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Sunday, November 18, 2012 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.
Nicole & Co.
Brandi Carlile returns home with hit album, new spouse
By Nicole Brodeur
Seattle Times staff columnist
It has finally all come together for Brandi Carlile.
Praise for the singer/songwriter's talent is growing by the moment, perhaps because she covers so much ground: blues, country, rock.
But it's the voice that has gripped people; it's like a fire that blazes, cracks and then warms the loneliest heart.
Carlile's fifth and latest album, "Bear Creek," debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 in June, putting her in a room with heavyweights like Neil Young, John Mayer and Carrie Underwood.
Best of all, Carlile is newly married to Catherine Shepherd, a Brit. They have settled in Maple Valley, happy to be in a state where same-sex marriage will be legal in a matter of days.
It is a right Carlile, 31, campaigned for, but missed seeing approved here.
She was in San Diego, on a tour that will bring her back to Seattle on Friday, Saturday and next Sunday when she will perform three shows (the last one acoustic) at Benaroya Hall.
"I was wishing I was there with you all," Carlile said by telephone the other day. "It feels tremendous to see that in my lifetime. If you had told me that when I was a teenager and struggling, I wouldn't have believed it."
She and Shepherd married in September in Boston, and then held a ceremony here. Next they plan to celebrate in London, where Shepherd's family lives.
In the meantime, Carlile is focused on her music, and preparing to take the stage at Benaroya — something she did in 2008 and 2010, when she recorded a live album that reached No. 14 on Billboard's Top Rock Albums Chart.
The venue is enough to take her breath away. But playing in front of family, friends and the fans who have always been with her — and her constant collaborators, twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth — is equally moving.
"Coming into the room is tremendous," she said. "So many people are friends and family, and they are celebrating with us.
"It's difficult to stay in control of myself because of the energy."
Playing with the symphony behind her is "brilliant," like a wave lifting her up and over everything.
The show will have some "unplugged moments," Carlile said, but she couldn't say which songs would be played acoustically.
"It will be an in-the-moment decision."
It helps that she has played Benaroya before, and has prepared arrangements for four albums' worth of songs.
All that said, she still can't believe she will be there again, and for three nights. Still can't believe she started not too far from there, busking in the Seattle streets, and then gigging at places like the J&M Café.
"It's hard to say whether I knew or didn't know what would happen," Carlile said. "I always felt I was on the cusp of something really happening for me."
She remembers nights at J&M, thinking that any night could be the night when someone came in, heard what she was trying to do and signed her.
"But it's hard to conceptualize what it would be like until you've done it," she said.
"Bear Creek" is a special album for a number of reasons. It is the first one in which Carlile and "the twins" are equal partners. It is also the first on which Carlile seems to settle into her ability to cross several musical genres. The sound fuses, somehow.
It all came together at Bear Creek studio (hence the album's title), which suited Carlile's low-key style. She could never get completely comfortable in the slick, whatever-you-want studios of Nashville, Tenn., and New York.
"We have always felt like resident aliens when we've made a record," she said.
Bear Creek, a refurbished barn tucked into the woods of Woodinville with a creek running alongside ("If you listen very closely, you can hear it on the record"), gave Carlile "confidence and strength."
"It felt like somewhere we belonged," she said. "It's just so much like home."
It also made her creative. Carlile played a mandolin she picked up at a garage sale 15 years ago. They didn't have bells, so they used wineglasses. Cereal bowls. A stew pot.
"It's just going to have to do," Carlile said. "You make the best thing you can make with what you have. And you hope it sets you apart."
She did record a few "Bear Creek" songs in Nashville, at a very tumultuous point in her life.
Carlile referred to it as "my huge, turning-30 meltdown." A longtime relationship ended, and her career was making increased demands on her time and emotional energy.
She and the Hanseroths blew into the ironically named Tragedy/Tragedy Studios in Nashville "and ended up recording with so much energy," Carlile said. (Listen for "Raise Hell," "Keep Your Heart Young" and "I'll Still Be There.")
"I sang into a microphone that was not ready for the voice I was going to put through it," she said. "The gear wasn't ready for the amount of angst that I had."
Once the album was sent off for release, Carlile let go of other parts of her life, and started anew.
She met Shepherd in 2009, when she was launching the Fight the Fear campaign — established after the murder of Teresa Butz in her South Park home — under the auspices of Carlile's Looking Out Foundation. Shepherd was working for Sir Paul McCartney's charity, and reached out to Carlile and her manager to help.
They didn't meet in person until a year later, at one of Carlile's shows.
At home in Maple Valley, Carlile keeps goats, chickens, a horse, a dog and a cat. She loves to cook, and is having a great time showing Shepherd around Washington state. Westport. Ocean Shores. Driving on the beach with the dog in the back.
"Catherine is from London, so she is constantly overwhelmed," Carlile said. "I love taking her around, and it is nice to see this place through someone else's eyes for the first time."
Not long after their wedding, they went to Mount Rainier, hiked up from the Paradise visitor center — and descended in the dark.
"That was interesting," she said with a laugh.
Shepherd has helped her deal with her new celebrity.
"I meet so many people and I have such a capacity for love when it comes to humanity," Carlile said. "But I do tend to gloss over my meetings with people."
Shepherd will often point out to Carlile something special about each person that she didn't recognize or appreciate.
"Catherine keeps me from being jaded. She sees the core of people and points it out to me. She sees everyone's internal 8-year-old.
"That's what we should all strive to be."
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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