In a wood-plank barn on a 10-acre horse farm in Woodinville, Wash., Brandi Carlile and her band spent a month recording their fourth studio album, Bear Creek. Their highest-charting album yet, it was released on June 5, debuting at No. 10 on the Billboard 200. Carlile checked in via phone to talk about her engagement, singing at church and the influences behind Bear Creek .
RM: Congratulations on your engagement. Can you tell me a little about your fiancée, Catherine Shepherd? How did you meet?
BC: We met through her previous job working for Paul McCartney. She was the charity coordinator for Paul McCartney for the past 10 years. Through my foundation, she took up an interest in one of our campaigns and offered to donate some materials from Paul McCartney's foundation to auction off and raise money for my campaign. We spoke a lot over email. A while later, she came over to the United States to do some work for Paul in New York City, and we met backstage at one of our shows.
RM: Is she a musician, too?
BC: Yeah, she plays guitar and sings really well.
RM: Do you think you'll collaborate on anything in the future?
BC: We jam at home all the time, but it doesn't really go any further than that. We do really enjoy playing and singing together.
RM: Are you hoping for your engagement to serve as a political statement, given that Referendum 74 is trying to reverse the same-sex marriage law in Washington state?
BC: It's definitely not a political thing at all, but I do believe that it's important, because I have a platform, to make my engagement known and for it to be an open discussion around marriage equality. In this country it's a civil-rights issue that I feel really passionate about, and I've felt really passionate about always.
RM: Are you planning on delaying your marriage until you can be legally married in Washington?
BC: I'm not planning on doing that because we're getting married also in the U.K. We're getting married legally there, and we're probably going to be married here. And then when we can be legally married here, we'll have another party. There's no reason to limit the amount of parties you can have.
RM: Your past two studio albums have been recorded under the supervision of T-Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, but for this album, you and the band took off the training wheels and recorded the whole thing on your own. How did the unsupervised nature of the recording process play into the childhood nostalgia themes in songs like "Keep Your Heart Young" and "Just Kids" and elsewhere in the album?
BC: Yeah, there's a lot of that going on. There's all these kids coming up in my life all the time now. These babies are being born. My brothers and sisters are having them, [the band's bass guitarist] Phil's got one with my sister. There's a lot of kids around, and there's a lot of remnants of youth happening between me and the twins [her longtime musical partners, Tim and Phil Hanseroth]. We've always been really childlike. We don't live a very average lifestyle; it's kind of extreme randomness all the time. It's not unusual to find us doing things like catching frogs or going fishing or making mud pies. Also, I turned 30 this year, and I think that could shake anybody's core viewpoints. So there was a lot of that revisiting of themes and phases of my life for sure.
RM: I've heard that you sometimes like to go fishing when you arrive in a town. Richmond has great fishing on the James River, so if you guys get here early enough, you should check that out.
BC: On the James River? Fishing for what?
RM: I don't know specifically what they fish for, but I'm always seeing people out there.
BC: Anne, you gotta help me out, you gotta tell me what to use — leeches, worms, lures — what am I fishing for here? OK, I'll look into it. I'll be on Google when I hang up the phone with you.
RM: You should. All right, Bear Creek has turned out to be your highest-charting album yet, jumping to No. 10 on the Billboard 200, 16 spots ahead of your last LP, Give Up the Ghost. What do you think it is about this album that made it stand out and generate such a positive response?
BC: I think that, you know, some of the things we talked about — the raucousness, the innocence, the lack of ordinariness about it. It's unusual. It bounces around from genre to genre. The sequencing is not very well thought out. It's got some randomness about it, but so does life, and I find that those kinds of things accompanied with a little bit of imperfection make people relax and listen to the music and enjoy it, because constant perfection and refinement and this kind of seeking of a higher level of understanding that comes from the recording industry today is great, and we should always try and fine-tune and polish our craft, but perfection is not something that human beings can relate to. I really wanted to make a record that relays that message.
RM: I've heard in some interviews that "That Wasn't Me" is a story about addiction recovery, but I've also heard you say it's about your return to church. Which of those is correct?
BC: No, it's definitely not about my return to church. It's about addiction recovery. Sometimes in interviews, the message you're trying to relay doesn't come across. The thing I like about it is that you can't really tell whether the narrator is singing from the perspective of that they themselves are recovered from addiction or whether it's a person that's been impacted by the addict and is kind of speaking in third person about them. It's kind of cool, because in that way you become a bit of a healing vessel for someone on both sides of that coin.
RM: Let's jump to another song then, because my next two questions had to do with churches.
BC: It may be that I've played that song in church a few times, so I may have said that in the interview. I go to church on Sunday, and they asked me to play a song and I played that one.
RM: Is it true that you sometimes lead your church in bluegrass spiritual standards?
BC: Yeah, we call it bluegrass mass, but I've only done that a few times. Recently I did one that was more old, spiritual standards that were on the soul side. I did "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow," stuff like that.
RM: What are some other songs you choose for a bluegrass mass?
BC: "Standing on the Promises," "I'll Fly Away," "In the Highways," "Keep on the Sunny Side," "You Are My Sunshine," "Old Rugged Cross."
RM: How does your congregation respond to that?
BC: They clap and sing and stomp their feet. I take the kids up to sing with me sometimes, and the kids and I will do "In the Highway." I only do it once every couple of months. Whenever I'm home and I can really practice all week long, because I take it really seriously. And here's the weird thing: I get very, very nervous. Like, when I'm done, my hands shake for two hours.
BC: I don't know. I get scared to play in front of T-Bone Burnett and God. [ Laughs. ]
RM: Another theme that runs through the album is this idea of returning home. I'm thinking specifically of "Hard Way Home" and "What Did I Ever Come Here For." You've spent the better half of a decade on the road. Now that you're in your 30s, are you feeling that tug to set some roots and take time off from touring?
BC: Absolutely, I just felt like I turned 30, and it spun me around face-to-face with someone who I haven't been for the past 10 years, which is kind of cool because I feel like I'm becoming reacquainted with my domestic self. I've had a real wanderlust, and it's not that I don't have that anymore, because I definitely do, but as I return to these places — you mentioned returning themes — over and over again, and I know my favorite spots, I know my favorite restaurants, I know the parks that I walk through, all of these places have a familiarity about them right now. It gives home a bit of an ambiguousness.
What had ended up happening is, so many of the people in my family are having kids and taking all these different life changes and turns. A lot of us are turning 30, actually. I'm the oldest, so I'm the first, but everybody's going to come after me. It's been a really beautiful thing to cultivate my career and my musicianship in the way that I have for the last 10 years, but there's part of me that I haven't been cultivating. It's no longer OK with me to go home at the end of a tour and not know how to talk to my parents anymore, or be the only one who's uncomfortable holding an infant. I really need to confront that. That's what this album is about.