Brandi Carlile is at The Moore Theatre Feb. 12, with Will Ferrell, Mike McCready and Chad Smith, for a benefit event, then back at the Moore for concerts March 30 and 31. Her new album, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” drops Feb. 16.
When you knock on the door of Brandi Carlile’s house in South King County, you quickly realize you are not in Seattle anymore. The first sign is the ax, ominously wedged into a log on Carlile’s front porch. This is not a rusted-out antique ax that you might find on the wall of a Ballard hipster’s home. Like Carlile herself, the tool is utilitarian, old school and sharp.
In an afternoon-long conversation in the middle of January, Carlile jokes that she’s so old school she’s “hard copy.” To prove the point, she spends much of the afternoon autographing CD sleeves of her upcoming release, “By the Way, I Forgive You.” Most of these will be sold in her online store.
Carlile doesn’t have to add this personal touch, but like much about how she has crafted her career, it’s just the way she is. “When I started out, I played restaurants and bars, even all three Duke’s Chowder Houses!” she laughs. “The fans I met then, when I’d sit down and have a drink with them between sets, those are the people who don’t go away, people who stick with you for a 20-year career.”
All three nights of the two events are currently sold out, but a few late-release tickets may become available.
‘One Classy Night in Seattle’
An evening of musical chitchat and live rock ’n ’roll that benefits Cancer for College. 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12, Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $75-$225 (800-982-2787 or stgpresents.org).
Brandi Carlile, with special guest Marlon Williams
7:30 p.m. March 30 & 31, Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; $38-$78 (800-982-2787 or stgpresents.org).
In her 20 years of fame, Carlile has embodied a progressive Seattle music ethos, even though she doesn’t reside in Seattle proper. Social activism is rooted into everything she does, from playing benefits to donating a portion of ticket revenue to her nonprofit Looking Out Foundation.
She’s a star everywhere, but in Seattle she’s an icon. Tom Douglas was such a fan he named his Carlile Room restaurant after her. “Compassion, empathy and generosity describe both how Brandi sings,” Douglas says, “and how she lives.”
Carlile hasn’t played Seattle in over a year, but she’s at the Moore on Monday, Feb. 12. The concert is not, however, what you might expect from an artist dropping a new album soon, though it seems par for the course for Carlile. The night is a benefit for students with cancer, and Carlile appears with Will Ferrell, Chad Smith and Mike McCready. On March 30 and 31 she’s back at the Moore, though, for her own sold-out concerts.
“By the Way, I Forgive You,” Carlile’s sixth studio album, is out Friday, Feb. 16. While all of her albums have been filled with personal songs, this one is so deeply rooted in her life that the CD might as well come with a bonus ax.
“The Mother” is an ode to her 3-year-old daughter, Evangeline, who plays on the floor nearby as Carlile talks, but also a song about losing mothers, as her parents have recently. Sitting near Evangeline during the afternoon chat is Carlile’s wife, Catherine Shepherd. The two met through Paul McCartney’s charity and married in Boston in 2012. Shepherd is pregnant with their second child.
Parenthood helped Carlile up her game on this new album, she says. As always, she worked with band mates Phil and Tim Hanseroth, who have been her collaborators from the start.
“The twins and I decided that at this point we needed every song to be ‘the real stuff,’ to really go for it,” Carlile said. Some of that awareness came after co-producer Dave Cobb challenged Carlile by suggesting her recent singing hadn’t approached the emotionalism of 2007’s “The Story.”
“I went home that night, and thought about what he implied,” she said. “And my sweet British wife said, ‘have you really had a vocal moment as good?’ That’s when I realized it hurt because it was true.”
“The Story,” has been, to this point, Carlile’s high-water mark, with sales of over half a million copies. She calls her singing on that title song “a happy accident,” but its rawness was what Carlile, Cobb and co-producer Shooter Jennings tried to recapture. It’s a direction, like the stark painting of Carlile that’s on her CD cover, that’s different from the approach of most pop artists, who Autotune their vocals, and Photoshop their cover photos into slick perfection.
Carlile calls “The Joke,” the lead single off her new album, “the most important song” she’s ever written. The song highlights the struggles of youth who feel different (for being gay, or just being disenfranchised). Backed by a soaring string section, Carlile’s voice belts out the first verse with abandon and power.
“Trying to hide inside of it and hide how much it hurts,” she sings, as her voice breaks with sadness. This song, and “Party of One,” also on the new album, rank as some of Carlile’s very best, which is saying a lot.
“The Joke” could be Carlile’s own story of growing up gay in a rural area. She was born in Ravensdale and lived miles away from the nearest neighbor. Her mother was a singer, and Carlile got her start playing bars in Maple Valley, and eventually dozens of Seattle venues, including such odd locales as Duke’s, and Ballard’s Medin’s Ravioli Station. These were not the typical gigs for Seattle music superstars, but they allowed her to connect in a “person to person” way with her fans, she says.
Carlile also sang backup for Elvis impersonator Clayton Wagy. “He did both the young Elvis and the old Elvis,” she says. “He was really good at the ’70s Elvis.” Carlile learned about showmanship, but also just how great a singer Elvis was.
That last point was reinforced, in an odd way, during the making of her new album when producer Cobb, who has also worked with Chris Stapleton, played her Presley’s “An American Trilogy” to illustrate emotional singing.
“Of course I knew the song,” Carlile recalls. “I’d sung it many times. When Elvis’ voice soars, it chokes you up.” She went into the studio after that, and nailed her vocal take on “The Joke.”
Rolling Stone called “The Joke” “at the top of the best vocal performances of the year.” Carlile also used arranger Paul Buckmaster on the track, and the project was the last one he worked on before he died. For her, that was a bit of a full cycle, since Buckmaster arranged the Elton John albums Carlile grew up with.
“The Joke” also received a glowing review in December from former President Barack Obama. He listed it as one of his “favorite songs of 2017.”
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“I look up to him so much,” Carlile says. “I was more excited about the fact that it made it to his ears, because I know in the letters I’ve written him, and the ones he’s written back, that he would get it. And he did.”
Obama was a fan of “The Story,” and when Carlile put together a star-studded tribute album in 2017, with other singers covering songs from that record, he wrote the liner notes. That album, titled “Cover Stories,” was entirely a benefit for the War Child charity, which provides support for young people affected by war. Adele, also a fan of Carlile’s, contributed a song, as did Dolly Parton.
Carlile’s house, which she calls a “compound,” is not exactly located in a “blue” neighborhood. Her neck of the woods is one of the “redder” parts of King County. Yet Carlile talks about her neighbors, and early fans from Maple Valley bars, in the same glowing terms as she does Obama. She strove on her record to make these songs about emotions, and not preachy.
“Every song on this record is about forgiveness,” she says. “That’s one of the most powerful things in the world.”
And though Carlile’s compound is an hour drive from downtown Seattle, she says she could still be the city’s musical ambassador. “I’m a walking billboard for Seattle everywhere I tour,” she says. “I could be a spokesperson. I think Seattle is that eclectic, that inclusive, that smart, that beautiful, that dignified, and that loving.”
Carlile is talking about a community of people more than she is a physical place. Still, the words she uses to describe a city she loves that she doesn’t exactly live in — eclectic, inclusive, dignified — could also be a description of Brandi Carlile herself.
This story has been updated to reflect that the cover image of Brandi Carlile on her new CD is a painting.