The singer, who will perform this weekend in Olympia, often tells stories of her rural upbringing in Ravensdale in South King County, and her latest album, Bear Creek, is attracting such labels as alt-country.
Washington state is not known for it, but the vast majority of the state is farmland, Carlile said in an email interview. Thats one of the things that makes it so special, and its one of the things that makes the fact that its progressive so unique.
The singer has been performing about as long as she can remember. She was 8 years old when her mother took her to audition at the Northwest Grand Ole Opry (named for but not affiliated with the one in Nashville).
Even at that age, I was already well versed in classic country and western music, she said.
At one point, she even sang backup for an Elvis impersonator. My best friend was the Elvis impersonators daughter, and he gave us the opportunity to learn some of the beloved background vocals 25 bucks a show.
She and her country roots have come a long way since then: Her first-out-of-the-gate performance of Folsom Prison Blues was featured in the all-star tribute concert We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash.
All that seems a far cry from performing with the Seattle Symphony, but she did three highly popular shows with the orchestra over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. It was her second stint with the symphony.
Its terrifying thinking that one mistake on your part could derail 40 other musicians instead of three, she said of playing with an orchestra. But the result of all these nerves and all that tension is very profound when youre standing in front of it all.
If her country and symphony ties dont make Carlile enough of a contradiction, add in this: Shes a totally modern, totally cool indie chick scoring millions of hits on YouTube (almost 9 million for her signature hit, The Story) and contributing talent, tunes and money to many a righteous-cause-oriented project. Shell be collecting toys for needy children at Saturday nights Olympia concert.
Carlile also is a major-label artist (Columbia) whos had her music featured on TVs Greys Anatomy and used in a 2008 General Motors commercial touting its environmentally friendly cars.
Still, Bear Creek named after the barn studio in Woodinville where the record was made comes by its country, bluegrass and gospel flavors naturally.
Carlile and her longtime collaborators and bandmates, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, took the opportunity to go their own way on the album after working with such notable producers as T-Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin.
We all walk through the world with a certain rural mindset, and it cant help but come out in our music when were left to our own devices, she said.
The studios rural setting helped, she said on her website. Bear Creek is very similar to home for all three of us. Musically, youd be amazed at how you act when you feel at home.
This album is looser and less formal than most of her work, with several tunes full of foot-stomping and hand-clapping, critic Bill DeVille wrote for Minnesota Public Radio. Carlile seems like she had a good time recording it.
And listeners have responded. Released in June, it cracked the Billboard Top-10 album list and landed at No. 1 on folk charts.
But Carliles pliant voice sets her apart. Jonathan Takiff of the Philadelphia Daily News characterizes her as having a lower range that can burn through carbon steel and a yodely sweet upper register that could charm the angels.
Of course, having grown up in Western Washington in the 90s, Carlile and the Hanseroths speak more than just twang and met in familiar territory.
We grew up in the midst of the Seattle grunge scene, the singer said. Id been playing with an acoustic guitar and theyd been in a punk rock band on the same circuit but totally electric.
I wanted to plug in, and they wanted to strip down, so we met somewhere in the middle.
The Associated Press and Philadelphia Daily News contributed to this report.