Brandi Carlile sings out loud

The country-rock artist hits Radio City.

VESTED INTEREST Hear Brandi Carlile’s mad vocal skills at Radio City this week.

VESTED INTEREST Hear Brandi Carlile’s mad vocal skills at Radio City this week. Photograph: Jeremy Cowart

Brandi Carlile's voice—alternately growly and mellifluous, with a gut-punching power that's an easy match for her electric guitar—is a force to be reckoned with, and not only when the singer is belting a tune. The fast-rising Washington State country-rocker, 29, has been out for half her life and has never shied away from writing obviously lesbian love songs. But her passions go well beyond music and gay rights; her Looking Out Foundation raises funds for causes including the environment, food banks and women's safety. We touched on it all when we spoke to her in the midst of a 25-city tour for her new album, Give Up the Ghost; it'll land her at Radio City Music Hall this week, opening for Sheryl Crow.

You started singing in front of audiences when you were 8. Are you from a musical family?
My mother's a singer and my mother's father is a singer, and everyone on both sides are all country-western bluegrass musicians. It was kind of a treat when our mom would have band practice a few times a week at the house, because when it was time to go to bed she'd first let [my siblings and me] sing a song with the band. It was our reward, like our version of playing video games or something.

What do you remember about your first time onstage, when you sang at your local Opry Theater?
I learned "Tennessee Flat Top Box," written by Johnny Cash, and when I stepped on the stage I had expected to be able to see all the people, but the lights were in my eyes, and I was so nervous and so excited at the same time because even though I couldn't see them I knew they were there. When the last note of the song went down—being unable to see them but then all of a sudden hearing them all at once—was like a huge awakening. It was like, This is the path I'm on.

Many of the folks you've cited as musical influences—the Indigo Girls, Freddie Mercury, Elton John—are gay. Was that part of the draw?
I think I was probably looking for gay role models when I was younger, before I even knew or thought I was gay. I didn't really make the connection that they were gay, but I felt drawn to them because they were going against the grain, and I knew there was something that they had that everybody else didn't have. It was an edge.

Elton John sings and plays piano on a track on your new album, "Caroline." How'd it happen?
A while back, I said something about Elton in The New York Times; then I got to my gig in Atlanta, and he sent me a bottle of wine from the year I was born—which is literally a freakin' priceless bottle of wine!—and a bouquet of flowers. I was freaking out. Then he called me on the phone a couple of days later, and I was like, Okay, that was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. That was so cool. My contact with Elton John will go down in history as being amazing, and I'm never going to disrupt it again. So there I am a couple years later, making a record, and I just felt like it was a pivotal time in my evolution as a songwriter. So on a whim I reached out and sent him a little e-mail, and he called me back and said he'd love to play on the song. Which is ridiculously generous.

How was working with him?
It was great. I mean, he finished his job within an hour and a half. He was, like, way over my head. I knew he was a great musician, but I just could never have quite prepared myself for how incredible he was. That piano part you hear on "Caroline" was one take. One. And I had the feeling that he hadn't really listened to the song until he got into the studio! [Laughs] And then while he was in there I asked him to sing on it and he was like, "Yeah, I'll give it a go." He was just really nice about it, and he asked me to write down the lyrics to the song. I get, like, situationally dyslexic when I'm nervous like that, I start writing letters backwards and everything, so I had to walk out of the room to write the lyrics down. I came back in and he was practicing the lyrics from the recording, and nothing could've prepared me for walking into the room and hearing Elton John sing words that I'd written. That was a big moment for me.

How did you come out as an artist, and did you have any reservations?
It's always been a part of my thing, you know? I write completely gender-specific songs that are clearly being sung by a homosexual. I've had discussions with fans. I've never actually avoided the subject. But no one had ever asked me about it in the press until this one show in Birmingham, Alabama. I had an interview on the bus with this amazing woman, and we talked about it, and a couple days later I realized it was the L.A. Times. I was thrilled! I was like, This is great that somebody found a way to talk about it that really does the weight of the subject justice. Because it's a significant subject. It deserves to be talked about.

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