It's been six years since Lilith Fair ended. The Sarah McLachlan– masterminded music festival, which showcased both established and up-and-coming female musicians, was an unprecedented platform for women who wrote and performed their own songs. And though plenty has already been written about its demise, and the adjective "post-Lilith" has popped up in far too many reviews of singer-songwriter records since 1999, some of the seeds sown by the festival are just now beginning to sprout.
Take Brandi Carlile. The 23-year-old Ravensdale native was in her midteens when she played Lilith's local stage at the Gorge; on July 12, Columbia Records issued her self-titled major-label debut after two indie releases, Room for Me and Open Doors. Brandi Carlile is an extremely promising denizen of the world in which female singer-songwriters work their way up from playing dorm lounges, as Carlile did at Western Washington University, to major music venues—she opens for Chris Isaak this Saturday at South Lake Union Park—largely on the strength of what counts: the music itself. As the major-label marketing machine has its gears undone by everything from downloading to the aging of its core demographic, the lone woman brandishing a guitar has become a marketing mother lode.
Not that Carlile is a solo artist, per se. She collaborates on songwriting with twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth, former members of the Fighting Machinists. "We were kind of recording at the same studio, always running into each other," says Carlile. "I was a fan—I would go to their shows and sneak in before I was 21." When the Machinists disbanded, Carlile began writing songs first with guitarist Tim, and then his bassist brother. The trio now tours with drummer Jason Maybell, who's played with local bands the Cloves and Mayfly. This summer, Carlile and company plan to hit major venues up and down the West Coast, as well as a single foray into Arizona.
Carlile attributes the varied nature of her Columbia debut to the musical give-and-take between her and the twins. "They'll have a riff and I'll write lyrics and melody, or I'll have a riff and we'll all learn it as a band," she says. Though several songs, including the acoustic lament "Tragedy," sound like breakup ballads, Carlile discourages such an easy reading. "They're about separation and distance, and a lot of times the songs that you hear that you think will be about a breakup are about, like, distance from a friend or family member," she says. (One such song, the countrified "Closer to You," was recently featured on the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants soundtrack.) Among the band's three writers, the division of labor is as much thematic as stylistic. "If you do hear a love song on there, chances are it's Tim."
What elevates Brandi Carlilebeyond most singer-songwriter debuts is the singer's voice, which sounds more timeworn and knowing than it has any right to. Her vocals, like those of Melissa Etheridge, move between naked vulnerability and an almost elemental intensity; it often seems as though they're trying to push right through the recording. And though there's an insistent twang in her voice, a result of her childhood love of country music, the album's best song, "Follow," pairs it with an upwardly spiraling pop structure and brooding guitar break that recall Radiohead's "Creep," which Carlile covers in concert, more than anything Patsy Cline ever sang. It's a potent mixture, especially when she slides into her high register during the chorus.
Yet Carlile is equally capable of penning cozy acoustic numbers like "Happy," whose quiet, burbling acoustic guitar underpins the singer's burgeoning self-assurance: "I don't carry myself very well/But I've gotten so much braver, can you tell?" This song, which seems to beg for an Indigo Girls cover, wouldn't seem out of place at Lilith Fair. Yet Carlile's lyrics avoid the most common singer-songwriter trap of whatever gender: Their confessionalism is spare and unsentimental, not maudlin. "Happy" begins with a paradoxically weary restlessness ("I don't hang around that place no more/I'm tired of wearing circles in the floor"), then returns to the album's unifying theme, friendship lost. Later, on "Fall Apart Again," she sings, "I just smile once in a while/'Cause I don't want the lines on my face." Such pragmatism tempers Carlile's poise nicely; in fact, nearly every song on the album contains a struggle, small in scale but deeply felt, between hope and despair.
There's another important distinction between Carlile and her Lilith forebears: She's unlikely to fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump. Her second Columbia album is "written and ready," and it emphasizes the kind of dark, dramatic approach that makes "Follow" such a powerhouse. Carlile may owe a debt of gratitude to Lilith, but she was busking with her brother at Pike Place Market, playing WWU lounges, and writing songs long before McLachlan had a notion to put on a package tour. If Carlile's about to hit the big time, it's because she's put the time in.
Brandi Carlile plays an in-store at Sonic Boom Capitol Hill (514 15th Ave. E., 206-568-2666), 7 p.m. Wed., July 13. Free. She plays South Lake Union Park (Terry Avenue North and Valley Street) with Chris Isaak at 8 p.m. Sat., July 16. $50. www.brandicarlile.net.