Fanning The Flames
By Web Behrens
“The hard times that I had really don’t seem all that bad. Yesterday is long ago and far away. And I’m beginning to feel the years, but I’m going to be OK as long as you’re beside me along the way.” –Lyrics to “Beginning to Feel the Years”
Hailing from Brandi Carlile’s 2015 release The Firewatcher’s Daughter, the track “Beginning to Feel the Years” offers a maturing perspective on life as achingly beautiful as that in Stevie Nicks’s “Landslide,” but with a happier outcome. These lyrics tell a sweet love story, leavened by maturity. Or do they? The answer is yes ... and no.
“It’s weird, because the thing that a person writes a song about might mean a totally different thing to me,” observes Carlile, who brings her band to Ravinia on July 31. As ever, she’s touring with identical brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth, her longtime bandmates, commonly known as “The Twins.”
While many listeners might take the words, “As long as you’re beside me along the way,” as a reflection on romantic love, that’s not how the song resonates for Carlile. It’s about family—the sort of family you choose. “I see ‘Beginning to Feel the Years’ as a kind of a love song between me and The Twins about the band: the way that we’ve been together as long as we have, the family we started, and who knows what’s next,” she says.
A native of Washington state, the singer-songwriter typically gets pegged as “alt-country,” yet Carlile’s discography with The Twins could actually support a variety of labels, from folk to country to indie rock. They’ve collaborated with a diverse array of artists, from Elton John to Kris Kristofferson to Miranda Lambert (“Getting to sing country music with her definitely feels a little bit like home: It’s kind of like a country throwdown, and it’s always just a little bit drunk,” Carlile quips.) The Carlile band even joined forces with the Seattle Symphony, resulting in the 2011 release Live at Benaroya Hall.
The constant amid the interchanging styles is the tight connection of the trio, who met in a Seattle recording studio more than 15 years ago, when Carlile was just 17. She was cutting demos and trying to get a recording deal; the same went for Phil (who plays bass) and Tim (guitar), who are a few years older. Impressed by the guys, Carlile determined that they should play together, even though they were in other bands. Her dogged persistence eventually paid off, although none of them could imagine then how long their musical act would last, nor how thoroughly their lives would grow together over the years.
When asked what she calls the Hanseroths— The Twins? Phil and Tim? Tim and Phil?—Carlile responds with a characteristic joke: “I don’t know—it depends on how much trouble they’re in.” After a short chuckle, she elaborates, “I just call them my brothers, basically. They’re not really my brothers [by blood], but they are now by marriage.” (Phil Hanseroth married Carlile’s younger sister about six years ago.)
Their closeness is reflected by their decision to share all songwriting credits. “We tend to write and collaborate together so completely, we almost forget who wrote which songs,” Carlile says. “We collaborate based on what a song needs. In every configuration possible that you could imagine with three people, we have written a song.” Sometimes it’s a genuinely equal collaboration; other times, one of them does the primary writing and the other two contribute. But rather than get into splitting hairs about who wrote exactly what—a significant decision, given that songwriting credits tie directly to royalties—they choose a united perspective: “We made a decision early on to split everything three ways equally.”
There’s also an unsung fourth member of Carlile’s band: Josh Neumann, who’s been with them for a decade. Initially he played cello, but since then he’s also taken up piano and percussion. “As we’ve grown and changed as a band,” she explains, “every time we set an old idea on the back burner and come up with a new idea, Josh adjusts to it and learns that instrument. So he’s been a really integral part of the band for a very long time.”
True to form, when you’re in tight artistic orbit with Carlile, that closeness bleeds into other areas of life. “And [Josh] just got engaged to my wife’s sister,” Carlile notes, “so things are getting really weird.”
Perhaps all the tight interpersonal relationships help explain the band’s fond obsession with Fleetwood Mac, a group almost as well known for its complicated romances as it is for its music. Carlile and The Twins listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac while recording The Firewatcher’s Daughter, finding inspiration, she says, in the band’s connection—including its turbulence. Does that apply to their own connections? “Yeah,” she jokes, “we’ve definitely changed from being a band to being a cult.”
Carlile grew up about 45 minutes southeast of Seattle in Maple Valley, where she resides again today, now with her wife of three years and their young daughter. She never formally studied music—she plays both guitar and piano by ear—but her mother was a singer, and “there was always music in my family growing up, a lot of jam sessions,” she recalls. “I was always singing and telling stories. I definitely got the bug to entertain before I got the bug to really delve into music.”
It’s not just music that drives her. Carlile also has a philanthropic side, exemplified by her Looking Out Foundation, which began in 2008. She says she “always” felt a call to do something beyond make music—and the inspiration to give back comes in part from the musician she calls her “favorite of all time,” Elton John. “I’ve looked up to him since I was 11. From philanthropy to entertainment to music to songwriting, he’s been a cornerstone to me.” His activism regarding gay rights and AIDS education “influenced me at an early age to get in those trenches.”
But instead of associating herself with just one cause, Carlile decided to take a different approach. As outlined on LookingOutFoundation.org, the agency’s mission “is to support, through music, humanitarian outreach efforts in local communities and beyond.” While the foundation naturally raises money in a variety of ways, one method is through Carlile donating one dollar from tickets to many of her concerts to the foundation, which hopefully also results in greater awareness among her fans. The money backs a variety of causes.
“We do short-term support campaigns,” Carlile explains. “Anything from environmental issues to women’s rights to hunger to different local issues. We’ll take on a campaign for a year, maybe two years, and then lay it down.”
One issue naturally close to her heart is LGBTQ equality. Carlile came out publicly long ago—in 2002—and married Catherine Shepherd in Massachusetts 10 years later. (Last summer, the couple had their first child, a daughter named Evangeline.) When they tied the knot, same-sex marriage wasn’t recognized in Washington, although state voters approved a referendum several months later. “The fact that we traveled out of state was a total coincidence, weirdly enough,” Carlile says. “We were going to get married in Washington state before we had equal rights here, but we traveled to Massachusetts because that’s where my wife’s father lives. He was ill and wasn’t able to travel at the time, so we got my family on a plane and flew across the country. It was only a bonus that it happened to be legal there.”
By the time she arrives at Ravinia, marriage equality might well be the law of the land in all 50 states (a Supreme Court decision likely to settle the issue nationally is expected in late June) [At time of printing, the ruling affirming marriage equality had not yet been delivered. –Ed.]. Carlile admits she’s taken aback by the accelerated sea change in both laws and public opinion. “I never thought we would see this rapid ascent into marriage equality and equal territory for LGBTQ people. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing to see in my lifetime. I’ve seen all kinds of beautiful things! I’m going to have amazing stories to tell Evangeline.”
Some of those stories will surely be about the making of The Firewatcher’s Daughter, Carlile’s first release since 2012. As evidenced by a new maturity to the lyrics—not just with “Beginning to Feel the Years” but also apparent in “The Eye” and “Heroes and Songs”—the musicians all find their lives in very new places. Shepherd was nearing full term with her pregnancy while Carlile finished up the album; meanwhile, The Twins were both relatively new dads, with toddlers at home—and, occasionally, at the studio, popping in while their dads recorded. (The whole extended family, with wives and kids, will travel together this summer throughout the tour.)
It’s not just parenthood that brings a new feel to this latest release. The Firewatcher’s Daughter also marks the band’s first release as independent recording artists in a decade, following a string of albums made for Columbia Records. As a result, Carlile believes, she and The Twins produced their most rock-and-roll release yet—not just musically but philosophically. This time, “the music got to speak for itself,” she says. “When you make a record on a major label, especially if you’re not a huge artist, you end up having to make demos. A lot of demos. When you record a song more than once, it loses something every time. I really loved getting to make a record where those moments—albeit less refined than if we’d worked them out—those moments sound like the songs still had control over us, as opposed to the other way around.”
The raw sound gets juxtaposed in a fascinating way with the hard-earned wisdom in the new lyrics. So many of the new tunes, says Carlile, reflect “the road that leads to where you are. It’s about closing chapters out and starting new ones. The whole record is a record of arrival for us.”
A Chicago-based journalist, Web Behrens has covered theater, museums, music, film, books, and graphic novels for the Chicago Tribune, Time Out Chicago, Time Out Chicago Kids, and The Advocate.