Carlile’s Music Captures Her Life Changes

She still has friends who work at Columbia, so singer Brandi Carlile isn’t gloating about her first disc after being dumped by the label becoming her fastest-seller.

OK. Maybe a little.

“There’s still a part of me who feels valued by this reaction,” she said, diplomatically, after The Firewatcher’s Daughter debuted at No. 9 on Billboard. It was released this month on Dave Matthews’ ATO label.

Photo: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP
Posing for a portrait to promote her album “The Firewatcher's Daughter” in New York.

She’s following an old-fashioned blueprint for success. Carlile built a connection with fans through a handful of well-received records and tireless touring, and is reaping the benefits after a buzzworthy first single (“Wherever is Your Heart”) got those fans excited about her new music.

Major record labels used to thrive on that approach, back when they had the patience and resources for career development.

Carlile, 33, grew up on the outskirts of Seattle. Her mother, a singer in a local band, would persuade young Brandi to behave by promising she could sing one song at the end of a living room rehearsal. She would study a new song all week, often a country song by Mary Chapin Carpenter or Rosanne Cash. She was hooked.

In the post-grunge Seattle scene in the late 1990s, she met the Hanseroth twins, Phil and Tim. They bonded over a love for three-part harmonies, singing Beach Boys songs for fun. Carlile was an acoustic artist who wanted to plug in, the twins played in a rock band but wanted to explore a softer side. The new disc freely explores both approaches, including reflective numbers with a country accent side by side with aggressive rockers.

The partnership makes for a striking onstage look: Carlile flanked on either side by two lanky, identical-looking men.

Carlile took advantage of the freedom that comes with working at a smaller label, without a line of second-guessers. She was intent on capturing each song’s spark of creation before it was dulled by over-rehearsal, even if that meant accepting imperfections.

“All these years we’ve been having these moments and I feel them on the demos, I feel them happen in practice,” she said, “and then we record them and there’s something special that I love, but it’s not really that rock ‘n’ roll moment that you get just once. This album for me is all about making sure that moment happened on the album and nothing got in between us and the moment.”

She and the Hanseroths took time writing the songs. Recording came amid life changes and growing families. Carlile married in 2012 and her wife, Catherine, gave birth to their daughter last June, days after the album was done.

Carlile proudly scrolls through her smartphone for smiling pictures of daughter Evangeline.

The disc “gets really human and vulnerable,” she said. “It’s super self-conscious. It gets angry at times, it’s panicky and it’s anxious, it’s joyful, it’s sentimental – all these real things that were happening in the studio, all these life changes that we were on the verge of. I can hear them.”

The new music has connected with listeners at New York’s influential adult alternative station WFUV-FM, program director Rita Houston said.

“It bursts right out of the gate, such honest emotion from her and the twins,” Houston said. “They nail the harmonies and she’s writing the kinds of songs that give you lyrics you want to incorporate into your life. You want to write them in a card to somebody you care about. ‘Wherever is your heart I call home,’ what a beautiful lyric that is.”

Carlile takes pride in the disc’s one cover, of the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City,” with its climactic lyric about “the love that lets us share our name.”

“I didn’t know when I was growing up, because I was different, that I would have an opportunity to have a family and to get married and have that be OK – and not just be OK with my parents but with the federal government,” she said.

“When I hear ‘Murder in the City,’ I hear it in an anthemic way that’s respectful of the basic civil right to share your name and share your life with someone,” she said. “I couldn’t have said it any better myself, so why try?”