From the opening train whistle of “Hard Way Home,” the first track on “Bear Creek” (Columbia), it’s clear that out singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile is heading in a country direction on her fourth studio disc. It’s an earthy collection that embraces folk, pop, country, rock, gospel and blues. And woven into the fabric of “Bear Creek” are a number of daring musical experiments such as the rhythmic “100” and the dreamy “Just Kids.”
I spoke with Carlile about “Bear Creek” shortly before its release this spring.
Gregg Shapiro: Following the strong pop sound of your 2009 album “Give Up the Ghost,” much of “Bear Creek” feels more country-driven. Was that a conscious decision?
Brandi Carlile: It just turned out that way. I think that “Bear Creek” is more roots-based, but it’s not just musically – it’s personally, as well. The reason we named the album “Bear Creek” is that it’s so similar to home for us. It’s in rural Washington state, it’s in a big barn. It’s just like my house. When you get comfortable with your roots, you tend to write from there.
Because of the record’s sound, what would it mean to you if it was picked up by country radio and became a Nashville hit?
Well, first of all, I don’t think it will (laughs). But I have to say that I grew up listening to classic country and western music. It’s definitely the bigger part of who I am than rock ’n’ roll. It must mean that that’s authentically who I am.
You take listeners to church on “That Wasn’t Me.” It’s one of three songs on the album for which you get sole writing credit.
I was struggling with the concept of addiction with someone that I loved. Having to accept the fallout of what happens when somebody gets clean and they get this new beginning and you kind of get left with the past, the really damaging past. How hard it is for them to be able to reassemble it back into the lives of the people that they hurt. It’s pretty significant for me.
“100” and “Keep Your Heart Young” both deal with the subject of aging. Is that a subject that’s on your mind?
I finished “Bear Creek” in May (2011) and then I turned 30 on June1, and then I wrote those songs. I thought, “Shit, I can’t put a record out and not put this experience on it.” So I had to go back in and record those two songs.
Speaking of “100,” it has a powerful dance beat. Were you aware that you had an inner dance diva?
No. And to be embarrassingly honest, that whole concept was my idea, too. Speeding it up like that. I was listening to that Arcade Fire record and that whole hypnotic, relentless beat going through the song came from a couple of ideas I got from listening to that album.
The album’s closer “Just kids” stands out because it sounds like a new musical direction for you.
Writing in that genre is something I’ve been doing a lot on my own. It’s weird – part of me feels really country and roots-based, and part of me feels really ethereal. One night, a guy named David Palmer came in to do the piano on “That Wasn’t Me,” and he had these Moog synthesizers that reminded me of my favorite movies from the 1980s. That’s what the song was about, me and my brother in the ’80s. That’s what came out of it, this really dreamy thing.
Have things changed for you since coming out publicly?
No, not at all. And to be honest with you, it was completely non-strategic in every way. I can tell you exactly how it happened. One day I was helping my best friend Amy Ray release her record, “Didn’t It Feel Kinder,” doing press in New York for four days straight with gay press. I’d never done any before. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t want to talk to me. That’s when I first realized, conceptually, I wasn’t out. But I came out when I was like 14 years old. I’ve gotten involved in political things, and I’ve been part of gay Pride festivals, performing for them. I’ve done charity campaigns for LGBTQ events. I just never considered myself not out.