Brandi Carlile

Brandi Carlile has an unbelievably devoted following. Her admirers love her for her voice—a waterfall gliding easily over peaks and dips; they love how she’s not too proud to sign autographs at her packed out merch table after shows. They love her humanitarian work and her obsession with Elton John and Johnny Cash. But more than anything, Carlile’s fans love her because she is exactly who she says she is.

“Brandi is my hero,” says Laura Rogers, half of the vintage country duo The Secret Sisters, who are wrapping up a tour with Carlile and Ray LaMontagne. “I can’t even explain to you how desperately I have been obsessed with her music ever since I discovered her. I’ve been a huge diehard ever since then.” She points out that meeting someone she had idolized for so long was a scary thought at first.

“You’re a little worried that they’re going to let you down or that they’re going to be rude or stuck up,” she admits. “I have to say, Brandi has surpassed every expectation I could have ever had of her. She’s the sweetest person. She’s so sincere and genuine and funny—oh she’s so funny.”

Originally from Seattle, Carlile signed with Columbia Records in 2004 and released her self-titled debut in 2006. Her second album, The Story, was released in 2007, and it sparked several Grey’s Anatomy spots for her music. Carlile released her third studio album, Give Up the Ghost, late in 2009. Though her fourth, still untitled, studio album is still in the works, Carlile hasn’t left her fans wanting. For now, they can bask in the sultry, powerful sounds of her first live record, Live at Benaroya Hall, which she recorded in November with the full musical backing of the Seattle Symphony and released May 3.

“It was profound,” Carlile says about recording live with the symphony. “And then knowing that so many of the people in the audience know you as well, you know, family, friends, loved ones, people that I’ve played shows with … played shows for. It’s a profound experience. And the symphony being involved was a culmination of everything that I ever wanted my music to sound like.”

Live at Benaroya Hall opens with Carlile performing Elton John’s “Sixty Years On,” a tribute to one of her known idols. The song showcases her ability to spin a story with her sheer vocal range and spellbinding inflection. With the orchestra swelling behind her, Carlile performs a couple originals on the album (“The Story” and “Dreams”), as well as several covers she has tailored to her haunting voice.

Joining Carlile and the 30-piece orchestra on the live record are “The Twins,” her longtime bassist Phil Hanseroth and guitarist Tim Hanseroth, as well as drummer Allison Miller and cellist Josh Neumann. The fans go wild with every rise and fall of Carlile’s smoky voice, edged with its endearing cracks and powerhouse crescendos. Rogers says this ecstatic audience is par for the course with Carlile’s shows.

“Oh, she has the audience eating out of her hand,” she explains. “She’s always been that way … she commands that stage. She’s really, really discovered what it means to be a real performer. I went out—I would say maybe three or four shows—and just stood out there and watched. And the crowd is clapping along, and they’re singing the words and they’re shouting out things like, ‘Oh! We love you Brandi!’

“After her set, she’s really, really kind because she’ll go out to the merch table and sign things for people. It is a mad house out there, and people are dying to talk to her, I think because she’s so charming and her music is so real. And the talent coming out of that little bitty body is so massive. She blows my mind. I always tell people I want to be Brandi when I grow up.”

Carlile just celebrated her 30th birthday June 1. Rather than taking the conventional path of birthday gifts, however, she asked everyone she knows to donate $30 to Charity:Water, an organization that provides clean drinking water for people in developing nations.

“We have a tendency to collect things throughout our lives, and I wanted to have something else more like a milestone rather than more things,” she says. “I just really wanted to find a unique way to reach out through a humanitarian effort for my birthday.” Her effort proved successful, more than doubling her original $2,500 goal. “We get our own well now,” she beams.

This altruistic spirit is perhaps one heartstring that connects Carlile to her English idol Elton John. “First of all,” she says, “there really isn’t a humanitarian in the entertainment industry as authentically generous as Elton John. For that reason, I’ve been admiring him since I was a kid. Other than that, as an artist, he just represents everything to me. He completely epitomizes the entertainer, you know, and that’s the only respectable way to be I believe.”

Following in her hero’s theatrical shoes, Carlile is an entertainer of entertainers. It’s as natural to her as breathing. When asked if any specific moment confirmed her career path as an artist, she emphatically says, “No, actually. There would have had to have been a specific moment that would have made me think that this is not what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve been doing this since I was so young that it’s an integral part of my personality, my life.”

She admits that, growing up in a musical family, she never really thought there was another option. “It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I realized I ever could have done anything else—I don’t want to,” she says. Finishing up her tour with The Secret Sisters and LaMontagne, Carlile is clearly doing exactly what she loves.

“It’s been amazing … Most people that know me know that I’m a huge Ray LaMontagne fan,” she says. “And The Secret Sisters, they’re new to me, and I’m totally in love with their music. I think that they’re absolutely unbelievable, and they’re bringing something back to country music that’s been missing for a long time. I’m really proud to be out here on the road with them.”

Although she hasn’t pinpointed an exact release date for her fourth studio album—that’s completely up to Columbia Records—she says she has toyed with ideas for a title. One thing is certain: The name will have something to do with what Carlile describes as “the magical recording studio we have been living at for more than a month.”

She’s referring to Bear Creek Studio, a barn studio in Woodinville, Washington, where she’s been working with Grammy Award-winning engineer/producer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Pearl Jam).

“Trina is incredible,” Carlile gushes. “She is so talented it is intimidating! She is also quite hilarious, so there was a lot of laughing going on.” For now, Carlile says her main focus is finishing the album. As she continues to create and unveil her own creativity, she seems humbly certain of who she is. For inspiration, she looks to Elton John and her other idols—Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, Elvis, Loretta Lynn and, of course, country maverick Johnny Cash.

“Did you ever hear the song ‘I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool?’” she asks. “Well, I was Johnny when Johnny wasn’t cool.”