Brandi Carlile (illustration by Andy Friedman)
With a voice that rings to the heavens like a deep, clear bell the size of a minivan, Brandi Carlile first got the attention of alert radio stations and music fans in 2005. Before then, she was spending more time in that aforementioned minivan than anywhere else, bumping over the highways and dirt roads of America with the Hanseroth twins, Tim and Phil.
They have a real tour bus now, and the road group has expanded to include their wives and kids, but Carlile is still a road warrior at heart who spreads joy through one field or theater at a time. She and the boys have written a trunkful of melody-rich songs, and they’ve got an impressive list of well-chosen covers in their back pockets. The first time we heard that big voice, it was stretching out the melodies of “What Can I Say” and “Throw it All Away,” both sing-loud-in-the-car gems.
Following the trio around in area clubs, we’d be the last ones there to sing along with her to the end, on Johnny Cash's “Folsom Prison Blues,” Prince's “Nothing Compares 2 U,” or Radiohead's “Creep.” You could picture her with her own windows rolled down, feeling the rush of it. Carlile is known as a solo act, but she’d be the first to tell you that the trio is something of a three-headed musical monster, as gorgeously evidenced on "The Eye" from 2015's The Firewatcher's Daughter. They share roots, values, and experience, and are so much of a family that they’ve actually become family (Phil is married to Brandi’s sister Tiffany).
They also share influences, which are seriously varied. In their songs you can hear the hip swagger and gospel soul of Elvis Presley; the lilting melodies and down-home goodness of Dolly Parton; the harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash; the biting truth of Cash; the guts and grit of Led Zeppelin; and the soaring, dramatic power of Queen. Above it all soars the poignant, breaking, twangy, sky-filling voice that evokes Patsy Cline or k.d. lang at their strongest. And k.d. and Elton John weren’t just influences, by the way; they were two early fans. John even appeared on her Give Up the Ghost album.
WFUV was the first station to play Brandi on the air, when her debut made its way to Program Director Rita Houston. “Her gift is looking at life with tenderness,” Houston says. “We’ve been there with her after a show when she’s stayed to meet every fan who lined up to meet her,” a habit that Carlile adopted from Willie Nelson.
“When she first came here, she was a kid," Houston recalls. "Since then she’s grown up in the public eye. Now she’s a mom!” And Carlile is also a longtime friend of the station — and headlined Holiday Cheer for FUV in 2015 (which also featured another FUV Essentials artist, the late, great Sharon Jones).
An activist in word and deed, Carlile has never shied away from putting a spotlight where she believes attention should be paid—to the environment, Native American rights, the arts, women's rights, public health, the hungry, and the homeless—mostly through her own Looking Out Foundation. And it was her experience as a parent that influenced her choice of a musical, all-star 2017 charity project, Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of The Story—An Album to Benefit War Child, to help the noted non-profit organization War Child UK which supports young children caught in conflict zones.
To commemorate the decade anniversary of the album that really kicked off her career, The Story, Carlile enlisted the help of her musical heroes and friends to cover those songs. She got a big “yes” from Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Jim James, The Avett Brothers, Indigo Girls, Pearl Jam, Adele and others, like newcomer Ruby Amanfu. [Cover Stories is this week’s New Dig on FUV.]
It’s not just Brandi Carlile's big voice, it’s also her big heart that makes her one of our FUV Essentials.
Holiday Cheer for FUV: 2015
Brandi Carlile: Electric Lady Studios 2015
Brandi Carlile: Words and Music 2012
Brandi Carlile: Words and Music 2010
Brandi Carlile: Words and Music 2007
Brandi Carlile: Cutting Room 2007
Brandi Carlile: Words and Music 2006