How Pearl Jam, Obama and Others Helped Brandi Carlile Reinvent 'The Story'

Singer-songwriter's new all-star 'Cover Stories' celebrates her 2007 breakthrough LP while simultaneously raising funds for children in dire need

Brandi Carlile and collaborators such as Pearl Jam's Mike McCready and My Morning Jacket's Jim James discuss reviving 'The Story' for a good cause. Credit: David McClister

For Brandi Carlile, 2007's The Story is the record that launched her career. Though it was actually her second full-length, a heart-wrenching placement of the title track on Grey's Anatomy catapulted the singer-songwriter to a new level of mainstream fame.

At the time Carlile was writing for The Story, she was only 17, getting over a broken heart and failing at school. But the now-36-year-old artist says that her view of the album has evolved as she's grown up. "I got on the road and started seeing the rest of the world – the rest of the country – and I was influenced by injustice, poverty and a longing for feeling like I belonged somewhere again," she tells Rolling Stone. "Then it changed right into my love life when I got married and had a child. Every time I hear the songs, it's weird how they've been able to follow me through the years and mean different things, but still be just as relevant."

Now, The Story is taking on yet another layer of significance. In honor of its 10th anniversary, the LP has been reborn as Cover Stories, a release consisting of (mostly) new covers of each of the seminal album's songs. And it's not just the eye-popping cast – which includes Adele, Pearl Jam, Dolly Parton, My Morning Jacket's Jim James and, yes, one Barack Obama – that makes the album special. All proceeds from Cover Stories will go to War Child – an organization that gives children in war zones a chance to start over. 

Carlile is no stranger to activism. She runs the Looking Out Foundation, funding arts, health and community-development organizations that are often overlooked by the public, and she donates one dollar from each concert ticket she sells to one of the many organizations Looking Out has partnered with, including Girls Rock Camp ATL, Charity: Water and the Suicide Prevention Education Alliance. 

The idea for Cover Stories came about when Carlile's foundation had just finished up a campaign called Fight the Fear, which focused on teaching women and girls in at-risk communities self-defense and self-confidence mechanisms, and she began paying serious attention to the refugee crisis. "I was talking to my wife about it one night just after the baby was born, saying, 'I don't think I can tolerate the reality anymore that parents feel this way about their children and they're having to flee their homes in the middle of the night,'" Carlile says. Conveniently, her wife, Catherine Shepard, ran Paul McCartney's charity in London and was familiar with War Child. "We knew we wanted to take the 10th anniversary of the record and completely dedicate it to the refugee crisis in some way, so we looked up War Child to see what they were doing, and they had a campaign called 'The Story,'" notes Carlile. "We took that as a sign, so we contacted them and asked them if they'd support us in supporting them, and they did."

In a rare set of circumstances, 100 percent of the proceeds from Cover Stories will go to War Child"It's not just the artists, producers, musicians, management; it's also the publishing company Warner/Chappell and Sony," Carlile explains. "[War Child] is really focused on the Syrian refugee crisis both in Jordan and Iraq. They're going into the refugee camps, and they are basically seeking out families with young children and they're trying to find out how they can help those particular children. The initial contact would be about food and clothing, but the goal is to advance that contact into counseling."

To get Cover Stories underway, Carlile reached out to both heroes and friends, beginning with Dolly Parton. "I sent her a handwritten letter and told her the way I was feeling about the children in refugee camps," describes Carlile. "She wrote me back on Dolly letterhead with her hot pink Dolly signature where the 'y' turns into a butterfly, and was like, 'Yes. Absolutely. Let's do it.' And I was shocked." The result was a sweet, anthemic interpretation of the album's centerpiece, "The Story." "No one has ever taken my ass to school like Dolly Parton did," Carlile continues.

One by one, each of Carlile's guest artists added another dimension to her 10-year-old record and consistently defied her expectations. "I thought I was going to get really lo-fi ... lots of iPhone recordings and GarageBand demos from the back of the tour bus, but I was really surprised when everyone went into proper studios and really put a lot into these songs," Carlile says. "But what I wanted it to sound like was what each individual artist would want their addition to sound like so that we could engage all different types of people from different demographics. I can't reach into the refugee crisis and create an awareness that would be based on everyone sounding the same."

Following Carlile's connection with Parton, she reached out to Adele, Jim James, Pearl Jam, the Avett Brothers, Indigo Girls and Margo Price to help bring her vision to life. With the exception of Adele's soulful 2011 rendition of "Hiding My Heart" and Ruby Amanfu's moody 2015 version of "Shadow on the Wall" ("I really felt like we needed an element of intensity that Ruby has"), Cover Stories was recorded throughout 2016.

The breadth of the talent that signed on was a shock to Carlile. "Probably one of the more significant moments of my life would have been the Pearl Jam addition: That was surreal," Carlile divulges. "Being a girl from Seattle and hearing Ed [Vedder] singing my lyrics was pretty crazy." And the rock band didn't hold back, crafting a punk rendition of "Again Today" to support a cause they truly believed in. "The band guys were all super enthusiastic when I told them about the War Child benefit project, and [band member] Matt Cameron has been a longtime supporter of War Child," Pearl Jam's Mike McCready says. "Ed [Vedder] suggested that 'Again Today' could be done in a Ramones-type fashion."

While Pearl Jam's support for the cause fueled their contributions, Seth Avett's admiration for Carlile herself led the Avett Brothers to want to cover "Have You Ever." "Brandi as a person has a lot of power: She has a lot of love, grace and positivity, and I think that comes out in her music," Avett explains. When it came to shaping their take on "Have You Ever," he took a minimal approach. "When I first heard [the song] I thought it was perfect, and I could hear our version of the song in my head," Avett says. "I ended up recording the basic track, the guitar and the vocal in a hotel room right by the Pacific Ocean while we were on tour six months ago. I fought tooth-and-nail to carve out time to get Scott [Avett] to come and add vocals to it. The base [of the song] is guitar, vocals, banjo and some low-end piano. It was a very stripped-down recording, and it was done with love."

Breakout country star Margo Price didn't need much to sell her on Carlile's idea. "I had heard that Dolly [Parton] was going to be on it, and I said, 'Say no more.'" Price took on the melancholic ballad "Downpour," giving it a sunnier twang. "Brandi picked [the song] and it was my favorite off of the record, so it was perfect that we both had the same idea in mind," Price says. "She's been so supportive of me, so it was the least I could do to repay my gratitude to her. Brandi has been passionate about the refugee crisis long before people even knew it was an issue."

Just as Carlile saw a sign when she started researching War Child, James felt the same way when he decided to sing "Wasted." "Strangely enough I had written and was working on my own song entitled 'Wasted' at the time, and Brandi asked me if I wanted to cover a song from The Story," he explains. "I was listening to it and came across her version of 'Wasted' and was moved by it, so it seemed like it was meant to be." As for Carlile, she described James' interpretation of the original as "extremely unique and weird just like you'd expect it to be."

To tie the unique project together, Carlile wrote another letter, asking none other than Barack Obama to craft the album's written foreword. "I think he's a profound person in human history and a civil-rights activist who was able to work within a system that was really impactful for me and my family," she explains. "I proposed to my wife on the day that [Obama] came out in support of gay marriage. He's a president and an activist that's made a really big impact on me, so I told him that, and he helped me support the project to help War Child."

It's clear that for Carlile, Cover Stories is more than just a record. "I think that Cover Stories is just a tool," she says. "It's just a way that we can communicate with each other, and it's the biggest thing I have to give away. Cover Stories is relevant because it's a conversation – it's bringing a lot of different people to the table that don't always come to the table together.

"We're promoting a conversation between people that love Dolly Parton, people that love Pearl Jam, people that love the Avett Brothers. ...," she continues. "We're promoting a dialogue between people from the North, South and the U.K., and we're asking if we can depoliticize children and talk about compassion. That's what I hope [the project] accomplishes."