“Everyone needs to be risking something,” says Seattle-based singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile. She’s discussing the M.O. behind The Firewatcher’s Daughter, her stunning new release – her first for artist-friendly indie label ATO. The 12-song collection marks a triumphant return after a three-year recording hiatus, and her strongest, most rock & roll album to date.
“Rock & roll music as a genre always has a sense of erratic recklessness to it,” she says. “It can’t really be rehearsed – in fact, rehearsal can kill it. On this album, each song has its honest rock & roll moment, even the ballads; it’s between the point where you’ve learned the song enough to get through it, but you don’t have any control over it yet.”
Since her heralded, genre-defying 2005 Columbia debut, Carlile and her indispensable collaborators, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, aka The Twins, have always offered listeners both control and abandon, often within a single song. The most well-known Brandi Carlile tunes, 2007’s “The Story” and 2012’s “That Wasn’t Me,” are dynamic journeys in themselves, encompassing myriad emotions and varied stylistic touches; “The Story” morphs from understated balladry to epic stadium rock, while “That Wasn’t Me” effortlessly straddles country soul and pop gospel. Infused with Carlile’s clarion voice, The Twins’ tight sibling harmonies, and stellar musicianship from everyone, it all simply sounds like Brandi Carlile.
Yet, over four acclaimed Columbia albums, countless sold-out tours, and fruitful relationships with top producers Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett, something was missing: Carlile and The Twins hadn’t yet captured the distinctive spark of old friends working up new tunes, a slippery magic born of years touring together, and often caught only on raw demos made at the behest of the label. The Firewatcher’s Daughter, by contrast, is a full-on Carlile/Twins co-production, cut live in Seattle’s Bear Creek Studio, with complete artistic control granted by ATO. With this new freedom, Carlile and The Twins, intent on capturing the elusive essence of a song’s spirit, tracked the album live, with little or no rehearsal.
Ironically, during this time of liberation, Carlile and The Twins all transitioned to married life; the Hanseroths became dads, and Carlile’s wife, Catherine Shepherd, was pregnant during the making of The Firewatcher’s Daughter. So when the engineer hit RECORD, the stakes were higher than usual: Carlile and the Twins producing, kids underfoot or on the way, and three years since an album. But true to form, they wrangled it all into song, catching many, many lightning-in-a-bottle moments; the crackling Lucinda Williams-meets-Fleetwood Mac of “Wherever Is Your Heart,” the CSN-meets-Bonnie Raitt of “The Eye,” to the dark folk-punk of “The Stranger at My Door,” the Elton John-meets-McCartney of “Beginning to Feel the Years,” and more – all executed without a net.
“Everything is completely live,” Carlile says. “That’s the only way to make the moment happen. It’s way too easy to say, ‘Hey guys, you get your part down and I’ll spend the rest of the evening by myself in a fucking booth not taking any risks, and trying to nail down my contribution while I drink a bottle of Jameson.’ A lot of the songs are in about the highest key I can sing them in. The vocals were very emotional for me. I was right on the edge – I’d been off the road for a long time, I was on the precipice of becoming a mother, and there was a lot that needed to come out before that could happen.”
The title, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, comes from a line in “The Stranger at My Door,” written after Carlile stared into a bonfire for a long, long time. “I wrote it standing next to one of my frequent bonfires up in the horse pasture on our land. I have a bonfire compulsion. I tend to stand there and stare into them close to every day, and I’m able to tap into something beyond my day-to-day consciousness. I often write lyrics, solve problems, run for President – the usual stuff. Catherine was pregnant and I was contemplating the juxtaposition between religious rigidity and beauty, and its effects on families and society.”
Carlile says she and The Twins always insert a through-line in her albums: “An instrument keeps appearing, a theme keeps getting touched on, or we try to use the same microphone. But of all my albums, I felt the least amount of control over this one. Catherine was nine months pregnant, The Twins’ kids were there, the tension was there, but the love was also there, so the continuity is felt.”
Part of that continuity is the concept of “chains,” which recurs over the course of The Firewatcher’s Daughter, from the lullaby “Wilder (We’re Chained)” to the chorus of the gorgeous “The Eye”: “I wrapped your love around me like a chain / But I never was afraid that it would die / You can dance in a hurricane / But only if you’re standing in the eye.” Carlile lays this chain fascination at the feet of Fleetwood Mac, a band she and The Twins listened to a lot in the run-up to The Firewatcher’s Daughter, and whose classic love song “The Chain” is bittersweet reality. “The twins and I were inspired by that band’s connection and their turbulence,” she says. “I find it fascinating how culturally some things can get cast in a negative light, like a chain. But a chain can bind and connect, like a fire can refine and renew. We would definitely describe ourselves as chained in the best possible way.”
After stepping back from this fine new work and assessing it, Carlile knows exactly what she wants from The Firewatcher’s Daughter: “My goal,” she says, “is to connect on a soul level with our longtime fans and friends, and to reach new people with the honesty of this music. Also, I would like my daughter, Evangeline, to grow up and think I’m cool.”