Brandi Carlile is all kinds of happy these days. “Bear Creek,” the fourth studio album from the 31-year-old Seattle singer-songwriter, has broken through in a big way, hitting No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on Billboard’s Folk Albums chart — by far her highest-charting record to date.
But that’s not the only reason audiences will likely encounter a glowing Carlile on Wednesday when she plays Portland’s State Theatre — in September, she married her partner and best friend, Catherine Shepherd, in Boston.
So it’s not surprising that the issue of marriage equality for same-sex couples — an issue that will be put before Maine voters in November — is definitely on Carlile’s mind.
“I believe that the issue of marriage equality is a social welfare and a civil rights issue,” Carlile said in a recent phone interview from her home in Washington state. “When it’s an issue that’s being discussed theologically, it’s political, but when we’re talking about an issue that’s hurting people in a tangible way every single day, then it’s a civil rights issue.”
Carlile’s concerns center on foreign spouses not being able to petition for their partners to live with them in the U.S., elderly people who aren’t able to keep their homes when their partners pass away, hospital visitation issues, tax issues and health care issues.
“These are honest-to-goodness issues, so it needs to be talked about in a civil rights forum and not made out to be part of the election season or a political issue concept that we just move past shamefully like we did in the ’60s when we changed the Constitution to say that marriage is between a man and a woman of the same race,” she said.
“That Wasn’t Me,” the first single from “Bear Creek,” could be construed as a song for Carlile’s partner, a song about the inner turmoil experienced by gays, a message to the intolerant — or a combination of all three.
The piano-based ballad — which sports gospel-like backing vocals from longtime collaborators, twin brothers bassist Phil Hanseroth and guitarist Tim Hanseroth — starts on a simple and quiet note, then soars upward with Carlile’s weighty, country-tinged vocals. “But I want you to know that you’ll never be alone,” she sings, and you have no choice but to believe her.
That’s the thing about Carlile, who has been playing music since she was 8 and released her debut album in 2005. Whether she’s singing about childhood on “Keep Your Heart Young,” heartache on the rafter-raising “Raise Hell” and “100,” or picking yourself up with “In the Morrow,” she can be relied upon to get her point across with her voice, introspective lyrics and a heck of a backing band.
For “Bear Creek,” Carlile brought in Grammy Award-winning producer Trina Shoemaker, whose previous credits include works by Sheryl Crow, Indigo Girls and Emmylou Harris.
“Trina taught me so much over the course of making a record. She’s an unbelievable coordinator and a dear friend, and I’m almost certain we’ll make the next record with her as well,” she said. “Her greatest ideas were the sonic ones, and the sound of ‘Bear Creek’ is pretty special.”
Another stand-out track on “Bear Creek,” which clocks in at just under seven minutes — and is like nothing else Carlile had recorded before — is “Just Kids.” The vocals sound like they’re falling lightly from the sky like a late November snow before melting into a cushion of piano, strings and gentle percussion.
Carlile has yet to perform it live, but is considering adding it to the setlist.
“I love that song. It was kind of an art piece that I started in the studio when we were working,” explained Carlile. “I’ll remember that one as a big creative leap for me.”
In concert, Carlile likes to pay tribute to songs by artists who aren’t around anymore to perform them, such as Johnny Cash and Freddie Mercury. (In fact, Mercury is Carlile’s favorite singer and artist, and she would have loved to have been able to collaborate with him, along with Patsy Cline.)
She’s also a fan of the well-chosen cover song. From Alphaville’s “Forever Young” to The Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah,” Carlile says there are two criteria for choosing covers.
“I like to sing songs by guys a lot,” she said. “It changes the lyrical sentiment and the gender implications when I’m singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or Radiohead’s ‘Creep.’ “
Staff Writer Aimsel Ponti can be contacted at 791-6455 or at: