Were we ever gonna get out of this town? – “Just Kids” from Bear Creek
“If you start a band with me, I’ll get us signed and on the road within a year.” Not only did the determined, confident and tenacious 22-year-old Brandi Carlile come through with her promise to twin bothers and initially reluctant band members Phil and Tim Hanseroth, but she also exceeded their expectations. Carlile landed the prophesied record deal with Columbia Records one year later, and with the guidance of producer Rick Rubin, they recorded and released their eponymous debut album in early 2005.
Bear Creek, named after the studio where it was recorded, is certainly a departure from 2007’s breakthough The Story and its critically acclaimed follow-up, 2009’s Give Up the Ghost. Having been steered on her previous albums by super-producers T Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, this time Carlile was determined to take the wheel. “I would liken working with A-list producers to going to college,” she says. “You don’t want to be a perpetual student. At some point, you need to apply your knowledge.” For the first time, Carlile was eager to work in a studio environment closer – both physically and in spirit – to her own rural abode. Bear Creek, a converted turn-of-the-century barn nestled among the tall trees of Woodinville, Washington, proved to be ideal. “Bear Creek is very similar to home for all three of us — musically, you’d be amazed at how you act when you feel at home.”
Embracing her own philosophy that “a live show should never sound like a record; a record should sound like a live show,” Carlile and the Twins brought in members of her “road family,” including cellist Josh Neumann and drummer Allison Miller, as well as her touring sound engineer and guitar tech. “We basically pulled our bus up to Bear Creek and then everyone got off of it and made a record, band, crew, cheap tour beer and everything … we wanted it that way for once.” Carlile also realized a long-held ambition to work with Grammy award-winning engineer and producer Trina Shoemaker, who fully embraced and nurtured the band’s live approach in the studio and “rough-around-the-edges sonic appeal.” They veered off into new musical territory, fusing classic rock ‘n’ roll, folk, bluegrass, and “Shoemaker-inspired soul” to create their own distinctive sound. Carlile and her band took full advantage of the vintage equipment at Bear Creek, dusting off “pianos that smell like Grandma’s house” and experimenting with bluegrass instruments “feeling no self-consciousness about the fact that we didn’t know how to play them … without a producer it was like ‘OK, now what are we gonna do while Dad’s gone?’”
Comprising of songs inspired by faith, heartache, addiction, childhood, accidental piano chords and thunderstorms, Bear Creek promises to be Carlile’s most revealing and personal record to date. “It scares me how much of who we are is in this album.” However, she admits, “I can talk about making records all day long, but what really drives me is what I’ve been doing on the road all this time. When we play these songs for you, what’s going to happen between you and us? That’s what matters most to me.”
Bear Creek stands as a major milestone for Carlile; the moment in which she and The Twins embraced simplicity, familiar faces and trusted musicianship to craft a stripped-back, honest and timeless record; perhaps her bravest work to date “because without anyone to hide behind or acclaimed cameos and guest appearances, it’s just us … terrifying but real life.” In fact, the only guest appearance comes from a chorus of frogs (courtesy of Bear Creek) who appear on the closing track of her most definitive album thus far – and listen all the way to the end? You most definitely will.