Being Brandi

How gay does a girl have to go? Singer talks being out ... and being 'white trash'

By Chris Azzopardi

Brandi Carlile is a lesbian, but no one cares. Not even, as it turns out, the gay rags who typically would, or should, be all over someone of her caliber: a mighty musical force, big voiced - and even bigger hearted - with the kind of throaty, rip-right-through-you roar that doesn't just sing, but sends tremors.

Consider it a progressive shift that her saintly instrument and meaty songs - unable to be shoehorned, but straddling roots, rock and folk; the perfect fall soundtrack - are what runs off with all the attention, even after officially ending all speculation and publicly coming out last year. No one was surprised, she says, and though the Seattle musician's received lots of thank yous, Carlile says she hasn't been able to break through the gay press circuit - except for a few features, including ones in Out Magazine and the Advocate. Poor thing hasn't even performed during a Pride festival.

"I'm like the girl that nobody asks to the dance!" Carlile says.

And you almost feel sorry for her - until you realize how cool it is to be that girl. She won't ever be defined by her sexuality because when she sings, nothing else matters. Certainly nothing that trivial. If she were out in the '90s, she'd be every gay publication's poster girl - right alongside Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls. Those performers still garner lots of gay press, of course, and Carlile knows so from hanging with the duo's Amy Ray in New York, where the legendary folkie did three days of press. All gay.

Carlile howls with laughter. "I didn't know there were so many (LGBT publications)! I'm like, What the fuck!? Where are these people?"

She, however, reached the masses before latching onto the gay community, building a fan base from TV spots, with songs of hers being used on shows like "Grey's Anatomy" and even in a GM commercial spot. Last year, Carlile released her third album, "Give Up the Ghost," a career-best showcase of mature distinction, melancholy ditties and her unmistakable voice. To support it, she's on her way back to Ann Arbor - where she stopped almost exactly a year ago - for a performance at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19 at the Michigan Theater. It's her third local gig in just a few months, playing earlier this summer in Grand Rapids and at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. But there's just something about Ann Arbor.

"It's a twice-a-year place for me," she says, "and that's rare because it's not like a major, major market, like Chicago or New York or L.A., where it's a no-brainer. It's a special place, and it draws me back."

This show won't be a complete rehash; Carlile will throw in new covers (last time she and her bandmates, "the Twins," did a wonderful reading of "Let it Be") and shake up the set list with underperformed songs from "The Story" and her self-titled first album.

It's been a few years since she released that 2005 debut, and even longer since she wrote many of the songs on it - as long as 10 years. Then, Carlile was still a teenager. Now 29, the songs closest to her keep her in check: "If I'm going through something and, all of a sudden, I'm singing this song that I wrote when I was 19, I'll go, 'Oh my god, I'm repeating this habit. I'm still doing this thing that I knew I did back then.'"

Songs like "Happy," written about missing a distant friend, have taken on a new life. Now that she's rekindled her relationship with that person, and they're like besties again, she sings it and "it makes me laugh because it makes her cry, and I feel so guilty." And yet, she's still laughing.

Carlile continues, "But I can still connect with it because I have so much compassion for 16-year-old Brandi."

Her teenage self, inspired by her country-singing mother and Freddie Mercury, wrote and played guitar, eventually landing a backup spot for an Elvis Presley impersonator. Carlile grew up in rural Washington, entertaining herself because no one else - neighbors were scarce, friends were far - was really around.

She told Out last year that her parents had a hunch she might be a lesbian because she was stuck on Ellen DeGeneres, watching her sitcom, idolizing her, even taping her shows and fake-labeling them so her parents wouldn't catch on. No wonder, then, it's been a dream of Carlile's to play on the comedian's daytime talk show. A dream that, much to the dismay of rabid fans, has yet to come true. So what's a girl to do?

Pull out the lesbian card, we suggest. Carlile laughs, "Like AAA!"

"Maybe I'm just not to that stage yet in my career where I can be on 'Ellen,'" she continues. "But maybe with my next record, somebody over there will really love it. I really want to do it, and I think I'll be able to eventually."

Especially if Ellen's a fan of The Who, the comparison Carlile draws when talking about a couple new songs she's written on tour. Even in her time off, she's framing tunes with the Twins. Workaholic much? "Yeah, I am," she admits.

There's not a concept yet for her next project, but Carlile's playing up the rock edge - and embracing the raw, meaty growl - that she's been building since her debut.

"Less and less safe, I like it that way," she says.

For "Give Up the Ghost," she snagged idol Elton John for one of the songs, the rousing "Caroline," but she has other big names in mind for future collaborations, too. "I would love nothing more than to sing someday with Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn. It just feels unattainable, but that would be totally amazing!"

Country gals seem to be her next pursuit, because next she mentions teaming with the genre's resident bad-girl Miranda Lambert, who sang with Carlile when both artists played the undersold Lilith Tour this summer.

"My disappointment over Lilith (shows) getting slashed is only based on my love of Lilith," she says about her canceled dates. "I was just looking forward to it. I'm a huge proponent and fan and supporter of Lilith - and always have been since I was a little kid."

So singing with tour founder Sarah McLachlan, whom she calls "the queen," was like she'd come full circle: "I felt, from a fan perspective, like I won a contest or something."

And if the tour swings back next year, she wants in on it again. "And if I'm not," she says, laughing, "I'm going to follow them around!"

Despite being bummed out about Lilith, Carlile's summer hasn't been a total bust. "How many people can say they can enjoy the summer from every corner of the country?" she says, referring to her extensive tour that closes out her year. She's forever on the road, but you won't hear her complain.

Carlile and her band live it up in a swanky tour bus, which accommodates more than some homes: WiFi, satellite TV, stereo systems throughout and a flat screen/DVD player combo housed in each bunk. Carlile says, "It's not a life people generally like to hear you gripe about, because it's sort of like a dream come true, right?"

A dream turned reality because Carlile is just that talented - and that able to not take herself too seriously, despite how serious her music often is. She sings about broken hearts, broken friendship, broken lives. There's a trace of ache in her voice even when she's trying to sound happy. But she also knows how to be funny, and that's backed by a campy, prom-like spoof video for her cover of Bryan Adams' classic "Heaven," off her latest release, an EP of love songs called "XOBC."

"Everything is funny to me, and that girl that's in that video, she's been one of my best friends since junior high school," Carlile says. "I love the part at the end where she blows into the gun, and the funny thing about that gun is that it was, like, actually sitting right outside my door. That's how white trash I am!"

Her laughter, like her singing voice, sucks up everything around it.

"I do have a sense of humor," Carlile insists. "And I do have a BB gun."

Brandi Carlile

7:30 p.m. Sept. 19

Michigan Theater

603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor

$20-$35

http://www.michtheater.org

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