’s chock full of girl power advice for young musicians. Read on for a taste of Brandi’s bold, brave, brilliant ethos. We officially have a new rock idol.  

Hello Giggles (HG): What was Brandi at 16 doing? Musically, or not so musically? I’ve read there as an Elvis impersonator involved?

Brandi Carlile (BC): Yeah, there was an Elvis impersonator involved. Amongst other things. That was part of my early discovery of music, singing background vocals for an Elvis impersonator. The cool thing about that though, was that I got to learn about harmony and vocal layering and stuff like that.

But, also I was in bands. I was in a rock band called The Shed. And I was doing a lot of busking at Pike Place Market [in Seattle].

HG: Cool! And what was your process like of being “discovered” and getting signed?

BC: Well, it started out with me doing a lot of busking at Pike Place and just throwing my guitar case out there. The pressure of having to do a set somewhere and know a lot of songs, and know how to play them, and present yourself, was kind of lifted because there were new people walking by every two seconds. So I could play and recycle the same songs over and over again. And I got a lot of confidence from that.

The thing I learned, I think, that was the most poignant about busking, was I learned what makes people stop what they’re doing; in a really extreme sense. And really that’s all you have to learn as a musician trying to get noticed, is what makes people stop what they’re doing. What makes people stop what they’re doing if you’re on the radio; to what makes people stop what they’re doing if they come to a concert with friends and they wanna talk; all the way down to what makes people put down their beer or their fork in a restaurant. But when you’re busking, you actually learn what makes people stop when they’re walking somewhere else. For me it’s about dynamics, and a lot about vocal dynamics, and guitar dynamics.

Then, I was able to graduate into restaurants and bars where I invested, with my busking money, in a small PA system and I’d go to places that didn’t normally have music and I’d say, “I know you don’t normally have music in here, but I have a PA system and if you let me play on Tuesdays and you notice that your cliental grows on Tuesdays then you can start paying me.” . . . And once a month I’d have a proper show at a club like the Crocodile. And once those shows started filling out that’s how I got a record deal.

HG: That’s so bold! I’m very impressed. Was there a moment for you when you were like “I’m a musician NOW.” Like, this is the moment it’s happened.

BC: That hasn’t happened quite yet. And I hope it never does! There’s always a feeling of arrival every time something special happens for me. And it’s felt like that since the very beginning.

HG: Talk to me a little bit about harmony. You mentioned harmony already in this conversation and “The Eye” on your new album is such a gorgeous song filled with harmony. How did three-part harmony come to be such a big part of this new album?

BC: Well that’s mostly about The Twins. It’s interesting because from different perspectives we all grew up listening to three-part harmony. Me: the Carter family and country music three-part harmony, Little River Band, and Alabama. And for The Twins, rock and roll harmony: The Beatles, the Beach Boys. We met each other during a time when Seattle had kind of started to think that harmony was over produced or glam — because we were really grungy at that time — and we were kind of hiding out at my house and singing three-part harmonies and that’s how we sort of fell in love with each other as a band.

HG: I read that a lot of the songs on the album were recorded in a single take. Is that true?

BC: Not really. It was more of like the fact that every song could have taken many, many, many takes but the point was we hadn’t sussed the songs out before we got into the studio, or made demos, or practiced them. Because we wanted to capture the magic of the moment that happens when the song is still in control of you, before you’re in control of it.

HG: I love that. So country, folk, blues, all of these influences, is there a song that you personally return to again and again — by you or not by you — that you’re just like, this is perfect, someone wanted to master their genre and they really hit it on this one.

BC: Well I don’t know about genre . . . but Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is probably the most perfect song ever written.

HG: So is that one played a lot in your house?

BC: Yeah it’s played a lot in my house and I’ve sung it thousands and thousands of times. And it’s just a really special anthem for our generation, and the last one, and the one to come.

HG: Along with your musical success, are there anxieties that you have now that you didn’t have when you were just starting out?

BC: Musically?

HG: Yeah, musically.

BC: I had some anxieties before my daughter was born. I was afraid that amount of happiness and fulfillment would not lend itself to fodder for songwriting. But I was really wrong, and my songwriting has since flourished. I think I always have underlying anxiety as an artist that if I don’t have something chaotic going on that I won’t be able to write anything and that’s not really true. Which was a great lesson for me to learn in my mid-thirties (laughs).

HG: Has your process changed now that you’ve discovered that, or are you still writing songs in the same way?

BC: I’m just writing songs from a perspective that’s less anxious. And I feel they’re being finished, and thought about, and cherished more. But they’re still about the same angst and the same tortures that I’ve always had. I learned that those things are just there. You’re given situations to explain the anxieties which is what causes a person to write music.

HG: What’s left on your musical dreams list? What do you still want to tackle? 

BC: Well right now I’m just trying to tackle this tour and I want to make this the greatest show that we’ve ever presented to the world. So the album turned show is turning out to be an epic feat but I’m really enjoying climbing that mountain.

HG: Lastly, any advice for our young readers who may be writing songs in their bedrooms and want to be musicians and don’t know what to do next?

BC: Yes! Absolutely. I think that one of the best things you can do as a young artist is find yourself a community and allow yourself to be influenced by other people. Because, songwriting and music can be such a solitary pursuit that I think that’s where we get a little bit lost and we forget that we need people — the support of people and love.

Also to not worry too much about competition because every great music scene that’s every come out of, especially America, has happened around a group of people that have decided to come together and not compete. Laurel Canyon, Haight Ashbury, Greenwich Village; all those places they came together, singers and songwriters, and they made music together and they decided they weren’t going to compete with each other, that they were going to collaborate. Community, community, community.

HG: That’s such a good point and it actually made me think of one final question: Do you think there’s a difference between a young girl writing music and a young guy writing music? Would your advice to those people be different?

BC: I think we’re rapidly moving in the direction where there won’t be [a difference] and where one day we’ll look at the top 10 charts and see as many women as men. I think that society at large is working on that . . . and that’s something that it’s fun to be alive to see.

But the most important thing that young girls making music should remember — following in the footsteps of Sarah McLachlan when she formed the Lilith Fair — is just don’t compete with each other. Support each other, lift each other up. Conquer that [competitive] ugliness as a community and not as an individual competing with other women.

For more information about Brandi Carlile’s summer tour: Check it out.

[All images courtesy of ShoreFire]