Authentic. That’s the first word that springs to mind when you encounter Brandi Carlile. From her rootsy bell-clear voice to the palpable emotion that seeps through every song on her stunning debut album, everything about this 23-year-old singer-songwriter from rural Washington state is the real deal.
Deeply driven to be an artist, Carlile began her life-long love affair with performing when her musician mother brought her out onstage at the Northwest’s version of the Grand Ole Opry. Carlile sang Roseanne Cash’s “Tennessee Flat-Top Box.” She was 8.
Growing up in the isolated foothills of Ravensdale, 29 miles outside of Seattle, Carlile turned to music for company. “Ravensdale wasn’t a town,” she says. “We were the only house around for acres and acres. Being in the middle of nowhere, it wasn’t the kind of place you brought friends back to, so I just hung around the woods and built forts and played music with my brother and sister. That’s all we did. And we thought that’s what everyone else in the world did, too.”
During those years, Carlile taught herself to sing. “I locked myself in my room when no one was home to see how loud and high I could sing, and how long I could hold a note,” she says. “I’m sure it sounded like mating season, but I knew that’s what it would take to develop a big, powerful voice.” She also figured out how to play the piano (“I wanted to be like Elton John,”) and eventually guitar at age 17.
From then on, Carlile performed everywhere she could. She even took a job as a back-up singer for a local Elvis impersonator, an experience she credits with teaching her how to layer vocals and sing harmonies. A few years later, Carlile began to book herself and her band (Seattle natives and former Fighting Machinists’ Tim and Phil Hanseroth) at restaurants around the city—the local chowder house, a popular sports bar and grill, and at any wedding or birthday party that would hire her, just so she could practice.
“I’ve never had a real job,” she says. “I’ve insisted that I do nothing but play music and not let my head go anywhere else. If that means playing in a smoky bar for three hours, five nights a week, that’s fine. It’s discipline. It teaches you how to grab your audience, no matter who they are.”
Carlile’s determination and work ethic paid off in late 2004 when she signed a record deal with Columbia Records, home to several of her favorite artists including Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, and James Taylor, whom she supported on tour. The timeless quality of her debut album for Columbia, Brandi Carlile, is proof of her intention to become a classic artist alongside her labelmates.
The album is a showcase for Carlile’s expressive voice, which can turn from a tough, bluesy growl to a vulnerable, aching falsetto on a dime. The catch in her throat before she launches into those alpine high notes is reminiscent of her idol, country singer Patsy Cline.
“Patsy Cline had a really gutsy, powerful voice. She just belted it out,” she says. “I identify with that. I want to have a big, loud, booming voice. I’ve gone through all sorts of vocal phases, from pop to blues to R&B to hard rock, but not matter what I do, I just can’t get the country & western out of my voice.”
Rather than fight it, Carlile makes good use of the country flavor by juxtaposing it with dark, otherworldly melodies on songs like “Follow” and “Tragedy.” Think of a female Roy Orbison or Radiohead’s Thom Yorke fronting a roots-rock band and you’re not far off. The contrast led Rolling Stone, which named her one of their 10 Artists to Watch in 2005, to declare: “Carlile’s ethereal, melancholy ballads have a spare heartache that reflects her love for old-school country…but she loves new-school mopers like Radiohead and Jeff Buckley just as much.” Indeed, those artists’ influence can be felt on the simple, acoustic strummers “Happy,” “Gone,” and “Tragedy.” Other musical stand-outs include “Throw It All Away” and “Fall Apart Again.”
The ten sublime gems on Brandi Carlile were recorded sporadically throughout 2004 at Carlile’s home in bucolic Maple Valley, Washington. “I live in a log cabin and the ceilings are really high, so it sounds great,” she says. “We rented a Pro-tools set-up and put it smack in the middle of my living room.” Some of the unadorned production comes courtesy of indie-stalwart producer John Goodmanson, who has worked with Sleater-Kinney and Blonde Redhead, and the rest was done by Carlile and the Hanseforth brothers. “We just went in and played the songs,” she says. “It interrupted my whole world for weeks, but we made some really good music.”