Brandi Carlile

With singular focus

Edging well past the emerging stage as an artist, Brandi Carlile is often in the spotlight these days — but she’s not one to embrace it.

By Naila Francis

Brandi Carlile doesn’t understand why, but she gets the comparison often. Maybe it’s the grit with which she can infuse a lyric, that combination of hard-worn truth and slow-burning intensity.

Or perhaps it’s the vulnerability that underpins her songs, spare, unvarnished yet melodic dissections of relational struggles and the navigation of some of life’s inescapable challenges.

Carlile, at only 24, sings with all the muscle and fire of a woman who’s lived many years beyond her age.

And it is perhaps all these things and more that prompted the comparison from The Seattle Times, which dubbed her “a hard-working, blue-collar style artist, something of a Maple Valley’s Bruce Springsteen.”

“Gosh, I sure do admire Bruce Springsteen,” the soft-spoken Carlile admits. “He’s really passionate and really believable and he’s got a lot of energy when he performs ….”

As she pauses, one can almost sense the puzzlement.

“That’s flattering, so flattering,” she says, still chewing on the hows, before offering somewhat self-deprecatingly: “I hear it all the time, so there must be something to it that I’m not seeing.”

And this is typical Carlile — an acoustic rocker from Maple Valley, Wash., who remains unaffected by the hype surrounding the release of her self-titled debut on Columbia Records’ Red Ink imprint last year. The Springsteen honors were issued well before the album’s summer release, given Carlile’s assiduousness in gaining exposure for herself and her bandmates — twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, with whom she co-wrote the album — by performing just about anywhere she could get a gig in the Seattle area.

Since its release, she has appeared in publications from Guitar World to Paste and been heralded by Rolling Stone and Interview magazine as an “artist to watch.” Her song “What Can I Say” was featured on an episode of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” and she also appeared on NBC’s “Three Wishes.” And now after opening last year for acts such as Chris Isaak, Marc Broussard and Ray LaMontagne, she has embarked on a national winter headlining tour, making a stop Friday at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia.

Yet the rootsy singer-songwriter who grew up in the isolated foothills of Ravensdale, 50 miles outside of Seattle, roaming the woods and playing music with her brother and sister, is modest in the face or rising renown

“Me finding balance and not getting into it was easy,” she says. “It was getting everybody around me to not be terribly influenced by it. It was easy for me because I’ve been working my ass off. I was living in a van, going on tour and going to do shows. When you’re an artist and you’re on the road, you don’t see it. My family saw it and my friends saw it and they think I have a mansion in the Hollywood Hills and a swimming pool in the front yard with all my millions.”

But Carlile, when she’s not on the road, prefers a simpler existence. She maintains a low profile in a log cabin in the far-flung woods of Maple Valley, where her companions are a dog, a cat and a horse.

“It’s all I know,” she says of her cozy isolation. “I grew up out there, so it’s only natural for me to get another house there. It just feels really comfortable for me to drive down a dirt road. … I go fishing and barbecue steaks and play with the dog.

“I’m inspired by where I live because there’s a lot of time there and not a lot of noise. I have a big beautiful piano and I keep all my guitars out so I’ll be forced to pick them up and play.”

It is music, and not so much the fanfare of having it at last received and recognized, that continues to be her focus. Carlile has been performing since she was 8, when she decided she wanted to get on stage at the Northwest’s version of the Grand Ole Opry, where her mother, also a musician, frequently performed. She sang Roseanne Cash’s “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” having been reared primarily on country, which explains the lingering twang in her voice, a throaty growl of visceral intensity that can also soar to a wailing soprano.

“It felt like probably the most natural thing I’d ever done to date,” says Carlile of her performing debut. “It was exciting and something sparked. I wasn’t nervous when I was on stage.”

She became a regular there, her decision to do music cemented when she heard a piano singer play Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” at the age of 11.

“The Opry band got off stage and they let some guy get up there with a piano,” Carlile recalls. “That was the first time I heard Elton John and Bernie Taupin (John’s lyricist), and the stark difference between the country music I’d listened to all my life and hearing a piano ballad for the first time — I just lost my mind. That really flipped me out and I started writing my own songs.”

She also insisted on her own piano — a $79 Casio keyboard — and began sneaking Elton John CDs from the library, the girl who had previously considered Patsy Cline her icon finding fresh inspiration in albums like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.”

“Elton John was the gateway drug to Freddy Mercury and Roy Orbison and later on to Radiohead,” says Carlile, ticking off some of her favorites.

And though it was John who inspired her to learn piano, at about 16, she made the switch to guitar.

“The guitar’s a very portable instrument and I wanted to look a little cooler,” she says. “I kind of wanted to be a little more of a rocker. Plus Lilith Fair was going on and I wanted to be able to take my guitar with me.”

Carlile credits her first paying gig — albeit an unlikely one singing backup for a family friend who was an Elvis impersonator — with the development of her voice.

“It was valuable in that being the background singer, I learned a lot about harmonies and vocal layering and how to sing background vocals and how to think about putting background vocals to our own songs,” she says. “Also, Elvis was a great showman, a great entertainer. And this impersonator guy impersonated him real well. We had to watch a lot of Elvis movies and videos and listen to all his music.

“I always say there are two things I don’t do anymore: tequila and Elvis Presley. I definitely overdosed on Elvis.”

She hooked up with the Hanseroths (formerly of the Fighting Machinists) in 2002, after stints with various bands, impressed by their harmonizing abilities. Now, she may be reaping the fruits of the hundreds of hours they spent playing covers and originals in bars and other low-key venues around Seattle, but Carlile is appreciative of those hard-working days.

“As an artist, it’s helped so much that I’ve done so many horrible gigs because I think that my overall work ethic is really strong when it comes to playing gigs and I don’t think there’s a situation that somebody could throw at me that I couldn’t overcome, whether it’s sound issues or just accommodations, whether it’s nobody shows up or it’s so packed, you can’t move, whether there’s no stage or I break a string. There’s nothing that could happen to me that hasn’t happened to me,” she says. “And that’s having peace of mind.”

– The Intelligencer