For Brandi Carlile, the roots run deep
NORTH ADAMS — Brandi Carlile is a small-town girl who makes big things happen, so she and her bandmates should feel right at home in the Berkshires' smallest city on Saturday night, as they honor the stage as headliners for this year's FreshGrass festival at Mass MoCA.
Chris Wadsworth, the festival's co-founder, says he's been trying to book Carlile for years, calling her "a leader in this roots music world." And he's right. After all, it must take someone special to survive Seattle's post-grunge scene; to successfully transition from a Columbia Records contract to the independent ATO label, and to pen letters that successfully enlisted the likes of Pearl Jam, Dolly Parton and Barack Obama to help support children in war-stricken countries.
In talking with Carlile, one realizes her roots run much deeper and her branches extend even further than this, making her the kind of musician you ought to know.
But before we go further, another thing you ought to know is that Brandi Carlile is talked about in two ways: as the 36-year-old Washington State native, musical artist, producer, mother and activist, and also as the frontwoman for the band of the same name.
At the heart of Brandi Carlile the group are Tim Hanseroth and Phil Hanseroth, aka "The [identical] Twins," playing guitar and bass, respectively. Both beautifully harmonizing vocalists, The Twins have been Carlile's band and songwriting collaborators for more than a decade, and have, literally, become part of Carlile's family (read on to get a grasp on that). Together, they bring to the scene a rousing, rushing river of sound, which earned their 2015 album, "The Firewatcher's Daughter," a Grammy Award nomination for Best Americana Album.
We caught up with Brandi Carlile — herself — last Friday. Taking the call from her family homestead in Maple Valley, Wash., she thoughtfully answered questions The Eagle curated from her fans, detailing everything from the creation of this year's charitable record release, "Cover Stories," to her love for festival communities, and her current meditation on everything Joni Mitchell.
"I can't wait," Carlile says about coming to FreshGrass.
She said that the festival is "already blowing my mind" because of how it's connected her with other festival artists, including Alison Brown, who has talked to her about collaborating on some recordings and about coming together to create "a FreshGrass moment."
Carlile, a festival scene veteran, says such events are appealing to musicians because their participation is based on "a conscious decision not to compete with one another," rather to collaborate and celebrate being immersed within a musical community, surrounded by dedicated live music fans.
The musician's most notable and buzz-worthy collaboration this year has been through May's release of "Cover Stories." The 14-track album reinterprets her band's 2007 breakthrough record, "The Story," by having the tracks covered by aforementioned artists Parton and Pearl Jam, as well as FreshGrass groups like this year's Shovels & Rope and past act Old Crow Medicine Show. (Former President Obama, by the way, wrote the forward for the album's book.) The project is also an extension of the band's own charitable social justice program, the Looking Out Foundation.
What makes Carlile's current compilation more impressive is that all recording parties, including the record label and publisher, have given their blessings to donating 100 percent of the sale proceeds to the nonprofit War Child UK campaign. The effort aims to protect, educate and raise awareness about the thousands of children in crisis from war-torn countries, particularly those children facing the ongoing shelling in Yemen.
On Tuesday, the Human Rights Watch campaign reported that the Saudi-led coalition allegedly carried out five unlawful airstrikes in Yemen since June 2017, ultimately killing 26 children among 39 reported civilian deaths.
Carlile said that it wasn't until she and her wife, Catherine Shepherd, had their daughter, Evangeline, now 3, that the plights of children worldwide came to her attention.
"I'm such a small person and I was totally not viscerally aware of the state for children, and how vulnerable children are at the moment until I had one," Carlile said.
In a blog post about the project, she urges readers not to become apathetic to global refugee crises. She writes, "We are going to witness radical cavalry and compassion because we choose to."
When not using cover songs to campaign for human rights, Carlile also carefully considers doing covers as a craft unto itself. She's earned great acclaim from critics and fans alike for her covers of Radiohead's "Creep," Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" and "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash.
"I try to look for songs that the bands are not actively playing," she said. "So basically, I'm trying to do cover songs that no one can hear live in any other way."
Carlile said she also enjoys flipping the perspective of gender on covers, for example, singing "Folsom Prison Blues" from a woman's perspective. (Women in incarceration is another issue the Looking Out Foundation has addressed in its work.)
And what does she think about hearing her own songs covered, as they were on "Cover Stories"?
"That is something I absolutely get pure joy from ... it's something I don't think a lot of people get to experience with their work," she said.
What a lot of people may also never get to experience is the depth of process that Carlile and the Hanseroth twins get into when they're writing and performing their own original works.
Carlile has often cites in interviews their song "The Eye," from "The Firewatcher's Daughter" album, as being most representative of the group. On this track they all share equal ground, from co-performing lead vocals and collaborative lyrics like, "I wrapped your love around me like a chain / But I never was afraid that it would die / You can dance in a hurricane / But only if you're standing in the eye."
In ruminating on songwriting these days, Carlile said she's been meditating over the past year on the work and interviews with legendary songstress and painter, Joni Mitchell.
Carlile says her approach to creating universally understood lyrics is best aligned with a statement Mitchell made in a 2013 interview with CBC News: "The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you're not getting anything out of it. ... If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you'll learn something about yourself and now you're getting something out of it, you know."
Says Carlile, "And so, when I write lyrics, even if it's solely written about my wife, my daughter, my parents, or my childhood at the time, I don't want you to get trapped into thinking about my parents, my childhood, I want you to think about yourself, or something totally different. ... If you can see yourself in it, then I'm becoming the writer that I want to be."
In a similar vein, she said, that in working with The Twins, "When they give me a lyric, and I confront that lyric, I find myself, because they're brilliant at [this process]."
Carlile noted that you also have to bear in mind, "that there's such an obscene closeness between me and the twins," because they're literally family: Phil Hanseroth married Carlile's sister, Tiffany, and they've since made Brandi and Tim an aunt and uncle to their child, respectively. The families also all live only a few miles apart from one another in Maple Valley.
Carlile said that songwriting and arranging music with The Twins, by nature of them being twins, means that "the level of collaboration gets really, really molecular."
Sharing all these experiences live on stage, with the FreshGrass community, is something she says, "I'm really looking forward to."
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