By Eleni P. Austin
Bet you didn’t know that Brandi Carlile is a band. Well, it’s true. Not in a Jethro Tull kind of way, where no one in the band was named Jethro, nothing that confusing. The band is comprised of twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, and centered around the astonishing vocal prowess of Brandi Carlile.
Brandi Carlile was born and raised in Ravensdale, Washington, a tiny town 40 miles outside Seattle. It was an isolated upbringing that allowed Brandi, and her siblings, Jay and Tiffany plenty of outdoor activities like hiking, fishing and building forts. But music was an early obsession.
Her mother, Teresa, had been a singer, so Classic Country was a constant presence growing up. As a child, Brandi was captivated in equal measure by Patsy Cline and Elton John. She made her singing debut at age eight, performing Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box.”
By her teen years, Brandi had learned guitar and began to haunt the Seattle bar scene, playing anywhere she could. (This included a gig as a back-up singer in an Elvis Presley Tribute band.) It was during this time she met Phil and Tim Hanseroth. The twins had been playing in a band called the Flying Machinists. Impressed by their vocals, musicianship and songwriting talents, she promised them “if you start a band with me, I’ll get us signed and on the road within a year.”
In 2003, Dave Matthews caught the band’s performance at the Sasquatch Music Festival and became an ardent supporter. The following year they signed with Columbia Records and Brandi Carlile’s self-titled debut arrived in 2005.
The album was warm and intimate, powered by Brandi’s protean vocals, the Twins’ instrumental prowess and the trio’s combined songwriting skills. Publications like Rolling Stone, Interview and Paste proclaimed her an “artist to watch.” Their profile was raised considerably after a series of opening gigs with heavy-hitters like Dave Matthews, Shawn Colvin and Chris Isaak.
The band’s talents attracted the attention of T-Bone Burnett. An accomplished musician and producer, Burnett got his start touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. He has recorded several critically acclaimed solo albums, but his métier is production.
Burnett has been behind the boards for seminal albums from Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, Wallflowers, Sam Phillips and Gillian Welch. His production on soundtracks like “O’ Brother Where Art Thou,” “Cold Mountain” and “Crazy Heart” have garnered multiple Grammy and Academy Award nominations, culminating in a “Best Song” Academy Award in 2010.
Burnett produced Brandi Carlile’s second effort, The Story in 2007. It successfully avoided the dreaded sophomore slump by building on the themes of the debut. Then presenting them in a more brooding and dramatic fashion. Again critical acclaim was nearly unanimous, and the album peaked at #41 on the Billboard charts.
Suddenly Brandi Carlile’s music was everywhere; Toyota commercials, “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes and cheesy Nicholas Sparks movies. For their third album, Rick Rubin took the production reins.
A superstar producer in his own right, Rubin has worked with everyone from LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys to Tom Petty, Slayer, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dixie Chicks He is credited with single-handedly reviving the career of Johnny Cash. His stripped- down recording style has benefitted recent releases from Neil Diamond, ZZ Top and Black Sabbath.
The resulting record, Give Up The Ghost arrived in 2009. Accented by a warmer sonic palette, the album included contributions by Heartbreaker Benmont Tench and Red Hot Chilli Pepper, Chad Smith. It also featured a genuine duet with childhood idol, Elton John. This time they peaked at #26 on the charts.
Between their third and fourth studio albums, Brandi Carlile found time to record a live effort. Live At Benaroya Hall With The Seattle Symphony was released in 2011. Along with their compelling originals, the recording included knowing covers of classics by Simon & Garfunkel, Elton John and Leonard Cohen.
Having experienced the majesty of performing with a symphony orchestra, their next album was a stylistic 180. Bear Creek was a bare-bones affair. Named after the rural recording studio/barn in tiny Woodinville, Washington. The sound was equal parts ballsy and bucolic. It was also Brandi Carlile’s final album for Columbia Records.
With a sweet nod to serendipity, Brandi Carlile is now signed to ATO Records, the boutique label co-owned by Dave Matthews. ATO offers a more artist-friendly atmosphere than a corporate behemoth like Columbia. Their first album for the label is The Firewatcher’s Daughter.
The first two tracks, “Wherever Is Your Heart” and “The Eye,” offer testament to the versatility of this band. On “Wherever…” rapid-fire acoustic arpeggios accompany Brandi’s solitary pledge of romantic allegiance, until the Twins kick the tune into overdrive with a pile-driving rhythm, pliant bass lines and gritty guitar.
The mood pivots on a dime with “The Eye.” Hushed Gospel harmonies and liquid guitar licks underscore lyrics that offer a former flame spiritual succor as a panacea to crippling addiction. “It really breaks my heart to see a dear old friend go down to the worn out place again/I am a sturdy soul and there ain’t no shame in lying down in the bed you made, can you fight the urge to run for another day?”
Four tracks jettison the Folk flavor of past albums for a more rollicking, Rock & Roll sound. Wordless vocalese rides roughshod over a loping rhythm and snap-back strummy guitar on “The Things I Regret.”
The introspective lyrics catalog past sins and offer contrition, “It’s hard moving on from the things you’ve done wrong, when they play in your head like an old fashioned song/When you’re wearing on your sleeve all the things you regret, you can only remember what you want to forget.”
“Mainstream Kid” blends Punky, raucous guitar riffs with a pummeling back-beat. The lyrics take a swipe at the band’s former label and its need to pre-package and pigeonhole their unique talents. “You can own me, you control me, individuality has never stood a chance with you/Jump into the mainstream.”
Brandi’s vocals pivot between yodel and war cry, perfectly matching her defiant mien. She howls and yowls over an instrumental break that can be best described as a Psychedelic Hoedown.
The lyrics on “Blood, Muscle, Skin & Bone” are a naked plea for some emotional rescue; “I need somebody strong for when I’m feeling weak, with an open heart that can listen/For when my soul is too tired to speak.” The message is nearly eclipsed by the quirky arrangement and rip-roaring instrumentation, an irresistible mix of jaunty hand-claps, Stonsey guitar chords, plus a soaring guitar solo that recalls “Joshua Tree”-era U2.
Finally, “Alibi” is a swivel-hipped Rockabilly Rave-Up that crackles with electricity. Skeletal percussion and boomerang bass lines provide ballast for twangy guitar licks and Brandi’s flirtatious and cajoling lyrics.
The action slows for three songs, highlighting the trio’s individual songwriting skills. “Beginning To Feel The Years,” by Phil Hanseroth is a quiet piano ballad accented by ukulele, cello and slide guitar. The lyrics are a quiet encomium to enduring love; “As long as you’re beside me along the way, I’m going to make it through the night and into the light.”
The cello also figures prominently on Tim Hanseroth’s “Wilder (We’re Chained).” Although Phil and his wife, (Brandi’s sister), Tiffany, and Brandi and her wife Catherine are all new parents, it is Tim who has written a tender invocation to the newest members of the family. “You came into the world with eyes as clear as water, you didn’t look a thing like your grandmother’s daughter/With a heart so heavy and beating like a drum, neither did you look like your grandfather’s son.”
Finally, Brandi’s “I Belong To You” is powered by fleet fretwork, lonesome pedal steel, cello and ethereal harmonies. Sweet and funny lyrics illustrate the symbiosis that occasionally accompanies married love; “Today I sang the same damn tune as you, it was ‘Lady In Red’ I hate that song and I know that you do too.” The end of the track gathers speed as Brandi repeats the title like a mantra.
Other interesting songs include restless farewell of “Heroes And Songs” and “The Stranger At My Door.” The latter is a torch and twang extravaganza that concludes with a fiery “Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” coda.
The album closes with a surprisingly buoyant cover of the Avett Brothers’ slightly macabre “Murder In The City.” Lush strings and a lone acoustic guitar shadow lyrics that imagine a homicidal end.
Self-produced, with assistance from veteran producer, Trina Shoemaker, The Firewatcher’s Daughter was recorded quickly at Bear Creek Studio. Brandi’s wife, Catherine, was eight months pregnant when the process began and the album was delivered just a couple of days before their daughter.
Freed from the constraints of a giant corporate label, the trio skipped the demo process and mostly wrote and recorded on the spot. The spontaneity and sense of urgency shines through.
Ten years in, the songs feel richer, the arrangements more intricate, and the harmonies more familial. Life experience has deepened their sound, and this band just gets better and better.