Curled up on a too-small couch, in a too-small dressing room of Western Washington University's Performing Arts Center, Brandi Carlile fiddles with the leaves of a fake plastic tree hanging over her head while she describes life on the road.
"After a show, we check into the hotel, take our beds, and immediately start looking for “Cops,” “Forensic Files,” “Extreme Police Videos,” anything having to do with cops. And we order a pizza and fall asleep while eating our pizza and watching “Cops.” That is every day. Never changes. Nothing changes from the pizza to the TV station."
First thing they do every morning? Find a Starbucks.
Carlile's face lights up a little when asked what toppings are on the pizza they order every night (onions and green peppers for her; Hawaiian for band mates Tim and Phil Hanseroth), but she looks slightly bored when asked about her signature log cabin in the rural town of Ravensdale, Wash., 50 miles outside of Seattle.
To the Seattle press, growing up in the countryside is a quaint story angle.
To her, it's life. She'd rather talk about the pizza.
Still, it's impossible to ignore the country roots that lay the foundation for much of Carlile's music and personality. The 24-year-old singer/songwriter, born exactly two months before MTV's cable debut, was anything but tuned in to popular music for most of her young life.
"I was so isolated growing up. Not that my parents were protective, but I lived in this little trailer on the top of a giant hill with no neighbors for miles. There wasn't a lot of sleepovers or hanging out at a friend's house listening to [expletive] Mariah Carey. It wasn't like that. I listened to what my mom listened to and what my grandfather listened to."
What they listened to were the sounds of Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, et. al.
"I didn't even realize until I was much older that there was other stuff. I just kind of woke up in the grunge generation of Seattle and I didn't get it. I didn't catch on right away. But somebody played Elton John for me and I flipped out."
Carlile affectionately refers to Sir Elton as her "gateway drug" to rock 'n roll and easily chooses "Tumbleweed Connection" when asked her favorite album.
That exploration of other music genres is what led Carlile to Tim and Phil Hanseroth. A guitarist and bassist, respectively, the 30-year-old twin brothers played in a rock band called The Fighting Machinists, a nod to the labor tension at nearby mega-corporation Boeing.
"I just loved their band. I thought they were so good. It was like if the Beach Boys fronted Weezer or something -- just a killer rock band with cool harmonies. I used to go see them play and when their band broke up, I called up Tim and asked if he wanted to start writing songs together and he did."
From there, Carlile and The Twins experimented with rock, country, folk and what Carlile's friends refer to as "the J-Lo dance mix," a.k.a. terrible pop.
"To sound unique, you have to have tried everything," she says unapologetically.
While their current sound is comfortably familiar thanks to their Americana musical influences, they've obviously achieved "unique" as music critics scramble to find an appropriate label to describe them. Their sound settles somewhere between folk rock and alt.country, but traces of punk, indie pop and rock are very present during live performance.
Carlile and The Twins actually started out as a "real screamy rock band," which may be difficult to believe during a listen to some of the almost sorrowful tracks on their Columbia Records debut. Their live performance, however, washes away any doubt about their ability to rock as Carlile thrashes her acoustic guitar and fearlessly growls into the mic.
The slick cover art of the album may even suggest a hint of pre-packaged pop star, but if this vocalist is anything, she's undeniably real. Standing at an athletic 5'9," Carlile spends her spare time fishing and playing poker, not shopping and talking on a cell phone. Her dream gig is to open for Willie Nelson at the Grand Ole Opry, not to play to a sold-out crowd in Madison Square Garden.
Three songs into her Bellingham set, Carlile kicks off her shoes to reveal a pair of brown argyle socks, as if she never wanted to put shoes on in the first place. By the end of the set, she announces to the crowd of roughly 700 that the next song will be their last of the night, only to follow up with: "Don't worry, it's only the fake last song. We'll walk off stage, you'll go 'woohoo' and we'll come back out."