Real artists don’t need smoke and mirrors; they just need their voice and a guitar. The first time I heard Brandi Carlile play was in a conference room and she held us all in the palm of her hand with her soaring, tremendous vocals and stirring lyrics. Since then, she’s toured with the likes of Sheryl Crow and Ray LaMontagne, as well has had her music heard in TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”
Carlile’s third Columbia album, “Give Up the Ghost,” came out Tuesday, Oct. 5. On the Rick Rubin-produced CD, she’s joined by such illustrious guests as Elton John, the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith and Tom Petty and Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench.
Hitfix talked to Carlile while she was on the road outside of Boston.
You’ve got Elton John, Amy Ray, Chad Smith and Benmont Tench on this record. You must have felt like, “Okay, I can die now…”
(laughs)Particularly the Elton John sequence. I got on my plane after that and I was like, “This plane could have crashed, I think I’d be okay at that point.” It’s not just Elton, I’ve been so lucky to have so much happen.
What was it like recording with Elton in the studio? Were you afraid to sing in front of him?
I didn’t have to sing, it was already done. I have to say, he was wonderful. His piano playing was amazing; he got it in one take. I knew he was going to sing, I was really excited, but I have to tell you I couldn’t have prepared myself to hear him sing my words I’d written. It took the breath right out of my lungs. I had my brother on my phone and had the phone in my pocket so he could hear it.
Elton also sent you 100 albums to listen to. Which ones are you still playing?
I’m listening to each of them systematically so if I should see him I can pass the quiz.
You worked on “Ghost” for a year. Was recording all you were doing 24/7?
Me and the twins [bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth] are a live band. We’ve been touring for so long. That’s how we’ve cultivated our songwriting live, we play our songs a year before we ever record them. That’s how we did this record: writing songs, playing live, touring in the middle of recording, always integrating the live and studio.
Some artists love the studio, some love playing live. What about you?
I don’t think they have to be [separate]. A studio can be like a vortex, you forget how to play for the love of music and start to play to get the take. You go to play a show and realize you’re not accepting the energy coming from the crowd, you’re playing for the take and that’s no way to play. I think you can capture energy and raucousness in the studio if you can stay in that place. We feel most like ourselves when we play in a live setting.
The opening track is “Looking Out,” which features the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray. Talk about that track.
Amy’s my dearest friend in life and I’ve loved the Indigo Girls since I was 15. “Looking Out” is a song that’s so powerful; it needed a big voice to be a background vocal. When you take a song like that and have a man sing it, it sounds like a power ballad duet, like “A Whole New World.” But if you sing your own harmonies, it sounds overproduced. I needed a genderless powerful voice on that song; her voice has male and female properties.
This big change in this album from your two past projects seems to be the depth of the lyrics.
The record being called “Give up the Ghost,” we had big talks about transcendence and about how we couldn’t write a record about being on the road. So many bands put out their first record and it’s about coming of age, it’s about their life up to now. Then their second record is about being signed and being on the road. That’s unrelateable for most people and it’s a temporary condition. We decided there was still so much on our past that we could write about and so much in our future, we didn’t need to write about being on the bus.
For some, the title can be tough if you believe in a bleak ending, but for me, it’s a lifted weight