Brandi Carlile revists "The Story" with Dolly, Pearl Jam and Obama

The folk activist taps Parton, Kris Kristofferson and the former president, for an album of covers with a purpose

Published May 6, 2017 9:30PM (EDT)

Brandi Carlile   (Shore Fire Media)
Brandi Carlile (Shore Fire Media)

Ten years ago, folk activist Brandi Carlile released her breakthrough album "The Story." Even today, the way audiences quickly, deeply embraced it surprises her. "[It] incited a real powerful reaction from people early on in my career, probably one of the most potent and powerful reactions that we've gotten to any of our records," she told Salon. "I'm not sure what the reason for that is. But it just did."

A decade later, she's diving back into that magic with "Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of The Story – An Album to Benefit War Child." Produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett, the record features luminaries such as Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Pearl Jam covering every single song on "The Story."

Kristofferson and Parton offer up tender, powerful takes on "Turpentine" and "The Story," respectively. TORRES turns in a haunting, quietly optimistic version of "Until I Die," and Margo Price channels hero Loretta Lynn on a dreamy "Downpour." On the unorthodox side, My Morning Jacket's Jim James puts a spooky psychedelic spin on "Wasted," and Pearl Jam transforms "Again Today" into a full-throttle, raucous rock number. The covers, in balance, are as inspired as the originals.

More than that, "Cover Stories" is an anniversary album with a purpose. Proceeds from its sale will benefit War Child U.K., a global humanitarian organization working to help children in refugee camps who have been traumatized and displaced due to conflict.

Carlile is plotting some tour dates where she'll be playing "The Story" in full along with a second set where she'll be "taking requests and drinking Jameson and having a great time." She also just wrapped another studio record, due early next year, produced by Dave Cobb and her "spirit animal" Shooter Jennings.

The songwriter checked in with Salon from Nashville about how former President Barack Obama came to write the foreword to "Cover Stories" and why it was important for her to release this album now.

What stands out to you most about making "The Story" 10 years ago?

All kinds of feelings of guilelessness meets self-consciousness, which is a deadly combination. You know, when you're trying to impress someone like T Bone Burnett for three weeks in the studio, I just remember all kinds of rises and falls of confidence and honesty, and it being a really raw experience for me.

I was going to ask what it was like working with T Bone. He's such an amazing producer, songwriter, arranger.

He's, like, 11 feet tall, you know? And you crack a joke and you just look at him and wait for him to smile. Sometimes he doesn't, and it's the most terrifying thing in the world. I just remember being so young and being in the studio with him. He was an encouraging yet ominous character for me, and it was the [time of] tremendous growth, musically, of our band.

When you were making "Cover Stories," how did you choose which artists would do which song?

They were all really emotional decisions, to be honest with you. It had a lot to do with activism and affection. To start off with Dolly [Parton] — obviously, I was aiming really, really high, and didn't know if I would ever even hear back. But I heard back right away. She actually recorded her track fairly soon. And then early on, because me and the twins [Tim and Phil Hanseroth] were the band for that track, we went in to make that recording with a guy called Dave Cobb out here in Nashville.

I have always been a fan of what he was doing. I wanted to know if maybe late at night after he was done with a session if he would want to help us craft a track for Dolly. He had a total idea and vision for the track, and I really fell in love with him as a producer that night in the studio.

And then he called me up a couple days later and said "You know, is there anything else I can do to help you do this record? Because I feel like the cause and direction are near and dear to my heart," and then explained to me that his wife is an Albanian refugee who was fleeing from civil war and came here as a teenager. So he wanted to do his part to give back to a compassion and to an acceptance that the United States was open to at that time, because for him it was the reason why he had a family.

He came on board and had a lot of influence in curating and helping me create tracks for the record. He did the Kris Kristofferson track with me, and the Margo Price track, and came up with some really great ideas. He was a big part of helping me achieve the direction of the record.

I admire Dave Cobb as a producer, because his records always sound welcoming and enveloping.

They have that feeling about them. It's funny; you'd think he would really work for that to happen on his records, but when you show up at the studio to work with Dave Cobb, it’s set up one way. Nobody does any sound checking or testing of sounds. It’s never about the sonic landscape. It’s always about showing up, capturing a moment in real time. Which incidentally, sounds good. [Laughs]

What did it mean to you to have Dolly Parton sign on to the project first? I know you really admire her.

I adore Dolly Parton on so many levels. First of all, she’s one of the greatest country singers of all time and continues to be one of the greatest country singers of all time, if not the greatest country singer. [She's an] incredible storyteller, incredible songwriter. And then a total crusader and activist without having to even fly that flag. I felt like it was extremely important to have her on this album and to have her behind this message.

At the end of the day, if there’s one thing that I would love to see happen as a result of this album, it would be a society depoliticizing babies and children. Because I think it’s undignified to talk about children, refugees, economic immigrants [and] families like they're politics, when they’re people.

Dolly has a philosophy that she’s always clung to her entire career about everything comes down to people and love and compassion. And when you’re talking about children, it’s not political.

Were there any other interpretations of your songs that particularly struck you as either unexpected or just really inspiring?

Oh, all of them. I mean, I have to say, all of the interpretations blew me away. I really expected this glorified, kind of renegade iPhone recording album to come out of this. I never expected all of these folks to go into the studio and properly record these songs in such an amazing way.

As far as interpretation that really took me by surprise — I was really surprised by Pearl Jam’s interpretation of “Again Today." I was also really surprised by TORRES and that cool, eclectic take that she has on “Until I Die.” Jim James really threw me a curveball [with his version of] “Wasted.” I love that. I love that Kris Kristofferson spoke the verses of “Turpentine.” I am just really proud of the whole thing and really pleased and really proud of my fellow activists for coming together to deliver such a common and potent message.

There are many different ways to convey activism, and the record covers them all.

Yeah, and everybody is a little bit different from each other. Everybody has slightly different persuasions. I mean, you can have somebody that’s really radical, like Pearl Jam, sort of raising their hand and making their statement. And then have somebody that’s less radical and have a more compassionate [kind] of activism, like say, Dolly or the Avett Brothers. To have them speak to each other's fans is what coming to the table from different perspectives is all about.

What kind of new dimensions did you kind of discover in the music for your own self after the record was done?

I’m always struck by the paradigm of gender. So when you hear men singing lyrics that are decidedly based in the female experience, I think that’s really cool, or vice versa. It’s always been a way I’ve happily chosen to do covers in my band, too. I really love turning that gender paradigm on its head.

So I found it really compelling to hear Kris Kristofferson sing “Turpentine.” I thought it was really cool to hear him say, you know, “I started losing sleep and gaining weight and wishing I was 10 again.” That’s probably one of my favorite interpretive qualities.

How did it end up that Barack Obama wrote the foreword?

I saw Barack Obama read a letter in a speech that he gave, from a 6-year-old boy, who had seen another 6-year-old boy on television who was a refugee. It was in the midst of while I was working on the project. The little boy wrote this refugee a letter and detailed how he would like for him to come and live at his house so that he could share a room with him and go to school and eat lunch with him.

Basically, it was like a letter of encouragement, but also, I think, in a way, shaming the isolationism that I think we can collectively experience in this country just because of all of the good things that we have. He was trying to portray how ready this 6-year-old boy was to share the good things that he had with a young boy who had very little, and had to experience extreme conflict.

I thought it was an incredible message, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And so I wrote a letter to the then-president and asked him if he had a couple of words to say about the project, and if he could then write a couple of sentences to inspire. He was president at the time, so I think he had to go through a lot to get it done, but in the end, he wrote back and said “Absolutely,” and [that he] believed the project was going to do great things. It was just incredible that he participated. He’s probably had the strongest influence on me in my lifetime as a philanthropist and an activist and speaker.

In what particular ways? What has really always struck you about his approach to all of those things?

First of all, I think he was a real quiet warrior in his own way, and I’d look to him a lot of times as a compass of how to act. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but in an age of sensationalizing things and marginalizing people, he always has a really steady, reactionary posture. He’s been a real leader, I think, in the age of sensationalizing. To the point where, because of him, I haven’t been caught up in a lot of the dramatic political landscape, but I’ve always had my eyes forward on hope, change, universal love for each other’s children and the belief that we are actually moving in the right direction as humanity.

I don’t get pulled into that backwards gravity of belief that everything needs to be fixed or that we’re in a recession . . . that we need to make America great again — I believe that we already are great, and we’re getting greater collectively. He’s been a real influence in positivity for me.

Things happen as well behind the scenes. If you put your head down and do some work, you don’t necessarily get a lot of attention for it, but it can be just as influential. I see that a lot in him.

Yeah, I think you’re right. The people that have their heads down, doing the work and powering forward, they don’t make the headlines, but they make the changes.

What else do you want this record to really achieve?

I want it to bring all kinds of people to the table, just for talking about the children around the world that are experiencing these things, and what that’s going to do to the next generation. What kind of world that’s going to leave us, when the children we don’t want to accept into immigration, and into our asylum systems, have seen their siblings and parents killed in front of them; lost everything that they own; and need counseling, education, clothing and assimilation into a safe environment. What kind of world are we leaving our children if we’re not helping those kids? Because they’re our kids' peers.

I want all kinds of people to talk about that. I want Dolly Parton fans to talk about that with Pearl Jam fans, and the Avett Brothers fans to talk about that with Adele’s fans. And to see if we could at least come together in the common belief that we are absolutely commissioned by a higher calling to help our children. If we can’t prevent and change and eliminate this conflict, then the result of it, being trauma to children, should be the one thing that’s absolutely unacceptable to all of us.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Activism Albums Barack Obama Brandi Carlile Cover Stories Dolly Parton Folk Music Music Pearl Jam The Story