It's usually the indomitable quality of Brandi Carlile's voice that grabs people first. Most singers have a threshold to their vocal range, where the robustness of their voice pretty much just gives out. To hit the higher notes in a song, they have to shift to thinner, airier falsetto voices. But over the course of her four studio albums, with Bear Creek being the latest, Carlile has proven that nature's laws of the larynx don't apply to her.
Her performance of "Raise Hell," the second track on Bear Creek, is a fine example. The song has the primal, minor-key feel of an Appalachian murder ballad, the sort of thing that's often delivered in chilly -- and chilling -- fashion. For the record, the song isn't really a murder ballad, although it was written in a dramatic setting, as she puts it, "on my birthday, backstage in Boston, Mass., during a lightning storm."
Carlile takes the opposite vocal approach that you'd expect on such a song. During a chorus melody that's too far up the scale for a lot of other vocalists to reach in full voice, she attacks the notes with from-the-gut intensity, and her singing actually gets hotter and louder. Even if you're not thinking about what she's pulling off at that moment, you can't help but feel its molten impact.
She's no classically-trained operatic singer, although she has recorded a live album with a symphony from her native Washington state. Instead, her star has steadily risen by churning out roots-leaning music powered by sleek modern rock, elevated by sturdy pop hooks and grounded by traditional country grit. So you've got to wonder how she learned to do so much with her vocal instrument.
"Patsy Cline was a big part of me discovering my vocal capacity," says Carlile, 31. "Most people don't realize how loud she is. If you really listen closely, the amount of times in any given song that she distorts, you might think it's your car speakers or something. They didn't quite know how to fully contain her voice then. She was loud."
Carlile didn't just listen through car speakers to the voices that caught her ear.
"I used to do this thing: I would sit around and wait for my family to leave the house so that I could sing really loud," she explains. "I had to know if I could hit that note that I heard that day. So I'd go to the piano and find the key, and then I'd wait till everybody left and I'd just start yelling. I mean, I did that hundreds of times. And a lot of times I would do it to Queen songs and try to hit Freddie Mercury's pitch, even k.d. lang, when she covered that Roy Orbison song 'Crying.' Anybody with a massive range used to really impress me."
That was back in Carlile's grade school days. Now she's teamed up with the Hanseroth twins, Phil and Tim, as a co-writing, long-term, bona fide band with her as front woman and namesake. Together they've made major label albums with high-profile producers like T Bone Burnett (2007's The Story), Rick Rubin (2009's Give Up the Ghost) and Trina Shoemaker (who co-produced most of Bear Creek).
In the studio, Carlile had to learn when and how to use her lung power.
"Actually, it's when I like the most help," she says. "I want the producer to tell me, 'OK, you're yelling my face off too long right now. You need to save that for the last second.' When I was doing [the song] 'The Story' with T Bone Burnett, that first line where I go up to a falsetto and I go [singing], 'So many stories of where I've been.' ... I used to belt that. And [T Bone's] like, 'Can you just wait two more minutes before you peel the paint off the walls?' It never occurred to me. It doesn't really ever occur to me to lay off, and I appreciate that help in the studio."
Even though she's hardly a household name in the country music world, she's not far removed from one. Miranda Lambert's fans know the name Frank Liddell. Besides his involvement in all of Lambert's albums, he also co-produced "Raise Hell" and another Bear Creek track. In addition, Carlile wrote the stone-country shuffle, "Same Old You," on Lambert's Four the Record album.
The variety of singers Carlile invokes as influences -- from glam rockers to torchy balladeers, sophisticated pop singers and even early Elton John -- should say something about her musical vision, as well. Then there's the fact that she'll be one of the marquee performers at the Americana Music Festival later this year.
The only real constant with Carlile is the sheer amount of territory she covers with her dynamic performances and stylistic sensibilities.
"I mean, I couldn't be less interested in becoming genre-specific in any way," she says with a sense of conviction that suggests she's pondered this at length. "If I could be anything to the music industry, it would just be sort of a human eraser of lines between genres, just because it's so damaging -- 'they're on that team, I'm on this team.' 'I don't like country.' 'I don't like rap.'
"I would just really like to prove to someone that doesn't like country that they do. ...We just put all kinds of crazy stuff on this album. None of it fits together in a way that has tangible continuity. It's all just a feeling."