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Brandi Carlile Explains Why She Had to Record Her Latest Album in the Middle of the Woods

Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile

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It's been a good year for Brandi Carlile. She's got a new record, and she's getting married. In June, Carlile announced her engagement to Catherine Shepherd. With all that going on you'd think her new album, Bear Creek, would be more, ah, upbeat. But the songs resound with themes that are borderline lonely, or even broken-hearted.

"Absolutely," she agrees by phone from Flagstaff, Ariz. "I turned 30 on the cusp of Bear Creek. That period of time was the end of a lot of grief," she says, "and the beginning of new spirituality. These are not songs we as a band would have typically connected with. And, we abandoned the concept of genre."Bear Creek has been called the alt country-folk rocker's most personal work yet, which could be taken to imply that her previous records were less than. She's okay with that too.

"As you get older you compensate less for your lack of experience. When you're young, you're writing about love you're not actually in, things like that. I have more experience now. I have more subject matter to write about that integrates more of myself into the songs."

In truth though, Carlile does not always write all of the lyrics. She describes song writing as a team effort that includes her band members of the past several years, the twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanserothwhom she very nearly asphyxiated before they were officially a band.

"I had rented a practice studio for the twins and me. And I really wanted to impress them, to keep them in the band, and the place wasn't air-conditioned. So I went to an ice plant and bought these four huge cubes of dry ice and put them in the studio with some fans running behind them. It cooled the room down," she laughs, "and there was this cool smoke, but about 45 minutes later we were all feeling sick."

She otherwise describes the song writing process as "pretty random," says there's no real pattern as to whether words or music come first. Then she says this: "maybe the best ones are the ones when the words come first."  

The Seattle-based singer/songwriter thinks the setting had a lot to do with the outcome of Bear Creek, which is an actual place. It's a recording studio secluded in woods of the Pacific Northwest. When asked whether she could have made the same record in an urban setting she says no, but not for reasons one might expect. Bear Creek had less to do with bucolic reverie than it did with their own uninhibited musicianship. "It's difficult not to find yourself marginalized as a musician in bigger cities when you know the greatest guitar player or banjo player might only be three minutes away and could show up at the whim of the producer."

Past producers have included Rick Rubin and T. Bone Burnett, who worked with Carlile on her sophomore album The Story. Gray's Anatomy slipped the title cut into a soundtrack, and both General Motors and Super Bock, a Portuguese beer maker used it in their adverts. She thinks Rubin and T. Bone "say they're more similar than they genuinely are." She describes Rubin as aloof, with a standoffish critical approach while T Bone is hands-on. "He put different kinds of guitars in our hands, showed us different picking patterns."

Bear Creek also makes reference more than once to the non secular: the cross, the devil, the concept of grace. "Religion is always in the ether of our mind, the question of good and evil," Carlile says. "I'm drawn to those kinds of things for symbolism. Also landscapes," she says, "but religious symbolism more on this album."

Brandi Carlile performs with The Barr Brothers tonight at House of Blues Anaheim, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim. (714) 778-2583, www.hob.com. $35adv/$37.50dos, 7p.m. All ages.


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