Brandi Carlile on Combining a Glam Look With Raw Emotions in Her New Courteney Cox-Directed Video, ‘Right on Time’

The singer tells Variety her just-announced fall album will include traces of dramatic '90s divas, glam-rock, Roy Orbison, Seattle grunge and "crackly voiced, rustic stuff, too."

Brandi Carlile on Bringing the Glam

Brandi Carlile is at that nexus in her 15-year-plus recording career where this is the first time that the debut single from a new album has landed as an event. Not so many people were looking when she released “The Joke,” the first track off her slowly- star-making “By the Way, I Forgive You” album, three and a half years ago. Needless to say, her profile is higher now — and she’s dressed for the occasion in “Right on Time,” her new single and Courteney Cox-directed video, which came out early Wednesday.

For fans of the classic singer-songwriter form, there’s no more anticipated album this year than the one Carlile has coming this fall. As Carlile waited to sound-check in the “Tonight Show” studio, where she’ll deliver the live premiere of “Right on Time” Wednesday night, she chatted with Variety about which true facet of her the image change represents — the glitz representing an important facet of her personality alongside her more rustic nature. Don’t worry: she’ll still be splitting the difference between glam-rock and glam-off-roading. We also checked in with her about what to expect from the just-announced new album, “In These Silent Days,” due Oct. 1.

VARIETY: When we asked about this new album a few months ago, you said then, “I can just tell you that this album is very, very dramatic. Over the top. I’ve spent a lot of my musical life keeping the lid on how massive ‘90s female diva singing has influenced me. And I think that lid is just 10 miles behind me on this album.” With that ’90s diva reference in mind, and now seeing your look in the video with the full makeup and glitz, it’s almost like we can see a little bit of Celine in you.

Oh, yeah! That’s in there, for sure. I mean, I don’t know what power ballad singer from the ’90s wouldn’t have Celine coming out of their pores.

What was it like to get all glammed up and glitzed out for a video that’s about having unglamorous feelings? 

It was actually pretty cathartic, because I felt like I was honoring a character… a person who does live inside of me. It’s this crazy Gemini contradiction, where the part of me that was brought of age by Freddie Mercury and Elton John and Bowie is always at odds with the part of me that rides an Excavator and goes fishing and grows tomatoes. But they really do both exist, and it doesn’t make any sense for them to never communicate. So I feel like everything about this album — the aesthetic, the stuff I’m wearing, the drama in the songs — is honoring that part of me that really does want to shine.

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Brandi Carlile Neil Krug

Did you have to struggle over song choices before knowing that “Right on Time” was what you wanted as people’s first taste of this album?

Well, this song just told us that it was the first song. I feel like it sort of stood alone. It had this island sensibility to it, in that it was just not really connected to anything else.

And it felt to me like it was the first time that I relaxed after writing “The Joke.” I’d thought, what am I going to do after I wrote “The Joke”? I’m not saying that it was about setting a high standard… It’s just that it was a powerful song — a really big, powerful vocal and powerful sentiment. And it was a hard thing to come in behind and write a new one. I almost wanted to steer away from power ballads and big notes altogether, because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it again as well and that I would struggle with that. But when “Right on Time” came to me, I was like, “Okay. I can relax. This is where I was meant to go after ‘The Joke.’”

As a so-called island song, do you feel like the song is not necessarily representative of the rest of “In These Silent Days”?

Maybe emotionally, Musically, it is representative of the album, in that it’s just unbridled, unabashed drama. And many things exist within (the album): big, operatic moments, drama, glamorousness — but also crackly voiced, rustic stuff, too. It can get into Seattle grunge territory, and go into Roy Orbison and Freddie, and it just feels like a culmination of a lot of the things that make me who I am.

Let’s talk about the video. You’ve known Courteney for not a terribly long time, it seems like, but long enough that you had faith in her to direct a pretty critical video for you.

Yeah. Well, I had faith in her to direct because her idea was the best. And she’s a talented actress, so she didn’t type it all out and send it to me in email. She FaceTimed me and she acted it all out, her facial expressions and everything. I was like, “Oh shit. She really gets it” – like, really gets it. I could tell, you know?

People have seen the photos of you and her and Elton John and Ed Sheeran. You’ve been having some hangs.

Mm-hm, been having some hangs. But this was different. Because all of our hangs are really quite funny and lighthearted, but man, when she showed up to work, she was serious.

Now that the track list for the new album is out, people can see that “Broken Horses” is one of the song titles. You’ve said you were writing a lot of this album during or after writing your memoir of that name. Is there a way in which this album feels like a soundtrack to the book, at least for you, even if you don’t necessarily want people to go back and re-read it with the album literally playing?

It absolutely does. Every song could be correlated back to the book in some way. All the breadcrumbs are there and all the hints (in the book) are leading people to what the songs are saying, and vice versa. They are actually a complement. There was a time that I almost wanted to name the album “Broken Horses” just because it was so derived from the book, but I thought that’d get confusing.

Thank you. We’ll let you get ready to sing tonight…

Pray for me. It’s a big note.