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About three minutes into “The Story,” the single that launched Brandi Carlile onto the national charts, the singer/songwriter goes for the high note. The orchestrations build, then filter out, allowing Carlile to be front and center for the big, anthemic finish.
But then her voice breaks.
And she doesn’t so much hit the note as viciously plow through it, drawing every last ounce out of her husky, familiar pipes. It’s a moment that even now, as Carlile makes the rounds on tour, audiences wait for.
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“That note comes around, and you can feel the tension in the room start to build,” Carlile says. “It becomes this question of, ‘Can she do it? Can she not?’ And it’s not always the answer they’re expecting, but that’s what keeps it interesting.”
In many ways, the same can be said for Carlile herself. Judging by looks alone, it would be easy to deem her another fresh-faced twentysomething on guitar. But then she starts to sing—and her voice packs a walloping punch, shifting between a delicate falsetto and a full-throated, razor-edged howl.
Carlile, 28, climbed the charts with it in 2007, when—after years on the road opening for acts such as the Dave Matthews Band, Sheryl Crow and Ray LaMontagne—she received an unlikely boost from prime-time network television. The title track off her album, “The Story” snagged prominent placement on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and in an Olympics commercial, setting things in motion for the Washington native.
The increased exposure meant Carlile was soon headlining her own shows. She was also knee-deep in her third album, last fall’s Give Up the Ghost, which features a collaboration with Carlile’s self-proclaimed childhood idol, Sir Elton John. Carlile’s dream duet came together in a surprisingly simple way: During the studio process, she worked up the guts to e-mail John about possibly recording together. The next morning, he called her back to say yes. The result is the ragtime piano romp “Caroline.”
“He nailed the piano on the first take, and I could barely wrap my head around the fact that Elton John was playing something I’d written,” Carlile says. “It’s something I’ll probably never get over.”
Next up, Carlile will bring her brand of folk-rock to the newly revived Lilith Fair, which kicks off this month in Southern California. For Carlile, who attended every Lilith Fair as a fan in Seattle in the ’90s, it seems like a natural transition. It’s also a full-circle moment for her: now sharing the stage with the very women who inspired her as a teen and helped pave the way for her entry into the music scene.
“I remember what it was like to see Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan for the first time. I camped out every single year as a fan,” says Carlile. “And each time, it was a place you could go for a dose of social consciousness and a sense of local belonging. The cause went far beyond the music.”
Carlile credits the festival with directly addressing the underrepresentation of women in the industry—a problem she says Lilith Fair has helped fix since its inception in 1997.
“The problem back then was the industry wanting to label women in music as its own genre. Now, there’s a conscious understanding that it’s not just a niche—that it should be half of all music,” Carlile says. “The problem still isn’t entirely solved, but it’s getting better these days because there’s much more of a demand for it. It’s a shrinking divide.”
Another shrinking divide? The one regarding her sexuality. In an interview with the LA Times last year, Carlile confirmed she was gay. But she’s quick to point out there was no deliberate effort to keep her orientation under wraps until then. Rather, Carlile says, she was never asked about it. And that was just fine with her.
“To me, it wasn’t an intentional ‘coming out’ interview. The question just never came up in interviews until then. I didn’t hide it, but at the same time, I didn’t feel the need to wear it on my sleeve,” says Carlile, who first came out at age 15 to a tentative but supportive family.
She also recalls how her childhood—despite growing up right outside the birthplace of grunge—was steeped in Grand Ole Opry culture and the Baptist faith. Both were counter to the norm, and because of that, Carlile admits, she thrived on them—particularly the latter, at least for a bit.
“I actually made every decision to become a conservative religious teenager,” says Carlile, before pausing. “It didn’t work out too well.”