ATLANTA — In the grand tradition of Tift Merritt, Melissa Ferrick and Allison Moorer, Brandi Carlile isn’t a big radio presence. Isn’t a household name. And, frankly, isn’t that easy to classify as a musical act except for that catch-all of “alt-country.” But in the past eight years she’s solidified a successful career with a grass-roots approach to touring, meaty songs and associations with marquee producers such as Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett.
Carlile’s fourth album, “Bear Creek,” was named for Bear Creek Studios, a barn not far from her home in Seattle, where the album was recorded. It’s a bit more rustic than her past work, siding more with her country and bluegrass roots than the folksier pop on other recordings.
The singer and her band, which includes longtime collaborators “the Twins” — Tim and Phil Hanseroth — will return to the road in the fall and play some symphony dates.
Carlile, 31, called recently from a tour stop opening for the Dave Matthews Band to discuss her music and her working friendship with Elton John.
Q: You have such a rich voice. Who did you grow up listening to?
A: It all started with classic country. It was really all I thought there was, but then through that culture I got turned on to Elton John. I totally fell in love. That was the gateway drug that opened the door to Queen and U2 and the Beatles and brought a new level of drama.
Q: And then Elton appeared on your 2009 album. How did you meet him?
A: Awhile ago I was ranting about my Elton obsession in The New York Times and I was playing a show at the Variety, as a matter of fact, and I got this huge bouquet of flowers from him.
He couldn’t make it to the show because of security issues, but called me the next day. A few years went by and we had a song (“Caroline”) that I couldn’t stop thinking about how it reminded me of “Tumbleweed Connection.” So I sent him an email and he called the next day and said he would (perform on the song).
Q: You’re like the queen of the cover song. What draws you to certain songs to want to cover them?
A: The drama, definitely. It has to have an element that is eyebrow-raising, like why is a girl singing about “Folsom County Blues”? It’s always gender-ambiguous, but the vocals have to be extremely dramatic.
Q: What were your thoughts going in to record “Bear Creek”? Were there elements you wanted to introduce that maybe you hadn’t done before?
A: I didn’t want to introduce, like, a sonic or musical element, but the concept of total anarchy. Our other albums have been with big producers and they were such amazing learning experiences, but it’s confining. I wanted this to fly in the face of a record industry-type recording, where everyone could work at 2 a.m. or 2 p.m. and be free to try the things we always wanted.
Q: But you’ve managed to sustain a career the old-fashioned way.
A: Yeah, I stay on the road all the time. I don’t know how (the label feels) about that, but we’ve built an organic record-buying following. Our going on the road is the best promotion.
Q: Congratulations on your engagement. (Carlile and girlfriend Catherine Shepherd announced the news last month.) Do you have a wedding planned?
A: Yes! A September wedding. It will take place in a couple of places. My partner is from London, so there is no limit to the amount of partying.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.