Behind the Scenes of Brandi Carlile’s IMAX Concert in Laurel Canyon, and Her New Album, ‘In the Canyon Haze’

Brandi Carlile’s IMAX livecast Wednesday evening couldn’t have been better timed in the calendar year, coming just a few days after the equinox. A nationwide live simulcast on IMAX screens pretty much demands a universal start time of 6 p.m. PT/9 ET,  a time frame that, in the last week of September, means a 90-minute show being shot outdoors on a ridge overlooking L.A. will start sunny and end with a dark sky and the basin at its twinkliest. Cinematographers everywhere couldn’t have asked the movie gods for a more compliant dusk than the one Carlile and her band and filmmaking team got.

She’s having her own magic hour, of course … definitely not to be confused with a twilight, in her case. The Carlile album that came out just about a year ago, “In These Silent Days,” carried on its Grammy-winning predecessor’s success in further establishing her as America’s troubadour du jour in the classic singer-songwriter vein. Now she’s celebrating that anniversary with a deluxe edition that includes a separate, all-new rendering of the album, titled “In the Canyon Haze,” featuring re-arrangements meant to invoke the spirit of early ‘70s Laurel Canyon folk-rock just as blatantly as the altered title suggests. There’s something almost ironically contrary about marrying the new record’s intimacy to giant screens — Lookout Mountain meets “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman”? — but with a little bit of help, maybe, from the spirits of the hippie holler, it worked.

Wednesday’s show was a little bit of a test run for the plans that IMAX has to do more music. It’s far from the premium company’s first collaboration with musicians; they’ve done events like Kanye West’s “Donda 2” release party, which was part concert and part oddball listening session, simulcast from a packed stadium. (Unlike West’s show, Carlile’s did not start almost two hours late.) “IMAX obviously does a lot of films and presentations, but to do an actual full live concert with a real artist and band that really play and really write songs and have a touring sensibility, I think this is is the first of its kind with them,” said Carlile’s manager, Will Botwin, minutes after the campaign toast that followed the show’s wrap. “So there was a lot of learning curve things in terms of presenting it and being true to who Brandi is. It was definitely a bit of a test tube, but the mad science of it all worked out — it felt like a real victory today.”

At a rehearsal Tuesday evening, it became apparent just how different of a presentation than the usual filmed pop extravaganza this would be. With the band and crew assembled on the slim hilltop ridge abutting a small swimming pool — the string quartet was positioned atop the hot tub, by the way — there was literally not much margin for error. That applied to the geography of the setting, just outside the Ross House, but also to the fact that director Sam Wrench opted to have each number be shot as a single take with a single point of view, alternately involving either an IMAX camera on a crane or one wielded by a Steadicam operator. On a headset, you could hear an assistant director who had nailed down every piece of the music giving directions to the lone cameraman about where to hover next: “Two bars to pre-chorus with strings!… Chorus with backup, four bars!”

Taking stock of the rehearsal as the crew broke for the night Tuesday, Carlile and Wrench chatted amongst themselves — and with a visitor — about how risky the setup was, with so few camera operators and such focused intimacy.

“It’s always live for you guys,” said Wrench, “but usually we have loads of cameras that we can hide things with, or if someone mucks up, you can cut away. We don’t have any of that. We’re in the boat with you!”

“That’s what it’s all about, man,” said Carlile. “There’s too few of those situations anymore.”

“We ended up with this idea of doing single shots because otherwise there was a risk that it’s just like a filmed gig,on five cameras,” noted Wrench. “The audience, for better or worse, are captive in that cinema. You’ve got them there, so you’ve got a little bit of license to play with that, which you don’t with something someone might be watching on a phone. But most of all we wanted to be able to celebrate you and the band and how natural that was gonna be. I didn’t want to distract them” with cuts — “I wanted our part almost to be that thing that just completely falls away.”

“Which is so brilliant, and so counterintuitive, I think to a lot of people,” agreed Carlile, “to go take something as massive and monolithic as IMAX and then go: How I make this intimate? … I wonder if more artists are gonna do it after this. But I feel like it’s part of an artist’s job to make big spaces feel small —make 20,000 people feel like 100, if you can, with your movements and the banter and the way that you’re communicating.”

Director Sam Wrench and Brandi Carlile pose at the Ross House after the completion of their IMAX concert presentation from Laurel Canyon (Photo: Jade Ehlers)

For Carlile, it was a small step — with big lenses — to this from the livestreams she did during the pandemic, whether it was full-album recreations with her band in her Washington state barn or literal campfire sessions outside. “We were getting some nights where we were having 20,000 people watching us, and it was never lost on me when I was sitting at the campfire on my deck that I was playing for a Madison Square Garden and a half, when that was happening. It felt profound, and profoundly weird, and I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of miss it. So when IMAX came calling and saying, ‘You want to livestream that to movie theaters?,’ I was like, ‘Well, that’s different.’ But it’s reminiscent of that livestream feeling of only having 10 or 15 people in front of you, but knowing that there are thousands and thousands and thousands watching elsewhere.”

Back up in the Ross House’s kitchen, IMAX Entertainment EVP/president Megan Colligan was marveling at Carlile’s mastery of the medium, even allowing that it may feel experimental for artists to adjust to some of the distinguishing characteristics of IMAX. “As a performer, she knows when she must draw you in for what she’s doing as an artist,” said Colligan, pointing out the moments when Carlile played directly to the camera in closeup. “But there are also times that she’s letting you go and explore.” And the veteran studio exec says that’s one of the benefits of the format, when it comes to medium and long shots, anyway. “The screen is so big, and there’s so much to look at, that I think when there are longer and slower takes like this and you’re given the time to actually explore the stage, you find that you can really enjoy choosing where your eye goes. You mostly are transfixed with Brandi’s performance, but you can also get really lost in just enjoying looking at one of the violinists that’s playing with her, and you really hear that player more, much like when you’re at the symphony and you choose to look at the violin players. It can be very meditative. If you watched Brandi’s show again tomorrow, I think you would actually have a very different experience.”

In a number of markets, viewers will have a chance to do just that, as Carlile’s concert has just been announced as getting an encore appearance Sunday afternoon at 4 local time in 31 theaters. Those are mostly among the 38 IMAX theaters that are reported as having sold out Wednesday night’s live show. (Scroll down to find a list of the theaters that are re-screening it on Sunday afternoon. Colligan says IMAX may find other occasions to bring it back in the future, too.)

There will be a wider audience for the new “Silent Days/Canyon Haze” set itself, which came out digitally on Wednesday, to coincide with the IMAX livecast, and comes out as a double-CD on Friday. (The double-LP colored vinyl release, because of plant delays, comes out in indie stores on Black Friday, and in general release the first weekend of December.)

“When did you conceive it?” asked Wrench, relaxing with Carlile. “How long has it been in the works, the new version?”

The artist told the origin story of conceiving “In the Canyon Haze”: “The label wanted me to do the deluxe edition thing that everybody’s doing. But I’ve always been really snarky about that when people do it, because sometimes it just feels like a way to make your fans buy the album twice. And that’s just the bummer — people only have so much money. So I felt like if I was gonna ask the fans to buy the album twice, that it wasn’t just going to be a couple of covers or a live song or something tacked onto the end of an album they already have. I was gonna completely redo and totally reconceptualize the whole album, from the aesthetic all the way through the music to the genre that it would typically belong in. And it was something I had been wanting to do anyway, the Laurel Canyon sound.”

So why hadn’t she done that on the first version of the album, “In These Silent Days,” which had a more polished sound, though no one would mistake it for obvious Top 40 fodder? When Variety first spoke to her about the record in early 2021, that was a point at which she was glamming up her image, and she said she was getting in touch with her inner diva in material like “Right on Time” (which was nominated for record and song of the year at the Grammys; the full album is eligible in the coming cycle).

“I mean, I never did find her, my diva self,” she admitted. “But I have felt really comfortable, at least in my aesthetic, centered in the glam-rock world. That’s been a fun place to be in, terms of my style of dress and my hair and the way I perform on stage and stuff like that. But it fits like a glove with roots music. It’s amazing — like, you can really do both, in one setting.”

Anyway, when the idea of “Canyon Haze” broached itself in her consciousness, she decided to give in to being a lady of the canyon, more or less. “I’d been squashing some of the Laurel Canyon tendencies that were coming out in me when I was in the studio on the main album, because it felt like a bit of a guilty pleasure thing. I didn’t wanna be too derivative of Joni (Mitchell). I knew how much time I’d been spending with her, and I just didn’t want to deviate from myself. But something was pulling me to want to do it, just like something pulls me to do country music and be in the Highwomen — or to sing with Soundgarden, you know? But that didn’t mean those things were on my album. So once that album came out, then I had the freedom to maybe go back and do all that stuff I wanted to do. We did it at my house, in our studio that’s in my barn we’ve been working in for 22 years, and you can’t stand up in most of it. It’s got the same paint job we put on it in our 20s” — the “we” being her and longtime music partners Phil and Tim Hanseroth. “And we just conceptualized it and did all the work ourselves in about eight days.”

But she resists the idea of “Canyon Haze” being just a more acoustic version of its predecessor, although much of it works out that way. “I was adamant that it wasn’t gonna be a downgrade; it wasn’t gonna be a ‘stripped down’ version of ‘In These Silent Days.’ And some of these songs have twice as many tracks on them as ‘In These Silent Days.’ ‘When You’re Wrong,’ there’s a more extravagant rethink of that song. ‘This Time Tomorrow’ is probably the only song that sounded Laurel Canyon on the original record; I would actually say the new one sounds more like Freddie Mercury and ‘Love of My Life.’” (She demonstrated that in the IMAX shoot by singing a snippet of the Queen song at the piano.) ”Basically, I wanted to do the opposite of everything that was done on this song originally. So, like, if it was a ballad, it’s an uptempo. If it was on piano, now it’s on guitar. If it was on guitar, now it’s on piano. You know, if there were keyboards and layered pads, now it’s background vocals or strings.”

For the new album, she also worked up a new version of “You and Me on the Rock” that has her singing harmonies with the woman she wrote it about, her wife, Catherine, instead of Lucius, who sang b.g.v. on the original. But Lucius was back, for the IMAX shoot, on nearly everything but that now-marital duet. So between those women, the twins and Carlile, this week’s live arrangements had five-part harmony at times — a fairly magnificent gilding of the harmonic lily.

“When we were working on the ethos of the record, we were listening to the Mamas and the Papas — you know, ‘all the leaves are brown,’ and and all these overlapping vocals,” said Carlile. “The twins and I had our vocals overlap with each other all the time. That was able to be accomplished in the studio; that’s not able to be accomplished live without more people. And Jess and Holly, they just radiate west coast. They just radiate California. I think that they’re two of the best singers making music right now, and their album is my favorite pop album over the last 20 years.” (She’s speaking of Lucius’ recently released “Second Nature” album, and Carlile has a right to a slight bias about it — she co-produced it for them.) “So I want them to be seen by as many people as they possibly can be.”

It’s not just California that Carlile dreams about, or Cali mamas. After the toast wrapped up Wednesday night, she was set to catch a 7 a.m. flight to the South to join Wynonna Judd, as promised, for the first few dates on what had been billed as a Judds reunion tour before Naomi’s death.

Carlile was giving her British director, who doesn’t know a lot of American country music, an education about the Judds. “One of their many songs is ‘Mama, He’s Crazy,’ and the first line goes, ‘Mama, I found someone.’ They’re a mother-daughter duo, you know? And Wynonna hasn’t been able to get past the word ‘mama.’” During a recent Carlile show where she and Judd were going to sing the song together, Brandi realized that her voice wasn’t low enough to sing the part in Wynonna’s stead, either. She thought about how she and her bass-playing brother, Jay, grew up in what basically amounted at the time to a Judds cover band. Her brother happened to be at that show, and so Carlile enlisted him to join them in harmony.

“Come out on stage with me,” she recalls telling Jay. “It’s in front of thousands of people and you’re gonna shit your pants, but just do it. Just own up to it and do it. You gotta sing the low harmony for Naomi Judd, ‘cause she’s not here. So he did it straight away — or after he paused for some shots of whiskey.”And now he’s joined Judd’s band for the entire tour that’s about to commence, not just the dates Brandi is guesting on.

Back in the sound mixing room at Ross House, Botwin, who works with Red Light Management, was nearly agog at the schedule his client keeps up. “Going from this to catch a morning flight to embody the role of Naomi for a couple nights to start a Judds tour in Grand Rapids and Toledo — that’s kind of the world of Brandi in terms of her dexterity and her immense talent being applied in different ways. It’s hard to move on quickly from something like this into something like that. That’s a hard left turn.” And it’s not all — Carlile is going from the Judds dates to a few solo shows, back a full band tour that will wrap at Madison Square Garden in late October, possibly giving her a break before her all-female Girls Just Wanna festival in Mexico in January.

“That she’s just able to navigate and keep an incredible voice and incredible health and energy level is pretty amazing,” said Botwin. And her slow build to the explosion of the last three years might not have been possible if she were starting out now, he figures. “I’m just happy for her because all of that hard work over 20 years is continuing to grow and culminate in her success. For many artists, as you know, it usually happens either right outta the gate or it doesn’t happen. It’s not like it used to be when we were growing up, where artists could go on the road and get into clubs and get good by playing a lot and slowly grow. It’s obviously happening much more quickly with social media and impressions and followers.” In Carlile’s and the twins’ case, it was worth 22 years’ worth of incremental impressions to get to the ridge for a magic hour-plus.

Following are the locations where the IMAX presentation of “Brandi Carlile: In The Canyon Haze – Live from Laurel Canyon” will get a reprise screening Sunday afternoon (with tickets on sale here):

Atlanta, GA — Regal Atlantic Station 16 and IMAX Theatre

Boise, ID — Regal Boise Stadium 21 + IMAX

Boston, MA — AMC Assembly Row 12 + IMAX

Charlotte, NC — Regal Stonecrest at Piper Glen Stadium

Chicago, IL — AMC Oak Brook 12 + IMAX

Chicago, IL — Regal City North Stadium 14 and IMAX Theatre

Cleveland, OH — Regal Crocker Park Stadium 16 + IMAX

Dallas, TX — AMC Northpark 15 + IMAX

Denver, CO — AMC Westminster Promenade 24 + IMAX

Denver, CO — Regal Colorado Center 8 + IMAX

Detroit, MI — AMC Livonia 20 + IMAX

Kansas City, KS — AMC Town Center 20 + IMAX

Los Angeles, CA — AMC Century City

Minneapolis, MN — AMC Rosedale 14 and IMAX Theatre

Aventura, FL — Aventura 24 + IMAX

Nashville, TN — AMC Thoroughbred 20 + IMAX

New York, NY — EMPIRE 25 + IMAX, DOLBY

Cherry Hill, NJ — CHERRY HILL 24 + IMAX

Paramus, NJ — Garden State Plaza 16 + IMAX, DOLBY

Rockaway, NJ — Rockaway 16 + IMAX 

Philadelphia, PA — Neshaminy 24 + IMAX, DOLBY

Philadelphia, PA — Regal King of Prussia Stadium 16 + IMAX

Phoenix, AZ — AMC Desert Ridge 18 + IMAX

Portland, OR — Regal Bridgeport 17 + IMAX

Salt Lake City, UT — Megaplex Theatres @ GENEVA + IMAX

San Francisco, CA — AMC Bay Street 16 + IMAX

Seattle, WA — AMC Alderwood 16 + IMAX

Seattle, WA — AMC Kent Station 14 + IMAX

Seattle, WA — Regal Thornton Place Stadium 14 & IMAX

Washington, DC — AMC Georgetown 14 + IMAX

Washington, DC — AMC Tysons Corner 16 + IMAX

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