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With 'Give Up the Ghost,' Brandi Carlile just may gain the cross-over fans she covets

Singer has country roots but with help from Elton John and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer, she explores new layers.

October 17, 2009|ANN POWERS | POP MUSIC CRITIC

BIRMINGHAM, ALA. — Brandi Carlile speaks with a little bit of a twang. "It's just a way folks talk to each other when they're close together," said the 28-year-old songwriter and musician, who plays the Wiltern tonight in support of her third album "Give Up the Ghost." "It's my default. Like, when I first meet somebody, or feel uncomfortable, I get really down home."

The molasses in Carlile's diction signifies Southern. But anyone who gets past first impressions knows that Carlile grew up in the geographical opposite of the South. She still maintains a home in Ravensdale, Wash., a small town on the outskirts of Seattle more evocative of "Twilight" than of "Coal Miner's Daughter."

Then again, Ravensdale was a coal mining town before transforming into an exurb; it's on the great map of Everywhere, USA, where old shacks stand next to upscale new construction, and Starbucks is moving in on the Dairy Queen. Carlile is a child of that changing landscape; she honors tradition but keeps confronting the new.

Carlile grew up singing country music, sometimes in costume, performing "dressed like a rodeo clown" at places like the Puyallup Fair. But she chafed at those confines, removing her mom's Tammy Wynette records from the family turntable and replacing them with Patsy Cline albums.

"As soon as my parents would leave the house I would go in my room and put on her records and just sing loud, just trying to hit all the notes that she could sing," said Carlile, sitting for an interview inside her tour bus before performing a show in Birmingham earlier this week.

She discovered rock music, through Elton John, an artist whom she calls "my greatest hero of all time." Much to her amazement, John became her duet partner on her new album, collaborating with Carlile on the "Honky Chateau"-style rambler "Caroline." He's one of several prominent guests who appear on "Give Up the Ghost," including Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and her "childhood hero and dearest friend" Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. Carlile has something more personal in common with John: She is gay. But unlike her idol, who suffered many travails in his long trip out of the closet, she feels that her sexuality has neither helped nor hindered her. "I don't think it factors in to the way people relate to the lyrics," she said.

She notes that, just as pop's categories are relaxing, so are those having to do with an artist's private life.

"I hope that somewhere in Small Town, USA, a 15-year-old kid looks to me as a role model the way I looked at the Indigo Girls and Elton John as role models," she said. "And I hope they also recognize that the reason why I don't have to have a lot of formality around it, the reason why I don't have to wear it on my sleeve and make a spectacle of it, is because there were people before me who paved the way so I wouldn't have to."

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As heard on TV

Produced by Rick Rubin, "Give Up the Ghost" has a lot in common with John's early discs. It's melodic but hard-rocking, and connected to roots music without getting stuck in the past. It could fit into the singer-songwriter slot, but is more varied and band-oriented than the output of, say, Colbie Caillat.

It's a little bit glam -- the drum part on "Dying Day" and the vocal arrangements on "Oh Dear" were directly inspired by Queen's "Night at the Opera" album. And like many of John's greatest hits, it's pretty, but it's loud.

Carlile and her management team hope that this album will realize the crossover dreams that have been building over the course of her career. Since the decade's start she's gone from busking in Seattle's Pike Place Market to forming a Radiohead-inspired band with "the twins," guitarist Tim and bassist Phil Hanseroth (who remain her bandmates and co-writers), growing a cult audience and seeing her songs find new ears via frequent use in such television shows as "Grey's Anatomy," among other places.

According to Carlile's manager, Mark Cunningham, the title track from her 2007 album "The Story" helped make her a star in Portugal after it was used in a beer commercial there. Likewise, its use in a General Motors ad that aired during the Olympics (which caused controversy with some of her more eco-minded fans) helped sell thousands of downloads on iTunes and brought the album back to life after its traditional marketing cycle had passed.

"We are making progress," Cunningham said by phone. "With this tour, we're selling a lot more tickets at a slightly higher ticket price. It's a testament to her constant work; it's a slow, methodical build."

"Give Up the Ghost" certainly bears the gravitas of a breakthrough album. Working with Rubin, Carlile said, was about honing the basics: great vocals, great instrumentation.

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