Brandy Clark and Brandi Carlile Go Behind the Scenes of Their ‘BC Squared’ Collaboration on Two New Songs
Looking Glass, the band that had the No. 1 hit in 1972 with the classic “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” would surely have had its collective head explode had it lived to see the combined fineness of a collaboration between the two preeminent Brandi-/-ys of the 21st century. That has come to pass with this week’s release of “Same Devil,” a harmonic convergence of names and voices that features the billing we might have thought possible only in fiction: “Brandy Clark featuring Brandi Carlile.”
Some unofficial shorthand can come into play. “We call ourselves BC squared,” laughs Carlile.
“Same Devil” is one of two new Clark songs produced by Carlile, the other one of which, “Like Mine,” will follow the new song onto digital services next week. (Carlile also sings backup on the forthcoming song, though she does not get featured billing there.) Variety got on the phone with both artists, separately, to discuss the even greater number of things they now have in common now besides consonance and being two of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of their shared time.
“I love Brandi,” says Brandy, “and I love the things that she’s done production-wise” (which include Tanya Tucker’s Grammy-winning “While I’m Livin’” album and back-to-back Secret Sisters records), “so I had somewhere in my mind thought, ‘Oh, you know, maybe we’ll do something together some time.’ I don’t know if it’s an opportunity that would’ve come had COVID not been in play, which I guess we all have to find the silver lining for.”
Carlile says they had an m.o. in mind for the operative vibe of the two new songs: “We all went into this thing with like Emmylou Harris’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ in our periphery, and the mantra was kind of organic Lanois. Like, what would Daniel Lanois do if the power went out?”
Clark credits her label, Warner Records, with encouraging her to do something extracurricular following the release earlier this year of her Jay Joyce-produced “Your Life Is a Record” album. (She’s signed through the L.A. office, not Warner Nashville, despite being generally identified as a country artist.) “They offered for me to do a few more things, though it wasn’t just me — I think it’s something Warner L.A. was were offering to every artist that had albums in cycle. Tom Corson (the label’s co-chairman) believes in is putting out material that’s not on the project, a certain amount of time after, just to breathe more life into a project — and into an artist.”
It was Tracy Gershon, a mutual friend and one of the top music execs in Nashville, who had the idea to connect the Y-and-I Brandys for some new music. They’d sung together on the road at a few joint dates over the years, so blood-like harmony was not in doubt, nor were shared sensibilities.
“We’re kindred spirits, for sure. I mean, how can we not be?“ says Carlile, who figures the two of them have shared bills together at various points over the last five or six years. “When we get to do a show together, we cover (Tammy Wynette’s) ‘Stand by Your Man.’ And it’s just poetic to the core,” she laughs — “the gay Brandys getting together to sing ‘Stand By Your Man.’”
This mini-project had accommodations for the COVID era, of course. Says Clark, “I was in Nashville and all the players were in Nashville, and Brandi was in her studio in Washington state. So she Zoomed in while we worked, and I was surprised at how well it worked actually.”
Tanya Tucker has remarked upon how Carlile was the first producer who ever went into the vocal booth with her while she was cutting her vocals, let alone stayed there the whole time, tapping out rhythm on her leg while squatting on the floor. Clearly there wasn’t going to quite so literal a personal touch in the vocal production with a remote setup, but Clark says there was no less attention to vocal nuance with the cross-country gap.
“I’ve worked with great producers. None of them have had their voice as their first instrument, and that’s her first instrument. And so, you know, she’s gonna take special care of that part of the song. And I definitely felt stretched and pushed in a real good way. And it was really great to have somebody who could say, ‘Hey, I was thinking this way,’ and they could sing it to you. That’s a very unique thing to Brandi as a producer.”
Carlile says she does think she helped stretch Clark as a vocalist a bit, “but it was like giving someone a slight push that already knows how to ride the f— out of a BMX bike or something. Like, she totally knew what to do, you know?”
Adds the producer, “First of all, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel with Brandy Clark, especially because her last record is just excellent. It’s like her best work, and it’s absolutely brilliant, and if it’s an indication of where things are going… you know, she’s a legend. She’s a fabulous country writer and a fabulous country singer. But I have never felt like we have quite captured the like raw humility and sensitivity that I hear in her voice. And so I worked on that with her. I just got into the lyrics, and I was like, ‘Hey, when you’re singing this, what face do you feel like making? When you’re singing these lines, what do you want people to think you’re saying to them?’ And it’s not a complicated path into vocal empathy. It’s just a matter of helping the person understand how worthy their voice is of being heard, unencumbered.”
Says Clark, “She’s really specific about what she pays attention to, and lets some other things go that I think actually in the long run helped the overall project. I mean, I can really get picky about a vocal and want it to be perfect, and it takes a producer to say, ‘No, we’re going to leave that flaw.’ As much as she was a great vocal producer in stretching me and stuff, she was also great in saying, ‘No, we’re going to leave that line that you don’t like because your voice sounds a little rough. I think it feels right for this song.’ You know, I always learn something from everybody — and it’s usually to let some things go.”
Clark’s recent was rife with love songs and breakup themes, with the exception of her light-hearted duet with Randy Newman, “Bigger Boat,” which explored a more universal kind of breakup. The two new songs she did with Carlile go deeper into shared humanity — the darker side of that with “Same Devil,” to be followed by the more hopeful tone of “Like Mine.”
“’Same Devil’ is just dark,” concedes Clark. “I think we all like to point out each other’s sins before we look at our own, or that can be the case,” she says, of a song that points to drug addiction and homophobia as signposts of self-damnations small and large we all share. “I wrote that with Marla Cannon and Hailey Whitters, thinking about everybody pointing fingers at everybody else about what they’re doing that’s so bad, when really, we all have different demons, but it is the same devil that’s pulling us into ‘em.”
Carlile adds that the song’s acknowledgement of universal sin shouldn’t overshadow specific wrongs being pointed out. “At the time I heard the lyric, I thought it was totally f—ing brilliant. But ever since things have unfolded in these last few weeks, and particularly in these last few days with RBG dying… Far be it from me to comment on somebody else’s song that they wrote. But I almost feel a pull on this one to highlight that. When I sing this song with Brandy and the things I know about Brandy being a fellow queer woman, and knowing there are things about our basic civil rights that are just hanging on by an absolute thread, there’s nothing in this song to encourage any kind of political apathy. It’s definitely meant to draw out our commonalities and to draw people into one another, but inevitably to do the right thing and to stand up and save the soul of a nation.”
“Like Mine” is a more overtly uplifting flip side to that, in both senses, essentially. Says Clark, “’Like Mine’ is a really close one to me because it was inspired by my nephew, who had a little girl in his class who had some disabilities. We went to her birthday party, and he’s really compassionate, so he wanted me to explain what her disabilities were. And I said, ‘Here’s the truth, bud. There are a lot of things about her that feel different from you. And it might take her longer to learn to do certain things. But one thing that she has exactly like you is her heart. And it gets broken just like yours. So you need to really look out for her.’ I was telling that story to my co-writers, and they were inspired to write a song about it. It ended up being a little different from that, but that was how it started. Recently, when all the social unrest started happening, one of them, Jessie Joe Dylan, called me and said, ‘You know, that song would be really relevant right now.’”
Carlile admits to slight regrets that the long-imagined collab went down remotely. “I’m kind of sad it’s happening this way, because I’d always wanted to do it. But I was like, this is my shot, so I’m going to make the best of it that I possibly can,” she says. “But it wound up being pretty f—ing cool, because I actually spent the weeks leading up to it preparing for it by calling and talking through the process that I was hearing for the songs with the musicians. And a lot of the musicians are some of my favorite people to work with, so we already had a rapport and a language. My drummer, Chris Powell, played the drums. Brandon Bell is one of my favorite engineers. A lot of Tanya’s band was on this thing.
Incidentally, I didn’t get to use Tanya’s band in the studio (on “While I’m Livin’”) because I didn’t know them yet. But then when I met ‘em, I was like, s—, Tanya’s band f—ing rules. And Jedd Hughes is somebody that Brandy works with all the time. That guy, my God — he blew my mind; I’m not going to lose his phone number. So it ended up being a group of people that we already were sort of finishing each other’s sentences and reading each other’s minds.”
Those players did the initial live tracking session, and then, says Carlile, “Brandy and Brandon — so many Brands — sent the track to me,” at which point she went into her home studio to sing harmonies and add a good amount of instrumentation on her own, including organ, acoustic guitar, octagon and harmonium.
Is this a one-off, or two-off, or…? “Oh, I’m excited,” says Clark. “I hope we can do more, honestly.” Agrees Carlile: “We did it and I was like, oh, God, this worked really well. We really need to do this again. I’d love it if she gave me a shot at a whole album.”