Since the release of her self-titled album in 2005, Washington state-bred musician Brandi Carlile has gone on to become a folk-music favorite, as well as a noted philanthropist for several causes, including the American Diabetes Association, funding self-defense classes for women and promoting environmental efforts. Her latest album, Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony , was recorded during a weekend of shows this past November in Seattle. The album, which showcases both original compositions and covers (including Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" and Elton John's "Sixty Years On") drops on May 3, and Carlile will start her spring tour on May 5, with Ivan and Alyosha opening for the first half (including her Richmond show), and Ray LaMontagne joining her later. She takes the stage with her full band at the National on May 22.
AD: You've been writing and performing since your mid-teens, and you dropped out of high school to focus on music. What drives your passion to pursue music as a career?
BC: Well, it's more performing music than writing. It's like, I write as a default because I need something to perform, you know? I'm more driven just by the need to emote and express and sing. What drives me to do it is innate, I couldn't really tell you. It's just who I am. It's more like something that I would have to make a decision not to do than something that I have to make a decision to do.
AD: So given that performances are a pretty big deal for you, what's your ideal audience?
BC: Just people that are there to be a part of something instead of to witness something. I spent a lot of time as a teenager and in my early 20s busking at Pike Place Market in Seattle. I did it because I didn't have anything going on during the day, I didn't have a job, I wasn't in high school, and I needed to make a little bit of extra money. Around the third or fourth time I did it, I started to realize that there was something about what makes people stop on their way to their destination — whether they're going to buy fish or they're on their way to a lunch meeting — what makes people stop and listen to you, and how do you learn how to do that, and how do you take that skill and refine it so when you're playing at restaurants people put their forks down and listen and when you're playing at a bar people actually stop drinking and listen to what you're doing. And the way that you do that is by being so open and so dynamic that anybody that's a witness to what you're doing realizes that they're contributing to it just by watching. And those are my favorite audiences, the kind that show up to be there with us.
AD: What is it like transferring your music from the recording studio to the stage?
BC: Well, I'm more like I have to transfer it from the stage to the recording studio. Because we tour and road-test our music, we play [the songs] usually for a long time before we record them. At the end of the day, we're a live band, so it's very difficult because a lot of what I realize I'm depending on is the energy of the audience to kind of feel my performance, and in the studio I find it difficult to compensate for that, but I usually do.
AD: So I'm sure you were excited to do the shows with the Seattle Symphony a couple months ago that turned into your latest album, Live at Benaroya Hall with The Seattle Symphony.
BC: Yeah, I would say beyond excited. I would say that album — it's a tough thing to say, because we've made albums with T-Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, and our album-making process has been really huge and intense and special — but I would say this live album with the Benaroya Hall symphony orchestra is the thing that we've done that we're most proud of, because at the end of the day, we're a live band, and this really is unadulterated, exactly who we are.
AD: What were some of the highlights of that performance?
BC: Oh, my gosh, there were so many. [ Laughs. ] You know, they have a rehearsal for you during the day when you're playing with the orchestra. You show up and you have a rehearsal, right, but there's no point in it, because you know how to play your songs, and the orchestra knows how to play your songs because they can sight-read like nobody's business, but you show up at this rehearsal and you do it. And the reason why you do it is because you need to be prepared for what's going to happen when all of a sudden you're in the middle of a line, and a 30-piece orchestra jumps in behind you, because it's so intense that you'll stop singing if you're not prepared for it. You get choked up, you get emotional. … The highlights are all orchestral. The highlights are all big, pivotal moments where all of a sudden, I'm singing something that's important to me, and a string section jumps in and helps me out. … There were a lot of funny things that happened that night. Somebody threw a bra onstage that hit me and …
AD: Oh, OK, that's where you said, "Were you trying to get the drummer?"
BC: The drummer, you know. That was funny. And then we had some technical difficulties. We told a lot of jokes that were received really well. The audience was extremely excitable and fun. Like, they were all standing during "Dreams" and screaming so loud, we felt like The Beatles. It was just a great, great show.
AD: Did you choke up or get teary during that performance?
BC: I do every time; two or three times a show. Particularly during "Hallelujah," boy that one really gets me every time.
AD: You had a little tribute to Elton John during that performance, right?
BC: Every show I do, I go on like, a long rant about Elton John, it's just kind of like a funny thing that started to happen over the years because I love him so much, and he performed on Give Up the Ghost with me …
AD: Right, for "Caroline."
BC: Yeah, so every time I play a piano song or if I play "Caroline," I do like, an introduction where I kind of talk about Elton John, because in that couple of hours that we worked together, I got two years worth of stories because the s--t he says is just bizarre. So what you're catching is the tail end of that rant when I tell everybody that, you know, that Elton is a hero of mine.
AD: What was it like for you to collaborate with him?
BC: Oh, it was amazing, unbelievable. He is the greatest songwriter, musician, philanthropist, involved in the music industry of my generation and the next.
AD: Talking about philanthropy, you've got your nonprofit, The Looking Out Foundation, but I was wondering, you've said in interviews before that you hope to act as a role model for LGBT teens — have you considered recording a video for the It Gets Better campaign?
BC: I'm considering contributing to it. I would absolutely contribute to it. We haven't dived into exactly how we're going to do it, but we know that we are. A lot of my friends are contributing to it too, the Indigo Girls are contributing to it, and we've been talking about that. It's a really great campaign.
AD: You just referred to the Indigo Girls as your friends. I know that they were sort of an inspiration for you at first, right?
BC: Yeah, they still are, they will always be an inspiration to me, for sure. But yeah, they're two of my closest friends in life now, great mentors for a person like me to have.
AD: What is it like being on the same level as musicians like Elton John and the Indigo Girls, these idols of yours when you first started out?
BC: Well, I will never consider myself on the same level as any of them because they are just so elevated to me. But with Elton, it's like, always going to be weird, you know what I mean? I'm always going to like, do this little happy dance every time I get a Christmas card from him or something. And with the Indigo Girls, the weirdness wore off a long time ago. [ Laughs .] Like years ago, and now I just feel so fortunate to have them in my life and in my family of friends. They've taught me so much and yeah, I'd go to the end of the earth for those two.
AD: Talking about working with other artists, you're touring with Ray LaMontagne for the second half of your spring tour. You've toured with him before, right?
BC: I have, I toured with him several years ago, on a solo tour, just him and I.
AD: He has a reputation for being pretty shy in person. Did you get a chance to hang out with him while you were performing together?
BC: Yeah, he is shy, you know, he's shy in the same way that all of the men are in my family, though. And so it's actually very comfortable for me to be on the road with him, because all the men in my family are just like, really quiet, and when they do get to talking, it's usually about like, stonemasonry or construction, building something onto their house. That's the same thing with Ray, he is a man in every sense of the word, and when you get to talking with Ray you're usually talking about roofing or something. And as shy as he is, he's brilliant. He's a compassionate, wonderful man.
AD: Do you get to jam with fellow musicians away from the stage while you're on tour with them?
BC: Some. The Indigo Girls like to jam a lot. They like to practice everything; they don't like to wing it, they told me. [ Laughs .] So we practice a lot together. … I jam with all of my openers, because I think before I ever started touring, I always hoped that if I ever got to open for artists, that they would want to jam with me. So I just assume that everybody who opens for me wants to play with me, and it's probably not fair. [ Laughs .]
AD: Other than the Indigo Girls, who have been your favorite musicians to perform with or go on tour with?
BC: Oh, my goodness, Ray is probably way up there. Ray, for some reason, he made such an impression on me on tour that when we left the tour, I had him sign my guitar for me, for inspiration, you know. Not even in that weird autograph way, but just so that sometimes when I'm playing and I feel like I'm down and out, I look down at the guitar, and I see Ray's name, and it breathes life into the performance. Ray is way up there, the Indigo Girls are way up there, Sheryl Crow is up there. She has been a mentor for me, too. You know, probably one of the greatest onstage collaborations that I've done in my life would be, I was recently in a situation where I got to sing "Angels From Montgomery" with John Prine, and I got to do it twice. And also I sang "In Spite of Ourselves," which is such a raunchy song, and it's so fun to sing that song with an old man.
AD: You just mentioned "that weird autograph thing." Is it strange when people come up to you and want your autograph?
BC: No, but it's strange when performers go up to each other and ask them for autographs. [ Laughs .] So I'm sure Ray was like, "What the hell are you doing?" you know, but I was, I didn't know how to explain to him like, "Look man, you inspire me, and I need to take some of this energy with me, so please sign my guitar."
AD: Do you still play on that guitar, or do you have it framed somewhere?
BC: Yeah, I played his signature right off of it. I scratched it off on accident, you know, because I play guitar really hard, and my pick digs deep big grooves in it, so yeah, it's gone now, so maybe I'll have him do it again.
AD: What are your favorite songs that you've written?
BC: Oh, jeez, I would say, most recent, my favorite song I've ever written is on this new album that hasn't come out yet, and it's called "That Wasn't Me." Before that, "Before It Breaks," "I Will" off The Story , "Cannonball," "Again Today," you know, those are my favorite lyrics, those are my favorite songs today because those are the ones that come to me from a mystical place that I can't make it happen.
AD: What can people expect to hear at the National?
BC: Well, they can expect to hear some surprise cover tunes, you know. We love that venue, by the way, and we love that town. And we're going to be poring over the set list that we did last time, we're going to change it up, make it different, involve the audience. And what they can expect to hear is just everything we have, we're going to give it everything we have.
Additional reporting by Dena Spruill