Thursday, September 27, 2007

When you’re a singer-songwriter in the midst of a major breakout, a little sore throat is a big problem. Precious press and stage time can be lost at a moment when both are critical.

This is Brandi Carlile‘s predicament when she calls us from the road, halfway through VH1’s You Oughta Know Tour, which she’s headlining.

Oddly enough, the musician doesn’t sound concerned about her ailment. You can even detect a hint of pride in her slightly scratchy voice when she explains, “It’s from singing last night.” Her response is a bit misleading, however, as Miss Carlile does far more than sing when she performs. Anyone who’s heard her latest disc, “The Story” (released in April), her 2005 eponymous debut, or her live show knows that the artist delivers guts and soul along with her lyrics, taking listeners from somber valleys to raucous peaks.

Musically, Miss Carlile is hard to pin down. Her repertory boasts Simon & Garfunkel-esque folk (“Have You Ever”), big Melissa Etheridge-style pop-rock (“The Story”), pensive piano balladry (“Wasted”), backcountry spirituals-turned-love songs (“Josephine”), and hand-clapping country (“Closer to You”).

Fans and critics frequently slap the word “authentic” on her work.

If her songs feel true and emotionally charged, Miss Carlile suggests that it’s because they often come from a painful place.

“I tend to feel creative when I’m troubled,” she says. “There’s never been a time when I felt overly happy and creative at the same time.” That’s not to say she always plays the tortured artist. One of Miss Carlile’s earliest gigs was backing up an Elvis impersonator — an experience that no doubt aided her recent duet with Chris Isaak on ABC’s “Elvis: Viva Las Vegas.”

Originally from a small town outside of Seattle, the singer-guitarist cultivated much of her talent at local coffeehouses and bars. She formed a formidable songwriting trio with twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth along the way and signed with Columbia Records in 2004. A year and one album later, Miss Carlile was named one of Rolling Stone’s “10 Artists to Watch” in 2005.

Those who heeded this advice later saw her joining tours with artists like Indigo Girls, the Fray and Ray LaMontagne.

The latter, a stunning songwriter, is known to be rather reclusive. Miss Carlile identifies with him.

“He’s not like me; he didn’t start off performing in a sequined jumpsuit,” she says. “He’s just this real guy. Being an entertainer doesn’t come as naturally to him as songwriting, and I understand that. Sometimes I wish I was more like that.”

Frequently in the company of great musicians, Miss Carlile finds she has less and less time for the personal relationships that have inspired so many of her songs.

“It’s never easy,” she says. “It’s a trade-off and one I’m willing to shoulder.”

VH1’s You Oughta Know Tour, featuring Miss Carlile with special guest A Fine Frenzy, hits the 9:30 Club ( tomorrow and Baltimore’s Rams Head Live! ( on Saturday.

Nellie’s fast one?

Before we tell you about Nellie McKay‘s latest album, let’s remember her previous offering, “Pretty Little Head” — the one that got her dumped from Columbia Records because she demanded it be 23 tracks, 65 minutes and two discs. It’s also the one she put out on her own label about a year after its scheduled delivery date.

Now get this: On Tuesday, Miss McKay released “Obligatory Villagers,” which clocks in at less than 32 minutes and boasts just nine songs.

Hmm. Might this be her way of flicking off her former label? “It wasn’t intentional,” Miss McKay says, “but if [Columbia] takes it that way, I’m not going to persuade them otherwise.” Saucy, Miss McKay, and we’d expect nothing less from you, the author of offbeat tunes about everything from “Leave it to Beaverish” life to Columbia University’s alleged evils against animals.

What’s that, Miss McKay? You say your new disc was originally even shorter and your new label, Vanguard, told you to make it longer? “Yeah,” she says. “New stuff is always coming up so it’s easier to go that way than shorter.” Apparently so.

Despite its brevity, “Villagers” packs a wallop — from the parodical anti-feminist diatribe that opens the disc (“Mother of Pearl”) to the cool-jazzy zombie tale that closes it (“Zombie”).

Like Miss McKay’s others, the record is eccentric, eclectic and incredibly inventive. It takes cues from cabaret, jazz, bossa nova and rap, among other genres, and showcases the singer’s old-timey croon and frantic wordplay — a synthesis of old and new.

While her lyrics aren’t always comprehensible, the artist is remarkable in that she always has something to say — even, or perhaps especially, in real life.

We’re startled by just how many hot-button issues the London-born twentysomething can pack into a conversation that lasts just one short cab ride: the ills of airport security and new development, racism, vegetarianism, etc.

She’s practically bubbling over with information and opinions about activist activities, but when it comes to her upcoming tour, she’s relatively silent.

Doesn’t she like touring? “No, not at all,” she says. “I enjoy traveling. But the performance part, the nerves, the excruciating time in airports …” Oh right, we already went over that.

Miss McKay performs tonight at the Birchmere ( The show starts at 7:30.

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