Brandi Carlile: Bending Notes Until They Break
What is it about Brandi Carlile's voice that gets right inside you? The power? Her range? It may be the way she can crack open a note, as she does in her best-known song, "The Story," which was prominently featured on Grey's Anatomy. Even Dave Matthews is impressed with her pipes: The singer once referred to her — affectionately, she swears — as a "big, fat trumpet head."
"People that could yodel always fascinated me," Carlile tells NPR's Melissa Block. "People that could sing loud always fascinated me. So I started trying to mimic [those techniques] at a really young age: 6, 7 years old. And when I got to around 10, 11, I had moved on past country and western music — so I thought — to this rock 'n' roll genre thing, and I was kind of marrying the two concepts without knowing it, singing 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in my closet and stuff like that."
Hitting soaring notes, Carlile says, is the manifestation of a long-held desire.
"It feels really liberating," she says. "I mean, that was something I used to want to do all the time when I was a kid, but you just — there's people around, you know? We didn't really have any neighbors, but just siblings. Somebody to make fun of you if you screw it up."
Carlile delves into some of her family history on her new album, Bear Creek, named after the rustic studio where she recorded it in her home state of Washington. One striking example is "That Wasn't Me," whose lyrics allude to a close family member's struggle with alcoholism:
Hang on, just hang on for a minute
I've got something to say
I'm not asking you to move on or forget it
But these are better days
"That conversation is happening from the perspective of the addict," Carlile says. "Just reconciling that forgiveness, that process that happens once a person heals ... You know, there's a wake behind them. And a lot of times, their kids or their siblings or their parents are left in that wake. It's really hard to balance that forgiveness process when you're the one in the wake."
Though it's not a prominent theme in her songs, Carlile is forthcoming about another area of her private life. She came out as gay to her family as a teenager, and came out publicly several years ago.
"I don't consider myself a very androgynous person, but I think [people] can sense a certain dissent or a difference in gender roles," Carlile says. "They can sense that I'm not singing or talking about things in a traditional way.
"As a songwriter, it's really important that that become a place for expression, because of what other songwriters did for me as a young gay teenager," she adds. "Having those gender pronouns used in an ambiguous way made me feel like I could relate to songs that were sung by women or men. Those kinds of things being addressed creatively and politically made me feel like I could be successful and proud."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. What is it about singer Brandi Carlile's voice that gets right inside you? Her power, her range? Maybe the way she can crack open a note?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY")
BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) ...they don't know my head is a mess...
BLOCK: Dave Matthews...
BLOCK: BLOCK: ...speaking of your voice, calls you a big, fat, trumpet head.
CARLILE: Yeah. Well, have you ever interviewed Dave Matthews?
BLOCK: I haven't. No.
CARLILE: He's just - those are the kinds of things that he says. He calls me a big, fat, trumpet head - affectionately.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY")
CARLILE: (Singing) All of these lines across my face tell you the story of who I am. So many stories of where I've been...
BLOCK: "The Story" is Carlile's best-known song. It was featured on the TV show "Grey's Anatomy," and was used in a GM commercial. Her video has nearly 8 million hits on YouTube.
Brandi Carlile came by our studios to talk about her new album. It's titled "Bear Creek," after the rustic studio where she recorded it, in her home state of Washington. And we started by talking about how she found her voice as a kid.
CARLILE: People that could yodel always fascinated me, and people that could sing loud always fascinated me. So I started trying to mimic, at a really young age - 6, 7 years old. And when I got to around 10, 11, you know, I'd moved on past country and western music. So I thought to this rock and roll genre thing, and I was kind of marrying the two concepts without knowing it and, you know, singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" in my closet, and stuff like that.
BLOCK: So when you were - say, 6 or 7, trying to find singers who could sing really loud, who would you be listening to back then?
CARLILE: Probably Patsy Cline. I mean, you can hear - if you listen to her old recordings - that sometimes, they distort. And I love that about her.
BLOCK: Would there be one Patsy Cline song in particular, that you would be playing over and over - thinking, how does she do that?
CARLILE: Oh, yeah, there are tons of them. But "Sweet Dreams," how she holds that slide from the beginning of the word to the end of the word, that always blows my mind. She was an incredible singer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET DREAMS")
PATSY CLINE: (Singing) Sweet dreams of you.
BLOCK: That's it, Brandi?
CARLILE: That's it. That's the one, right there.
BLOCK: Can you do that?
CARLILE: I can't, but I tried when I was a 7-year-old.
BLOCK: I'm picturing you in your house there, listening to Patsy Cline over and over. Were your friends listening to that kind of music, too, do you think?
CARLILE: No. And you know something? I should have listened to my friends because at the same time that was happening, 45 minutes away the grunge scene was happening in Seattle. And I was missing my opportunity to see Kurt Cobain sing to 500 people.
BLOCK: You were in the closet, listening to Freddie Mercury and...
CARLILE: Yeah - which is a metaphor.
BLOCK: Let's talk about that later.
BLOCK: BLOCK: You were talking about - you couldn't do what Patsy Cline did there - and I don't believe that for a second. But you do have this just incredible range with your voice, and an expressive thing going on - where you take these huge soars vocally.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAISE HELL")
CARLILE: (Singing) I send my love across the sea and though I didn't cry, that voice will haunt my every dream until the day I die. I'm gonna raise, raise hell.
BLOCK: I'm really curious, Brandi. When you're singing that - going up for those big, open spaces with your voice - what does that feel like?
CARLILE: Yeah. It feels really liberating. I mean, that was something I used to want to do all the time when I was a kid, but you just - there's people around, you know.
BLOCK: How close to the neighbors?
CARLILE: Well, we didn't really have any neighbors but just siblings and, you know, somebody to make fun of you if you screw it up.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAISE HELL")
CARLILE: (Singing) Come on, now, ring that bell.
BLOCK: One of the things I love about some of your songs is that they sound so conversational; that you're addressing somebody directly. And I'm thinking, on the new album, about the song "That Wasn't Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT WASN'T ME")
CARLILE: (Singing) Hang on. Just hang on for a minute. I've got something to say. I'm not asking you to move on or forget it, but these are better days.
BLOCK: Brandi Carlile, who are you addressing in this song? Who do you want to hang on, in that first line?
CARLILE: Well, I'm not speaking on behalf of myself when I'm in that verse there. I'm just - kind of like going through this narrative that's like a healing process, being associated with someone in my close family who suffered with alcoholism most of their lives; just reconciling that forgiveness, that process that happens once a person heals. You know, there's a wake behind them and a lot of times, their kids or their siblings or their parents are left in that wake. And it's really hard to balance that forgiveness process when you're the one in the wake. And so that conversation is happening from the perspective of the addict.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT WASN'T ME")
CARLILE: (Singing) Tell me, did I go on a tangent? Did I lie through my teeth? Did I cause you to stumble onto your feet? Did I bring shame on my family? Did it show when I was weak? Whatever you've seen, that wasn't me. That wasn't me. Oh, that wasn't me.
BLOCK: I wanted to ask you - a few years ago, you came out publicly to your fans as gay. You'd - I understand - come out quite a long time ago to your family, when you were...
BLOCK: ...a teenager. Right?
BLOCK: Do you think that comes through in your songwriting, in any way? And do you feel like that perspective needs to be explicit, or maybe there's a point to being more explicit about that?
CARLILE: Yeah. First of all, I think it's underlying. People can sense it. They can feel it. I don't know what it is. I mean, I don't consider myself a very androgynous person, but I think they can sense a certain - um - dissent, or a difference in gender roles. You know, they can sense that I'm not singing or talking about things in a traditional way. And I think that as a songwriter, it's really important that that become a place for expression because of what other songwriters did for me as a young, gay teenager.
You know, having those gender pronouns used in an ambiguous way made me feel like I could relate to songs that were sung by women or men. You know, those kinds of things being addressed creatively, and politically, made me feel like I could be successful and proud.
BLOCK: Brandi Carlile, thanks so much for coming in. It's great to talk to you.
CARLILE: Thank you so much.
BLOCK: And we're going to go out on a live performance here at NPR. What are you going to play?
CARLILE: I'm going to play "Keep Your Heart Young."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YOUR HEART YOUNG")
CARLILE: (Singing) My grandpa gave me a wheat penny, and I kept it in my pocket. I had big plans in my back yard to build me a space rocket. I talked to my brother on a fake CB that I made from a tic tac box. I packed my snowballs nice and tight, and in the middle, I put rocks.
(Singing) Don't trade in your tic tac box for a ball on the end of a chain. And don't go spending Grandpa's pennies buying into the game. You got to keep your heart young. Don't go growing old before your time has come. You can't take back what you have done. You got to keep your heart young.
BLOCK: Brandi Carlile's album "Bear Creek" comes out next week. You can hear the full performance of this song, and a stripped-down version of "That Wasn't Me," at NPRMusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.