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Brandi Carlile: Hunting for the Right Emotion

Jan. 20, 2010
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While recording her latest album, Give Up the Ghost, Brandi Carlile continually found new ways to tap the emotions that inspired her songs when she wrote them months earlier.

“I would do things like wake myself up at like 6 o’clock in the morning when I was all tired and hadn’t had my coffee and I’m all bummed out and grumpy, and sing a song like ‘I Will,’ because I wanted it to sound crackly, pained and tired,” Carlile explains.

Recreating her emotions in the studio took work, but finding the right emotion on stage has never been a problem for the Seattle singer-songwriter, who introduced herself with her 2005 self-titled CD and gained considerable notice with her 2007 follow-up album, The Story.

“The difference between being live and being in the studio is that it’s really easy to deliver a gut-wrenching, moving performance in front of a thousand people that are hurtling their energy at you onto the stage,” Carlile says. “It’s really easy to thrive on that.”

Carlile says that her songs for Give Up the Ghost demanded more from her as a performer in the studio in part because she wanted to look deeper into herself and use her imagination to create stories and emotions that are more relatable or dramatic than those on her first two albums.

The songs on Give Up the Ghost show Carlile’s dramatic growth as a songwriter. The album feels strikingly honest, with Carlile’s songs—involving issues of relationships, self-image and friendship, to name a few themes—exuding sadness, joy, vulnerability and hope.

The music covers plenty of ground as well, ranging from intimate and highly tuneful acoustic ballads like “Before It Breaks,” “I Will” and “Dying Day” to a pair of spirited rockers, “Dreams” and “Caroline,” a sprightly tune with a ragtime-ish piano line played by one of Carlile’s musical heroes, Elton John.

The way Give Up the Ghost was made was also starkly different from the way Carlile had approached The Story. She says she recorded that album by setting up a stage in the studio and recording it like a live show.

“We basically played the same guitars and played through the same amplifiers,” she explains. “It has a cohesiveness that’s really unique and cool, that most records don’t have nowadays. And it’s live and hardly overdubbed at all, with one drummer and one band.”

But on Give Up the Ghost, she says, “instead of treating the record like a show, or like an hour-long cohesive project, we wanted to individually treat each song like its own record. So each song from beginning to end was its own setup. We’d get in and we’d set up for a song. The drums might go at one end of the room today, and you might play through this amp and you might play this guitar, and I might sing into this microphone and we might use this drummer. Then the next day it’s a completely different room, completely different setup, completely different drummer.”

In a live setting, Carlile is pulling out all the stops to showcase her songs. She recently expanded her band to include not only her longtime band mates, guitarist Tim Hanseroth and bassist Phil Hanseroth, but also a cellist, a drummer and, on some songs, a keyboardist. She is playing most of the Give Up the Ghost songs each night, as well as several songs from The Story, a couple from her self-titled first album and a few covers.

“We try to make our show more and more of an event, orchestrating the show in all different ways,” she says. “It’s just a really exciting show. We are entertainers and we believe in putting on a show, and we believe that’s what keeps us on the road.”

Brandi Carlile plays an 8 p.m. show at the Pabst Theater on Thursday, Jan. 21, with opener Katie Herzig.


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