Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile has been out since she was 15, when she was the only out student in her high school. Only recently commenting in the American press about her sexuality, Carlile has skipped being identified as a queer folk performer. The 28-year-old Seattle resident, who found success with 2007's The Story — the title track of which was featured on Grey's Anatomy — just released her third album, Give Up the Ghost, which features guest vocalists including Elton John and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. Having recently completed the first leg of her tour to support Ghost, Carlile paused to discuss working with her childhood mentor, coming out publicly, and joining next year's Lilith Fair.
Advocate.com: What does the title of Give Up the Ghost mean?
Brandi Carlile: It's about transcendence. The term "give up the ghost" is most commonly used to describe somebody dying — like if you die, you give up the ghost. You could see that as a really bleak record title, but I see it as a big transition. I have been made well aware the past few years how artists can take their whole lives to write their first record and they have all these experiences to draw from — first love, coming of age, loss — and they have all these things to write a record about — all these profound things — then they write their second record based on being on the road, which is something that's significant, but it's kind of an unrelatable topic. I wanted to make a record based on transcending myself; right now, at this point in my life I'm writing about bigger things than what's happening in the moment.
How has your success with The Story influenced this record?
It influenced Ghost in a lot of ways; not so much my success, but how we recorded influenced Give Up the Ghost musically: the fact that we recorded it live, using old instruments and a lot of T-Bone Burnett's philosophy. Of course, The Story doing well made me really nervous about whether or not Ghost would or wouldn't be good.
Your live shows are incredible. Why is it important to you to have acoustic and unplugged songs at your shows?
It's our music in the way that it's conceived; in its purest, rawest form. It's important to tell the whole story, it's important to do the really dramatic over-the-top Queen glam songs, and it's also really important to strip things down and have them performed the way they are in our practice space and so we can really introduce all the elements of our band at our shows.
“If There Was No You” is a love letter. Was that song written about anyone?
"If There Was No You" was written as a songwriting exercise. I found myself writing these songs that were always intended to be loving love songs about something or someone, and then it's always only the parts of that relationship that I'm tortured by that are what make it into the song. I can never just write a sweet song without having to turn it in the end to coming from a place that I suffer from, and that is where my songwriting comes from. It comes from things that puzzle me, that are hard for me to understand. So "If There Was No You" was a songwriting exercise and experience that I had with a friend, and I just wanted to write a song about the good feelings I had about the friendship, not the bad.
How did you first meet Amy Ray from the Indigo Girls, and what did it mean to you to have her on “Looking Out”?
It meant a lot to have her on that track; it meant a lot to have her and [Indigo Girl] Emily [Saliers] on The Story too. Those two are huge influences on me, in my life and in my music. When I first met Amy and Emily it changed my life, and they became a really big part of my life really fast, and we all became great friends. Over the years as our friendship has progressed there have been certain things where I just hear their voices. I just hear Emily's voice on a song or feel like a song won't be finished until Emily writes a verse for it. Or I hear Amy's voice in a song where I need a voice in a song that's not weighed down with gender boundaries and that's what I needed. Because the song is so climactic and epic that to have one of the twins [longtime bandmates and twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth] sing on it would have it sounding like "A Whole New World" or some Disney duet, and then to have my voice on it I felt like it would sound overproduced; it needed a voice that wasn't male or female but was just heavy and just profound, and that's what Amy's voice is.
What was it like working with your childhood mentor, Elton John, on “Caroline?”
Oh, my God. I have only memories to draw from because I was so far from being in the moment — it was so unbelievable. It was incredible. It seemed like a really pivotal time in my life — finishing up Give Up the Ghost — it was the last thing we did on the record and it made it feel like it was finally done for me.
Did you discuss your coming-out with him at all?
I didn't actually. I've never discussed being gay with Elton, and I've talked to him a few times.
What prompted you to publicly come out now?
I feel like I've always publicly been out. I've always lived really honestly, I've never been calculated about using gender pronouns onstage or in songs or in interviews. I've always been really open and really honest. But I can tell you that no one has ever asked me any questions about my sexuality in any interviews. Ever.
Even though I've always been out, I've never really made a point to exploit or separate that part of my life from what I already do in my career day to day. I believe that as long as the information is available to those who need it and I answer any questions honestly and with consideration that I'm living proof of the strides that were made for my generation.
In Seattle we used to have our gay pride parade on Capitol Hill — the gay area in town — on Broadway. I used to love that it was up there because I knew all the great spots and me and my friends would play music and hang at our favorite restaurants and feel safe, etc.
So the LGBTQ community decides to move it — to Fourth Avenue downtown. I was really bummed because being in the gay area was more comfortable for me. Fourth Avenue is where Seattle has all its other parades: Torchlight, Seafair, etc. People bring their kids and it's really diverse. I understand now why we moved our gay pride parade to downtown Seattle. Attendance has quadrupled. It's finally one of the parades; you see tons of straight people, media, and kids. What you're seeing is the perfect combination of multiculturalism and assimilation: a real celebration of diversity where everyone is celebrating, not just the diverse.
I would like to see this happen everywhere the way-pavers — the Indigo Girls, Elton, k.d. lang, Melissa Etheridge, etc. — have paved the way. Now we get to enjoy the privilege of living honestly and with opportunity and to demand nothing less. Some of the kindest work is done from the middle of the road.
When did you realize you were gay?
I was 15, and I came out when I was 15 as well.
How did your family respond?
Tentatively but supportively. I'd never met a gay person in my life when I came out to my parents, so I just continued living the way I always lived. I was out with everyone; I was out at school — I was the only out person in my high school.
What was that like?
They were tough times. I felt a lot of indifference, actually, from other students and teachers. I didn't really feel a lot of the hatred and discrimination that I think kids feel today in small towns. For some reason, it just didn't happen to me.
What has fan response to your coming-out been like?
Nobody has responded to me about talking about being gay in the L.A. Times. Most fans just assume that it's been a part of my life since I began.
Sarah McLachlan is bringing back Lilith Fair — are you interested in participating in that?
Yeah! I have a desperate interest in participating in it. When Lilith Fair was here in Seattle, I went to every one. All three of them, and not just the three concerts but like two of the Lilith Fair years were double dates, so there were two dates at the Gorge, and I went to every single concert they ever had. It influenced me in a huge way to play guitar and do what I'm doing. So I have to be involved.
What's next for you?
I'm going to do a second leg of the tour. And I'm going to do more dates with Amy [Ray] too.
And after the tour is over?
The tour is over in March, so I don't know, plans for the summer? I guess I'll probably rent a car and follow Lilith Fair around. [Laughs]