The vocal comparisons would inflate any musician’s head – Thom Yorke, Roy Orbison, Jeff Buckley, and even Bruce Springsteen.
Lucky guy, huh?
Lucky, yes. Guy, no. Industry critics are heaping praise on Brandi Carlile, a 23-year-old whose vocal swagger is on the verge of crashing into the glass ceiling of household-name rockers.
A glance at her press kit seems to signify a flavor-of-the-month-style rise – an image she actively tries to dispel. Carlile was discovered by Columbia Records Vice President Tim Devine in 2004. “I got the music on Friday; by Saturday morning, I called her manager and said, ‘I’m in. Let’s do it,’” Devine told the Seattle Times.
Last year’s accomplishments included making Rolling Stone‘s “Top 10 Artists to Watch,” opening for big names like Buddy Guy and Shawn Colvin, performing Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” with velvet-voiced Chris Isaak, and singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Seattle Seahawks’ opening game.
“I feel starstruck all the time. I’m a professional fan,” says Carlile from her home in Maple Valley, Wash. “But I’m not impressed by celebrity, I’m impressed by musicianship.
“It doesn’t take long,” she says, “to realize that hype isn’t real. What’s real is fast food, cleaning up after my horse, and feeding my dog.”
But her self-titled debut album draws less from such unpoetic forms of drudgery than from more promising wells, like desperation – though Carlile says all those songs about loss aren’t strictly autobiographical.
“I write a lot out of imagination,” admits the singer, who credits Bernie Taupin – the famed songwriter for Elton John – as her main writing inspiration.
The Radiohead comparisons (think Pablo Honey or The Bends) are obvious on lush mopers like “Follow” and “Someday Never Comes.” But her voice carries the confidence of a clear-throated Janis Joplin, making the album a snug fit on corporate-bookstore speakers.
Still, the music comes from an honest place – literally. Shunning studio security, Carlile chose to record in her own cabin. With the help of band mates (and twins) Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Carlile rented a Pro-Tools set-up and placed it in the middle of her living room. “Studios just aren’t used anymore,” she points out. “Some of the coolest records are made in people’s basements.”
(Though they weren’t exactly roughing it: Nestled on five acres south of Seattle, Carlile’s cabin is enclosed by so many lakes that their names are reduced to numbers.)
The album’s only slick element comes courtesy of regal indie producer John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead), who retooled four songs for the Columbia release.
The twins collaborate on most songs. Further fighting gender myths, Carlile contends that Tim is responsible for the love ballads.
“We influence each other differently,” she says. “The twins like short, simple, pretty songs. I’m into poetry, the abstract, and big dramatic moments.”
The drama bug bit early: Carlile’s mother sang in a country band that performed around the Pacific Northwest. A local club hosted a version of “Grand Ole Opry Nights,” and one night, when Brandi was eight, a little girl got up on stage and sang Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors.”
“I was awestruck,” recalls Carlile. “I didn’t know kids could do those things.”
The next weekend, the singer summoned her courage and performed Roseanne Cash’s “Tennessee Flat-Top Box,” a song about a boy who wows his small town with his little guitar. He disappears, the town forgets about him, until one day he appears on “Hit Parade.” And thus Brandi sang her own future.
From that day on, music became her focus. She spent hours in her room, learning the range of her voice. Her unrequited love for Sir Elton John prompted piano mastery at 13. Late-teen adventures included busking with her brother (who taught her harmonies) and performing on Lilith Fair’s local stage. Still, her best inspiration came courtesy of a faux king.
“My friend’s dad was an Elvis impersonator. I used to go over to their home when they were rehearsing downstairs. At first he wanted us to sing at rehearsals, and then I became part of the show.”
The gig offered $25 a pop, three times a week. Carlile credits that lucrative endeavor with shaping her voice and confidence. After high school, she teamed up with the twins after their band, The Flying Machinists, disbanded. After endless hours of coffee houses, bars and wedding gigs, their hard work was rewarded with an opening slot for James Taylor. Word-of-mouth spread like kudzu, leading to the Columbia endorsement. Carlile now sits in a fortuitous position, but don’t expect it to warm her band’s laurels – she claims that even the twins “are too busy rotating tires on the van to get into the hype.”
Although praised for rivaling top male artists, Brandi hopes her success will encourage more recognition for female anti-pop stars.
“I love those comparisons, but I would love to hear males compared to females. Wouldn’t it be cool to see Tom Petty called a female Lucinda Williams?”
[Hunter Pope writes Xpress’ weekly local-music column “Earful.”]
Brandi Carlile plays the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Tuesday, Feb. 7, with Teddy Geiger and Gibb Droll. 8:30 p.m. $8. 232-5800.