A Fiendish Conversation with Brandi Carlile
Don't tell her the Northwest can't be country.
Brandi Carlile’s country rock has prompted a legion of fans to metaphorically get behind her—but her music is most complete with a legion of musicians literally behind her. Last year's album Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony was a critical and commercial success; she followed it up this June with her fourth studio LP, Bear Creek. Just in time for the holidays, she returns home for three Seattle Symphony shows at Benaroya Hall, November 23–25, including an acoustic set on Sunday.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation we chatted with the Ravensdale-born singer-songwriter about finding that epic sound, her favorite rising local act, and cowboys.
What's the best part of playing with the Seattle Symphony?
I finally feel like I’m achieving the level of drama that I’ve always wanted to hear. Every time I’m with the symphony I’m like, “Okay, this is finally as dramatic as it feels in my head.” When I write a song, I lie in bed all night and I picture every bit of instrumentation, and tension, and emotionality that I can possibly lend to a song. And then I’m in a rock and roll band, so it ends up being a great rock tune, but it’s never as epic as I think it should be until I’m standing in front of a symphony orchestra. Then suddenly it makes sense.
What’s the hardest part of playing with the symphony?
You’re the one with the wheel; you’re steering this thing. And when you have a conductor conducting a 40-piece orchestra behind you, if you forget to go to the second verse, if you accidently play one bar too long in the guitar solo, there’s no chance of getting those 40 people back on track with you. You just have to stop, and hope, and pray that you can get back on track. So it’s very scary. The thought of derailing three rock musicians is nothing like the thought of derailing an entire symphony orchestra.
Are there any songs that you’re particularly excited to give the orchestral treatment?
Oh yeah, totally. Especially the really stripped-down ballads, like "Shadow on the Wall." It’s a song that’s just me and an acoustic guitar and a background vocal. And now it’s got this huge orchestra arrangement with flutes, and a timpani drum, and horns, and strings; it’s massive. That, to me, was like waking up one day and having written a new song.
Are there any up-and-coming local musicians you think people should take note of?
There’s a really, really beautiful bluegrass band coming up in Washington state right now. They’re called Pickled Okra and they’re absolutely fantastic. They play bluegrass instruments beautifully; they hover around one microphone and have a sound that’s virtually timeless. My favorite thing about their sound is they don’t actually know how cool they are. There’s something about that, the fact that they don’t know that, that makes them really pure. Like, there are hipsters walking all over the streets of Portland right now trying to dress like these people, and they just wake up everyday and look like that.
How do you feel your Washington roots have influenced your sound?
It’s funny, it’s like people in the Northwest, especially rural people in the Northwest like me, we have a total rebellious indignance to what it means to be country or what qualifies us as folk artists or country artists. It’s so often associated with a Southern sensibility that I think that those of us who drive pickup trucks and chase chickens around our yard feel like we have a right to be country, too. The Northwest has a funny kind of way that it handles rural living. I grew up totally immersed in classic country western music, and so did my parents and my grandparents. It’s definitely a proud thing to be a Northwestern country singer.
If you weren’t a musician, what other line of work might've you pursued?
Definitely a cowboy. … I’m just joking. I love the concept of working with animals and working with the land, and being kind of free and not tied down.
Brandi Carlile with the Seattle Symphony
Nov 23–25, Benaroya Hall, $47–$87