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Carlile, Brandi

Brandi Carlile

Singer, songwriter, guitarist

It is hard to categorize the music of singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who hails from the hinterlands of Washington state. Carlile's music sounds a bit country, a bit rock 'n' roll, with a mix of folk and pop thrown in. It is not the flavor of her songs, however, that has captivated listeners across the musical spectrum, it is her voice. Carlile exhibits a remarkable range, sometimes whispering her soulful, emotive vocals and other times delivering her lyrics with gruff power reminiscent of rocker Melissa Etheridge. Sometimes her voice contains that honky-tonk twang perfected by Patsy Cline. As Carlile remarked to Rolling Stone, "I get all sorts of comparisons but never to one person. It's more like, ‘Sheryl Crow meets Patsy Cline,’ which makes me feel good. At least there's some originality there." Carlile made her major label debut at the age of 23, with 2005's self-titled album, Brandi Carlile. The album earned her a spot on Rolling Stone's 2005 list of "10 Artists to Watch." Carlile followed with 2007's The Story. Since then, she has been headlining sold-out shows, playing for a fan base that keeps growing.

Raised on Country Music

Carlile was born on June 1, 1981, in Ravensdale, Washington, a small, isolated town about 30 miles southeast of Seattle. She grew up in the backwoods, listening to honky tonk music and building forts in the woods. Her mother, Teresa Carlile, had a small following as a local country singer, and her home was filled with the sounds of country music greats, including Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash. The family also frequented the Northwest Grand Ole Opry, a local knockoff of the Nashville original. Carlile's mother performed there often. One night, as Carlile sat in the audience, she watched a young girl about her age sing Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors" and figured she could do that, too. The next week, an eight-year-old Carlile stepped onto the stage and performed the Johnny Cash hit "Tennessee Flat-Top Box." From that moment on, Carlile knew she wanted to perform. She took up piano and later learned guitar.

As a preteen, Carlile performed country songs with her mother and brother in a band called The Carliles. Her interest in music intensified after she discovered pop. Up until then, Carlile had only been exposed to country music, at home and at the Opry. "One day they let this guy come on and sing Elton John songs," she recalled in an interview with Tina Whelski on the Star Polish Web site. "He sang ‘Skyline Pigeon’ and he sang ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.’ That just freaked me out. I thought it was so good. It was my first exposure to pop music. … I just fell in love with the stories and the music and the harmonies and the singing." Carlile bought every Elton John record she could find and listened incessantly, decorating her walls with pictures cut from the record sleeves.

Carlile's discovery of Elton John led to an exploration of pop and a love for Freddie Mercury and Queen, Radiohead and Nirvana. At 14, she was hired to sing backup for a local Elvis impersonator named Clayton Wagey. On stage, Carlile wore a sequined costume and performed choreographed dances, but she also learned a lot about harmonies and layering vocals.

Meanwhile, Carlile continued to perfect her voice and try out different styles by listening to and studying various musicians. Whenever she was alone at home, she locked herself in her bedroom and sang at the top of her lungs. Speaking to Ernest A. Jasmin of the Tacoma, Washington News Tribune, Carlile described her musical explorations. "I listened to … Patsy Cline to get my voice to break like that. I wanted to understand yodeling and get that Hank [Williams] thing down and just really get into classic country. And then I decided in my early, early teens that I didn't want to listen to my mom and dad's music so much any more."

Honed Skills Playing Club Scene

By 2000 Carlile had written several songs and was fronting her own band. Over the next few years, she played countless shows around the Seattle area, hitting local coffeehouses and small-town bars. Some nights, the band made $600 playing four-hour shows before a packed house. "We'd play all our originals, play a set of covers, and then play our originals again," she told Tom Scanlon of the Seattle Times. Some nights they played before a sparse audience, and the meagre take had to be split four ways. "I just kept telling myself it was all for a reason—and it was better than any other job I could get," Carlile told Scanlon.

By 2003 Carlile had developed a reputation in the Seattle area, and her shows were selling out. By then she had been joined by twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, formerly of the Fighting Machinists. They provided backup harmonies, while Tim Hanseroth played guitar and Phil Hanseroth filled in on bass. The twins, fond of pop music, provided a counterbalance to Carlile's deep-seated country roots. In early 2004 they recorded a demo album for Carlile's manager, Mike Barber, who eventually persuaded Columbia Records' senior vice president Tim Devine to take a copy.

After listening to Carlile sing, Devine was ready to sign her to the label. Devine told Scanlon that he usually liked to see a group perform before signing. However, in this case, Devine found Carlile's voice and songs so stunning that he did not need further convincing. "I think she is a great folk-rock voice, in the lineage of a Dylan or a Springsteen or a [Jeff] Buckley—all of whom incidentally recorded for this label. I think she fits well into that oeuvre."

Signed with Columbia Records

Carlile's deal with Columbia Records was finalized in early 2005. That summer she released her first album, Brandi Carlile, which featured a blend of country, folk, and alternative rock. Most of the album was recorded live in the rural Maple Valley, Washington, cabin that Carlile called home. Indie icon John Goodmanson, who has worked with Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead, and Harvey Danger, served as producer. Of the album's ten songs, Carlile wrote or co-wrote all but two. The Hanseroth brothers filled in the rest. "Fall Apart Again" and "Throw It All Away" showcased her powerful, captivating voice and became fan favorites. Rolling Stone named Carlile to its list of "10 Artists to Watch" in 2005. She received a big boost when three of the album's songs were featured on the ABC hit show Grey's Anatomy.

After the album was released, Carlile continued to hone her skills by headlining her own tour and also opening for such musical stalwarts as Shawn Colvin, Tori Amos, Chris Isaak, The Fray, and Ray LaMontagne. During one headlining stop at a small club in Atlanta, the Indigo Girls—Emily Saliers and Amy Ray—showed up to hear Carlile play. They were so impressed they invited Carlile to sing a song, "Last Tears," on their 2006 album Despite Our Differences.

For the Record …

Born on June 1, 1981, in Ravensdale, WA; daughter of Teresa Carlile (a country singer).

Began career as backup singer for Seattle-area Elvis impersonator, mid-1990s; formed own band and played Seattle area coffeehouses and bars, 2000-04; signed with Columbia Records, 2005; released major label debut, Brandi Carlile, 2005; toured as headlining act and also alongside Shawn Colvin, Tori Amos, Chris Isaak, The Fray, Ray LaMontagne, and Indigo Girls, mid- to late-2000s; released The Story, 2007.

Addresses: Management—A-Squared Management, 624 Davis St., 2nd Fl., Evanston, IL 60201. Record company—Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211. Web site—Official Brandi Carlile Web site: http://www.brandicarlile.com.

While Carlile was on tour, she road-tested songs for a second album. Carlile intended to co-produce it herself, but then she met Grammy-winning producer T Bone Burnett, who had honed his skills working with Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, the Counting Crows, the Wallflow- ers, Roy Orbison, and Tony Bennett. After meeting Burnett, Carlile handed over production to him, realizing their philosophies meshed. Carlile laid down tracks for The Story during an eleven-day recording blitz at the Warehouse Studios in Vancouver, British Columbia. Besides featuring the Hanseroth twins, who made up the core of her band, Carlile was joined by session drummer Matt Chamberlain, who had worked with Pearl Jam, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple.

When the recording began, Burnett would not let the band members play their usual instruments. Instead, he brought his own collection of vintage guitars, basses, amps, pedals, and microphones. At first Carlile was hesitant about the situation. "It wasn't until a little ways into the recording process that I understood why we weren't playing our own guitars," she told Gene Stout of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "It was because we were too accustomed to playing our guitars and therefore there was no spontaneity. Every note, every string, the distance from my hand to my mouth, to my mouth to the guitar to the microphone was all routine to me. And playing a 1932 Palmer guitar changed the way I played, it changed the way I thought, it made me self-conscious about what I was doing."

In addition to mixing it up by using unfamiliar equipment, Carlile and Burnett chose to record most of the album in long live takes, foregoing remixes through dubbing. The straight-shooting approach gave the album a fresh, edgy feel. In addition, they recorded onto an analog tape instead of using digital audio.

Earned Acclaim for "Storytelling" Abilities

Released in April of 2007, The Story debuted at number 76 on the Billboard 200 chart. True to Carlile's nature, the album skipped through genres, channeling country, pop-rock, and blues-gospel. There was even a piano ballad, "Wasted," which conjured up Elton John. "My Song" called to mind Melissa Etheridge with its instrumental punch and direct tone, while "Have You Ever" sounded more like Simon & Garfunkel. "Josephine" sounded like a backcountry spiritual, while "Losing Heart" is reminiscent of the anthems produced by rocker sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart.

Carlile has received rave reviews for her lyrics. "You can tell the songs that are mine lyrically because I tend to write from a place of discontentment," she told Star Polish. "I write about things I'm puzzled about or I'm worried about or the things that upset me because that's how I communicate with myself."

The album's blockbuster song was the title track "The Story," which adeptly showcased Carlile's vocal range. Scanlon described the piece: "The song starts out nicely and easily enough, a sweet folk song, with gentle acoustic guitar. … Then, at the one-minute mark, the music kicks up to rock levels, and Carlile's vocals start climbing like a Blue Angel jet." Scanlon went on to predict that the "spine-chilling" notes in the song would win Carlile a legion of new fans. The single was released before the album, and in March of 2007, iTunes featured "The Story" as its song of the week, during which time fans downloaded more than 340,000 free digital copies. She performed the song, written by bandmate Phil Hanseroth, on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night With Conan O'Brien. In April of 2007, Grey's Anatomy used the song to complement a video montage highlighting scenes from the show's first three seasons.

After the album's release, Carlile spent time touring in the United States and Britain. She also toured with the Indigo Girls, who provided harmonizing vocals on the track "Cannonball." As for the stress of touring, Carlile told Jasmin that she and the twins made a point of staying grounded in their friendship so that life on the road would proceed smoothly. "We go, ‘OK, you know what? It's been a crazy week. Let's go fishing. Or let's go camping.’ We take a lot of band vacations together before we go on tour so we can remember what it's like to be friends."

Selected discography

Singles

"Acoustic" (EP), Red Ink, 2005.

"The Story," Columbia Records, 2007.

Albums

Brandi Carlile, Red Ink, 2005.

Brandi Carlile: On Tour, Red Ink, 2006.

The Story, Columbia Records, 2007.

Sources

Periodicals

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 23, 2007, p. 2K.

Boston Herald, February 5, 2006, p. 58.

Daily Variety, April 9, 2007, p. 17.

New York Times, April 30, 2007, p. E5.

News Tribune (Tacoma, Washington), March 30, 2007, p. F5.

San Diego Union-Tribune, January 19, 2006, p. 18 (Night & Day).

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 5, 2005, p. C1; June 1, 2007, p. D1.

Seattle Times, July 12, 2005; March 30, 2007, p. H4; June 1, 2007, p. H5.

Washington Times, September 27, 2007, p. M2.

Online

"Star Polish Interview: Brandi Carlile," Star Polish, (March 12, 2008).

"10 Artists to Watch: Brandi Carlile," Rolling Stone,http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/brandicarlile/articles/story/7092477/10_artists_to_watch_brandi_carlile (March 11, 2008).

—Lisa Frick

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