Brandi Carlile talks bullying, political advocacy, acoustic performances and Record Store Day
Twice since 2010, Brandi Carlile has played the 500-seat Capitol Theatre in Clearwater. Both times, the show sold out well in advance. So we just have to ask: Isn’t it about time Carlile moves to a bigger venue?
“Florida feels like an island sometimes,” said the Seattle singer-songwriter. “I play totally different venues than I play in the rest of the country, because I get down there about half as much. So I think we always undershoot how many tickets we’ll sell — which is better than overshooting, that’s for sure. It sucks playing a half-empty theater. I think the next time we come down to Florida, we’ll take a step up to a bigger venue, although I will miss the small, intimate vibe. I love that.”
Carlile will trade intimate for sprawling on Saturday, when she headlines the Erase Hate Festival, a public kickoff concert for Erase Hate Tampa Bay, at Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa. The nonprofit aims to educate students on matters of tolerance — bullying, racism, gangs, homophobia — through after-school programs and other activities. Saturday’s concert is free, but donations and VIP ticket sales will benefit the charity.
In June, Carlile, 30, will release her fourth studio album, Bear Creek, which furthers her evolution from catchy folk-pop to deep, roots-influenced alt-country, all without sacrificing a note of her dynamic voice. She’ll play mostly acoustic versions of songs from Bear Creek on Saturday, but Carlile is more focused on the message behind the event. Among the various causes supported by her Looking Out Foundation is one called Fight the Fear, a campaign of self-defense and empowerment aimed at Seattle’s LGBT community.
Here are excerpts from our recent chat with Carlile.
Are you going to be very politically active during this presidential campaign? Taking part in any protests or anything along those lines?
I tend to support and get behind issues instead of candidates, because of the whole “Super Bowl” generalization of our world — You’re on this side, I’m on that side; you’re a Republican, I’m a Democrat; you’re country music, I’m rock music. The compartmentalization and competitiveness can get pretty ridiculous when it comes to artists supporting candidacy. So it’s the issues I’m most interested in.
Have you ever done anything for MoveOn or one of the other change organizations that have produced political concerts in years past? How does an artist get pulled into something like that?
Most artists generally have more of an interest in humanitarian efforts than they do political efforts. But a lot of times, they tend to overlap. Which is kind of what’s happening now. If you look at some of the immigration problems, some of the ways that people are being treated, it is a humanitarian effort. I have a foundation based on reaching out and helping people in situations of crisis and physical discomfort. You don’t want to think that’s a political issue, because you want to think we live in the 21st century and we’re Americans, but it is a political issue. There are still civil rights issues. There are still people who can’t be visited by their spouse in the hospital because they’re gay. These are humanitarian issues. At the end of the day, all you want is for people to be happy in the pursuit of life, love and liberty.
Do you hear from a lot of kids who are struggling with things like bullying, or with coming out of the closet, or who are in some way conflicted about their identity?
Oh, all the time. No matter how big the shows get, I meet people, particularly kids. I’ll send the tour manager out behind the bus and say, “If you see any teenagers, grab them and pull them to the bus, and I’ll go say hi.” Because I want to hear about what’s going on in their high school. It’s important to me.
What’s the thread that you hear most often?
The stories are more encouraging than not. The stories of acceptance and tolerance and reform and love are more than the stories of oppression, which is exciting. I want to get involved in furthering that, to where we get to a point where everyone feels safe and comfortable.
What did you face when you were in high school? Did you get picked on?
I didn’t get bullied any more than anybody else. I think I got bullied more for being poor than being gay. But no more than any other kid. And I’m sure that I did my fair share of picking on other kids too. We’re all humans. We definitely try out our gumption during that age. But some special sensitivity needs to get paid to a few of these issues, particularly issues that veer into the avenue of hate crimes, which is a reason why I think this festival is important in this year.
Have you been following the Trayvon Martin case?
Loosely, on talk radio and stuff. It’s obviously such a huge tragedy, and the fact that it happened has made such an impact not just on this country, but the world. I hope that it doesn’t get in its own way. You know how things do that sometimes? Like, the point becomes more than the event. Because what happened to him is what matters. The press, the media, the attention, the opinions — that should never become more important than the people that lost their son.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but this show coming up in Tampa — that’s just you and the twins, right? What percentage of your shows now are acoustic/solo, versus with a full band?
Not many. The solo tour was an anomaly, something I did to celebrate my 30th birthday for myself. And then the trio acoustic tour was something that we did because we knew we needed to get to Florida. See, typically, we go and do this boat called Cayamo, and it leaves out of Miami, and the past few years we’ve done it with John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin. So on our way, we typically do Florida, because that’s when we’re down there. It’s tough to route that into a tour, because you have to double back on yourself when you go down there.
We’re well aware of how few artists come down here sometimes.
Yeah, it’s like Alaska or Hawaii in that way. But we still go every year, regardless of how difficult it is, and so we use that boat as a launching pad for the Florida run. Anyway, this year we didn’t do the boat, and we knew we needed to get down there anyway, and we believe really strongly in returning to places to play for our fans. We couldn’t do a whole thing with a bus and a big tour, so we’re like, “Let’s jump in a van and go do it, the three of us.” It’s not a thing we do very often anymore. It’s just something that we specifically did for Florida. And the Erase Hate Festival specifically requested it.
The Bear Creek songs that have the full-band, fleshed-out sound — Rise Again, Hard Way Home — do they lose anything acoustically? Or do you think it matters which way they’re heard when you perform them?
It’s hard to say. It’s pretty complicated. I thought Hard Way Home did lose something acoustically, to be honest with you, because I played it on that Florida tour for the first time. And I was concerned a bit. The only thing it lost acoustically to me was the dynamic of that kind of lead part, that ding-ding-ding, ding-da-ding-ding. You couldn’t hear it over my furious strumming. But Rise Again doesn’t lose anything acoustic at all. A song is only good if a power cut doesn’t affect the way it sounds. If the electricity cuts out and your songs aren’t good, then your songs aren’t good.
You’ve also recorded with the Seattle Symphony. I get the appeal of having a full orchestra behind you, but at the same time, part of me thinks it’s almost completely diametrically opposed to what it means to be a solo singer-songwriter, where it’s just you and a guitar and, like you said, the songs stand on their own. There’s this chasm between one person performing solo, and then one person with a full symphony.
Well, it’s the cyclical response of how extremes are actually closer to each other than you think. You think it’s a polarizing effect to have a 60-piece orchestra behind the singer-songwriter, as opposed to seeing a singer-songwriter totally solo/acoustic. But it works both ways. The song is only a good song if, when you turn the electricity off, it sounds fine by itself, with a guitar and a singer. But it also has to sound good if it’s layered with 80 or 100 other instruments. It has to be able to stand up to both sides of the spectrum. If you can only be a shoegazer, if you can only stand in a coffeehouse and wax lyrical about poetry and love and loss, but you can’t command an orchestra ... you’re only as good as the thing that you can do worst.
The day that you’re going to perform here is National Record Store Day. Seattle’s a great music town. You must have a favorite record store there.
Oh yeah, definitely. Easy Street Records. They’re just fantastic. It’s independently owned, the guys are major music fans, they’re an encyclopedia of music. I did a live album there. They work with artists to do really creative stuff, like, if you want to do an in-store there at 2 a.m., they’ll open their doors, and you can literally have 900 Seattleites standing in a record store at 2 a.m. They’re the ones that came up with the idea of me recording with the Seattle Symphony, and even asked the Symphony if they’d do the show with me.
Has it changed over the last 10 years, as the record industry has changed? Being an independent record store is not the same now as it was even in 2000.
I’m sure Matt would tell you that it’s changed, the guy that owns the store. But from my perspective, nothing they’ve done about the way they run their store has changed, which is amazing. They still paint murals of the records coming out on their wall. There’s no big glossy signs of record company infiltration in their store. And they tend to be, from what I can see, really successful, because they have two stores open, and if they weren’t successful, I think they’d condense to one. So from my perspective, I think it’s doing really well, and that’s because Seattle — to toot my own city’s horn — is an extremely indie-minded music-based city, and always have been.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*