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Brandi Carlile

Born into music

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By Gary Graff  
artist

When she was eight years old, Brandi Carlile joined her mother, a country singer, on stage to perform Roseanne Cash's "Tennessee Flat-Top Box." And she hasn't looked back since. Carlile, who grew up in rural Ravensdale, Washington, focused on her singing and songwriting, learned to play piano and then guitar, and even backed an Elvis Presley impersonator, all on the way to making her self-titled major label debut -- which prompted Rolling Stone to dub her one of its Artists to Watch. Not bad for someone who says she just "wanted to be like Elton John" when she was a teenager.

Q: How did you decide that making music was what you wanted to do?

Brandi Carlile: I didn't really decide. My mom's a singer. My brother and sister are, too. It was just something we did, that I never stopped doing. I have a terrible time focusing on things. I think I have a pretty pathetic work ethic, except when it comes to music. So it's always just been music in my life.

Q: How did you develop as an artist?

Carlile: I started out just being a singer, then I got wind of Elton John and started becoming really obsessed with learning how to become a songwriter. I got a keyboard for Christmas when I was about eleven or twelve. I was never really that great, but it was a really good tool for me to learn how to write songs and figure out how chords work. Then, when I became a teenager and Lilith Fair started happening, it was a good thing for me and a whole bunch of other girls my age. I started listening to the Indigo Girls and playing acoustic guitar.

Q: How did it feel when you started writing your own songs?

Carlile: I'm always going to feel like I'm growing out of what I'm writing, but I think I started writing songs that I considered to be real songs right away. The song "Happy" that's on the album, I wrote when I was eighteen or nineteen. That's the oldest one on this record, but I think on the next record there are going to be some songs I wrote when I was a lot younger than that, like sixteen or seventeen.

Q: You're very poised for a new artist, especially when it comes to performing live.

Carlile: Well, I've been performing for huge audiences since I was eight years old -- huge for me, like two hundred to three hundred people. It was just fun, never something that made me nervous or anything. I did every talent show in school. We always did something really weird, like hooking up with other girls and doing choreographed dance things to Ace of Base or New Kids on the Block or Reba McEntire songs. I'm sure I did (Elton John's) "Honky Cat" at some point. Looking back, I can't believe how weird I was. But that was okay. I had some friends and I had all the attention from people that I needed. I didn't notice if people thought I was weird. (laughs)

Q: Grey's Anatomy used three of your songs in various episodes. Are you a fan of the show?

Carlile: Totally! I had the whole first season on the bus before it all happened and thought it was a great, great show, well thought-out, funny, quirky. I can't believe I've been able to be a part of such a cool show!

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.