Brandi Carlile: Some Strings Attached

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Videos by American Songwriter

Singer-songwriter (and Columbia recording artist) Brandi Carlile has got one note in her repertoire that she intentionally tries to butcher.

It’s the oft-referenced voice crack from 2007’s “The Story,” and as of May 3, it can be heard in live form on Carlile’s upcoming album Live from Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony.

Making a live album at all was “always in the ethers of [her] mind,” but it finally came to fruition in November 2010. Recorded over two nights and featuring a 30-piece Seattle Symphony, Carlile said recording and performing at Benaroya Hall was something that she hadn’t dared aspire to.

“When I found out that we got to perform with a symphony, I raised my eyebrows; ‘Maybe at Benaroya hall?’” she said of the symphony hall she had driven past many times on the way to small club gigs starting out.

In conjunction with notable originals like “Turpentine,” “Pride and Joy” and “Dreams,” several of the tracks on the album are covers.

“This is what we do in our shows, so this is really the only honest thing to do,” she said of the band’s decision to include her versions of Simon and Garfunkels’ “The Sound of Silence,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and Elton John’s “Sixty Years On.”

“We’ve always supported the concept of cultivating standards and we believe that our generation should embrace doing cover tunes, particularly cover tunes from artists that aren’t performing them in this time. Our generation is going to have its own set of standards based on that,” Carlile said. She noted “Hallelujah” as one of those future standards. Besides being her favorite song ever written, the performance proved to be a unique moment.

“You’d be surprised. When you’re singing in front of that many people, it’s really hard to think about anything beyond that many people,” she said. “During ‘Hallelujah’ though, that one’s particularly transformative because I’m playing very little guitar. I’m mostly just singing the song, reflecting on the words, and I have 30-piece orchestra behind me playing one of the most beautiful string arrangements I’ve ever heard, so you don’t even think for a second that you’re being recorded. You just sing that song.”

And just singing those songs was an experience in itself.

“When you hear those strings behind you, it’s like you sing against them because if you don’t they’ll overtake the performance because they’re so powerful,” she said. “I’m not used to that kind of power in that context on stage. It was pretty unbelievable. It’s hard not to get choked up because you know how powerful strings can be.”

Several of the string arrangements were done by Elton John’s arranger, Paul Buckmaster, someone significant to Carlile in part because of her admiration for John. “Elton is my greatest hero of all time,” she said.

The album also includes possibly her most well-known song, the afore mentioned “The Story.”

“It’s deliriously fun to play ‘The Story,’ especially once you get to that last big note at the end and you feel all the oxygen leave the room while everyone is totally afraid you’re going to butcher it,” she said. “It’s never been sung, its only ever been screamed, so the more I butcher it, the better it is.”

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  1. Love ya Brandi! I actually gave your music a chance because of the voice crack in “The Story”. I thought, “This woman had huge cajones to leave that in the song!” Can’t wait to see you on tour this summer!

  2. Brandi
    I’ve been a fan since your first concert in Chicago. I’ve seen you at everyone since.

    You are AWESOME. See you June 7th in Millenuim Park

  3. Brandi: When I first heard you were coming out with the Benaroya Hall album, I didn’t realize the scope of all that was involved and how very important it was to you, until I read this article. I also didn’t know if I’d really dig your music to a symphony. I have yet to listen to it (though I’m planning on it now).
    To work with Paul Buckmaster, who worked with Elton John must have been beyond exciting. To hear the fullness of the orchestra behind you must of felt somewhat like a huge wave chasing you. Beautiful but powerful.

    I agree, about playing cover tunes. I have introduced people to your music and other great folk artists of today and yesterday by playing covers. They’re like, “is that your song?” I say, no, “that’s Brandi Carlile or Melanie Safka or Gregory Alan Isakov, you gotta check out their music.”

    I’d hardly say your voice crack in The Story was butchered. I actually didn’t notice the crack, because I’ve listened to your music for such a long time. The supposed “imperfection” is something I loved about your voice when I first picked up your self-titled album and Neumo’s album.

  4. Brandi is amazing, I love her so much!! She has such an awesome band too, their music is incredible and I am so excited for the symphony album! I watched like maybe 2 videos on youtube before of her symphony show but the sound wasn’t so great so it will be amazing to hear it on the album. We need a live DVD too Brandi!:) Love ya!
    Very nice article too.

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Laura Jansen

“Something’s Gonna Happen,” Marshall Crenshaw