We're at the NAMM Show, a gathering of the musical-instrument industry that's held each winter at the Anaheim Convention Center, a glass-and-steel edifice right next door to Disneyland. Like so many other musicians, Carlile and the Hanseroth twins are here to endorse a particular product; in their case it's Taylor Guitars.
I follow a Columbia Records publicist through a sea of Led Zep and Pink Floyd T-shirts matched by an assortment of grey ponytails and rough approximations of the iconic coif of Jeff Beck, and we finally spot Brandi, who's handing fans—some of whom had never heard her sing until half-an-hour ago—promo CDs of the title song from her soon-to-be-released second album, The Story. As we get to her, so does Matt Chamberlain, the world-class drummer who expanded Carlile's lineup to a four-piece for the recording sessions, in the process transforming it from an engaging acoustic trio to a startlingly powerful rock band.
"I had no idea you were here," Chamberlain shouts into Carlile's ear as she gives him a hug. "I was just passing by and I heard you guys playing." Brandi introduces us to the drummer with a warm affirmation of his role in making The Story. "Matt was as much a part of our band on this record as the twins," she says. "He was a major creative contributor." While Carlile is approached by another well-wisher, Chamberlain returns the compliment. "She's just naturally gifted, man," he marvels. "Some people just have it—they seem to do it without even trying, and it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up."
In a sense, this chaotic scene is a microcosm of the situation in which Carlile and "the twins"—as they're called by Brandi and everyone else in their circle—find themselves as they struggle for a foothold amid an army of aspiring bands and artists in an increasingly fractionalized musical landscape and dysfunctional music industry. Over the course of the last two years, the trio has racked up a succession of little victories as it's toured the national club circuit a half-dozen times, drawing bigger, warmer and more receptive crowds with each go-round.
This series of coast-to-coast jaunts also allowed Carlile and company ample opportunity to refine the material they'd been accumulating for their second album. And now they're just weeks away from their big moment, as Columbia prepares to release The Story, the sales of which will determine whether they'll have a future as a major-label act. They've been through two regime changes since being signed, the A&R executive who signed them has been fired, and yet, through it all, the label has continued to patiently underwrite the trio's nonstop touring while putting out Carlile's self-titled debut in 2005 without making a big deal about it. Thus far the emphasis has been press, and the reviews have been glowing. Eventually, of course, Columbia will expect a return on its investment, and that moment is fast approaching.
The 24-year-old Carlile has seen this sort of low-pressure approach begin to pay off with some of her contemporaries, like onetime touring partner Ray LaMontagne, who has earned a devoted following for his uncommonly earnest and intense music; Carlile's similarly passionate songs and singing are starting to do the same for her.
The music never stops at NAMM—as soon as Carlile's performance ends, a dude on a stool starts playing Beatles riffs while the next band sets up on the stage. It's downright deafening here, so we head down the street for the sanctuary of the Hilton restaurant. On the way, Brandi explains that Taylor makes fine touring guitars, but in the studio she now prefers to play axes like the 80-year-old pearlwood model she strummed on sessions for The Story. The instrument came courtesy of its owner, producer T Bone Burnett, who'd brought his collection of vintage gear to the Vancouver studio where they tracked the album, live off the floor.
We're led to a table for six, and Brandi takes the center chair, with one twin on each side, just like onstage. As I sit down across from her, I'm stunned by her beauty—flawless skin with a golden sheen deepened by a two-week vacation in the Yucatan, perfect bone structure and wide-set, deep-brown eyes more penetrating than halogen headlights on high beam, and something else—something ineffable but undeniable. This young woman has presence; you can see it in her eyes and you can hear it in her voice, a honeyed alto with the hint of a drawl, highly unusual to find in a native of Washington state. "I don't know where it came from," she says, "other than the fact that I sang along with a whole lot of country records as a kid."
In this instance, Brandi notes to Phil, "You could really go wrong with that beef-brisket thing."
This is but one example of the carefully maintained balance that characterizes this three-way relationship. "Nobody specifically writes the lyrics," Brandi reveals, "and nobody writes the music—it's super-random, and that's what keeps everything from being stylistically redundant. If Tim wrote all the lyrics, all the songs would be about Tim's life, and if Phil wrote all the music, all the songs would have the same feel. But sometimes it's good when one person writes everything. A good example of that is 'The Story'—Phil wrote that song completely, with no contribution from me and Tim other than interpretation."
Now I get it: "Brandi Carlile" is actually a band that happens to be named after its lead singer. "It's kind of an intertwined thing," Brandi further explains. "We've done some important things to eliminate wondering about intentions. We know that none of us wants to alter somebody's song just because they want their name on it or money from it. We've gone to great lengths to make sure that everything in our band is totally even and above-board. Nobody feels like they're not getting their due; it's not like that at all."
"They are definitely like siblings," says Chamberlain by phone from his home in Seattle a few days later. "I mean, they've spent some time together. … In the studio, when they all sat down to play together, it was really complete without adding anything—just put a mic in front of them and watch 'em go. They sing so well together, they have all these harmonies going on and their parts figured out, so my job was to just to add some booty to it without overpowering their nuances. What struck me about them was how definite they were about things."
Chamberlain is underselling his role in The Story. With this master of the pocket pushing things along, and Burnett deftly capturing the moment from the other side of the control-room glass on an album that took a mere week-and-a-half to make, the band sounds like a reincarnated Patsy Cline fronting Coldplay. "We made exactly the record we wanted to make, and T Bone was the ultimate facilitator," Carlile says with satisfaction. "Without those guys, it wouldn't have been a 10-day record—it might've been a 10-month record—but we wouldn't have quit until we got it right."
The Story will surprise listeners who were expecting more pastoral acoustic songs akin to the first record, though that sound, too, is beautifully captured on several tracks (most affectingly, "Josephine," which the three nailed in a single take around one microphone). In both modes, Carlile and the twins make a remarkably unified sound, one that indeed seems genetic.
The three kindred spirits have been together for six years, after meeting in a Seattle rehearsal hall while the teenaged Carlile was finding her way as a singer/songwriter and the twins were playing in a hard-rock band they called the Fighting Machinists. Instantly, something clicked, and they've all been playing together ever since, in both senses of the word. They're so close that it sometimes seems as if they live in a world of their own creation. When I make this observation, Brandi replies, "Like my grandpa used to say to me about our family when I was growing up, 'Now, honey, not everybody's like
us.'" The recollection delights her, this self-possessed gamine who cracks up so easily with a hearty tomboy laugh. Ever agreeable, Tim adds, sweetly if unnecessarily, "We really are like family. We really get along good."
It's impossible to be cynical about Carlile and her cohorts. They possess what can only be called a good attitude. Brandi lays out their operative philosophy as they contemplate the unknown: "You do what you do, y'know? We don't f— around. Like, if you make friends, you keep friends. If you don't intentionally hurt people, if you don't ignore the signs, you won't have anything to contend with on your way back down, which inevitably there is. Give us a year—we might be in this total 'f— the label' mode. But so far, the honeymoon is not over."
"It's like a dream situation," adds Tim, supportive as ever.
Brandi's thoughtful expression suddenly gives way to a mischievous smile. "Plus, they give us money, and we don't have any!" After a comedic pause, she turns serious once again. "All the things I always hear about [as far as record deals go], we have been so lucky to have not seen, for some reason."
Chamberlain, too, is surprised by how smoothly things are going for the group. "Either they're just very lucky in the way the people at the label perceive them or somebody's watching out for them," he speculates. "Acts are getting dropped left and right—and it's amazing that a band even stays signed after their original A&R guy gets fired. Supposedly the label's really excited about the record; let's hope the excitement lasts more than two weeks after it comes out. But either way, Brandi and the twins are gonna keep doing it—they're just those kind of people. They're autonomous, and that gives them a much better chance of surviving."
When I ask if they're all about the same age, Phil quickly answers, "Yeah, we're all 24," inspiring Brandi to take her best shot, "Yeah, you've got 24 hairs left," she says, practically doubling over in laughter. Looking down at her alongside him, Phil decides two can play at this game. "You dirty, rotten bitch!" Brandi is roaring now, flanked by her grinning faux-siblings, and suddenly they're transformed into three grade-school kids sitting together in the backseat on a family outing, giddy with shared secrets. Moments later, Tim reaches into his brother's satchel, pulls out a copy of a how-to book on out-of-body experiences and asks if I want to borrow it, explaining that Phil now knows all the exercises from having practiced them every night while on tour. When I ask later how she can tell the twins apart, Brandi says, "I can tell which is which because one of their souls isn't in his body—he left it on the f—ing tour bus."
One day, Carlile and her companions will look back on days like this one as precious, representing the last vestige of their initial phase of childlike innocence before they journey into the depths of the dirty, rotten contemporary-music business en route to their shared destiny—and I fervently hope there's something left of it when they get to the other side. The good news, as Chamberlain insightfully points out, is that these three function on a level that seems to transcend the ephemera of airplay and SoundScan figures. Their destiny is to make music together, and to do that, all they really need is each other, along with some friends who want to listen.