Brandi Carlile: More to the Story
Most singers blessed with robust voices these days are content to fly their melodies as high and wide as possible, forsaking the song for the histrionics and allowing auto-tune to do the rest, with no real craft to be found anywhere in the process. But, for Brandi Carlile, voice is the instrument through which she pays respect to life and love, to icons and idols. She has such a reverence for her own gift and its promise that her role as its custodian becomes a serious, even sacred, undertaking. Though her recording style and aesthetic have changed from one album to the next, Carlile’s voice has been the constant driving force on each record of her decade-long career, including the newly released The Firewatcher’s Daughter — her first for ATO Records.
Writing about the new disc, AllMusic.com’s senior pop editor, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, notes, “… the music twitches with energy and this vibrancy enhances a set of songs casually touching upon every style Carlile’s played in the past. As always, she’s grounded in Americana, often straying into a burnished folky melancholy but finding space for urgent country stomps and … full-throttle rock & roll. … None of the stylistic shifts amount to showboating: It feels as if Carlile is following her fascinations wherever they lead.”
It’s as if The Firewatcher’s Daughter maps out, in musical form, all the roads Carlile has been so deliberate and discriminating in taking to lead her to this place and this moment, right here, right now. Carlile doesn’t disagree: “This album is like the realized vision of … the innocence of our first album, before we knew what a commercial song structure looked like, the self-consciousness and live-ness of The Story, the hyper-focus on songs that we had on Give Up the Ghost, and the adrenaline that we put into Bear Creek. All the good experiences of the past albums are in this album and the bad experiences aren’t there,” she offers, adding, “We had our own new bad experiences, but I think that they served the album well.”
With Carlile’s commanding presence and undeniable voice, there are a number of entry points for a new fan to begin his or her own journey through her music. But, for the sake of storytelling, let’s start at the very beginning.
A Very Good Place to Start
Back in the early 2000s, the twin Hanseroth brothers – guitarist Tim and bassist Phil (aka “the twins”) – were stalwarts of the Seattle rock scene with a band called the Fighting Machinists. But they were looking for something else, something more. “At that point, my brother and I were ready for a big scene change. We wanted to get more into seriously writing songs, instead of just being in a rock band and drinking beer and doing that whole thing,” Phil recounts. Then, one day, Tim was hanging at London Bridge Studios when their producer played him a demo of Carlile’s. “I remember hearing the recordings and thinking, ‘Holy shit!’” Tim says. “She came in later, that day or the next day, and she was just some girl with a short haircut, a quick wit, and a huge voice walking down the stairs. A total tomboy. And cool as hell.”
The scene was set: The twins wanted a change and Carlile wanted them to join forces with her, so they really didn’t need much convincing at all. As Phil tells it, “When we met Brandi, we hit it off right away. She’s one of those people you just meet, every once in a while in your life, where you’re totally comfortable around them and on the same page. We heard the voice and it didn’t take much.”
After getting the twins on board, the threesome made a couple of strategic career decisions right off the bat: Although they would be billed under Carlile’s name, it would still be a band, and the publishing equity would be split evenly, no matter who wrote what. That latter component follows R.E.M.’s lead as a way to fairly honor each member and their contributions. Now that Carlile and the twins have worked with the model for a decade or so, has it made things more or less complicated? ”Beautifully more complicated, from a lyrical perspective,” Carlile says. “But the real winner in that situation is the song. When you decide to put monetary preference aside for the writing process, it’s really the only way to collaborate in a way that’s pure. If a band member believes a song needs a bridge, it’s because it really needs a bridge. It’s not because they need to get their name on it.”
With the question of whose name goes where all sorted, Carlile and the twins signed on the dotted line with Sony Music near the end of 2004 because, she says, “It’s every rock ’n’ roll kid’s dream to have a record deal on Columbia.” The next year, she issued her thoroughly self-assured eponymous debut album, about which Erlewine wrote at the time: “…it sounds like a record that exists out of time and place — which means it’s not only a superb debut, it’s a hell of a record by any measure.” Now, 10 years and four albums later, he stands by his reviews. “I have a hard time believing it’s been 10 years. I remember it making a bit of an impact because it was actually one where I missed a lot of the pre-release press for it. … It was something that I approached with absolutely no expectations,” he recalls. In terms of debut albums over the past decade, he ranks Brandi Carlile right up near, if not at, the top. “There’s a sense of confidence on that first record, in the sense that it’s also lived-in. Her voice emerges pretty intact on that first record. What she’s done since — especially the last two records — feel like expansions of it. So why I’d rank it pretty highly is that it does have that very purposeful, artistic voice. You have a real sense of who she is as a musician.”
As remarkable as that debut is from the outside listening in, Carlile appreciates it for an almost opposite reason. “When I listen to Brandi Carlile, the first album, I’m always reminded that that was an album of B-sides. We were working with Rick Rubin at the time, and it was a collection of the songs that he decided — and we agreed, as a group — weren’t going to be our stand-out album,” she explains. “So, when I listen to them, it’s really freeing for me and accidentally eclectic. That was before we understood what the structure of a commercially appreciated, great song was. So there’s a real innocence to that album and I feel really partial to it, in a good way, because of that.”
Having gained a bit of traction, Carlile and the twins moved forward to work with producer T Bone Burnett on their second outing, 2007’s The Story. The album is a grounded but spirited collection that perfectly frames Carlile’s vocal prowess. Tunes like “Turpentine,” “Shadow on the Wall,” “Late Morning Lullaby,” and, of course, “The Story” all very much showcase the band’s evolving sense of song structure and commercial viability. Looking back from here, Erlewine says, “There’s an austereness to The Story which I kind of understand, too, because, in commercial terms, she may have needed to do something like that. Especially with the title track, you have much heavier guitars. There’s something very piercing and haunting about the melody because I can conjure it in my mind just from the title of the track.”
The Story, the album, found the band a broader audience thanks in no small part to “The Story,” the song, finding its way into television shows like Grey’s Anatomy and commercials for General Motors and Super Bock, a popular Portuguese beer. Most fans know exactly where the emotive break in Carlile’s voice comes on the recording, though they may not realize the group’s signature song was written by Phil. He’s okay with folks not knowing about one of his proudest achievements: “I thought it was pretty good when we put it all together and I knew I was going to have a hard time topping it,” he concedes. “It actually feels good to know that I did something that, hopefully, somebody can get something positive from. My favorite part of being in a band and playing music has always been the writing aspect of it. So, it just felt like a great accomplishment and, to be honest, the last several years, I’ve been trying to coax my ego back into its cage and get out from underneath the thing so I might try to write something that good again.”
On Give Up the Ghost, their 2009 album, the three started to collaborate a bit more on the songwriting side, but it was Tim who wrote the rollicking road song that is “Dying Day,” one of the set’s singles. Like his brother, Tim isn’t in it for the glory. “When I put [our] record on, I don’t think of them as ‘Here’s my song.’ I always think of them as just ‘our songs,’” he says. “I don’t really ever get weird about songs being changed or hearing my identity in there. I feel like my voice is really heard in the band, so when I hear Brandi singing — even something she wrote — I just think, ‘Yeah, that’s our song! I fucking love it.’”
By the time Bear Creek rolled around in 2012, more songs than not were written by more writers than not, sometimes even all three of them together. Having a trinity of brains, hearts, and talents to pull from gives the band a lot to work with, especially because they each bring different strengths to the writers’ table. “I feel like we have different ways of writing,” Tim says. “I feel like Brandi… some of her songs, I still don’t know what they’re about. And I don’t want to know. I think my stuff is a little more literal. I don’t really have as varied of a writing palette as Phil and Brandi do. I think my stuff is kind of stuck in the Tim box, where I’m comfortable. Brandi definitely has curveballs. She’ll come up with a song and it’ll be like, ‘Wow. Okay. I didn’t know you could write like that. That’s awesome.’”
One of the Bear Creek songs she came up with, the heart-aching tale of redemption and forgiveness in “That Wasn’t Me,” was composed by Carlile’s solitary pen and served as one of the album’s lead tracks. Pianist Dave Palmer, who played on The Story, was called in for the tune. As he remembers it, “Within 10 minutes of being there, practically, she’s like, ‘Let me show you this song.’ She shows me the chords once sitting next to me at the piano. Then she’s like, ‘Okay, let’s record it.’ So she jumps in the vocal booth next to the piano. We play it maybe twice. And that’s the version on the record — the vocal, the piano. It’s a take. The twins immediately jumped in and did their harmonies. That whole song got done in half an hour.”
Palmer continues, “I work with singers all the time and there are very few singers — even good ones — who can do a track in a take. That’s old-school. And she could do a whole record like that, if she wanted to.”
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
When it came time to start work on songs for The Firewatcher’s Daughter, the collaborative songwriting momentum continued, but Carlile first had to overcome a bit of anxiety — the source of which was the newfound happiness of marriage and motherhood. At the time, she thought she no longer had access to the “tortured, kind of dark castle” that had helped her write songs for so long. Tim and Phil had both recently become spouses and parents, too, so they knew the struggle all too well. Tim handed Carlile the key to opening herself up again: Don’t worry. Be happy. “Somebody mentioned to me, ‘What a bummer. Doesn’t look like you’re going to be writing any sad songs anymore!’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ Because I think, when I’m happy, and people are happy, you just do everything better, including writing sad songs,” Tim says.
The anxiety overcome, Carlile got busy and songs got written, “The Stranger at My Door,” “Mainstream Kid,” and “I Belong to You,” among them. One of the cuts, “The Eye,” was co-written by Tim and Carlile, and it is destined to give “The Story” a run for its money as the band’s trademark tune. For the first time, the three sing in tandem harmonies through the whole affair. Phil sees that piece, and others in the collection, as some of their best work ever. “I think there are a few songs where we’ve really turned that corner with songwriting. I don’t know if we’ve somehow figured it out or if we just came up with really honest expressions of these songs we’ve written,” he says. “Whatever it is, I think we’ve hit the nail on the head with a few songs here.”
Carlile adds, “When you listen to the songs from The Firewatcher’s Daughter, without looking at the credits, I would challenge anyone to guess who wrote what. Because the perspective is the same. Twins are eerie anyway – everything is so tandem with them and it’s easy for me to get swept up in that movement. We all end up finding our milestones happening in the same place, even at different ages. The songs that we write tend to be really difficult to pin down who they are about.”
Another part of what makes it challenging to know who wrote what on a Brandi Carlile album is that while the songs’ perspectives may well be the same, their styles are not. But that’s also what makes it work so well, this band of three. “I think that the key to having three writers is to genre-bend,” Carlile offers. “Compartmentalizing the songs is kind of a new phenom that I’ve noticed just in the past decade, to even know which category to put these songs in. Maybe it’s because of the digital age and how we buy music now, and you need categories to define what kind of artist we want to listen to. But when we make an album, the twins and I, we really try not to think about any of that stuff, particularly this album.”
That’s why, if a casual listener heard only two cuts from The Firewatcher’s Daughter — “Mainstream Kid” and “The Eye” — they might be hard-pressed to believe they were from the same artist. And that’s just fine by AllMusic.com’s Erlewine: “That’s one of the things I like, though. There’s a wide variety. It winds up taking turns when you’re not expecting. It’s all within the same voice, but there are variations within that.” Technically, yes, it’s all within the same voice. However, that voice sounds completely different on those two tracks, and others. That means listeners who prefer the admittedly accidental cohesiveness of Carlile’s first two albums are in for a ride — even more so than on Give Up the Ghost and Bear Creek, though those outings certainly set the stage for this one.
Musician/producer Jordan Brooke Hamlin spent a couple of years touring with Katie Herzig as an opening act for the Brandi Carlile Band and has since become a close friend and trusted confidant of theirs. She, like Erlewine, appreciates and admires the to-thine-own-self-be-true swank of their records. “I feel like the artists that have the most interesting and, maybe, the longest careers evolve and surprise. They are constantly trying to find that voice, but, also, that voice changes, just like your person does,” Hamlin says. “If you heard ‘Little God’ versus ‘Mary,’ that sounds like two different artists, but neither one them don’t sound like Patty [Griffin]. Maybe to understand the whole artist, you have to hear everything they want to tell you, because they’re kind of saying, ‘This is who I am.’”
Indeed, for Carlile and company, the idea of crafting a stylistically cohesive set of songs in order to fit artificial and arbitrary genre categories is anathema to their creative process. As Carlile explains it, “We’ve made so many decisions and sacrifices to prioritize the proverbial song over all other things, that to try to force it to fit a production template would just be the wrong thing to do. We might as well start dividing up songwriting credits, if we’re going to do that.”
Even though Brandi Carlile and The Story might be easier listen-throughs than Bear Creek or The Firewatcher’s Daughter, Carlile cut her teeth on Elton John, Johnny Cash, and Freddie Mercury, so easy isn’t really where she comes from. And it certainly isn’t where she’s headed. “For me, the more cohesive albums in my library … whether they are cohesively mellow or cohesively ballads has more to do with the moods that the songs set. So, if they’re really cohesive, they are easier for me to make background music … which really isn’t what you’re going for when you’re putting out an album,” she jokes, adding, “I have to say, in a guilty-pleasure way, I do love that — preparing a meal and listening to a super-mellow record that doesn’t really jar me or make me feel like I need to skip past a track.
“But as far as immersive experiences, I get immersed in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, by Queen. Those could not be more bizarrely genre-destroying albums. When I make an album, I make it for the purpose of jarring us out of a comfortably hypnotic listening style.”
Hamlin, who produced the upcoming Indigo Girls record, nods to Carlile’s insouciance regarding genre: “I think not everybody needs to have that attitude, but I almost think it’s healthy for an artist like her, right now. I think she’s a woman of strong vision and follows through on that vision. She’s in deep and invested. I really respect that,” she says. “It feels like an artist being true to themselves, when I hear them say that.”
She continues, “I think, especially at this point in music, I’d more take a polarizing record that is true than a beige record that is trying to be everything to everybody, or profitable, or placeable, or whatever the thing is … where it’s like, ‘I can hear you chasing six things and I don’t feel a nucleus on this record.’”
Complex, Compelling, and Capital ‘I’ Interesting
The Firewatcher’s Daughter’s nucleus is the truth of a life — or lives — well-lived. On it, that truth gets expressed in all its complicated and convoluted glory, mirroring the various rites of passage its three composers have undertaken in recent years. For that reason, it’s difficult for Carlile to parse the multifaceted medium into any emotional or qualitative categories, either. Of the album’s songs, she says, “They are all really reflective of a part of where I’m at. ‘The Stranger at My Door’ is super-reflective of where I’m at spiritually. ‘I Belong to You’ is reflective of where I’m at with my family. Some of the songs are reflective of some doors that I’ve closed. It’s pretty raw, that album.”
Here, “Mainstream Kid” finds Carlile as raw and edgy as ever. It also finds her folding a bit of her political bent into her personal artistry, something she has never really attempted. Even with all the activism she does through her Looking Out Foundation, Carlile has always kept the music separate, at least thematically. “I think I’m afraid of being a political songwriter because I feel like I’ll be hiding behind something. With ‘Mainstream Kid,’ that’s about as close as I can come to de-personalizing my songwriting … just on ability,” she explains. For whatever reason, she just doesn’t have the storyteller gene that so many of her songwriting heroes have. “I wish I did,” she concedes. “I don’t have that skill of projection like Bernie Taupin, the greatest lyricist of all time. He can write amazing stories about other people. He’s really great at articulating other people’s narratives. Or even a fictitious narrative. I don’t have that capability. And, whenever I try, it’s a smokescreen or something.”
Another first on The Firewatcher’s Daughter comes with “Murder in the City,” the album’s quiet closer. Carlile and the twins generally don’t include gender in their songs, but this one was written by the Avett Brothers, though the trio makes it very much their own with a harmony-drenched rendering. But the real truth of it all comes gently to bear at the end of the song, in the subtle, heartfelt shift in Carlile’s voice when she hits the personally amended lyric, “Make sure my wife knows that I loved her. Makes sure my daughter knows the same. Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name.” Just a few years ago, Carlile would have needed to stick with the original sister/mother references. Not now. So how did it feel to give her heart a gendered voice? “I loved it. It was an arrival for me, in a lot of ways,” she admits. “Scott Avett, when he sings that song, he’s customized it to the birth of his son. I feel like that song is a sort of standard for interpersonal human connection. I think more people should sing it and customize that line to who they share their name with.”
Also like the Avett Brothers, as good as Carlile is on record, she’s even better on stage. Her incredibly powerful, often plaintive voice is a big part of that, to be sure. But there’s so much more to it. The potency of live performance is visceral, experiential, and profoundly personal. Not all artists get that. Carlile does. And she seems to genuinely love everything about entertaining people. It never seems like a job to her, but rather a pleasure, an honor, a duty, a gift. All of it. The songs, the collaboration, the travel, the fans.
Carlile learned her craft by studying some of the greatest singers and entertainers across multiple decades: Patsy Cline, Elton John, Roy Orbison, k.d. lang, Johnny Cash, and Freddie Mercury. Because of that, her performances are unlike most of her contemporaries’. Comparing Carlile to her peers, pianist/composer Dave Palmer observes, “She can make a show different every night, whereas a lot of these other artists have so much of their show coming off a computer. Everything is choreographed and it’s the same show every night. Somebody like Brandi, it’s going to be different every night because she doesn’t know what she’s going to do. She might react to something that’s going on in the room, might change the set list on the fly. So, you go see an artist like her, you’re going to get a show that’s only going to happen that night.”
While it’s easy enough to be blown away by seeing Carlile perform, say, once every year or two, a deeper testament to her talent comes from the folks who are there show after show. “I’m still impressed, standing next to her and hearing her sing every night. That makes her very special, and that’s the obvious thing,” Tim Hanseroth says. “But I think she has a gift that not many people have, including myself, that she can translate and get a song across and reach people and make them listen. I don’t think that’s all her voice. I don’t know what it is. I remember playing this weird bowling alley or something … she always makes everybody just stop and listen to her. She commands attention.”
Jordan Brooke Hamlin, who with Katie Herzig toured on various legs of the Give Up the Ghost Tour, adds, “I will say — this is truth — we toured with them across multiple years. We played so many shows. We played with them a lot and lived on the bus together. I watched every show … like every show. And I always loved it. I never got tired of it.”
Hamlin credits not just Carlile, but the band as a whole. “They have such a perfect combination of elements. Brandi’s voice is supernatural. It’s really complex. It’s just so capital ‘I’ interesting. And she’s a show-woman. She puts on a good, compelling show. I think her fans feel that. She is there to entertain them and she takes her job seriously,” Hamlin says. “And the twins are insanely talented. I feel like, on that gig, you only see a little piece of what they can do. In sound checks, they are shredding metal songs, and they’re amazing songwriters. So you only get to glimpse part of their glory. But they’re great entertainers, too. You just feel happy leaving their shows. I think that’s why their fans are fiercely loyal.”
With Carlile’s wide range of influences and inspirations, it can be tricky to trace her swagger and sway back to its original source. But, in her mind, that confluence is why and how she came to do what she does so well. “The key to uniqueness is diversity of influences. Being able to draw a correlation back to an influence that feels vastly different from another one of my influences translates into being unique,” she explains. “I think, really, if we’re all honest, we’re all so hugely influenced by someone or something. But I think the people who stand out and seem different are just influenced by many things.” So, just like with her category-defying records, Carlile’s live shows are a little of this, a little of that, but completely, authentically her, in the end.
A Consummate Entertainer
Keeping the artistry of her performances authentic and unique is an ongoing discipline for Carlile. There’s a balance to be struck between Patsy and Freddie, after all. “One of the things I wanted to challenge myself on as a live performer that I noticed was happening right about the time I wrote ‘Raise Hell,’ actually, was that I was starting to feel really heavy on the entertainer side, and not quite like I was serving enough as the creative side of who I was or the really honest side of who I was,” she confides, then adds, “Because I can get really Grand Ole Opry. I can get really Vegas-y, really fast. That’s where my inspiration really, truly comes from … Minnie Pearl, Little Jimmy Dickens, Elvis Presley in Vegas, Elton John, Freddie Mercury. I can be the consummate entertainer. The banter is important. The jokes are important. The movements are important. The outfit is important … all those things mattered a little too much to me after years of focusing on that. And that was when I went out and did my solo tour and didn’t have any of those safety nets. That was a big challenge.”
Even without the nets, though, Carlile stands head and shoulders above so many of her peers when it comes to both raw talent and pure showmanship. She doesn’t need the nets. Not at all. As Kim Ruehl noted for No Depression a few years back after watching Carlile perform “Hallelujah” live at Red Rocks with just her voice, a piano, and a spotlight, “If you ask me, she’s one of maybe three singers left in the world who has any business singing this song. (The other two would be k.d. lang and Leonard Cohen.) Indeed, this song’s difficult and musical melody can stretch a voice to its farthest reaches. It has a tendency to make big-voiced singers think simply singing the hell out of a song is enough. … Actually, that’s how most people with voices the size of Brandi Carlile’s approach singing anything at all. Lucky for us, that’s not how she sings … .”
After a later Red Rocks performance, Ray Mark Rinaldi, The Denver Post’s entertainment editor, reviewed it for Reverb, writing, “…the song choices at a Brandi Carlile concert are secondary, and that was the case here. The main event is her voice, which moves smoothly from something pure and sweet to something with crackle and punch. She’s a country singer, really; her nature is to attack and conquer notes like Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells … . She can gruff and shout her way right through to a power ballad’s end, and that combo of growl and howl is what makes her special. And likable.”
Those sorts of accolades go on and on. With a band. Without a band. Inside. Outside. Club. Festival. It really doesn’t matter. Carlile nails it. Every time.
If ever there is a nonbeliever in the house, when Carlile and the twins step to the edge of the stage and raise their voices up in unison — in front of the monitors, without mics or any amplification — the nonbelievers do, then, believe. Forget showmanship. That’s raw talent in action. The effect of which is so puissant and persuasive the band turned it into last year’s Pin Drop Tour. Reviewing the Philadelphia stop of that run for WXPN’s The Key, Max Taylor noted, “Brandi Carlile’s performance at the Kimmel Center this Saturday was nothing short of inspirational. Performing with her band and a string trio on the beautifully conceived Pin Drop Tour, Carlile et al. unplugged and dispensed with amplification, opting instead to trust in the theater’s beautiful acoustics and their own power to sustain us for the evening. It was an intimate distillation as embracing and as warming as any spirit, and with much more soul than I had prepared for.”
It’s safe to say that Carlile’s entire career has been “as embracing and as warming as any spirit, and with much more soul than [any of us] had prepared for.” And, with new families by her side, personally and professionally — she signed to Dave Matthews’ ATO Records for The Firewatcher’s Daughter — Carlile is just hitting her stride. Based on where she’s been so far, there’s really no telling where she’ll go next, which is part and parcel of the artist’s journey. As Erlewine notes, “She’s one that I like watching follow her own muse. It’s a lot more interesting to me to see which way she’s going, so I like being surprised by an artist like that.” Ten years on, Carlile’s story is a part of music history still in the making.