Brandi Carlile live at Woodland Park Zoo – Seattle, WA – Aug. 24, 2011
Once upon a time, a writer was working on a story about a musician. The musician was a local girl. She’d grown up outside the city and came of age cutting her teeth at local bars and chowder houses and coffee shops all over the region. She had a voice – the kind which, coming out of a little girl, makes people stop short and exclaim things like, “holy shit, she can sing.”
The musician made a record at home and, resulting from her tireless playing and the gigs she scored at high profile things like Lilith Fair, the disc got the attention of one of the giant record labels, just as it was about to become outdated to pursue the giant labels. But, ready to make a living at the thing she’d been trying to make a living at for her whole life, she inked a deal, re-issued the disc, and set off on a tour opening for people like Dave Matthews and the Indigo Girls. She had some good-looking boys writing songs and playing with her, she hired a cellist (something not every pop band had at the time), and started a rotating door of drummers who happened to be some of the best in the biz – Mark Chamberlain, Allison Miller, etc. She grew her hair and looked good in that way that interested men and women in the same (and different) ways.
She teamed up with big time producers (T Bone, Rick Rubin) and made a couple of slick pop albums, got songs on the charts (I believe). Next thing you know, Sara Ramirez – star of Broadway and Grey’s Anatomy – was singing one of the musician’s songs in a musical episode of the hit TV show which had, a few years back, helped, in some small way, to cement her pop-palatable radio songs.
All before the musician turned 30.
It’s a good story. You gotta love a story like that.
But it’s not the whole story. Back to where I started: there once was a writer working on a story about the musician. The writer asked the musician about her roots as a country singer. You see, the musician’s first ever performance was on a small town stage singing Rosanne Cash’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” She grew up listening to the Judds (she admitted on the record to wearing a Judds-bedecked denim jacket almost daily in middle school). She idolized Patsy Cline, sang Tammy Wynette songs onstage with her mom. One day, she found Elton John and Brit pop, and veered for a while.
She told the writer, “It’s not always about what you want to be. You tend to come back to just who you are and where you came from.” (I’m paraphrasing here – this interview happened probably three years ago.)
Now, to the present.
I’ve seen Brandi Carlile play more than a few times. I’ve become accustomed to her between-song banter (which doesn’t change much from show to show – then again, neither does Arlo Guthrie’s). When her sister gets on stage, I know they’re going to sing “Calling All Angels.” I know the story she tells to get the audience to sing along on “Turpentine.” Her whole thing with the twins and the cellist and everything is a very well-oiled machine. She’s figured out how to put on a show which is very close to the perfect acoustic pop show. It’s been kind of inspiring to watch her get the whole production down to a science.
This, I thought that night at the Zoo, is someone who sees the art in everything they do up there. It’s not just the music; it’s the experience. It’s something you can’t get on an album and she knows it.
She admitted it about halfway into the show, when she sentimentalized about a live album they recently released – Brandi Carlile Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony. She told the audience she always believed she and the twins are a live band, and it was good to finally capture that on tape. I’d agree. I do agree, actually. I think Live at Benaroya Hall is the best recording Brandi Carlile has ever made.
But, the real thing I got out of this show was that sometimes you have to admit it’s not about what you want to be. It’s just about who you are and where you come from.
In this case, I’m just going to call it. Brandi Carlile is a country singer. She may even be the country singer the Americana world should be thanking its lucky stars for. The one who can probably get on country radio and ride it like a wild bull, pull it back to its roots, give it something to chew on which is rooted more richly in Johnny and Merle, or at least in the country music of the pre-Garth era.
I haven’t heard the record she and the twins just finished making in a Seattle studio, but I’ve heard songs from it now (she played three or four of them at the Zoo the other night). She said they laid down 21 tracks and are going to try to edit it down to 10.
Let’s hope “Raise Hell” makes the cut. Hands down, it was the finest among those she chose to share. (Raise Hell, by the way, would be a good title for the album… maybe.) She admitted it might be the best song she’s ever written. The admittance was devoid of ego, though; more like she was admitting openly that the song caught even her off guard. Like it came out of some deeply rooted truth somewhere within her – from its aesthetic to its statement to the whole spirit of the number, its Judds-like harmonies, the way her voice has no choice but to slide into the high notes like a human pedal steel. Like her singing voice is stealing home plate.
“Raise Hell” doesn’t come from a singer whose voice has been the musical accompaniment for drippy sentimental scenes on Grey’s Anatomy. It’s not so much the singer who created a bit of a seafaring cult via Cayamo music cruises the past few years. It’s a product of the girl who strolled onto a stage while she was in her single digit years and sang her favorite Rosanne Cash song. It’s the song of a girl who grew up in a trailer in the boonies and reached into a booming, long-grooving family line of musical prowess to teach herself how to play piano and guitar.
It’s a goddamn country song. I think it’s going to change the whole game for Brandi Carlile.
Another thing she told me once, in another interview, was that she wanted to be one of those artists whose talent only gets deeper and more provocative over the course of every album. She wanted to grow slowly over the course of her career, in a way her fans could dutifully track, the way Elton John moved from Tumbleweed Connection to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road to Too Low for Zero, to Reg Strikes Back, to The One. So far, I reckon she’s done just that. Her self-titled disc was left-over tunes from the bar band period. The Story was about turning into a pop star. Give Up the Ghost was about seeking truth in the midst of a very bizarre new subjective reality (she didn’t want to write songs about being on the road, even though that was her reality the whole time she was writing the album). Live at Benaroya Hall was a bit about coming home. And, if she’s smart about it, if the producer who’s dealing with this one is smart about it, Raise Hell (which is just what I’m going to call this forthcoming disc until she announces its real title) will be about who she is; about where she comes from.
There were other new songs this night at the Zoo. “Keep Your Heart Young” was a Tim Hanseroth-penned number, which Brandi introduced as being for the kids in the audience. But, really, it’s about not losing yourself in a world of attractive possibilities. It’s about not becoming jaded, about making up your mind to be quiet in the noise, loud in the silence, playful in the face of fear, daring in the midst of adversity. It’s about holding on to your buffalo nickels and enjoying the game without caring about winning. When she sings it, you can sense in her vocals a bit of that girl she was when she was younger. It’s another damn country song, and it stood out in the context of this drummer-less show.
Playing new songs at a show is always risky. The audience is used to what they know. Like I mentioned above, knowing what’s going to happen in “Turpentine,” knowing when “Hallelujah” is about to happen… we all like predictability to a certain extent. But, now and then an artist has cracked open a whole new egg. Now and then, they play something new and you just want to go there. You want them to take you all the way to the new stuff. You’re ready to move on.
Moving on seems to be in the cards for Brandi Carlile. She’s done the pop thing. It worked out pretty well. Now that she’s got our ear, it would seem, she’s going to give us all a taste of what she really knows how to kill at.
It would seem she’s about to be a damn country singer. She’s about to raise some hell. I say bring it.
Photo by Kirk Stauffer