Until recently, Brandi Carlile hadn't confirmed that she is, indeed, a lesbian. She didn't have to. Since she dropped her eponymous debut in 2005, much of the attention surrounding the Seattle singer-songwriter has deservedly been focused on something far more riveting: a walloping, from-the-gut voice that shreds through songs like it's some kind of singing chainsaw.
The folk-rock musician's reflective third album, Give Up the Ghost, featuring collaborations with Elton John and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, is her most honest yet. Just after she finished up the first leg of a tour (the second begins in January) and overcame swine flu, Carlile sat down with to chat with Out about the best part of meeting Elton, her arresting girlfriend, and how her gay role models have made it easier to be out.
Out: There's a lot of soul-searching on Give Up the Ghost. It's a very candid album -- probably your most candid. What did you learn about yourself while you were writing it?
Brandi Carlile: All kinds of things. Really dramatic things. I learned a lot about who I was in the past and who I want to be in the future, which was something that I've been trying not to do. For years now, I've been trying to live in the moment, and I had to leave that moment to make this record. I spent the last couple of years writing this record in a sort of discontented place. But I was able to really transcend the place I was in because it was inspiring; I was on a tour bus -- and that's inspiring to me, but it might not be inspiring to everybody else in the world. And my favorite songwriters in life are able to write about bigger things than themselves and their moment.
You've cited Freddie Mercury, k.d. lang, the Indigo Girls, and Elton John as some of your favorites -- and they're all gay. How does it feel to know that someone might call you a role model because you're gay?
Well, when I was at the age that I found them, they were gay role models just like I hope that somewhere in the world a teenager is able to look to me and my records in the same way. I hope that they're able to say the same thing about me from a place of success and from a place of acceptance as a part of society, instead of oppression. I hope that they're able to look to me and say that I was a role model and helped them get somewhere that makes happy with themselves, because my role models helped me get to where I'm happy with myself.
Before you confirmed you were a lesbian to the Los Angeles Times, your sexuality had been a mystery to some people. What does your sexuality being no big deal say about the progress that we're making as a society?
I was just talking with Amy Ray about this before the Times interview came out, because I had heard from my publicist that I was going to get to talk to Out. Anyway, she was talking about the leaps and bounds that we've made as a community -- not that we don't have a long way to go -- and how much harder it was then when the Indigo Girls were coming out. And I could see by talking to her that they -- along with k.d. and Melissa, Ellen, Elton John, and Freddie Mercury -- really laid it out on the line and demanded nothing short of acceptance from people. I believe that if you asked them why they did it, they would tell you that they did it to be included, so for the generations to come there would be a real shot to walk through the world, including this industry. The truth is -- I'm living proof of that. Those people are the way-pavers, and the best way for me to thank them is to take my place in the world seriously and live honestly.
So, no one ever asked you to keep it on the down-low? It just never came up?
No, never. No one ever asked me to keep it on the down-low. I spent a few days in New York City with Amy around the release of her record, and I saw her doing all these interviews for gay publications. That's the first time the light bulb went on in my head, and I was like, 'Wait a minute, do these people want to talk to me?' [Laughs.]
I read somewhere that you're dating a cop -- is that true?
Well ... it is. I don't like to talk about that. I don't talk about my relationship because my partner didn't really make the decision to be part of my craziness. Cops need to have their privacy. [Laughs.]
Well, talk about this then, because I don't think a lot of people know that you actually did background vocals for Melissa Etheridge's Lucky album.
Yeah, I did -- you're right! I'm not even sure she knows it! [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I'm actually not sure she knows it, because I was working out in a studio doing background vocals for people -- like an ambiguous voice, basically -- and her CD came through, and it was just something to sing onto. So I'm not even sure she knows I'm singing onto it.
You've met a couple of your idols -- the Indigo Girls and Elton John. But I understand you want to meet Ellen DeGeneres and perform on her show.
Oh yeah, I would love to meet Ellen. She's very special to me. I've always been a fan of Ellen, since she was doing stand-up -- before I knew she was gay. My parents knew I was a huge fan of Ellen back in the day, when I was a teenager. I think that's when they started to worry. [Laughs.] I remember I taped her coming out episode and I had it on VHS hidden with all my other tapes with a fake label on it that said 'David's Softball Game.'
When did you actually tell them?
When I was 15. I've been out for a long time.
When I first saw you in 2005, you performed for an obnoxious group of drunks. How does it feel to be able to play at venues for people who actually appreciate your music?
I'll tell you, not a show goes by where I don't think about it. It always feels completely overwhelming. I can't even let it all in, it's such a big deal to me.
Is the 'drunken screams' reference on the song 'Dying Day' a little dig at all those trashed people you used to play for?
I bet it is. Tim [one of the Hanseroth twins, Carlile's bandmates] wrote that song, so I think he's probably definitely taking a little shot at them.
What was it like meeting and working with Elton John on 'Caroline'?
It was amazing, and I was so nervous about it and so full of things to say that were going to be really profound and really exciting because Elton influenced me in so many ways, personally and musically. And when I came around the corner and he was sitting there in that room and I saw him, I couldn't think of a single one of them. But I was very pleased that he was wearing hot pink sunglasses. All I ever wanted was to sit in a room with Elton John when he's wearing hot pink sunglasses.
You had a bit of an obsession on him growing up, didn't you?
Yeah. That's putting it mildly.
When I saw you on this past tour, you admitted to having a hard time writing happy songs ' and even when you do there's this slight cynicism or pessimism. Why don't happy songs come easy to you?
I don't know. I guess I'm a happy person, but that's not really the place I create art from. But, of course, being a control freak, I can't stand that I can't create from a content place, so I forced myself to do that on this record with a couple of songs, particularly 'If There Was No You.'
That one and 'Caroline.'
And 'Caroline,' right. That was easy actually, because the truth is I wrote that song in a state of absolutely missing (my niece) Caroline so badly that I couldn't think straight.
You recently did a video for Border's where you went around the store and picked out your favorite albums and books. What else interests you?
I spend a lot of time fishing. I'm a fisherman -- a fisherwoman. I watch the Food Network and I try to cook all the things on there. I'm a food enthusiast.
I bet the twins like having you around.
Yeah, on tour we will stop on certain days off and get a hotel room with a kitchen in it, and we cook for our whole band and crew. That's part of our thank you to everybody for being on the road with us. And by we I mean me. [Laughs.]
For more info on Carlile, including a full list of tour dates, check out her website.