Brandi Carlile isn't just playing Bele Chere because some booking agent somewhere routed her tour through Western North Carolina. She loves this town, she tells Xpress. And, having played the Grey Eagle and the Orange Peel already, "I thought I'd try something different." A festival seems just about right for the singer-songwriter (and Lillith Fair veteran) who says this summer is shaping up to be her best ever. In June she celebrated her 31st birthday, released her new album, Bear Creek, and announced her engagement to her partner, Catherine Shepherd. "I'm heading into July with an open heart," she says.
Carlile's Bear Creek is already racking up rave reviews; it's also a bit of a departure for her. Her past albums were helmed by like likes of T Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin. Trina Shoemaker, who engineered multiple albums for Sheryl Crow, worked on Bear Creek. But what really sets the record apart is the place where it was made — Bear Creek Studios, located near Seattle. "It's symbolic of our band," she says. "It's literally a barn on a creek. We all live like that — we strive to find those places for recreation."
Carlile says that she can write music anywhere. "Typically, the more uncomfortable I am, the better I do as a writer. I tend to write a lot in dressing rooms, on the road. I never light a candle and make my environment conducive to writing." Recording studios are a different story. Studios that are steeped in industry, she says, are on a business-day schedule. "Artists just don't keep office hours," she says. "For me, the really special things happen at 1 a.m."
Among the "really unusual, artist-based studios where you make magical things happen at 3 in morning" she's quick to name Asheville's Echo Mountain, where she worked on Indigo-Girl Amy Ray’s Didn't It Feel Kinder.
Another example of 3 a.m. magic: the track "Just Kids" on Bear Creek. The rest of the album feels thematic with culled-from-real-life story lines and Carlile's trademark full-voiced approach. She's been called "the best voice in indie rock" by Paste. And it's consistently strong throughout. But "Just Kids," which Carlile says is a "total child of the '80s: The Goonies, The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal-enthusiast song,” is lush and layered. It leaves behind Americana-tinged folk-rock in favor of mystical worlds that edge up against dream-pop.
Carlile says she worked on the song alone, after the rest of the band went to sleep. "I knew it was more of a sound-scape," she says. "It took a long time for that one to come together, but it's probably one of my favorite songs on the record."
So, was she nervous about presenting her fans with something different? It was a risk, she says, but, "I'd much rather get made fun of for a song that's ill-received than for the things I used to get made fun of as a kid. Being poor, being gay. Fine, I put a song that's kind of weird on my fourth major-label album," she laughs. "I can handle a little bit of criticism for that."
It's unlikely that will happen. The song is gorgeous and Carlile is on a roll — best summer ever, and it’s only just begun.
who: Brandi Carlile
where: Biltmore Stage, Sunday, 4 to 5:30 p.m.