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Brandi Carlile on Her New Live Album, Admiration for Elton John and Thoughts on Lady Gaga

Brandi Carlile
Douglas Mason/Getty Images

A concert "becomes a Church," says the singer-songwriter, who releases 'Live at Benaroya Hall With the Seattle Symphony' this week.

You could say Brandi Carlile is in a league of her own. A stark contrast to heavily produced pop singers like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Ke$ha, Carlile’s focus is on music over image, history over headlines, grit over glam. In this age of American Idol, when building your audience organically is the hardest route to stardom, the openly gay Carlile did just that with 2007’s "The Story," which broke the Billboard Hot 100 and went on to become a sort of sleeper hit.

On her latest release, Live at Benaroya Hall With the Seattle Symphony (out May 3), Carlile pays tribute to her own musical influences by performing songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and “Sixty Years On,” by her idol, Elton John. She’s joined in her hometown of Seattle with a 30-piece orchestra, but whether playing a bar or a concert hall, it still comes down to one thing: connecting with the audience, as Carlile explains in a recent interview with THR.

THR: What was the biggest difference in playing with your band and with the Seattle Symphony?

Brandi Carlile: It’s like this clash of two worlds. They’re playing music for a completely different reason than you’re playing music. You’ve got these rogue, trained, rock and roll warrior types -- like my band that’s getting up at three in the afternoon. You come to this beautiful venue and you have to do something together. It’s a pretty powerful experience.

You never really rehearse with the symphony. The string arrangers create the charts and send you demos so you can approve them. But they actually sound like a video game because they can’t really duplicate all the string parts in the computer program. It’s really funny sounding. I actually play them at dinner parties and stuff because it sounds like Zelda.

THR: How did you determine which songs to include?

Carlile: I feel like a lot of the singer-songwriters in my genre and in my generation have gotten more and more snooty about covering other people’s songs. They believe that creativity is the intersect of expression. I believe in that partly, too, but it’s kind of countercultural to the way that music has established itself in our country, from Country Western and Bluegrass to Delta Blues. People sing each other's songs and they cultivate standards. That’s the reason why we have folk music and folk stories. History is told through song.

Not to sing the songs of our influences so that our great grandchildren have standards seems counterproductive in how we tell the history of our generation. So, I don’t want our generation to be this dark spot in history. I feel like we have a responsibility to cover music. I know that’s a big answer. But the thing is, people might balk at the concept of having four covers on a live album, but we probably did six covers that night. It’s a big part of our live show. It was only honest and right to accurately depict the amount of cover tunes we would do in a show.

THR: Something that differentiates your live shows is when you unplug and get the entire venue to be absolutely silent. Why is it important for you to do that?

Carlile: Because as the venues get larger, the band shouldn’t change. You should always find ways to connect. It’s easy when you’re playing at a bar that holds 400 people -- you’re rocking out, you drop a guitar pick, a kid notices it in the third row and they laugh at you and you wink at them. You’ve made a connection with somebody. That changes in the theater. To walk out in front of the lights and stand there in the dark, where everybody can see you and you can see everybody else and there’s no smoke and mirrors, you lock eyes, you exchange a few words. Somebody tells a joke and you laugh and throw your pick. You’ve then made a connection with everyone in the room and it brings them together. Then people aren’t shy to sing along, or clap their hands or to greet each other. It becomes a church. It’s important to establish that no matter how big the venues get. If they get so big that I can’t find a way to do that anymore then I just won’t play them.

THR: What’s going on with your new studio album?

Carlile: The new album is recorded. I spent 33 days in the studio in Bear Creek with Trina Shoemaker. It was hands down one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve only gotten five songs to the label so far. We recorded 18 but they’re all being mixed. So, I don’t really know what their feedback is going to be on it yet. My personal feeling about the record is that it’s like our purest, most exciting work to date. It’s absolutely jam-packed full of energy.

THR: Have any ideas for an album title?

Carlile: A tentative idea, but I love Elton John and I’m so influenced by his early records that are so thematic, especially since he and his band would go to a studio and lock themselves up for three weeks and them come out and name the record afterwards. That’s what I was thinking about doing on this record -- because the studio played such a pivotal role in the recording of the record. It was a giant barn in the middle of nowhere that’s been turned into a really cool recording studio. Bear Creek is actually a creek that’s cutting right through the yard. So you’re recording and there’s this creek rolling past you. You’re looking up at this 150-year-old barn. It was just a really special time. So, I was thinking about maybe following in those footsteps.

THR: Any idea on when we it might come out?

Carlile: No idea but I’m ready to get out and promote that record. Those songs are like haunting my dreams right now. There was a soul influence in the sessions, there’s definitely more rock and roll like a Pink, The Who, Rolling Stones-kind of edge to some of the music, which is something we’ve never really tackled before.

THR: Will we see any covers on the album?

Carlile: No covers yet, but you never know. Maybe the record label will let me tack on a bonus, but probably not after having four covers on Live at Benaroya Hall.

THR: Changing course, what do you think of Lady Gaga and the impact she’s had on the music industry?

Carlile: I think it’s heavy on the industry, not heavy on the music. She’s made more of an impact on the industry than on the music itself. I’ve seen how she’s influenced a lot of kids musically. I always think that’s impressive. I like that she’s on the cutting edge.