You may be excused for stifling a yawn on hearing the Seattle area has another rocker signed to a big label. From the once-ubiquitous grungers...
You may be excused for stifling a yawn on hearing the Seattle area has another rocker signed to a big label. From the once-ubiquitous grungers to today’s indie and emo rockers (Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Vendetta Red and so on), this area has had dozens of bands making a national impact.
But folk rock? Acoustic? “AAA” rock?
There hasn’t been much of that sprouting from here to a national level, which is what makes Brandi Carlile — a country girl, at heart — such a fascinating study.
When she was 8 years old, her singing mother used to take her to “Northwest Grand Ol’ Opry” nights, sort of karaoke with a live band. “I remember going to see my mom and thinking she was famous,” Carlile recalls. “One night, a little girl got up and sang Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of Many Colors.’ I thought, ‘I could do that!’ “
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And the next week she did, singing Roseanne Cash’s “Tennessee Flat-Top Box.”
And, just about instantly, she knew what she wanted out of life: to be up there on stage, microphone in hand, the audience staring at her in eager anticipation — that was it, for Carlile. She spent the next 15 years singing, singing, singing, on her own, with bands, folk, country, acoustic, pop.
Listen to Brandi Carlile
“Fall Apart Again” (:38, MP3)
Singing is a way of life for her, and so it’s nothing new that she’ll be singing — backed by Tim and Phil Hanseroth, the twins who are her band — Wednesday at Sonic Boom Records (514 15th Ave. E.). The new thing is that she’ll have a new CD in the store, and the really new thing is it’s being released today by a big-time label: Columbia Records.
Months before the record’s release, Carlile was getting some major publicity: Rolling Stone and Interview magazines pegged her as an “artist to watch.”
From her luxuriously cozy, hushed log-cabin home in Maple Valley, Carlile seemed unaffected by her rather sudden near-fame as she reflected on all this: “I’ve always heard about the hype machine — ‘You don’t want to get caught up in the hype machine.’ … Yeah, it can be kind of scary — but it’s really exciting. Like when I was in a hotel room and got a call, ‘I’m going to patch you in, Brandi. I’ve got the Rolling Stone interviewer on line two’ — things you never thought you’d hear.”
Brandi Carlile will perform 7 p.m. Wednesday, in-store at Sonic Boom Records, 514 15th Ave. E., Seattle;
8 p.m. Saturday, Summer Nights at South Lake Union, opening for Chris Isaak, 860 Terry Ave N., Seattle, summernights.org, Summer Nights Box Office (11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays), 206-628-0888 or Ticketmaster outlets;
Aug. 6, Showbox, 1426 First Ave, Seattle, www.showboxonline.com
Carlile has — in addition to a passion for music and one-way mentality — a marvelous voice, and has been compared to the likes of Patsy Cline and, more contemporarily, Sheryl Crow. She is fairly rooted in the folk-rock genre (à la Aimee Mann, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, etc.) heard on “AAA” radio stations. While her songs at this point are not “country,” in many ways she is country. She has spent her life in Sumner, Ravensdale, Black Diamond and Maple Valley; the most “city” she’s been was living for a few months in West Seattle, which was more convenient for her Seattle shows but not suited to her open-air lifestyle.
She’s now settled deep in the thick greens and winding roads of Maple Valley in a renovated log cabin (a former barn has been turned into an entertainment center/recording studio), with a Doberman who’s smart enough to open doors if they’re not locked, a cat and a horse named Sovereign (after her guitar brand). “I didn’t know anything about horses, so I kind of raised it like a dog,” says Carlile. Slender and athletic-looking, she insists she’s lazy and that her personal trainer practically has to drag her onto the treadmill three days a week.
She might be described as “country chic” — jeans and sweatshirts are her main uniforms, but fix her light-brown hair up just so, drape a shawl around her Boy Scout shirt, and she looks phenomenal in a photo shoot — which is what happened for the Interview magazine piece.
There are many “overnight sensations” in the flavor-of-the-month world of pop music. Carlile is not one of them. From 2000 to 2003, she played hundreds of shows around Seattle, from Queen Anne’s the Paragon (a regular Sunday-night show) to Duke’s and Salty’s in West Seattle, to bars in the Auburn-Black Diamond area. Some nights, she and her band would make $600, playing before a packed house — “four hours. We’d play all our originals, play a set of covers, and then play our originals again.” Other nights, the take would be $100, split four ways, and sometimes with just a handful of people in the audience.
“I just kept telling myself it was all for a reason — and it was better than any other job I could get.”
Things started happening in late 2003, and Carlile and company started selling out venues like the Tractor Tavern and Showbox. Carlile spent the first part of 2004 recording an album, and then her manager, Mike Barber, began to shop it around as a demo. Late last year, he got through to Tim Devine, a senior vice president at Columbia Records, and persuaded him to give the Carlile demo a listen. “I got the music on Friday, by Saturday morning I called her manager and said ‘I’m in, let’s do it,’ ” Devine recalls. “I had not seen her perform; her songs and her voice were so stunning.
“I didn’t need to make sure of anything, she was overflowing with talent. Usually you’ll go see a band after a demo has piqued your interest. But in her case I saw so much talent I didn’t need further convincing,” says Devine, who sees “Fall Apart Again” as a potential single from the Carlile album.
“I think she is a great folk-rock voice, in the lineage of a Dylan or a Springsteen or a Buckley — all of whom incidentally recorded for this label. I think she fits well into that oeuvre.”
Back in Maple Valley, Carlile is busy writing new songs. In a way, the “Brandi Carlile” album is anti-climactic for the restless writer: “Man, I recorded this a year-and-a-half ago,” she said, three weeks before the scheduled release. “I’m already past it.”
She says she already has another album’s worth of songs, many written on an antique, saloon-style upright piano. She starts tinkering with the piano to show a visitor what it sounds like, and ends up singing “Hold On To Then,” a new song that has the melancholy feel that is her signature.
Strumming her guitar as she sits in an overstuffed chair, she sings another new song, “When You Get There,” written about a neighbor everyone knows as Uncle Marv, who has 50 acres of undeveloped land and refuses to sell to developers. “It’s the only happy song I’ve written in years,” she says when she finishes it.
Now that things are falling into place for her career, she will probably have to write more songs away from the comforts of her log mansion in Maple Valley.
Carlile has spent much of the last year on the road, headlining in clubs or opening at bigger venues for the likes of James Taylor, Jonny Lang, Hanson and Shawn Colvin. After another brief tour opening for Chris Isaak, she starts touring on her own again later this month, with a performance Aug. 6 at the Showbox — her official hometown CD-release show.
It’s kind of like the lyrics to that first song she performed in public, about a boy who mesmerized his small town by playing a little guitar:
“Then one day he was gone, and no one ever saw him ’round,
He’d vanished like the breeze, they forgot him in the little town.
. . .
And then one day on the Hit Parade,
Was a little dark-haired boy who played the Tennessee flat top box.”
And one day, perhaps on MTV or VH1, we’ll see that little brown-haired girl from the country southwest of Seattle, all grown up with her guitar, still driven by that fierce passion for performance she caught one night at the Northwest Grand Ol’ Opry.
Tom Scanlon: firstname.lastname@example.org