Low profile, high standards

Brandi Carlile built her reputation the hard way

Brian Palmer | Boulder Weekly

Brandi Carlile is one of those rare musicians who gets it. She’s not up on stage every night trying to be a rock star, the tabloids aren’t all that interested in her, and she’s not constantly making a ruckus or ticking people off with her grandstanding or childish behavior. For Carlile, being a musician isn’t about trying to be cool or popular, and making records isn’t an easy way for her to achieve massive fame and fortune without putting significant effort into her craft. For her, music goes much deeper than any of those things.

“It’s so woven into the fabric of who I am,” Carlile explains. “It’s happening all the time in my head. It was never a decision I made, to pursue music, but it would have been a decision not to pursue it. It’s one of the things that I define myself by.”

Live shows are a big deal to Carlile and her band, and this fact becomes apparent when they do shows with symphonies, as they did on her most recent release, Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony. And this wasn’t even the first time they had undertaken such an endeavor.

“I play with other symphonies all the time because I love doing symphony shows,” she enthuses. “It’s the most intense form that our music has ever been presented in, and to me it’s kind of a realization of what the songs should sound like anyway. When I’m writing songs, I hear strings and orchestration, whether they’re really there or not.”

And she doesn’t fool around once she gets on the stage to practice with the symphony for the first time, or once she finally gets on stage for the actual performance.

“Oh yeah, it’s very, very important to me,” she says, practically laughing in all her seriousness. “I get dressed up. I don’t just walk out there in my flannel shirt. I have a lot of respect for the process.”

Playing with 30 or 40 accomplished musicians poses its own set of potential logistical problems, but for Carlile the opportunity is usually far too rich for her to pass up.

“These musicians, they’ve got your songs figured out more intrinsically and in more detail than you ever could. I’ll play a minor chord instead of a major, or a major instead of a minor, and have a violinist stop me and let me know, ‘That’s not the right chord,’” Carlile says with a laugh. “Or they’ll say the tempo isn’t acceptable. And I think that’s really cool, you know?” Live shows with a symphony have the potential to be enormous events, as Carlile knows. Whether it’s the sheer number of extra musicians who all have to stay on track, or having a heavy emotional response to the realization that the instruments she has heard throughout her life are now accompanying her live on stage, Carlile always takes each show seriously.

“You need to be prepared for what’s going to happen that night. You’re standing there playing a song, and then all of a sudden, 40 well-known musicians start playing with you,” she says, with a tone of awe. “It’s really profound, really weighty. Classical music is a really timeless way to hear music. Some artists have used orchestration and have influenced me greatly throughout my life — like Patsy Cline, Queen, Elton John — and it’s brought the same weight and gravity and beauty to their music. So it’s profound for me to hear it as accompaniment because it’s what I hear in my heart of hearts when I’m writing songs.”

Listening to Carlile talk about playing with an orchestra in Seattle, you get the sense that she feels and absorbs every last detail: the sights, the sounds, the people, the songs, all of it. She praises her producer, Martin Feveyear, talks about how the band fretted over which songs to put on the album (“We had a lot of discussion about what this album was. Is it an album or a show? Should we put mostly original songs on there?”) and becomes almost solemn when saying how important it was making up the charts for each song. But she’s not so serious that she can’t laugh at herself.

“I never thought about the fact that this was being recorded the whole time. It’s amazing the things you forget when you’re standing in front of 3,000 people,” she says. “It’s amazing, it just slips your mind! It’s like all of a sudden all that matters is that you don’t fall down.”


[On the Bill: Brandi Carlile opens for the John Butler Trio at the Fox Theatre on Thursday, Aug. 11. NeedToBreathe also plays. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Must be 21 to enter. Tickets are sold out. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399. ]