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Back in 2005, I was at the tail end of what seemed to be an interminable exile just outside of Philadelphia. Although it was pretty much an unnerving ordeal, from sunup to sundown, I maintained my relative sanity by keeping my cracker-box radio tuned to WXPN-FM, one of the nation's premier alternative radio stations.
And among the many acts I had the pleasure of discovering through those airwaves was one Brandi Carlile, who in November of that year had become one of the station's coveted "Artists to Watch." For a new act at the time, it was akin to being anointed. Carlile reaped the full benefits of that distinction, her indie-world star quickly rising.
Five years later, Carlile's career has grown to fit the enormity of her talent. Back then, she was working her eponymous debut, which featured standout songs such as "Fall Apart Again" and "Throw It All Away." They were intimate whispers that spoke of love's inherent roar, tunes that could tear at the very marrow of one's being.
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By the end of 2006, she'd gone from supporting names like Chris Isaak, Tori Amos, and Shawn Colvin to headlining in her own right. So by the time the T-Bone Burnett-produced The Story hit the next year, Carlile had a bona fide following and a veritable place at pop's top table.
This year finds her on an extensive second leg of a tour in support of her latest album, this year's Give Up the Ghost. It brings her to Culture Room this weekend, then on the Cayamo Cruise, which departs from Miami on Sunday. And if Carlile's excitement over the first leg's highlights is any indication, her fans are in for quite a shindig.
"We played at the Beacon Theater [in New York City], which is one of those venues I've always wanted to headline," she says. "I realized we were doing something really big. And everyone in there was totally out of their element. It was like a giant redneck party. It was awesome!"
Since Carlile's a gay woman from Seattle, folks might want to take that "redneck" appendage with a grain of cosmopolitan salt. But she's rooted enough in the music to evoke more than a little down-home charm. And yes, her shows are known to be a bit on the raucous side. But Carlile's orientation is not in any way an issue, mind you, especially considering she was loud and proud well before her career really took off.
"I don't mean to sound so casual about it because I know what a rough road it was for the people that paved it for me," she says, "but I have been fortunate enough to not have run into any obstacles because of [my sexual orientation]."
Whether that orientation played a part in Carlile's collaborating with the Indigo Girls or Elton John is anyone's guess. What need not be guessed at is the effect each pairing has had on the art of song. In the Indigo Girls' case, they sang on the plaintive "Cannonball," on The Story. And Carlile returned the favor on the Girls' heartbreaking "Last Tears," from the group's 2006 LP Despite Our Differences. It was the start of an enduring relationship. "We're kind of like regular collaborators [now]," notes Carlile. "Those guys are dear friends and mentors in a big way."
As for Sir Elton, well, she's been a longtime fan, since age 11 or 12. "So when we made this record, I shot him a little email and asked him to sing on it, and he did," she recalls. "He was even more astounding than I expected, if you can believe it," she wrote in a mass email to her fans.
And if Carlile's collaborations prove she can stand on her own among the mightiest, her songs continue to belie a strength even the mighty might envy. With the Orbisonesque "Dreams" used to launch the ABC series The Deep End, the stripped-bare "Oh Dear" another recipient of Grey's Anatomy's aural largesse, and the road-weary "Dying Day" a Starbucks iTunes Pick of the Week, they've certainly received some mighty positioning.
But it's Carlile's work on behalf of the not so mighty that seems to most determinately drive her. Over the past couple of years, she's performed on behalf of nonprofits including Reverb, Honor the Earth, the American Diabetes Foundation, and Eden Florida. So many, in fact, that Carlile has now started a foundation of her own to better direct her efforts.
"The Looking Out Foundation we set up so instead of getting just a little bit involved with these huge nonprofits, now we can get really involved with the issues directly," she says. "Our foundation serves as a way for us to get our hands dirty and be involved with grassroots fundraising.
"My favorite [cause] right now is the Fight the Fear campaign," Carlile continues. "It's actually something I'm doing with the Indigo Girls in my hometown of Seattle, where there's been a string of violent crimes and one in particular that inspired this foundation. We're teaching self-defense courses to women in at-risk communities."
To hear Carlile speak further about Looking Out, it's evident this is a priority. But anyone who's listened to her sing over the past half-decade wouldn't at all be surprised. She's not just the latest in a long and illustrious line of empowered torch singers, though there is that apparent lineage. Carlile is a singer who's carrying the torch for a generation empowered enough to change hearts and minds. With women like her leading the way, it's a cinch those will be some major changes indeed.