Brandi Carlile Enlists Big Stars To Cover Her Songs For A Cause

Jun 4, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A decade ago, a young singer-songwriter named Brandi Carlile released an album called "The Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY")

BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) All of these lines across my face tell you the story of who I am.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That title track especially got a lot of play. It made it onto the Billboard Top 100, into the soundtrack of a popular TV show and today has over 31 million plays on Spotify. And while Carlile has released several albums since, this year she returned to that album with some notable guests.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORY")

DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) I climbed across the mountaintops, swam all across the ocean blue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is, of course, Dolly Parton, who Carlile invited, along with Adele, Pearl Jam and others, to cover the songs from "The Story" for a benefit album. The proceeds go to an organization called War Child UK.

CARLILE: They go into affected nations and they try and help children where they are. They go into the refugee camps and they seek out immediate need. And they start to try to affect it with things like counseling, education, if need be food and clothing. They're spending a lot of time in the Democratic Republic of Congo re-integrating and assimilating child soldiers, which is work that is really difficult work. And not everybody's trying that one. So I have a lot of respect for War Child. And I really do believe they're doing the powerful work on behalf of all of us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk a little bit about what drew you to be interested in this cause of refugees and children specifically affected by conflict.

CARLILE: It sounds, like, maybe cliche in some way, but, like, right when my daughter was born, so many things changed about how I saw the world. You know, I didn't suddenly have this acute understanding of what my parents went through. I didn't feel overwhelmed by unconditional love or anything like that. But I did feel really sharp instinct to protect her. And I suddenly started to see injustice more clearly. Like, I used to like to watch violent movies. I'm a big "Game Of Thrones" fan - stuff like that. Now I can't really stomach violence. And I can't stop seeing everybody as somebody's baby.

So the War Child concept was basically born of me just not being able to sleep at night and talking to my wife, who has a background in activism and philanthropy. And she made me hip to War Child. And she said if you really literally can't live with this, then you can do something really powerful even though you're not a massive artist. And we just set out on a really kind of massive goal. And it worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOU EVER")

THE AVETT BROTHERS: (Singing) Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods and everything there feels just as it should? You're part of a life there. You're part of something good. Have you ever wandered lonely through the woods?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there something about the spirit of the songs on the album that you think fits this cause?

CARLILE: I love that question so much because I didn't think so until the completion of the project. And then hearing the lyrics through that lens was very, very different experience for me - of the songs than when I'd written them. So I think that the answer in hindsight is, yeah, it does. There's an urgency to it, an innocence, a coming of age and a realization that we're called to a higher purpose with our art.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there any particular song that you can think of that really evokes that?

CARLILE: "Downpour" has the essence of longing to be somewhere that you're not and longing to be with people that you can't be with in a familial sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWNPOUR")

MARGO PRICE: (Singing) And I wave goodbye with the sun in my eyes. And I wish I could be there tonight.

CARLILE: And I think that that serves the message of the refugees a lot. "Again Today" calls us to action...

(SOUNDBITE OF PEARL JAM SONG, "AGAIN TODAY")

CARLILE: ...In that it warns us that complacency can catch up with us and that the path of least resistance can catch up with us, and especially in the way that Pearl Jam interpreted it in such an urgent punk-rock style. I felt like I was hearing the songs for the first time in a lot of instances.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGAIN TODAY")

PEARL JAM: (Singing) And have I lost my way? The path of least resistance is catching up with me again today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you were putting together this album, I imagine you were having conversations with, you know, artists, producers, people in the music business that you might not have had otherwise, you know, about global conflict and activism. Did you learn anything from them that surprised you?

CARLILE: All the time. All the time. I learned that Ruby Amanfu came here as a toddler from Africa. I learned that Dave Cobb's wife is an Albanian asylum-seeker, and that the reason why he has a family is because of this country's acceptance of her when she was young.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's a producer on the album.

CARLILE: Dave Cobb, yeah, he produced the Dolly track, Kris Kristofferson, Margot Price. He oversaw some of the curating with me and just worked with me as a friend because the cause was near and dear to him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think artists can have an impact on what happens in the world? I mean, is there a message in what you're doing about what musicians and music fans, even, can do to change things? People often feel powerless.

CARLILE: I feel like they do. I feel like they have the biggest impact on what happens in the world because for one thing, people trust artists. They know that they put everything second to their art. And you can tell when they do and when they don't. And artists move the needle because they speak the universal language. And I hate to see things like Hollywood or like rock 'n' roll or journalism, even, be vilified in the way that we're seeing it vilified in our political system right now because these voices are the voices that bring us happiness and peace. And we shouldn't stop listening to them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Brandi Carlile. She recently put out a benefit album with covers of her own songs. It's called "Cover Stories." Thank you so much for being with us.

CARLILE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIDING MY HEART")

ADELE: (Singing) This is how the story went. I met someone by accident.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Be sure to stay tuned to this station or go to npr.org for the latest on last night's terror attack in London.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro. Thanks for listening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.