Brandi Carlile isn't the only member of Brandi Carlile.
For more than a decade, the big-voiced roots-rocker has shared the road with twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth. Everyone sings. Everyone plays. Everyone writes songs. At its most collaborative, Brandi Carlile — the band, not the person — recreates the sort of primordial Americana pioneered by vocal groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, swirling country harmonies and folk-rock strut into a sound that's more Déjà Vu than "Ho Hey."
Nowhere are there influences more evident than on The Firewatcher's Daughter. Released earlier this month, it's a fiery, frayed-edge follow-up to 2012's Bear Creek, with songs that were recorded in single takes and produced by the bandmates themselves. Columbia Records, their label of nearly 10 years, had cut the group free after Bear Creek's release, allowing Carlile and company the freedom to do whatever they wanted in the studio.
"It was a gentle parting," Carlile says of the Columbia split. "I still appreciate having a record deal — there's not a kid in the world who wouldn't want a record deal with Columbia — but when it came to an end, we got to reevaluate who we are and how we want to make records. We didn't have to send our demos to someone at Columbia to get their thoughts. We didn't have to convince anyone that it was OK to record live."
What the bandmates did get to do was fully embrace the harmony-rich sound they'd been making — and partially hiding — since 2005.
"When the twins and I came together," Carlile explains, "it was a pivotal time in Seattle because it was still the post-grunge era. It was impossible not to be affected by that music in Seattle, no matter how you felt about it. That was just the status quo, and the baby that had gotten thrown out with the bathwater was three-part harmony. I came from a deep country background, listening to Little River Band and Oak Ridge Boys and Alabama and the Judds. The boys had come up listening to a lot of punk rock, but also a lot of Beatles and Beach Boys. We were all secretly loving that harmony sound, which no one in Seattle was doing at the time. We'd hide out in my living room, practicing those harmonies together, and that's what our bond was formed on. Then we'd go out and do our gigs and not do the harmonies, because no one wanted to hear them at the time."
"The Story," the 2007 single that remains Carlile's signature song, is a prime example of those harmony-free days. Carlile sounds fantastic, her voice moving from a Lucinda Williams-esque rasp to a wail worthy of Thom Yorke, and the Hanseroth twins back her up with plenty of arena-cana firepower. Still, with only one bandmate at the mic, "The Story" feels less like the work of a democracy and more like a showcase for the group's most recognizable member.
Maybe that's why "The Eye," the show-stealing, southern-steeped ballad from The Firewatcher's Daughter, packs such a punch. Inspired by Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Helplessly Hoping," it's built around the interwoven voices of Carlile and the two Hanseroth brothers. No vocalist is louder than the rest. "The Eye" probably wouldn't have made it onto one of the band's Columbia releases — "If we'd told them we were going to sing three-part harmony on every note of a song in a band called Brandi Carlile, it might not have gone over very well," Carlile admits — but it's still the best song they've released in years.
"Tim started writing it," she says. "Originally, it was two different songs: one called 'If You Learned to Stay' and one called 'The Eye.' One day, we wound up combining the verse of one with the chorus of the other, and it just worked. They were already good on their own, but better together."