Sure, no one's going to mistake Brandi Carlile's new album Bear Creek for Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, but to her, old-school country is as nonconformist as "Anarchy in the U.K."
"I consider country music one of those pioneering, punk-rock genres, because of the fact that women were considered equal in country music much earlier than they were in R&B or rock 'n' roll." says Carlile, who grew up in a small town outside of Seattle listening to her parents' Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline records. "And lyrically, country artists took a lot more risks for the time. They talked about divorce. Loretta Lynn wrote about the pill. Johnny Cash did murder ballads."
So on her latest release, Carlile decided to pay a little respect to her childhood idols. Unlike her previous albums, which lean toward the poppier side of folk rock, Bear Creek kicks off like a front-porch hootenanny, overflowing with a charming brew of hand claps and hollers, banjos and boot thumps.
And at the center of it all is her voice — a voice that can shake and rip one second, lure and soothe the next. A voice so intense, it can break your heart with a single crack of a note. Case in point: her 2005 slowburner hit "The Story," which first rocketed her onto the Billboard charts. It's a voice she's been perfecting since she was six years old, ever since her mother, a local country singer, first let her try. "She'd have band practices at our house," Carlile says. "And as a reward at the end of the day, if things had gone well or I'd done my chores or whatever, I was allowed to sing a song with her band before I went to bed."
Within two years, Carlile had graduated to performing Johnny Cash tunes at a nearby theater called the Northwest Grand Ol' Opry. Then, at age 12, she heard Elton John for the first time. "I completely fell in love," she says. "I went to the library and checked out a couple Elton John records and an Elton John biography. And that's what introduced me to Queen and the Beatles. So Elton John was kind of my gateway drug into rock 'n' roll."
As a result, Carlile ditched the twang almost overnight. By 17, she'd taught herself piano and guitar, and she was soon making a living as a singer-songwriter, busking the streets of Seattle and playing at any restaurant, bar, or club that would have her. But it wasn't until she met "the twins"— bandmates and writing partners Phil and Tim Hanseroth — in the early 2000s that things took off. It's been a musical kinship that's since spawned a decade-long career and four critically-acclaimed albums.
So what gave Carlile the itch to suddenly revisit her childhood roots? Maybe it was the fact that she turned 30 while writing and recording Bear Creek, a milestone that hit her a lot harder than she'd ever imagined. "Turns out I'm a cliche," she admits. But she's not going quietly into that good night.
In fact, Carlile has turned to magic to protect her from old age. She has two intertwining snakes — a protective talisman from her favorite movie The Neverending Story — tattooed on her shoulders. "But like Atreyu wears the AURYN [the snake talisman] for protection from The Nothing, I have them for protection from the societal pull toward responsibility and middle-agedness, from the imposition of commerce on art, from the imposition of adulthood on childhood."
Carlile recently got engaged to her girlfriend Catherine Shepherd. Their wedding is slated for September. Still, she swears they won't be domesticated any time soon. "I got engaged to a bigger child than me," she says, laughing. "So I don't feel like we're being pulled toward adulthood. If anything, it feels like being pulled more toward childhood."