What is it about precipitation that makes people sing? Little did he know, but when Gene Kelly was doing that pirouette on the lamppost in Singin' in the Rain, he was predicating the grunge movement. The Seattle-area music scene, and the Northwest in general, keeps brewing musicians like it does thunderstorms.
Among them is Brandi Carlile, who by most accounts sings and performs with gusto well beyond most musicians twice her age-and those half her age, for that matter. Now, the 24-year-old is taking her guitar and crew of traveling musicians out of the Washington gloom and into the dank confines of small clubs across the U.S. The perks of winter-nippy rides in vans, black ice and that old, familiar rain-await her. She'll have to create her own warmth, which she's proved she's capable of both on stage and on her self-titled debut for Columbia Records in 2005.
Carlile's hopes to release her follow-up record in January or February ("but that's record-label time, so you never know," she jokes). The pressure is on her to build on the crisp musicianship and rootsy elegance that marked her debut. This time around, the critics will be listening.
Some critics loved her first record, hailing her as a bold solo voice in the vein of Shelby Lynne or Lucinda Williams. Others deemed the simple pop and accessible guitar strumming as disposable as month-old milk-just another somnolent singer-songwriter in a world not short on 'em. But such snap judgments miss the mark. What sets Carlile apart from her contemporaries (basically, anybody trying and failing to be the new Joni Mitchell) is her straightforward approach and the strong simplicity of her delivery. The unquestionable power of her songs was enough to entice production extraordinaire T-Bone Burnett to produce Carlile's new album.
"All the planets just lined up, and I don't know how it happened," Carlile says about connecting with Burnett, who has produced some of the best albums of the last 20 years-including sessions by Elvis Costello and the Grammy-sweeping soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Carlile sums up the producer in a way only a 24-year-old can: "He's just rad."
Yes, yes, he is. And selective. What Burnett likely heard was that voice, the driving force behind Carlile's music. Thick and smoky, she belts out note after note of heart-wrenching prose ("Time, time ticking on me / Alone is the last place I wanted to be") with an authenticity that can't be faked, no matter which producer is manipulating the tapes.
Burnett and Carlile are recording in a Santa Monica studio. "You don't feel like it's in L.A., which is nice," Carlile says. "We've been playing the new songs on the road for the past two years, so they've been ready to record for a while."
With Burnett on board and Carlile's ability to channel the charms of Jeff Buckley, k.d. lang and Radiohead, the release is one of the more anticipated albums of 2007. Regardless of hype or the possibility of failure, the young Northwesterner is pleased with the results so far. She's spinning Muse's Black Holes and Revelations and Ray LaMontangne's Till the Sun Turns Black for inspiration in the studio, trying to channel some of her favorites-including one that hits a bit closer to home.
"[I've been listening to] our new record-which is cheesy to say, but I love it."
Brandi Carlile plays with Shawn Colvin at the Belly Up Tavern on Oct. 25. Doors open at 8 p.m. $35-$37. 858-481-8140.