The book on Brandi Carlile stops and starts with one thing: that voice. From the soft, delicate notes that waft out like a lullaby, to the raw, cracking, gut-wrenching highs when she’s really belting, it’s that singular voice that has put Carlile at the forefront of folk rock in America.
Carlile started performing solo at bars in and around little Ravensdale, Wash., where she was born. The Voice started getting her noticed, and eventually she was being asked to make the trek into Elliott Bay and play one of the storied clubs in indie-rich Seattle. Places like The Moore Theater, The Triple Door and the Peter Buck-owned Crocodile Café.
“Those were really big shows for me,” Carlile said in a phone interview from Traverse City, Mich. “I lived in the rural area, so I was playing small town rooms. Then maybe once or twice a month, I’d get a big show in the city. Those were the shows that I’d call Grandma for. You wanted everyone to see you play in those places.”
It was also during this time that Carlile forged what would prove to be a lasting partnership with twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth.
“I got really bored playing solo acoustic right about the time that their rock-n-roll band broke up,” Carlile recalled. “It worked out really well timing wise, and we’ve just kind of kept at it.”
The Hanseroths — known colloquially just as “the twins” — helped round out Carlile’s sound, and the three have developed a partnership that sounds so seamless it’s difficult to tell where Carlile’s influence ends and the twins’ begins.
“I feel like we’ve grown a lot together,” Carlile said. “It’s one of those things, like when you run up a hill and don’t realize how steep the incline was until you look back. I can look at where we started and see how far we’ve come.”
Another factor in shaping the sound that’s made Carlile so successful has been her early involvement with a couple of legendary producers. Carlile met Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Slipknot, Johnny Cash) while she was recording her first album — Rubin would also go on to produce her third — and Columbia Records paired her up with T-Bone Burnett (Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Elton John) for her second album. The title track off that effort, 2007’s “The Story,” remains her biggest single to date.
“(Burnett and Rubin) had a huge influence, especially to a band that was kind of anti-producer,” Carlile admitted. “We didn’t want a lot of input. We felt like somebody was always trying to influence our shit, and so we really didn’t want to do that. (But together) they taught us everything that we didn’t want to be taught but needed to learn.”
After releasing three studio albums, Carlile turned her attention to something she’d always had in mind. So, in 2011, it was back to Seattle for a show at the famed Benaroya concert hall with the Seattle Symphony.
“(Playing Benaroya’s) a huge deal,” Carlile said. “When you grow up in the area and you’re busking down at Pike Place Market, you pass by Benaroya, and it seems totally unattainable.”
The live album was released in 2011, with her next studio album, “Bear Creek,” coming the following year. Now Carlile is touring. She and the twins all bring their wives along, and the six of them spend off days camping and fishing along the tour rout. Downtime that Carlile wouldn’t do without.
“It’s nice,” she said. “You play a little guitar, get out to nature and remember why you loved playing music in the first place.”
Originally published in Cityview on July 3, 2013