What is it about Brandi Carlile's voice that gets right inside you? The power? Her range? It may be the way she can crack open a note, as she does in her best-known song, "The Story," which was prominently featured on Grey's Anatomy. Even Dave Matthews is impressed with her pipes: The singer once referred to her — affectionately, she swears — as a "big, fat trumpet head."
"People that could yodel always fascinated me," Carlile tells NPR's Melissa Block. "People that could sing loud always fascinated me. So I started trying to mimic [those techniques] at a really young age: 6, 7 years old. And when I got to around 10, 11, I had moved on past country and western music — so I thought — to this rock 'n' roll genre thing, and I was kind of marrying the two concepts without knowing it, singing 'Bohemian Rhapsody' in my closet and stuff like that."
Hitting soaring notes, Carlile says, is the manifestation of a long-held desire.
"It feels really liberating," she says. "I mean, that was something I used to want to do all the time when I was a kid, but you just — there's people around, you know? We didn't really have any neighbors, but just siblings. Somebody to make fun of you if you screw it up."
Carlile delves into some of her family history on her new album, Bear Creek, named after the rustic studio where she recorded it in her home state of Washington. One striking example is "That Wasn't Me," whose lyrics allude to a close family member's struggle with alcoholism:
Hang on, just hang on for a minute
I've got something to say
I'm not asking you to move on or forget it
But these are better days
For a decade, Brandi Carlile has been writing and singing with "the twins": Phil and Tim Hanseroth, veterans of the late-'90s Seattle music scene. Carlile and the Hanseroths signed their record deal as three equal partners, and split everything evenly. She says their work together is so intertwined that fans are hard-pressed to tell who wrote what. "I guess essentially we have the same life," she says with a laugh. That's because Phil is married to Brandi's sister, Tiffany, and the two just became parents. "There's Uncle Tim and Aunt Brandi, Phil's the dad and my sister's the mom, and my mother's over at their house every morning, and we're at Christmas and Thanksgiving. We're all at the same table all the time." Carlile says that, while that may not seem relevant to her songs, "We wake up and sort of look out the same window every day. So the songwriting has a lot of continuity in that way."
"That conversation is happening from the perspective of the addict," Carlile says. "Just reconciling that forgiveness, that process that happens once a person heals ... You know, there's a wake behind them. And a lot of times, their kids or their siblings or their parents are left in that wake. It's really hard to balance that forgiveness process when you're the one in the wake."
Though it's not a prominent theme in her songs, Carlile is forthcoming about another area of her private life. She came out as gay to her family as a teenager, and came out publicly several years ago.
"I don't consider myself a very androgynous person, but I think [people] can sense a certain dissent or a difference in gender roles," Carlile says. "They can sense that I'm not singing or talking about things in a traditional way.
"As a songwriter, it's really important that that become a place for expression, because of what other songwriters did for me as a young gay teenager," she adds. "Having those gender pronouns used in an ambiguous way made me feel like I could relate to songs that were sung by women or men. Those kinds of things being addressed creatively and politically made me feel like I could be successful and proud."