Brandi Carlile talks “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” and songwriting while happy

Brandi Carlile may be a household name among queer women and Americana fans alike, but she’s still a little bit of a well-kept secret. Every year that she releases a new album—from her 2005 self-titled to 2012’s Bear Creek—I’m incredulous she’s not nominated for (and winning) Grammys or other honors that should surely be bestowed on her work with longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth.

Perhaps the difficulty is in her genre-straddling, which is exactly why the secret keepers love her. Brandi’s blending of country, folk, blues, pop and good old fashioned rock and roll has made it difficult to place her, and we live in a world where industries are built on putting people and things in boxes. A woman, a lesbian, a Christian, a songwriter, a wife, a mother—Brandi is multi-faceted and her music is only better off for it.

bc1photo by David-McClister

A sea change could be coming for her, however, which might make the fan club nervous, as some tend to become when their favorite artist star’s begins to rise even higher. Brandi has left her major label home of the last 10 years to record her new album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, independently, and later signing with indie ATO Records. Longtime fans shouldn’t be too concerned, though: The Firewatcher’s Daughter is Brandi Carlile exemplified. In fact, it’s probably more Brandi than Brandi has ever been before.

In our interview with the out musician, she shares how different the process of creating this album was for her and the twins, how she’s changed as a songwriter now that she’s happy in her personal life and what she’s doing with her Fight the Fear Campaign in the next year. You’ve had a big change in your life. Congrats again on the baby. How did you find time to record an album?

Brandi Carlile: I recorded the album was Catherine was pregnant. She was like eight months pregnant when I started it. I finished the album and Evangeline showed up a day or two later. [laughs]


AE: Good timing!

BC: Yeah the producers and engineers were still in town and everything!


AE: I know you recorded this album at Bear Creek again. What was different in making this album?

BC: Oh man. So much was different. First of all it had been so long since I’d done anything structured. I hadn’t been on tour for a long time, recording or anything—we no longer had a label. Basically we all forgot what it was like to get up and “go to work” in the morning, and it changed everything about recording this album because we didn’t have to do that anymore. It brought out all kinds of truthful revelations.


AE: Did you feel like when you were on a label there was a pressure and now you were more free to do certain things?

BC: Well I mean that’s sort of like the loose narrative of being on a label and making an album, but really, what molecularly was going on with that, when you’re on a label, you have to write your songs for the purpose of making an album. And then you have to demo those songs and then the label, on the strength of the demo, give you permission to make the album, right? So there’s this super practical thing that happens from it, during the concession of the songs. Even ones that you’re writing with the focus of playing for an album, where as you’re starting to learn them, they have this thing about them…and then you demo them for the first time, for the first couple of times, they’ll kind of reach this peek moment where you know the song well enough to play it all the way through, but you don’t well enough to act cool while you’re playing it. Do you know what I mean? And usually that moment is the moment when a song is at its absolute best. And in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was no structure so a lot of musicians were making that moment happen in the studio with the songs. And I can look back on all these records that I’ve done on Sony—God love ‘em, it was a dream come true to have a record deal—but when I look back on this record, I hear all those moments in the demo and it bugs me. So for this album, me and the twins kind of made a pact: Don’t practice our songs, and don’t demo them. We had to put it all together in the studio and it’s crazy because every single song has the maximum amount of energy that it could possibly have in it.


AE: Obviously I’m a huge fan of all of your work but it sounds like this is one you  might consider the best, because of how it was made.

BC: I think it’s the best and I’ve always said that about albums but I really don’t take it lightly saying that this time. I don’t feel like I have to say that and also because it’s the best and the album I’ve had control over. So I don’t say that lightly and I really think it’s the best by a margin.


AE: Changes like that and with now being married and having a child, does that change you as a musician?

BC: Yeah, definitely. I used to write from a really tortured perspective. Not because I was always tortured, but usually that was the time I would write. Because I would drop everything and go into dark mode. And it was a crutch. And I thought, over these last few years, I expressed a couple of friends’ anxiety a little more, you know, because things are changing in my life, because I’m happy, because I’m married. I might not be able to get into that dark hibernation period where I can write. Tim’s been telling me, you can write better tortured songs when you’re happy. You do everything better when you’re happy. You are more articulate, you sleep better, you write better songs, you cook better steak. You’re happy! It was weird because it unblocked this complex I had about, can I still write from my dark perspective, and not be unhappy. And the truth is, I can.


AE: So have you found yourself borrowing from other people’s experiences to write those kinds of tortured songs? How do you find that place when you are happy?

BC: Weirdly enough, I think I did that more before, wrote songs about other people—judgmental songs, songs that got kind of close but didn’t really touch me because I was able to kind of remove myself because I was on tour or was able to kind of emotionally remove myself from that person. And I think now I write more from personal experience than I ever did before. No one’s happy all the time. Everyone can always see what’s wrong in everybody else.


AE: Did you have any control over choosing the singles for this album? Was that different from before?

BC: Funny enough, that’s another thing I didn’t feel like I needed to control this time. I loved all the songs, and I had just been really comfortable to be like, “What does everybody think?” For the first time ever! We came up with three songs we all loved and I just kind of took my hands off the wheel and I love the way it’s gone.


AE: At this point in your career, you’ve toured and recorded so much. What are you hoping to accomplish with The Firewatcher’s Daughter that you haven’t yet?

BC: I hope we can reach new people that we haven’t reached before with our music. Because of the sort of complicated mechanics of being a “female songwriter” on a major label. I feel like there’s still a really kind of—I don’t want to say sexist narrative, but there’s definitely a gender bias narrative still in the music industry. And I think that when a woman in a band doesn’t fit into a really neatly wrapped category,  she sometimes gets a little bit lost in the margins. And so, what I’d love to do is kind of break that story and break those boundaries that can get put around you from a major label publicity concept, and reach new people with a more independent-minded sound.


AE: Do you have any strategic ways of getting your music out to those new people?

BC: The new strategic way I have is no strategy. I think it’s working.

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AE: [laughs] So are you going to be touring on this? What can you tell me about how people can see you play from The Firewatcher’s Daughter.

BC: Yeah, we’re gonna tour the shit out of it, like we always do. Really, that’s what we were born to do. Take it on the road, you know?


AE: Are you gonna bring the whole family with you too?

BC: Oh yes, yes. [laughs] All the kids, everybody. It’s gonna be dysfunctional. It’s like a cult. It’s like a tour bus adaptation of the television show Parenthood. It’s really like a cult. Like the Manson family without killing.


AE: [laughs] Let’s hope so! I know that the Looking Out Foundation is a huge part of what you do, so can you tell me a little bit about what you are doing with that right now and what you might be bringing with you on tour.

BC: This next couple of tours and throughout the next year, we’re really really refocusing in on the Fight the Fear campaign. And we’ve been gearing up to do that for the last year, a little bit over the last year, but not doing any touring. We’ve had a difficult time doing much other than getting the teachers going on small self-defense classes here [in Seattle]. And we’re going to take this concept on the road with two focuses. One is that we’re trying to recruit and call educators in all forms of education, from university to public schools to private schools, to come and take these courses so can implement them into their respective forms. So if a history teacher from Little Rock Elementary comes to our class and she can take that to school and do an extra-curricular course with the girls after school one day. So we’re trying to spread that message in places we can’t get to and really focus in on kids a lot this year. And the other part of it is we’re still working on bringing self-defense courses to women in underserved situations.


AE: Could you talk a little bit about why you started Fight the Fear, and how it was partly inspired by the Teresa Butz situation. [Editor’s Note: Teresa Butz was a lesbian who was raped and murdered in Seattle in 2009.]

BC: Yeah, well that’s why we started it was because, and I don’t know if you lived here at the time, if you were in Portland, but when that happened in the Northwest, it sent a total shockwave here in our community. And I was just beside myself—didn’t know what could be done—and somehow, found it necessary to reach out to Jennifer Hopper, the surviving partner from that attack in South Park, and just kind of listened to her talk over a course of a few meetings and as a friend. I wanted to come up with something we could do to give us some of our power back and transform what she was feeling from the experience. And she came up with the concept of self-defense courses for women, but not so much from a physical point of view, but from a psychological point of view—to change the feelings that women have about themselves and to reconstruct what they’ve been told, whether or not they have a right to be safe. So that is kind of my number one goal, is to end the time in our generation when the appropriate and cool and the sexy way for girls to act is to be submissive. 

The Firewatcher’s Daughter is out today from ATO Records. Visit for tourdates and more information on the Looking Out Foundation and Fight the Fear.