Brandi Carlile has always been the kind of musician who obsesses over the liner notes of her favorite albums, searching out the sometimes obscure people in the background of the songs that inspire her.
Over the years, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, of Maple Valley, has gotten to work with some of the people she first encountered in those liner notes. As she prepares for another round of shows with the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall this week, one of those collaborators is on her mind.
The Feb. 21-23 event will mark the first time she’s played with the Symphony without the assistance of Paul Buckmaster, her strings arranger.
“He’s the most brilliant strings arranger who ever lived,” Carlile said. “He died (in 2017) right after making our album with us, ‘By the Way, I Forgive You.’ So this will be our first one without Paul. But we still have his arrangements. And for that reason I think it’s going to be really, really emotional.”
Carlile’s stand with the Symphony continues a run of highly popular shows at Benaroya Hall over the past decade (she played there in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 as well). They’re a huge endeavor, requiring special charting and alterations to the original music for the classical players ahead of time. And on concert days, Carlile and her band essentially perform three times — during sound check, during a rehearsal with the Symphony and conductor, and then that night for fans.
Buckmaster’s fingerprints are all over some of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest recordings. Not only did he do most of the orchestral work on Elton John’s early albums, he contributed to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” and Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Love and Hate.” By the end of his career, he’d worked with artists as diverse as Guns N’ Roses and Miles Davis.
Not every rock ‘n’ roll strings arrangement is successful, but apparently Buckmaster had a special gift.
“He has the technical ability to arrange for a full orchestra in such a beautiful way, but also knows how to make it fit the song so perfectly,” said Joe Kaufman, the Symphony’s assistant principal bass player who has accompanied Carlile in each of her performances with the orchestra. “It’s not self-indulgent. It’s in service to the music that already exists.”
Add that special ability to Carlile’s already powerful songwriting and you’ve got a “true complement.”
“First of all, her songs are so beautiful and so well-written, I think they’re deserving of good arrangement,” Kaufman said. “I think things like adding strings or woodwinds or even just low brass can add a different emotional element to a song, add more of a depth of feeling to a song. Something a songwriter may hear in their head, but they don’t just necessarily have the means to do it with a band.”
Carlile’s been on an amazing run the past two years. Her two Grammy wins at the 2020 ceremony last month give her five trophies since February 2019. That includes a rare feat of winning as a performer, songwriter and producer. She’s also performed with personal heroes like Tanya Tucker and Sheryl Crow, and launched her country supergroup, The Highwomen.
The shows at Benaroya will be among her fondest memories of the year, however. The format delights the same part of her brain that loves those liner notes.
“I do it because the marriage between classic orchestral music and rock ‘n’ roll is foundational to who I am as an artist,” Carlile said. “I grew up with Elton John and Queen and the Beatles, and so what it feels like to stand in front of a 20- to 40-piece orchestra and listen to strings in my songs is, like, unbelievable. When I was really young, I would go to bed and write songs in my head and I would hear the full orchestra. And I would hear that because of Paul Buckmaster.”
Brandi Carlile with Seattle Symphony, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 21-22, and 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $74-$139 (limited number of tickets left as of this writing); 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org
This story has been updated to include Joe Kaufman’s first name, which had been inadvertently omitted.