You can forget that it is 2011 while listening to her songs because they sound like ready-made classics. Her lyrics show the miles she’s clocked on the road and there is no doubt that she’s a seasoned professional by the way she takes to the stage.
Like Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison before her, she’s found her way to success by doing the only thing she knows how to do. In this context, it’s no surprise that her hero is Patsy Cline.
Right out of the gate, Carlile was labeled as an artist to watch by magazines like Paste and Rolling Stone. With only three studio recordings under her belt, Carlile has toured with the Dave Matthews Band and collaborated with Elton John. She’s worked with the most sought-after producers in the business and counts childhood hero Amy Ray of The Indigo Girls as among her friends.
Could anyone live up to such hype? You wonder. Then her voice starts to soar and it’s clear that she is right where she belongs: another link in the chain of country-tinged singer/songwriters whose talent is singular.
Q: What drew you to music?
A: I have a musical family. My grandfather and his siblings and my great-grandmother and then my mother — a wonderful singer. We spent a lot of nights at the family jam sessions listening to them. Even as little, little kids, I remember sneaking up the stairs when I was supposed to be in bed and listening for hours and hours. And then they would record them on the cassette tape or whatever medium they had. We’d listen to them all week at home and it was just something that our family did and that we always wanted to be included in. Kind of like one of those things that you have restrictions on when you’re young, so when you get older, you just want to be able to do as much of it as you possibly can. Because we always had to go to bed and we never got to jam or play with the band, once we got to a certain age, our parents worked it out with us that we could do one song with the band first. It became something that was doled out to us, like ice cream or something. Then we just really caught the bug at that point.
Q: There’s a certain quality to your voice that connects with me emotionally, even before the brain kicks in. Do you have any idea what that is? What creates that kind of appeal? Are there singers that you feel like that about?
A: In some ways I feel like the voices of the artists that I loved during my coming of age were a huge part of my upbringing. Hearing Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash sing, it feels like my mother and father’s voice. Then hearing Elton John sing and Emily Saliers and Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls sing, it feels like my coming of age — my transition out of my youth. Those things connect with me emotionally, in a way that’s sensory. It’s not even a decision I ever made. When it comes to my voice and my singing, I’ve listened to videotapes of me singing when I was like 8, 9 years old and I thought I had the weirdest little voice, because it was weird! It was always deep, but it was coming out of this little kid.
Q: Do you think of yourself as primarily a singer or a songwriter—does one or the other come first for you?
A: I started out as a singer, never even considering being a songwriter. I was much more concerned with being an entertainer than anything else. Being an entertainer meant to use your voice in a big dramatic way and to just have it completely project from your body. And also, to get dressed up and to respect your audience. That’s what I always thought it was to be an entertainer. I loved Elvis Presley. I loved Roy Orbison. I loved all of the Grand Ole Opry: Minnie Pearl, Little Jenny Dickens, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee. Those were my heroes. Patsy Cline’s my hero. Those artists didn’t necessarily write songs. In fact, if they did, it wasn’t what they were revered for. So, I never considered being a songwriter until I turned about 13 or 14 and fell in love with rock-n-roll music and realized that those folks wrote songs for themselves.
Q: The break in your voice is a key part of your sound. How does it affect how you approach a song?
A: I think it probably came from Patsy Cline. I spent a lot of time mimicking her when I was young. But the deal is that I mimicked such a diverse group of people that it brings uniqueness. To other people, it sounds like uniqueness. To me, it sounds like my influences. It’s just that I have a vast array of influences. The break in my voice, you know, I’ve been criticized for it before and warned that maybe it’s a flaw. But when I do it, it’s a place to get power from and it feels good to let my voice break because I don’t really know how it’s going to recover and I think that unpredictability is what makes my voice keep people on edge.
Q: Does it keep you on edge, or do you plan out in advance how you’re going to use it?
A: I don’t plan anything. I plan everyday to get up on stage and sing with restraint and just sing my songs, but it doesn’t work that way. I end up a total vehicle.
Q: There is a version of you doing the song “Creep” live in Boston. It sounds there like you’re really tearing your voice. Are you really blowing it out or is there a way to do that where it sounds like you’re blowing your voice out, but you’re not?
A: There’s this woman in Seattle named Susan Carr who teaches how to do it and there’s a woman named Melissa Cross who has a DVD series called “The Zen of Screaming.” I’ve never trained with either of those people and I’ve only touched on “The Zen of Screaming” DVD. My friend Amy Ray loaned it to me. But I understand the concept. The concept is that behind that scream, behind that power, you have to be calm and know enough that you can do it before you do it. It’s tension and the nervousness behind the scream that tears your voice up because it forces you to use a part of your instrument that shouldn’t be used to push that much power through your throat. But if you’re confident when you scream that way, you can use your core in a way that it doesn’t really ever touch your throat. It’s kind of the same concept behind how a martial artist can smash a cinderblock with his head and not have a scratch on him. It defies physical reason.
Q: Now, you just said, your “friend Amy Ray.” There’s somebody that was very important to you when you were younger and now she’s a friend of yours. How does that feel?
Brandi: Also, drawing to the last point, there’s somebody that’s been screaming for 25 years and still sings like an angel. But Amy, oh boy, I value her so much in life. I value her in the present and I value her in the past in various ways.
A: There’s somebody who was on a poster on your wall and now you are cohorts. Does that feel surreal?
Brandi: Well, when it comes to Amy and Emily, particularly, it was never about them being on a poster. It was about the message they were sending out. They were sending out a social message in their activism, and in their lyrics. There was a time when the Indigo Girls were a call to arms for collegians and academics and gay kids, political kids. That was what I got swept up in — that kind of hurricane of social consciousness. It affected me as an artist. I’m still in awe of it. They have no idea that they have that effect on people. And there’s a reason why they have no idea that they have that effect on people and that is because you can’t have that effect on people and know it. If you knew it, you wouldn’t be able to innocently do it.
Q: How so?
A: The theory that I have is that you can’t know you’re wise and be wise. You know what I mean? You can’t be searching for the answer and think that you have the answer. If you think you’re wise, then whether you want to or not, you found a way to stop learning.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Hmmm. What’s next for me is just the continuum of my life right now. I’d hate to put more milestones in front of me because I already feel – and I mean this genuinely – just overwhelmingly fortunate. And if I can just continue on this way and if I can get on a tour bus for my next tour and continue to go play venues and have people show up, then I’m really happy with that being next for me.