Reflecting on Brandi Carlile’s ‘Bear Creek’ record with producer Trina Shoemaker.

Hang on, just hang on for a minute, I’ve got something to say.

A little over eight years ago, Brandi Carlile released her fourth studio record, entitled Bear Creek. The album consists of 13 breathtaking tracks that provide the ultimate landscape for telling a story… for telling your story.

Bear Creek was recorded at Bear Creek Studio in Woodinville, WA, hence the title of the record. The atmosphere of the studio, which has offered a state-of-the art creative space for world class musicians for over 30 years, is one of raw emotion. A serene backdrop of only nature and earth’s purest elements surround you and in turn, connect directly with your soul.

Carlile collaborated with producer Trina Shoemaker on Bear Creek. Shoemaker’s previous works had included the likes of Sheryl Crow, Blues Traveler, Queens of the Stone Age and the Indigo Girls, yet she had managed to remain somewhat under the radar prior to teaming up with Carlile in 2012.

“My main memory of Bear Creek is falling in love with Brandi, Tim and Phil (Hanseroth) and discovering that they, like me, are foul mouthed studio hounds who love hi jinx and tom foolery,” Shoemaker tells me. In fact, the first vocal you here on the record is Carlile and the Hanseroth’s in perfect harmony on “Hard Way Home” – providing you with the paddle to begin your journey down the creek. The opening track sets the tone for the attitude that remains true for the duration as you navigate by only trusting your gut.

“I never did learn how to follow the rules
I never was good at sleeping while the moon was full
I just lie and burn
Wreck my mind while the planet turns…

…I know what it means to be on my own
The things I’ve known
Looks like I’m taking the hard way home.”

But taking the hard way does not imply the wrong way. My interpretation is that it’s doing things your way, without compromising the power that is “your voice”.

“The label wanted us to do a few days of pre-production before we started cutting the record. We were meant to just rehearse for the first three days and the label wanted to come by and basically make sure that I was capable (since I wasn’t their first choice to produce). I was just plain old Shoemaker with no hits to my name,” Shoemaker explains. “Fuck that, I told the band and proceeded to start cutting tracks right away. We got “What Did I Ever Come Here For” the first night.”

And there we get to the first point of Bear Creek that continuously resonates with me – it’s lined with questions. Some are in code, some are in analogies, some are in experiences and others are a direct shot between the eyes, where you find yourself staring in the mirror questioning everything that you are revealing – “Did I bring shame on my family?” “Did it show when I was weak?” “What DID I ever come here for?”, “Don’t we always find a way to carry on?”


Although Bear Creek emotes confessional moments that pull on your heart strings, it doesn’t necessarily represent an approach that was brand new to Carlile. “Follow”, the opening track of her debut, self-titled record is a great example, “Follow your heart and see where it may take you, don’t let the world outside there break you, they know not who you are inside.” It’s an authentic method that Carlile has seemingly subscribed to from the very start – be yourself loud and proud.

What’s fascinating is – up until that point in 2012, “The Story” was arguably Carlile’s biggest hit, being the cornerstone of her sophomore release that also enforces – this is “My Song”. But with Bear Creek, there are more of the personal stories in there and there are even “The Jokes”. They flow freely with Carlile breaking down a levee that will at times purposely leave you without a paddle to endure a storm where the only realization is – “The anchor of my love, to which my heart is bound is the iron for the cage, that keeps me on the ground…to fall like rain.” Then, as the mist and fog lift, you begin to see the light…”I gave it everything I had for so long. Save your sorrow for your song, don’t we always find a way to carry on?”

You do. It’s quite simple when it’s your song you are writing, people believe you. And through all the sensational lyrics and melodies that make up the Bear Creek environment, it’s just a three-word concept that demonstrates how the record changed my life. Tell your story.

Artist Waves is all about the story; how the moving art happened, why, what causes the ripple effect and then what happens? How does it positively impact others? How can we continue to nurture and have it grow. The answer and recurring theme is having the story be yours –  just like Bear Creek, and every other Carlile record is… a continuation of her story.

A Promise To Keep:

To me, Bear Creek is the one that connects differently in terms of inspiring the vision of my story. By definition, I’m a dreamer… but am I too old to be? Sometimes I think so, but then I think this art is saving part of itself for me and I somehow find a way to carry on.

“My grandpa gave me a wheat penny and I kept it in my pocket
I had big plans in my backyard to build me a space rocket.”

When I was a kid, my grandpa actually did give me a wheat penny and told me to always keep it in my pocket. I know what he meant… “Don’t go growin’ old before your time has come. You can’t take back what you have done. You gotta keep your heart young.” Then…

“Raise hell. There’s a story no one tells.”

All In a Moment, All In a Sound:

As the waters smooth out and there’s a glisten bubbling off the fresh sounds of the creek, you uncover a gem within the gem. It’s gently placed fourth in the track listing, but perhaps could serve as the curtain closer to the experience, yet it was also the lead single. I’m talking about “That Wasn’t Me”. I often wonder – of all the incredible tunes in Carlile’s catalog, how did “That Wasn’t Me” become the song Tanya Tucker selects to cover? (By the way, Tucker’s While I’m Livin’ was mixed by Shoemaker, awarding her a Grammy).

“We cut “That Wasn’t Me” with just piano, vocal and harmonies (at first). It was perfect. It’s fine with the rhythm section, but it was PURE without it,” Shoemaker tells me. ““Did I go on a tangent, did I lie through my teeth?””, I just love it.

That’s the genius of Shoemaker – noticing the strength in the artist and pulling out the “your story”.
“I loved experiencing Brandi come into her own as a guitar player. I wanted her playing on everything, even if at that time she was raw and ragged. I found her playing enchanting and her nascent talent worthy.

I loved creating the sonics that allow the main harmonic content in “Hard Way Home” to sound like steel drums. It’s a combination of one of Tim’s oddball guitars and a Wurlitzer piano (I believe).

I remember begging Brandi to try the falsetto voices in the 2nd and 4th verses of “What Did I Ever Come Here For”. She pushed back hard on that, but she agreed to try and she ended up liking it, quite a lot I think.”

That same essence serves true for Bear Creek Studio. Its rustic setting allows your confessions to fly without judgement. They hit the air, catch fire in the winds and then speak your truth back to you in a way that allows you to trust …that your openness is the right thing to do. It’s safe here, it’s natural and you will be rewarded for it.

“We are proud to be a part of Brandi’s path. She is a great artist and friend. It was lovely to work with Trina on this album, too. We had plenty of time to get to know Brandi, the band and Trina. We shared stories and meals at the farmhouse, and it was super to be around such a humble and amazing genius! Actually, several amazing geniuses,” studio founder, Manny Hadlock tells me.

“Brandi mentioned to me that there are great albums by her favorite artists named after the recording studios they spent time in and asked us if anybody had ever named an album after our studio. It was such an honor when Brandi let us know she would like to name the album Bear Creek,” says Ryan Hadlock, Studio Chief Engineer, Producer and son of Manny.

From “I sometimes…to “You call” Bear Creek is filled with habitual beauty – where the trees smile down on you with respect for your courage to forge ahead. The record concludes the same way it starts – Carlile and the Hanseroth’s singing in unison, creating the gusts of melody that then glide into the actual sounds of Bear Creek.

done by the band during the Bear Creek sessions

Heart’s Content:

When you tell your story, you take risks. There’s an exposure that you only see in the stars as you lie on your back inhaling the sky that blankets the cabin in the woods. And you’ll learn who you are even if it doesn’t take your life.

This Sunday evening, Carlile will play Bear Creek in full. In a time of massive isolation, we all have the chance to be in nature together, under the same Bear Creek sky – asking the questions, hearing the stories and singing the truth.

“I love this record best of all,” Shoemaker tells me in conclusion.

And so do I.

That will be me.

Catch Brandi Carlile performing Bear Creek in its entirety this Sunday at 8pm CT. Tickets for the live stream are available here: Proceeds from Carlile’s live streams have benefited her crew, all of which have been kept onboard during this pandemic.

*all photos courtesy of Bear Creek Studio

follow @JeffGorra