Brandi Carlile dashes boundaries with a country-tinged mixture.
Brandi Carlile has steadily built her Boston audience performing everywhere from small halls to festivals like Newport Folk and Life Is Good, where large crowds discovered her soulful country-rock charms. She’s currently building a bigger audience around the country, hitting spots as far away as Alaska.
“When I started touring, I took valuable advice from the Indigo Girls, who told me the most important thing I could do in my career was to just keep returning to the same places,” Carlile says. “No matter the state of the industry or the economy, it’s still about people coming together to hear and play live music.”
Like the Indigo Girls, Carlile delivers onstage as a passionate singer/songwriter who has engaged mainstream fans both before and since she came out publicly a few years back—with nary a blip on the radar. “Just living your life openly and honestly is actually enough in these times,” says Carlile, who addresses broad social causes through her Looking Out Foundation. “That’s the gift that we’ve been given by people who paved the way.”
The music that initially inspired the Washington State native was country, played around the house by her parents who took her to concerts at the county fair. She saw the Judds three times by age 10, and at 12, she won tickets to see Elton John. “Elton John was the gateway drug from country-and-western music,” says Carlile (who also fell for Queen’s Freddie Mercury). “We always had a reverence for big singers in this family.”
Outrageousness was part of the appeal. “I’ve been drawn to flamboyance from such a young age,” the 31-year-old says, “and glamourousness from a very queer and untraditional sense. I’m fascinated with Grand Ole Opry culture, the suits and fringe and cowboy boots… and Elvis Presley and all his jumpsuits and Elton John and his craziness.”
For her part, Carlile sticks to a bare-bones performance style anchored by her raw, emotive voice and cross-genre versatility. With her fifth album, Bear Creek, she sounds more comfortable in capturing her own energy and diversity. The album—named after the rural Washington studio where it was recorded—ranges from the thumping hoedown “Raise Hell” to “That Wasn’t Me,” a pensive song about a family member’s alcoholism. “It’s a person finding out how to be their best self and expecting everybody else to get on board with it, although it takes time,” she says. A more playful tune, the closing track “Just Kids,” sports the backing vocals of chirping frogs.
“None of us were in our right mind, and we decided to send the microphone out to the creek,” Carlile says of that last song. “The approach to Bear Creek was just random and really fun.”
Besides playing guitar, organ and piano on the album, she splits banjo duties with guitarist Tim Hanseroth, who joins his bassist twin brother, Phil, as her equal cowriters and bandmates. That’s been the working relationship since Carlile signed with Columbia Records in 2004. “We stuck with [sharing] for a lot of reasons, but the main reason is because when you do it that way, the music always wins.”
That’s especially true in the studio, as the twins compensate for Carlile’s unease. “I get so uncomfortable in the studio with the loss of an audience,” she says. “I’ll bring my mom in, and just having her listen makes me perform a little better.”
It’s a different story onstage, where Carlile belts out both her own songs and covers of idols from Patsy Cline to Radiohead. She sang Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” at a recent show with Josh Ritter, who joins her at Bank of America Pavilion on Aug. 4. (Carlile’s band also plays the Cape Cod Melody Tent the night before and Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom the night after.)
She’s even been tackling Queen’s opus “Bohemian Rhapsody” as an encore. “The middle section with the Italian operatic craziness, I’ve made like a total, chugging punk-rock section,” Carlile says with delight. “It’s insanely different every night.”
Brandi Carlile plays at Bank of America Pavilion on Aug. 4.