"Nobody wants to hear perfection, because nobody's perfect," Brandi Carlile declares over the phone as she lies on her lawn in Ravensdale, Washington just outside the Starbucks capital. "It's something I've learned playing live shows, too. People want you to fuck up."
The country-fried singer-songwriter, who's as obsessed with the Grand Ole Opry as she is Elton John, is in the midst of a freak break in her touring schedule as the headliner of VH1's "You Oughta Know" concert series. The thing is, you should've known about her two years ago when she released her eponymous debut, but, for Johnny-come-latelies, Carlile just released her sophomore effort, a spectacular array of 13 tracks that documents the past 10 years of her life. Rightly called The Story, the album was recorded (imperfections abounding) to two-inch tape with the help of producer T Bone Burnett.
"The truth is, I felt really self-conscious in the studio with T Bone," Carlile admits, citing, among many factors, how Burnett robbed her and "the Twins" (her band and co-songwriters, Tim and Phil Hanseroth) of their familiar touring instruments and forced them to record with unfamiliar vintage gear. "That's not really a bad thing, when those songs and performing those songs have to constantly challenge me," Carlile says.
It's not perfect, in other words. It's the product of recording mostly live to tape. Not every chord was hit. Not every note was hit. Carlile's voice famously cracks and then breaks when she sings "All of these lines across my face," a line from the titular track, and provides the most powerful moment on the album.
When it's pointed out that Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals just released Lifeline, an album recorded onto tape, too, and that it took seven days to record 11 tracks while she, the Twins, and Burnett took 11 to record 13, Carlile quickly responds, "We were taking it slow," and laughs. "I thought it was going to take less time than that."
On the first day, they hit the studio at 10 p.m. just to try and get a sound and, by 2 in the morning, had laid down two complete tracks. "We were, like, 'Wow, this is only going to take us three days.'" In the middle of the 11 days, though, they all decided to drive out to Whistler, British Columbia, for a break, which means Harper and his band's much-lauded accomplishment wasn't so impressive by comparison.
Also interesting is how the songs that make up The Story were held back from Carlile's initial EP releases and her debut thanks to some advice from Rick Rubin, who had wanted to sign her and the Twins to his American Recordings label before Columbia beat him to the punch. Ultimately, he, like Carlile, knew it was better to wait to record such momentously precious songs in her living room as much of her debut had been recorded.
"I'm protective of my songs, what they say to me, what they mean to me," Carlile says, explaining her decision to release a debut that she knew wasn't her best work. "So I just didn't want to record them [before we were ready], because once you record a song, it's essentially gone. You're letting go. You can't add or take away from it."
Although Carlile referred to what she records as "my songs," most are co-written with the Twins. The Hanseroth Brothers belonged to a Seattle rock band called the Fighting Machinists that Carlile followed and, when the Machinists dissolved, the three struck up a working relationship that has since mutated into a musical family that can speak as one. Despite what you might have assumed, "Brandi Carlile" is not a singer-songwriter who produces country-pop that thanks to her raw, emotive voice transcends conventional, sometimes even mediocre lyrics to become something devastating powerful. "Brandi Carlile" is a band, and the Twins are, in a crazy, post-nuclear family way, her flesh and blood now.
"We're like soulmates and we're best friends, and that's just the way it is," she says. "I'm lying on the grass right now, and they're out cleaning the garage.
"[When you have siblings] growing up, they're sort of there," she continues. "You don't get sick of them; you don't get tired of them. They're just a fixture of your life, and that's what the Twins are like to me. We just never get tired of each other, and there's really nothing we can't handle, I don't think."
Which explains why The Story's title track, a song Carlile sings with such autobiographical earnestness, was, in fact, written by Phil. "Who better to interpret a song about me than Phil?" she counters. "Phil's a part of my life." The Twins are part of the story, just like the rest of Carlile's family, which seems cemented together by bluegrass and honky-tonk music (one grandmother, two grandfathers, and a mother all lived the sound).
In fact, Carlile is a fourth-generation country singer, even if she's still marketed as a pop artist. There was a while, during Carlile's formative teenage years, that she rebelled against her heritage and turned to Britpop, particularly Elton John, whom she thought "was really edgy" (she laughs at this now). But no matter how she tried to avoid it, "It just came back to me in this way that made me realize it's a little less about what you love and what you want than who you are," she says. "I know I have that thing my mother has, that my grandfather had."
And that's the story behind how The Story came to be, the album that (rather than Carlile's debut) should've introduced her to the world. "The Story is going to be the album I'm terrified of following up," she says, laughing.
"Me and the Twins have been writing a lot lately, writing songs that are very exciting to us," she adds. "[But] I think in some ways I'm afraid, because I'm really proud of The Story. I don't regret a single note on that record."
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